Visit to Saqqara

Today we decided to brave the longer 45-minute drive to Saqqara. Say it with a glottal “q” (sounds like you’ve got something stuck in your throat) and you have the word “Sahara” -sort of.

Saqqara was the burial ground of the Old Kingdom pharaohs whose capital was Memphis across the Nile. It is also more of what you think Egypt should look like. Traveling south on the west side of the Nile, you pass by fruit and vegetable stands, fields of carrots (get juicin’ Rich and Scotty!) and other greens, donkey carts, palm groves, and dozens of carpet schools. The neighborhoods are poor and dirty with unpaved side streets. Intersections and canal crossings are crowded with cars, busses, vendors and people, many of whom are students heading back from school with backpacks in tow.

The main attraction at Saqqara is Djoser’s (Zoser) step pyramid complex. The massive step pyramid is visible from miles away thanks to the more diffused smog of the area. We eventually turned right (west) passing through lush green farmland and palm groves. The road tilted up a hill and suddenly the green ended. Poof! Instant desert.

Our first stop was the Saqqara Museum, which thankfully allowed us to photograph (sans flash) many of their artifacts. All other indoor sites (Giza pyramids, Egyptian Museum, tombs) forbid any photography -although I did manage to sneak a few. (Please don’t tell.) This museum featured many artifacts found at Djoser’s pyramid and those of surrounding pharaohs of the early Old Kingdom. Highlight, the sarcophagus of Imhotep, the architect and later deified designer of Djoser's Step Pyramid.

We next visited the tomb of Pharaoh Teti, first pharaoh of the VI dynasty (2345 BC). Like Khafre’s tomb we descended a narrow hallway about 70 feet until it opened into a central chamber about 12 feet square. Two rooms branched from here, one of them being the tomb of Teti. The walls were covered with engraved Pyramid Texts comprising of 283 separate spells, rituals, prayers, hymns, and lists of supplies needed in the afterlife. We were amazed by the quality and incredible quantity of hieroglyphics -way beyond anything we had seen in Giza. The elaborate inside of this tomb was especially surprising because from the outside it simply looked like a pile of rubble. But, it was once a limestone-covered step pyramid.

In front of Teti’s pyramid we explored the mastaba of Mereruka, a vizier and overseer of priests to Pharaoh Teti. Inside this structure were 32 chambers with numerous hieroglyphic engravings of daily life and afterlife bliss. This is the largest tomb for non-royalty ever found. He must have been pretty important.

We then wandered over to Djoser’s complex where we saw a couple of painted tombs belonging to the royal manicurists and butcher of 5th dynasty Pharaoh Nyuserra (2445 BC). We acquired a “tour guide” who quickly started leading us without our invitation. We were going to give him the slip when we realized he was actually quite knowledgeable (Masters degree in Egyptology it turns out) and worth every Egyptian Pound we paid. Thank you Saleh!

After telling us the stories of the people buried in these tombs and teaching us some basics in understanding hieroglyphics, Saleh took us over to Djoser’s complex. 30-foot walls surrounded the 37-acre complex. Djoser’s step pyramid built in 2650 BC and consisting of six 35-foot tall steps, sits in the center at an original height of about 210 feet tall. Prior to Djoser, pharaonic burial sites were large rectangular stone slabs called mastabas (Arabic for bench), under which the pharaoh was buried deep in the earth. Djoser ordered his architect Imhotep to build mastaba upon mastaba and to do so from stone. Even upon completion of the structure, Djoser commanded to have one side extended to make it even larger. Like earlier mastaba builders, his burial chamber was placed deep in the earth, the entrance being more than 60 feet below ground level. Tunnels from here travel close to four miles before reaching his granite sarcophagus. Along those four miles of tunnel a story is told in hieroglyphics about what went on in the large courtyard in front of the step pyramid.

Apparently, after 30 years of ruling as pharaoh, a special Jubilee Festival called the Heb-Sed took place in which the pharaoh had to prove his fitness to continue on as king. His task was to chase down and kill a bull that ran around this complex. If he was successful he then had to ask the gods for permission to continue his reign for another four years. If the priests of these gods answered affirmatively, he was given four more years to rule and a false, stone mummy was placed in the pharaoh’s sarcophagus to hold his place until he really did die. Failure to capture the bull or gain the gods’ favor meant immediate death and replacement. Djoser only reigned about 19 years. I guess he never had to test his strength.

Most of Saqqara (except for the Step Pyramid) was buried under the desert sand until the mid 19th century when a French archaeologist named Mariette found the Serepeum at the front of the pyramid. The Serepeum is a box-like structure about six feet tall with two peepholes in the front. When you look inside you see the life size statue of Pharaoh Djoser seated on his throne staring back at you. Pretty creepy. The rest of the funerary complex was not discovered until 1924 by another French archaeologist, Jean-Philippe Lauer, who worked at restoring the area for 75 years until he died in 2001. That’s a lifetime of dedicated work. Unfortunately, no one has continued his great work. Even more unfortunate is the Egyptian government’s attempt to restore the pyramid by simply trying to make it look like it did back in Djoser’s days. In the process many artifacts and lessons are being buried or destroyed in an attempt to make it have more tourist appeal. We were encouraged to enjoy it while it still remained in proper condition.

From the mounds of the structures around that courtyard we could see the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid in the distance. Pharaoh Sneferu built both of these. He came along 35 years after Djoser and started the tradition of the smooth-sided pyramids at Dahshur to the south. Later, his son Pharaoh Khufu perfected the “smooth” style at Giza to the north. Djoser’s pyramid sits between them and began this whole pyramid craze.

Djoser’s step pyramid is probably most known for being the world’s first stone monument and the first pyramid, but there is another first to add to the list. Inside the doorway to some structures inside the temple court we find perhaps the earliest example of tourist graffiti ever written. Apparently 1500 years after Djoser’s death, during the 47th year of the reign of Ramses II, a treasury scribe on a pleasure trip wrote of his admiration for the structures on the walls of the still-standing building. The year was 1232 BC. The site had been abandoned for centuries by this time. Pretty cool!

We too expressed our admiration (but just with the spoken word -no spray paint involved). While everyone flocks to Giza, Saqqara sits more quietly to the south, but with just as much to offer in a different way. The pyramids at Giza are immense in size, but everything we saw at Saqqara was immense in detail, wonderfully preserved for a more intimate, hands-on encounter with the ancient world.

Djoser's Step Pyramid Complex, Pharaoh Teti's Tomb, & an Excavation in Progress


Linnie A said...

Good thing none of you are clausterphobic! I seized up just watching this video! Now I can feel like I visited it the easy way!

pig said...

hiiiiiiiii that video is soooooo cool hope your having fun!!!

Bogsider said...

Hi there :o) Your blog is wonderful and it is fun to follow in your footsteps around Cairo (and now en route to Luxor). The images and the video-footage are great and much fun to watch. I wish you and your family a continuous wonderful trip in the land of the pharaohs...

However, reading about your project, where you'll be using some of the facts you gain along the way, as research for educational purposes, there are some minor details I'd like to point out.

If your self-appointed guide Saleh in Saqqara was indeed an Egyptologist, he would have known, that there is no such thing underneath Djoser's pyramid as a 4 mile long tunnel. That is pure fantasy. Underneath the pyramid you'll find lots of galleries and tunnels, but none as long as 4 miles, and there are positively no hieroglyphic inscriptions in any of those tunnels. That is also pure fantasy. And we do not have any clues as to the whereabouts of Djoser's sacophagus.

Regarding the pharaonic tradition of the Heb-Sed jubilees, I am sorry to say, that while it may be a fun tale to tell, no bull-killing was involved in this ritual. Killing off the pharaoh if he failed to prove his worth is also sheer fantasy.

The Serapeum is not the little stone-box containing the statue of Djoser. That stone-box is called a serdab. The Serapeum is located near the mastaba of the noble-man Ti, and the Serapeum is the burial place of the sacred Apis-bulls. The statue of Djoser sitting inside the serdab is a replica, you probably saw the original at the Egyptian Museum, where it is located immediately to your right, of you are standing with your back to the Narmer palette.

I am sorry, but I am pretty sure Saleh wasn't an Egyptologist. More likely he was perhaps a certified guide, having been taught some basic Egyptology at the guide-academy. You will encounter many of those on your trip, and a lot of them are nice and educated young people, eager to earn a buck, be friendly with the foreigners and tell about the ancient sites. And no harm in that - a lot of them even know what they are talking about....but the best guides, the ones with real knowledge of Egyptology (a handful might even be trained Egyptologists) are working with the tour-agencies, and they are not hanging around the sites. All certified guides have ID-cards, and I suggest you book one through an agency. Maybe Jane at Luxor Flats can help?

I wish you a wonderful trip :o)

Marty Robertson said...

Thank you Bogsider for your corrections and kind words. I will make some corrections to the blog to reflect your input. My question then is, where do these stories of the Jubilee bull chase, hieroglyphic wall paintings, and pharaoh test come from? Even some of the guide books, Lonely Planet for example, reference these events. They are cool stories, but is there any ancient script to support any of it? Thanks again!

Bogsider said...

Hi Marty,

Thanks also for your comments on my comments ;o)

I will try not to get myself into too much explaining here, LOL, so I take the short route.

First of all, regarding Djoser and his buildings: We are so far back in time, that our knowledge is sporadic and fragmented, there are more gaps than one can imagine.

Bulls in Ancient Egypt (and of course loads of other cultures) had to do with potency, and when speaking kingship, the potency of the kingship.

However, our reliable sources regarding the Heb-Sed (or jubilee festival) are from New Kingdom and later, more than 1000 years after Djoser. I suspect the mistake with the bull has to do with the fact that SED is the Ancient Egyptian word for tail, but it is unclear what it refers to, if it is not the bull's tail shown at the back of the royal kilt to denote pharaoh's creative force in potency.

Anyway, there are depictions of Djoser 'doing the Heb-Sed' from some of the subterreanean galleries, and we also have earlier sources for earlier kings, and no one doubts that these rituals took place. But no killing of bulls (I may stand corrected on this one, and I will check, but the bull was sacred, and the whole country was in mourning whenever one of the Apis-bulls died) but definitely no killing off pharaoh!

Well, I could go on lecturing, which is boring, so if you will allow it, I would like to send you an e-mail later this weekend or perhaps next week. If you are able to check your e-mail of course.

Again, enjoy life in Egypt and say hi to Ramesses from me ;o)

All the best,

Bogsider (which means Book Pages in Danish)