Sakkara or Saqqara served as the necropolis of the ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis, and is located 30 km south of Cairo. It is not as well known as the Pyramids of Giza but this is where the practice of pyramid building first began. A visit here prior to seeing the Pyramids of Giza sheds greater light on the ancient architectural plans of the pharaohs. The tombs here were built during the 1st and 2nd Dynasties and were mostly made out of mud bricks with only some made out of limestone. It is here at Sakkara that you will find the oldest stone structure in the world built during the 3rd Dynasty around 2700 BC, Djoser’s Step Pyramid. In addition, you will find here other dazzling pyramids like the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid. Old Kingdom pyramid complexes usually have five components: a valley temple, a causeway, a mortuary temple, cult or satellite pyramid/s, and the main pyramid. The Valley Temple was used for the mummification of the pharaoh and was linked by a long covered causeway to the dock for boats arriving from the Nile. The mortuary temple was used to commemorate the reign of the pharaoh and was used by his cult after his death. And the satellite pyramids are usually used to bury the queen and other family members of the pharaoh.
The Step Pyramid that dominates the landscape of Sakkara was built for Djoser, the second king of the 3rd Dynasty (2650-2575 BC). It was built by his architect Imhotep and consists of six steps, each smaller than the step below. It was the first structure made of stone in Egypt and has a vertical height of 60 meters. This is a clear departure from the previous mastaba form of tombs from the 1st and 2nd Dynasties which was built using mud bricks and were rectangular in shape with sloping walls and a flat roof. This departure not only signifies an improvement in building skills but also reflects a new level of governmental control in terms of taxing and managing the builders since the process would be more expensive as well as labor intensive. This step pyramid set the stage for the later pyramids we see like the Pyramids of Giza. Underneath the pyramid are a myriad of chambers and tunnels leading to the shaft that is 28 meters deep. Unfortunately, tourists are no longer permitted to enter the pyramid. On the southeastern side of the complex is a temple opening onto a courtyard where the Pharaoh used to perform the rituals of the Hep-Sed Festival. Hep-Sed Festival was a jubilee to celebrate the king’s rule after 30 years and was repeated every 3 years thereafter. To the right of this courtyard is a temple known as the Hep-Sed Temple so that the pharaoh can continue to practice this ritual celebration in the afterlife. The complex was surrounded by a wall 10 meters high with 13 false doors and only one true one in the southeast corner. The wall was then surrounded by a trench so you really needed to know how to enter in order to visit the temple and pyramids.
Entrance to the Step Pyramid complex
Courtyard where Hep-Sed Festival was celebrated in front of the Step Pyramid.
The Pyramid of Unas lies southwest to the Step Pyramid and was built for Unas, the last pharaoh of the 5th Dynasty (2375-2345 BC) 300 years after the Step Pyramid. This six-step pyramid was the smallest built in the Old Kingdom but what makes it interesting is that it was the first pyramid with inscriptions found inside the burial chamber intended to guide the pharaoh in the afterlife. The incantations are known as the Pyramid Texts and are the oldest known Egyptian religious texts. These Pyramid Texts then formed the basis of the Book of the Dead. The incised hieroglyphs here were filled in with blue pigment and seem to shine when you look at them. These hieroglyphs are spells to protect the soul of the deceased and to ensure his eternal survival. There were prayers and hymns and lists of items such as food and clothing, all believed to be required by the pharaoh in the afterlife. This became a tradition in the subsequently built pyramids until the end of the Old Kingdom.
Entrance to the Pyramid of Unas mostly ruined and stands at half its original height
After descending about 5 meters, there is a long narrow tunnel where you have to bend over to navigate to the antechamber.
Hieroglyphs cover the walls and stars cover the ceilings inside the Pyramid of Unas
The burial chamber with a black sarcophagus
Walls were covered with alabaster
The caretaker showed us the relief of Unas carved in alabaster that can only be seen when the lights are turned off and a flashlight shined onto it. You can imagine how it would look as if Unas has come to life in the flickering candlelight. Amazing!
Most of ancient Egypt’s elite were buried in mastabas which were flat-roofed rectangular tombs with inward sloping sides. There are quite a few open to the public in the Sakkara necropolis. The first one we visited was that of Princess Idut Dyn IV also called Seshseshet who was believed to be a daughter of Unas of the 5th Dynasty. On the walls inside the tomb are depictions of men fishing, boat making, agricultural scenes like harvesting papyrus and tending cattle as well as scribes tallying accounts with the village defaulters. The ancient Egyptians believed that each person was made up of 5 parts: the body, the ba, the ka, the name, and the shadow. The ba was essentially your character and personality and the ka was your life force. The ancient Egyptians believed that death occurs when the ka and ba leave the body. They believed that the ba flew off to keep watch over the living family while the ka went to the Land of Two Fields. Each night, both the ba and ka returned to the tomb to re-energize for the next day just like how the sun was said to go to the underworld at night to recharge with Osiris to be reborn the next day. The ka can be sustained through food and drink and that is why food and drink offerings were presented to the deceased so that the ka can “absorb” the life force they represented and live on forever.
Scribes tallying accounts with the village defaulters
A wonderful relief of cattle crossing the river with the calf held in front of the papyrus boat so the cattle will follow
Men with offerings
A relief of Idut holding a lotus blossom up to her nose. For the ancient Egyptians, the lotus symbolises the sun, of creation, of rebirth, and of regeneration.
Scenes of butchers with sharp knives slaughtering the cattle as offerings
Men carrying legs of meat. And here you can see the<em> ka</em> represented by two arms. This symbol was to ward off evil. The <em>ka</em> was believed to live on forever as long as it was properly nourished with food and drink.
There is a false door here for the soul to enter and leave flanked by men bringing offerings in chests.
Another mastaba we visited here was the recently opened tomb (September of 2018) of Mehu who was a top official of King Teti. He was a vizier and the chief of judges as well as the director for the palace of King Teti of the 6th Dynasty. This tomb is very beautifully preserved and like other mastabas, it provides a window into how life was during that time in ancient Egypt.
Entrance to the Tomb of Mehu
Scenes of baking and brewing
Men bearing offerings
Men with offerings on both sides of the walls leading to the false door where the soul can leave and re-enter the tomb.
The false door where Mehu’s spirit can leave and return.
Mehu seated receiving the offerings
A word of advice is that many of these tombs are locked up and the guardian with the key may be hanging out elsewhere. Our guide spoke to some of the guardians chatting outside the Pyramid of Unas and one spoke to another and someone came to open the Tomb of Mehu for us. I am not sure how it works but for sure some tips will get you in. We were told that these guardians only make about US$100 a month so they often solicit tips by showing you things or opening tombs for you or allowing you to take photos where you are not supposed to, etc. I gave them a few US dollars each time and they will always say it’s not enough but it’s fine. The advice from our guide is to just give them whatever you see fit and then walk away. They have recently started selling photographic permits (usually around LE300 or US$17) at many of the sites that previously banned photography so that now with the permit, you are allowed to take photos inside the tombs and temples.
From Sakkara, we continue to Giza to see the iconic pyramids. Stay tuned!
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