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