Wondering Egypt

Zoser's Step Pyramid in Saqqara
By Ethan Gelber & the BikeAbout team
  |  Gorp.com

The major attraction of Saqqara is Zoser's Pyramid, also known as the Step Pyramid. In the 27th century BC, the reigning Pharaoh, a powerful leader named Zoser, decided he wanted a final resting place more grand than the underground tombs or low, flat brick buildings (mastabas) in which most previous kings had been buried. Fortunately, Zoser had in his service an architect of brilliance, named Imhotep. Under the direction of Imhotep, Zoser's tomb started as a large mastaba but soon evolved into a much more ambitious structure. Imhotep kept stacking mastabas until Zoser's tomb became a six-tiered pyramid 62 meters (203 ft) high, built of thousands of carefully cut stones and encased in a fine limestone shell.

Certainly one of the oldest standing stone structures in the world, Zoser's Pyramid was also the biggest stone building constructed up to that time. Somehow Imhotep found solutions to the problems of moving, precisely placing and securing each of the thousands of blocks it took to complete the pyramid. The building of the Step Pyramid provided the inspiration and technical expertise that ushered in the age of pyramid-building. And while not as large or well preserved as the Great Pyramids in Giza, Zoser's Pyramid still deserves to be listed among one of the most impressive monuments we've seen.

It took nearly an hour to make it through Cairo traffic and then down the Nile to Saqqara. Again we were amazed at how big Cairo is, but this time we were also amazed at how abruptly the city ended and the farms began. The scenery changed from gray concrete to brilliantly green farmland in just seconds. The green seemed that much more green since we could see the brown of the desert hemming in both sides of the valley.

If we had taken the same ride 4000 years earlier, the urban and the rural areas would have been reversed. We would have been leaving rich farmland to enter a big city, instead of vice versa. Although there is little indication left within the valley itself, during the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt (long before Cairo had been founded), the nearby settlement of Memphis was the largest city and capital of Egypt. This helps to explain why there are so many archaeological treasures in the desert near what is today a tiny village.

As impressive as Zoser's Pyramid itself was the huge funerary complex that surrounded it. The pyramids might have been the center point of the pharaoh's cemetary, but it was always surrounded by an elaborate complex of temples, chapels, and the burial sites of relatives and friends. So, to enter the Step Pyramid site we had to walk through a long hallway of tall columns which brought us to a large central courtyard just in front of the pyramid itself. In this courtyard were the ruins of Zoser's two thrones (which symbolized the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt). Surrounding the pyramid were a number of ceremonial temples, including a mortuary temple at which Zoser's relatives were supposed to pay him homage after his death.

Just next to this temple is a stone structure known as a serdab, in which you find a large wooden box with holes drilled into it. Peering into the hole you are startled to find Zoser himself staring back out at you! It's just a statue, but spooky nonetheless.

After walking around Zoser's pyramid, we climbed to the top of the wall that once surrounded the entire complex. We were rewarded by a nice view of the entire area. Besides the small pyramids of Unas, Sekhemket, and Userkef, which are only a few hundred meters from the Step Pyramid, we could also see pyramids stretching off into the distance to both the north and south. In one direction the Great Pyramids at Giza were just visible across the desert ; in the other direction we could identify the impressive"Bent" pyramid and "Red" pyramids in Dahshur. It helped us realize that we were standing in a field of pyramids — many of which aren't very big, or have long since deteriorated — that stretched over 30 km (19 mi) along the desert ridge just west of the Nile. We tried to imagine what the site must have looked like thousands of years ago, when as many as 70 pyramids lined the ridge, and immediately understood why this whole area is a included on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites.

The sites at Saqqara also provide a good illustration that not all pharaohs were buried in pyramids, not even during the pyramid-building phase of Old Kingdom Egypt. They, and many of the other prominent members of Egyptian society, also had less impressive but still fairly elaborate tombs — some underground chambers, some mastabas. Indeed, when surrounded by all the non-pyrmiad archaeological sites, you realize that dozens of Pharaohs, and thousands of ancient Egyptians are buried around you. It's like a huge city of the dead. With this eerie thought in mind we set out to explore some of the other notable tombs.

Just south of Zoser's pyramid we wandered through a number of ancient tombs, all of which were in various states of excavation and renovation. None of the mummies were still around, but we found a lot of neat art and hieroglyphics on the walls. Particularly interesting were the tombs of Akhti-Hotep and Ptah-Hotep, father and son officials during the reign of the Pharaoh Djedkare. Inside their tombs we found pictures of the father-son duo in various settings — from hunting scenes to depictions of them receiving manicures. Although over 4000 years old, the pictures have been restored to their original bright color.

Our next stop was the Serapium, the ancient burial chamber not for pharaohs or their servants, but for mummified bulls! As gods on earth, these bulls too received special treatment in death. A monument to the sacred bull, Apis (who is the incarnation of Ptah, the god of Memphis), the Serapium is a huge but dimly light underground chamber which once held the mummified remains of dozens of sacred bovine. All that remains are the gigantic outer coffins (sarcophagi), but these are impressive enough — some were over 3 meters (10 ft) high and 9 meters (30 ft) long, carved out of black granite. To get these immense coffins into the chamber, the builders dug a big hole, filled it with sand, dragged the sarcophagus on top of the sand, and then dug the sand out from under it, slowly lowering the sacred remains into their final resting place.

Our final stop was the Mastaba of Ti, the tomb of a prominent member of the Pharaoh's court. Again the paintings and hieroglyphics on the walls of the tomb were remarkably well preserved and colorful. These decorations vividly portray everyday life in ancient Egypt, depicting such activities as the harvesting of grain, the butchering of cattle, and the brewing of beer. It also showed how well the elite of Egyptian society lived. Ti himself is shown floating down the Nile on a barge, sniffing sweet smelling flowers while being fanned by slaves!

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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