The pyramids of Giza get most of the headlines and tourists (along with scammers and touts), but Egypt is home to over 100 other pyramids. The most important of them is the Stepped Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, thought to be the worlds oldest large pyramid. This huge building is 62 metres high, and is surrounded by the remains of a large funerary complex. The pyramid is part of the Saqqara Necropolis, which also includes several other small pyramids, temples and tombs. The site is in the desert beyond the outskirts of Cairo, making exploring here more of a real adventure than the pyramids of Giza.
History of Saqqara
Saqqara was the necropolis of Memphis, the capital city of Ancient Egypt during the old kingdom. The first pharaohs of the old kingdom were buried in mastabas (house of eternity) here, which were flat-roofed, rectangular structures made out of mud bricks built on top of tombs. However, at the start of the third Dynasty under the Pharaoh Djoser a great innovation was made. The Pharaohs Vizier Imhotep (not the one from the Mummy!) was charged with designing the kings tomb, and decided to create something new and massive. The result was the Stepped Pyramid of Djoser, which was constructed between 2630 and 2611BC. Imhotep built it by stacking six mastaba-like structures on top of each other, and encasing it all in limestone. This makes the stepped pyramid the oldest known large pyramid in the world.
The labour and resources required to build the Stepped Pyramid meant state power had to become more centrailsed and efficient, which helped with the development of the Old Kingdom. Other pyramids, tombs and temples were built here in subsequent centuries, bit none on the scale of the stepped pyramid.
The first modern excavation of the site was by the savants of Napoleons expedition in 1798-1801. During there stay in Egypt the savants studied many ancient monuments in Egypt, and found the Rosetta stone that allowed hieroglyphs to be translated. However, the first modern excavation of the site didn’t start until 1920 with Cecil Firth and later Jean-Philippe Laucer – who made most of the major discoveries at the site over the next 50 years.
Exploring the Site
The Pyramid Enclosure
When approaching the pyramid the first thing you notice is it’s surrounding complex is quite well preserved for its age. Part of the original wall is still intact, which used to be a mile in circumference and 10 metres high. The wall had 13 false doors and just one real entrance. The false entrances were built to allow the Pharaohs ka(spirit) to come and go – apparently it couldn’t just float though walls. To enter the enclosure you walk through a corridor of 40 columns and into the large hypostyle hall, which makes for an atmospheric entrance.
After the hall there is the great south court, which contains an impressive frieze of cobras. This court was also where part of the Heb-sed (Jubilee) festival was held, which was to demonstrate the fitness of the Pharaoh to rule after 30 years. The Pharaoh had to literally demonstrate his fitness to rule by doing a ritual run here – imagine if we made the Queen do that every three years. Next to the south court are the remains of the Jubilee court itself.
The other two remaining buildings I found most interesting were the House of the South Court and the House of the North Court. These represented upper and lower Egypt, and symbolised the new unity of the country. It shows how little civilisation has changed in many ways.
The Stepped Pyramid of Djoser
Up close the Stepped Pyramid of Djoser is an impressive site, it’s amazing that it’s survived so well after nearly 4,700 years. Walking around it I could feel the history emanating from the building. The atmosphere was helped by the lack of tourists, as very few people make it out here and I was able to walk around the pyramid alone. The pyramid contains 11.6 million cubic feet of stone and clay, and used to be covered in a limestone casing. Just imagine how brilliant it looked shining in the sun after it was built.
Unfortunately the pyramid isn’t as stable as it looks, as an earthquake damaged it in 1992. A British firm recently finished saving the pyramid from collapse after years of dangerous work.
The pyramid contains a staggering 3.5 miles of passages and tunnels beneath it, with many small rooms and chambers. The maze of passages were probably built to help protect the tombs from looters. The Sarcophagus of Djoser was found in a chamber deep beneath the pyramid. Unfortunately tomb raiders had got there long ago, and most of the treasures and mummy had been taken. The only part of the Pharaoh left behind was one of his feet; perhaps the tomb raiders had a sense of humour.
Sadly the passages are currently closed to the public for obvious reasons. The nearest I could get was standing at the top of the steep passageway down. It was like looking down into the start of the Minotaur’s labyrinthine. Just imagine, how exciting it would be to explore the many passageways and chambers down there. Hopefully they open the underground passageways to tourists again.
The Necropolis of Saqqara
The Necropolis of Saqqara is a vast ancient burial ground that covers 16km2, and stretches over 7km from north to south. It would take several days to see every site here, but there are a few places near the stepped pyramid you can add on to your visit.
Pyramids of Unas and Userkaf
Close to the Pyramid of Djoser, on opposite sides, are these two small pyramids. They were both built in the old dynasty after the larger pyramid. The most interesting of the two is Unas, which contains two chambers inside that are open to the public. The central chamber contains the Pyramid Texts, which are the oldest known Egyptian religious writings. It’s really quiet inside here, so it’s worth the walk to experience the atmosphere.
This fascinating tomb houses underground burial chambers that used to contain the Apis Bulls, which were bulls mummified and placed in large red and black granite sarcophagi. To reach the tombs required going down a steep, narrow passageway that feels like the entrance to the underworld. The sarcophagi are huge and in impressive condition for their age. The paintings on the walls are beautiful too.
Mastaba of Ty
This large mastaba is one of the main sights at Saqqara. It was built for an important court official, and contains some of the best preserved murals from the old dynasty. I was amazed with how well preserved the colours are on some of the murals here: being sealed off in the desert has saved them. The mastaba also contains a sarcophagi and a statue of Ti. The tomb guardian were very persistent here, moving ahead of me to point out things I was already looking at. You have to be firm, but polite, if you want to be left alone to wander around in peace.
The Stepped Pyramid of Djoser is one of the most important monuments in the world, and its worth coming here for that reason alone. The site is a lot quieter than Giza with no vendors here, so it makes for a more authentic experience.
Seeing the other sites near the pyramid also makes for a fascinating visit. The tomb guardians can be annoying however. In no other country in the world have I encountered uneducated people being employed to ‘protect’ sites, yet spending most of their time hassling visitors for baksheesh(tips/bribes). It’s almost comical at times. The Egyptian authorities should really do something about it, as it takes away from the experience.
Despite this visiting Saqqara is a must if your in Cairo.
Opening times and admission: 7am-5pm in winter. Admission is 120 EGP in total for the Pyramid of Djoser and nearby tombs. Some of the other sites in the necropolis cost extra.
Getting there and away: The site lies over 15km south of Giza, beyond the south-west outskirts of Cairo. There is no public transport here, but you can take the metro to Helwan then from there its a cheap taxi ride away. Remember to haggle hard. It’s also possible to hire a driver for the day in Giza for a very reasonable price.