Located about 19 miles south of Cairo, Saqqara was the necropolis for the Ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis. There is virtually nothing left in present-day Memphis to hint at the city’s former glory, but the Saqqara complex contains several pyramids, tombs and mastabas.
Arguably the star of Saqqara is the famous Step Pyramid of Djoser. It was built from 2667 to 2648 BCE during the Third dynasty for Pharaoh Djoser by his vizier (the highest official to serve the pharaoh), Imhotep. It’s considered to be the first Egyptian pyramid, the earliest large-scale cut stone construction, and the birthplace of architecture. It started off as a traditional mastaba tomb—flat-roofed with sloping sides—and was expanded several times into the 197-foot-high stone and clay pyramid, with six layers built on top of one another.
Under the step pyramid are chambers and galleries totaling more than 3.5 miles in length, with rooms for the king, his family members, and the storage of goods and offerings. The pyramid is surrounded by a large limestone wall and you enter the complex through a nearly-intact colonnade, with 20-foot columns chiseled to look like a bundle of plant stems.
Nearby on the plateau is the Pyramid of Teti. Teti ruled during the Sixth Dynasty in the Old Kingdom from 2345 to 2333 BCE. You wouldn’t immediately know that this large pile of rubble was once a pyramid, but below ground the chambers and corridors are well preserved. Like most of the tombs in Egypt, the pyramid was looted in ancient times but still contains an unfinished sarcophagus (the first of its kind found to contain inscriptions), a lid fragment, beautifully carved walls and a corbeled ceiling.
The Pyramid of Teti also has the honor of being the first and only pyramid that I actually entered fully. I am extremely claustrophobic and the low ceilings and the hot, airlessness was almost too much for me for me to bear.
Teti’s vizier Kagemni is buried in the largest mastaba in the Teti cemetery, located right next to the King’s pyramid. The mastaba was rediscovered in 1843 and while the lower registers of the walls are well preserved, the upper registers have been replaced (and are thus devoid of inscriptions).
The limestone tomb comprises several rooms covered with beautiful scenes (including one that resembled the Ancient Egyptian version of a Rockettes kickline), some still retaining their original colors. This was my very first time seeing tomb reliefs in color and there really is nothing like it. We saw so many more brightly colored temples and tombs on our trip, and it never ceased to be a thrill.
In addition to being our first pyramid(s), Saqqara was also the first time we truly experienced the great Egyptian souvenir gauntlet. We were warned that we would be hassled by vendors, and while it was at times intense (and always annoying), my New York-honed tactics of ignore, ignore, ignore served me pretty well during this outing and subsequent others. The best piece of advice I received about the Egyptian haggling experience was “It’s very cheap to get on the camel, but very expensive to get off.”