Saqqara, and the First Pyramid

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on October 5, 2008

This is where it begins. Saqqara is a place of death, yes, but also of birth. The birth of architecture, of pyramids, and of the timeless legends that have entranced for millenia.

The pyramids of Giza are world famous, but I wanted to see where the story began, and see the first prototypes of these awe-inspiring tombs. For that you have to head south of Giza on the west bank of the Nile, where the desert still abuts Cairo and its outlying villages. Courtesy of George, the concierge at my hotel, I arranged a taxi for eight the next morning. For LE180 I would be transported to Saqqara, Dahshur, and Memphis.

A cooling breeze ruffled the tree tops as I stepped out to meet my driver the next day. Ari was a pudgy fellah in a striped shirt with more than a touch of the Omar Sharifs about him. We set off south. From the highway the pyramids of Giza, the pinnacle of pyramidology, could be seen through the murk, framed by high-rises like a glimpse into another world. I lived for four years in Cambridge, testily shoving through the crowds of gawping and camera-clicking tourists, oblivious to the history that lined my daily walk to lectures. Was it really possible for Cairenes to feel so blasé about these immense monuments, could these things ever fade unnoticed into the background, regardless of however many times you passed them? Ari just laughed at the question.

We headed first to Saqqara, about 45 minutes by road. The contrast between the lush thickets of palms, the mango orchards, and the vivid green fields that lay along the irrigation canals and the sudden onset of grey desert is brutal. The pyramid fields are literally on the very edge of dark lord Seth’s kingdom of the dead.

Saqqara sprawls over some 7km of desert, though the heart of the site is the precinct that sits around the step pyramid of King Zoser. This is open from 8am to 4pm, with an LE50 entrance charge. By the paved carpark there is a museum dedicated to Imhotep. Imhotep essentially created architecture and was the first to break away from the low mastaba ("bench" in Arabic) dwellings that had previously been the norm and dared to dream of reaching the skies. So instrumental was he, that he was still being venerated as a god a millenia after his death. The exhibits within stress his achievements: ‘the first column’, ‘the first arch’, ‘the first wall carving’ (cobras, since you ask). All these things that we take for granted, all springing from the genius of this one man, Imhotep. So, all-in-all, he deserves a bit more recognition than merely being remembered as ‘the bad guy from The Mummy’…

Switching up the slope onto the sun-baked plateau, you come across ‘the first pyramid’, built to entomb King Zoser. It is a yellow-brown brick-built structure comprised of six steps, more reminiscent of Mesoamerican step-pyramids than the smooth-sided Egyptian confections. However Saqqara pre-dates, say, Chichen Itza in Mexico by some 2700 years. The largest edifice ever built of stone at the time of its construction in the 27th century BC, today the pyramid looks somehow primeval, like a reef thrust from the seabed, like a strange rock formation in the Australian outback Atop each tier piles of sand still lie humped, as though it had just been revealed by a sandstorm. You really are back at the very dawn of history.

The precincts around the pyramid have been partially restored by Jean-Philippe Lauer who was granted an eight-month license in 1926 and ended up staying until his death in 2001. Indeed, you enter the site through a narrow restored hypostyle hall. To the north of Zoser’s pyramid a slanted cubicle is set into the sand, a serdab. Peering through the two eye-holes you can see a life-sized statue of Zoser, staring out across the desert for eternity. Following his gaze, the later pyramids of Abu Sir can be discerned on the horizon. (The original statue is now in the Egyptian Museum – what a fate!). Other tumbledown pyramids, tombs and edifices surround this central court and stretch off seemingly at random.

At LE50, entrance to the site at Saqqara might cost as much as entrance to the more famous one at Giza, but here you are spared the crowds and the hawkers (well, most of them, anyway…). At Saqqara, on the edge of the desert, the birthplace of the pyramids, with dust on your shoes, you feel like one of the very first explorers to stumble into this timeless world.
Step Pyramid of Saqqara
North Saqqara
Cairo, Egypt
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