1 Introduction
2 Ins and outs
3 Imhotep Museum
4 Zoser's Funerary Complex
5 South of Zoser's Funerary Complex
6 North of the Funerary Complex
6.1 The Serapeum
6.2 The Mastaba of Ti

Saqqara, which faces Memphis (the oldest known imperial city on earth) across the Nile, was the enormous necropolis for the first pharaohs. With many tombs believed to be still undiscovered it is Egypt's largest archaeological site, spanning more than 7 sq km. From its inception it expanded west into the desert until the Fourth Dynasty (2613-2494 BC) when the Giza plateau superseded it. At the end of the Fifth Dynasty (2494-2345 BC) a more systematic construction of pyramids and mastabas began, which resulted in many splendid monuments around Saqqara and some of the most gorgeously decorated private tombs in Egypt. The approach through a forest of date palms and the sweep of the desert beyond are as breathtaking as the multitude of hidden mastabas, ruinous courts and causeways, and the sand-strewn rungs of the step pyramid itself.

Ins and outs

Getting there

Given the relative proximity to Cairo, and the distance between tombs in Saqqara, it is worth hiring a taxi for the day. Tours generally do not include ticket prices. If you choose to brave public transport, you can take a bus from Midan Tahrir or a microbus from Pyramids Road in Giza to Badrasheen. Get off on the main road by the sign for Saqqara antiquities and walk the remaining 1.5 km to the site. Giza to Saqqara by camel or horse can be a rewarding journey. Bring water and food for the day, as the restaurants surrounding the area tend to be overpriced and bare in their offerings. Soft-drink sellers operate around the main attractions.

 Saqqara can be easily visited as a day trip from Cairo. Public transportation can sometimes be difficult to come by late at night, so plan your trip accordingly.

Imhotep Museum

A ticket includes entrance to the excellent new Imhotep Museum (past the ticket booths), which should not be missed. Building blocks and artefacts are put into context using to-scale diagrams, the main hall being dominated by an impression of how Zoser's tomb would have looked in its heyday. Vessels, statues and friezes have been intelligently selected and there is a fascinating room detailing the life and work of Jean-Philippe Lauer, who spent 75 years working and restoring the site.

Zoser's Funerary Complex

This complex, the largest in Saqqara, is an example of some of the world's most ancient architecture. The whole complex, including but not confined to the
Step Pyramid
, was designed and built for Zoser (2667-48 BC), the second king in the Third Dynasty, under the control of his chief architect Imhotep who many regard as the world's first architect. At its heart is the
Step Pyramid
, the first of its kind, which can be seen as a prototype for the Giza Pyramids. This marked the evolution of burial tombs from
with deep shafts for the sarcophagus to imposing elevated mausoleums. Although the external fine white limestone casing, brought from quarries across the Nile at Memphis, has disappeared over time the step structure is still clearly visible. The pyramid eventually reached a height of 62.5 m on a base 109 m by 121 m, which, although small by comparison with those at Giza, is still an amazing feat. The advances represented by Zoser's Pyramid were not in the building techniques or materials, which were already established, but the concept, design and calculations involved that made such a monument possible.

The shaft, leading 28 m vertically down to the Royal Tomb, was sealed with a three-tonne granite block but this still did not prevent the tomb from being looted. Another 11 shafts were found, 32 m deep, under the east side of the Pyramid, which led to the tombs of the queens and royal children. Unfortunately these are no longer open to the public and the area is currently under restoration.

The whole funerary complex was completely surrounded by buttressed walls over 544 m long, to deter intruders and thieves and to provide space for the Pharaoh's
(spirit) to live in the afterlife. Although 14 fake doors were built, only the one in the southeast corner, which leads into the colonnade
Hypostyle Hall
actually gives access to the site. Before entering the colonnade, observe the fake door complete with hinges and sockets in the vestibule on the right. The Colonnade leads through to the
Great Court
, on the south side of which there is a frieze of cobras similar to the one found in the museum. This represents the fire-spitting goddess of destruction Edjo who was adopted as the Uraeus, the emblem of royalty and of protection, and worn on the pharaonic headdress .

Further along this south wall is a deep shaft at the bottom of which lies
Zoser's Southern Tomb
, which some believe held the king's entrails. More importantly there is a relief, depicting the king running the Heb-Sed race, which illustrates the purpose of the surrounding buildings and monuments. Some of them are mere façades like a Hollywood film-set, simply representing a pastiche of this crucial ceremony for the afterlife. Their intended purpose was to eternalize the symbol of the unification of a greater Egypt and the power of the pharaoh even in death.

This symbolism is echoed in the lotus and papyrus capitals on top of the columns fronting the
House of the South
and the
House of the North
, which represent
the heraldic emblems of Upper and Lower Egypt, respectively. The House of the South is interesting because its columns, precursors of the Greek Doric style, and its New Kingdom graffiti offer a fascinating reminder of the continuity of human civilization.

On the north side of the Step Pyramid there is a stone casket, known as the
(cellar), containing a copy of a life-size statue of Zoser. The original is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The Serdab has two cylindrical holes to enable the statue to communicate with the outside world and to preserve the Pharaoh's
. To the west of the Serdab the
Funerary Temple
is in ruins but some of the walls and the entrance can still be seen. A tunnel originally linked it with the royal tomb.

South of Zoser's Funerary Complex

The Pyramid of Unas
, which was built for the last pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty (2494-2345 BC), appears from the outside to be a heap of limestone rubble but the inside of the burial chamber has a star-covered ceiling and the passage has beautiful green hieroglyphs of magic formulae for the pharaoh to ease his passage into the afterlife. These are the first decorations ever made inside a tomb and formed the basis for the Book of the Dead.The pyramid was opened as a tourist attraction in 1881 by the director of antiquities Gaston Maspero with financial sponsorship from Thomas Cook & Son, but is now permanently closed to prevent greater deterioration. To the east, a few remnants of the
Funerary Temple
can be seen, some granite columns with palm capitals and pieces of granite floor. Beyond this the remains of a causeway linking the Funerary Temple to the Valley Temple 700 m away has been uncovered, which conjures up a real feeling of walking back in time.

North and south of the causeway are a sprinkling of tombs worth looking into, as well as two 45 m-long troughs of Unas' boat pits. The fascinating and well preserved
Mastaba of Queen Nebet
, Unas' wife, contains some rare scenes of Nebet in the women's quarters, or harem, in the palace. The
Mastaba of Princess Idout
has 10 rooms, of which five are decorated to give a glimpse of life in Idout's day with many rural and domestic scenes. The
Mastaba of Merou
contains some exceptionally well-preserved tableaux, in the Grand Offerings Room the paint scarcely seems to have faded at all. The
Saqqara New Tombs
 are equally vivid and include the adjoining tombs of
Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep
and the
Mastaba of Irukaptah
, with deeply colourful depictions of the royal manicurists at work, scenes of fishing, and activities at the dairy - look out for the cow giving birth.

The remains of the
Pyramid of Sekhemkhet
, which was at the centre of an unfinished and unused funerary complex very similar to that of his predecessor Zoser, were only discovered in 1950 and there is no public access. To the east of the Pyramid of Sekhemkhet can be seen the remains of the
Monastery of St Jeremiah
, which was founded in the fifth century but destroyed by the Arabs five centuries later. Following its discovery in 1907 many of the paintings and extraordinary carvings were removed and are now on display in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

North of the Funerary Complex

Pyramid of Teti
, the founder of the 6th Dynasty (2345-2181 BC), was discovered by Mariette in 1853 but is now little more than a pile of rubble in constant danger of being submerged by sand. It is not permitted to enter up the steep pathway leading to the funerary chamber, where the ceiling is decorated with stars.

To the north are a number of well-preserved
. The most outstanding of which is
, who was Teti's vizier, chief judge and inspector - an important person in Sixth Dynasty society. This is one of the largest Old Kingdom
to have been found and its 32 rooms are divided into three parts for Mereruka (21 rooms), his wife (six rooms) and his son (five rooms). In the main entrance passage Mereruka is depicted at an easel, painting the three seasons. The following room contains interesting hunting scenes, revealing the types of animal they stalked and the techniques that they used. Scenes of everyday life are beautifully depicted throughout the tomb, giving a valuable insight into contemporary life. The largest room, with six pillars, has a statue of Mereruka to the north and some unusual mourning scenes, while on the left are scenes of him being carried by his son and surrounded by dwarfs and dogs.

To the east, the
Mastaba of Kagemni
, also a vizier and judge of the Sixth Dynasty, has some excellent reliefs and paintings of a much a higher standard, but unfortunately less well preserved. Further east is the
Mastaba of Ankh-ma-hor
, also known as the Doctor's Tomb because of paintings depicting circumcision and an operation on a broken toe. Other rooms show the usual scenes of the preparation and transportation of the offerings and various representations of hunting and daily life. Look on the south wall for the mourners fainting at the burial ceremony.

One of the finest of all the
is the double
Mastaba of Ptah-Hotep and Akhiti-Hotep
, which contains some of the finest Old Kingdom art and some fascinating unfinished work clarifying the techniques used in painting reliefs. Ptah-Hotep was a priest of Maat in the reign of Djedkare, Unas' predecessor, while his son Akhiti-Hotep was vizier, judge, and the overseer of the treasury and the granaries.

The red paint of the unfinished agricultural scenes in the entrance corridor reveals how preliminary drawings were made before the wall was carved and painted. The outstanding masterpiece, however, is in the
dedicated to Ptah-Hotep. On the walls behind the entrance Ptah-Hotep is seated watching a concert while his servants wash and manicure him. Other walls bear scenes of Ptah-Hotep receiving offerings. On the left wall, which is the most interesting and impressive, the figure in the first boat is being given water by a boy. The inscription describes him as the Chief Artist, who is thought to have been Ankhen-Ptah, and this scene may well represent the first known example of an artist's signature.

The Serapeum

The bizarre Serapeum was a burial place for the sacred Apis Bulls, believed to be manifestations of Ptah's blessed soul and were identified with Osiris after his death. They were given full honours in a ceremony worthy of any pharaoh, embalmed, and then the mummified body placed in a sarcophagus and sealed off from the main gallery by means of a richly decorated wall. The high priests would then start searching for the new Apis Bull within the sacred herd. It had to be the only calf of its mother, black in colour except for a white diamond-shaped marking on the forehead, and have a scarab symbol on its tongue. The cult of the Apis Bulls was significant enough to last well into the Ptolemaic period, and the gloomy passageways of the Serapeum are in fact two and a half millennia younger than the Step Pyramid of Zoser - an interval as long as that which separates the Serpeum burials from our own time.

The long, sloping path down to the Serapeum leads to the three galleries, where 24 surviving sarcophagi are set in small galleries on either side of the main one. Each sarcophagus, from the quarries of Aswan, was made from a single piece of rock and weighed around 65 tonnes. Only three of the enormous basalt or granite sarcophagi bear inscriptions, and these are marked with the cartouches of different pharaohs, Amasis, Cambyses and Khababash. The Serapeum was discovered in 1851 but, with the exception of one tomb, most had already been looted. The artefacts discovered are now displayed in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The Mastaba of Ti

One of the wonders of the Old Kingdom, the beautiful reliefs in Ti's
provide fascinating insights into life at the time. Ti was a Fifth Dynasty royal hairdresser who married well and became steward of the sun temples of Neferikare and Nouserre and whose children later bore the title of 'royal descendant'. The reliefs in the courtyard have been damaged but their representations of daily life - breeding birds (north wall left), Ti on his litter with dogs and dwarfs (east wall, centre), and Ti with his wife (west wall centre) - are still worth seeing. In the centre of the courtyard an undecorated shaft leads to the tomb. On the left of the corridor joining the tomb to the main shrine, just after the door, servants are depicted bringing offerings while on the right are musicians and dancers. The main hall of offerings and shrine have an abundance of scenes depicting daily life, from the brewing of beer and the baking of bread to illustrations of boat construction (note the extreme simplicity of the tools used). You can't miss Ti's immense sarcophagus filling the recess in which it stands.

The south wall holds the
, where a copy of Ti's statue, the original being in the Cairo Museum, can be peeped at through the slit. Around the two slits there are scenes of daily market life, carpenters, tanners, and various other artisans. Around the second slit, Ti is entertained by musicians while servants burn incense. These paintings should be taken on one level as literal depictions of Egyptian life but it is also important to realize the importance of symbolism and allegory. The north walls show Ti in a boat observing a hippopotamus hunt in the Delta region, but as the hippopotamus was symbolic of evil there is probably more to the picture than meets the eye.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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