Everyone has heard of the Great Pyramids of Giza and the mysterious Sphinx that guards them. But the pyramids of Saqqara aren’t nearly as famous. This actually makes them a great place to visit, since they aren’t nearly as touristy as the Great Pyramids. It’s also the place where pyramid building got its start. So if you’re a history or archaeology buff, this site will be right up your alley.
Saqqara is roughly 30 kilometres north of Cairo, so it’s a little bit further from Cairo than the Great Pyramids. But the extra distance is worth it.
Before you get started with the pyramids themselves, be sure to pay a visit to the Imhotep Museum, located at the foot of the Saqqara necropolis complex. The museum, built in 2006, is named after Imhotep, an Eqyptian chancellor to the pharaoh, Djoser. He’s also believed to have been the architect for the step pyramid and other surrounding buildings.
This small museum offers six halls full of archaeological discoveries, including Egyptian art, pottery, statues, burial objects, and yes, mummies.
The Enclosure Wall
The funerary complex of Djoser was originally surrounded by an impressive enclosure wall. Imhotep designed it using stone, rather than the more common mud bricks. This opening on the eastern wall is the only entrance into the complex, although several false doors were built into the 30-foot wall. It’s thought that the wall was symbolic in nature, rather than for protection. Once completed, it measured 544 x 277 metres. Many of the buildings inside the enclosure were “dummy buildings” – just façades and four walls with nothing inside. These buildings were used for rituals of kingship on the spiritual plane, so these model buildings were stand-ins for the real thing.
Entrance Colonnade from the South Court
This is the entrance colonnade. The corridor is lined with 20 pairs of columns, carved to resemble bundles of reeds or palm ribs. Between the columns on both sides of the hall were small chambers. Some Egyptologists suggest they may have represented each of the provinces of Upper and Lower Egypt.
The Heb-Sed Court
The Heb-Sed Court is quite a remarkable complex. This courtyard runs parallel to the south courtyard. This was a place for the king to perform a ritual called the Heb-Sed in the afterlife. The Heb-Sed Festival, also called the Feast of the Tail, was a ceremony that celebrated the continued rule of a
The court is flanked by chapels to the west and east. However, these were a few of those “dummy buildings” mentioned earlier. They had no internal structure, and were filled with rubble.
These are three unfinished statues in the east court:
Pyramid of Unas
The Pyramid of Unas lies southwest of the Step Pyramid of Djoser. Unas was the ninth and final king of the 5th Dynasty. His pyramid is now in ruins, but originally it stood approximately 43 meters tall.
When French Egyptologist, Sir Gaston Maspero excavated the tomb in 1881, he discovered texts written on the walls of the tomb. Unas seems to have been the first pharaoh to inscribe magic spells on the walls of his tomb, which were intended to help his spirit navigate its way into the afterlife. These “Pyramid Texts” are the oldest known Egyptian religious texts. Eventually, these texts, along with subsequent tomb texts, became the Book of the Dead.
The shaft tombs date to around 500 BCE. Unfortunately most were pillaged in antiquity. However, archaeologists recently uncovered an embalming workshop, several intact mummies in a communal burial shaft, and funerary ornaments.
Step Pyramid of Djoser
It’s believed that Imhotep, an architect and engineer, built the step pyramid as the burial chamber for the pharaoh Djoser in the 27th Century BC. Evidence suggests that this pyramid is the oldest cut stone building of this size in Eqypt. It stands about 60 meters high – only slightly smaller now than its original height of 62 meters.
The pyramid consists of six steps, or mastabas of decreasing size. Mastaba is an Arabic word meaning “stone bench”. Mastabas were ancient Egyptian tombs designed in a rectangular shape, with a flat roof and inward-slopping sides.
Originally, the pyramid was encased in smooth, white limestone. But the exterior limestone is long gone, no doubt used for other building projects.
Interestingly, the pyramid exhibits several phases of building, indicating that this final shape was not in the original concept. At first, Imhotep built the pyramid as a simple square mastaba style tomb, instead of the more common rectangular shape. He changed it to the standard rectangular shape later. This was the first time a mastaba was ever built in a square shape, suggesting that it was not initially intended to be built as a mastaba. The first phase of the project was a four-stepped structure, while the second phase added the final two steps to the top of the pyramid.
The chambers beneath the pyramid were used as burial tombs, but they were also used to store grave goods for the dead.
The Pyramid of Userkaf
The Pyramid of Userkaf was built c. 2490 BC. Userkaf was the founding pharaoh of the 5th Dynasty of ancient Egypt. The pyramid is part of a larger funerary complex, including a mortuary temple, offering chapel, and a separate pyramid for his wife, queen Neferhetepes.
The pyramid is in ruins today, but originally stood around 49 meters. Blocks of roughly-cut limestone were used to fill the core of the pyramid, and the outside was covered in smoother cut Tura limestone. But the outer stones were removed over time for other projects, exposing the rough stones underneath.
There are many other buildings and tombs to see at Saqqara beyond this list. But these, I thought, were some of the most interesting or unusual.
If you’re visiting Egypt as part of an organized tour, chances are quite high that Saqqara will be on our itinerary. But if you’re travelling independently, you’ll have to find your own way there. You have a few options, the easiest being to try and book a tour through your hotel concierge. Or:
You can hire a taxis from central Cairo or from your hotel to visit Saqqara. Rates may vary, so determine the rate with your driver before you go. This is the easiest option.
There are buses to Saqqara, but they aren’t direct, and require a few transfers and a bit of a walk. Microbuses leave from the Giza metro station. Let the driver know that you want to go to “Marishay and then Saqqara” and he should tell you where to transfer. Once you’re in Saqqara village, you can either walk the remaining 1.5 km, or hire a tuk-tuk to get you the rest of the way.