The Necropolis of Saqqara, back in the news

The Pyramid of Djoser

Last week, news channels around the world announced the unveiling of recent discoveries at the Egyptian site of Saqqara. A collection of 100 coffins containing intact mummies along with 40 funerary items were recently discovered there and put on display.

The person wearing the Stetson hat in the video above (Dr. Zahi Hawass) is arguably the most famous archaeologist and Egyptologist in the country and was once the Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs under Mubarak. As a side note, when we were doing a Nile Cruise towards Aswan he was the guest speaker for a large tour group that was on our boat (aside from the large group it was only us and our guide on the boat). Just watching him at dinner, it was clear he possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of Egyptian history as well as a magnetic personality.

This is not the first time the site has experienced new discoveries, and considering its age and importance, it wouldn’t be surprising if more are discovered in future. Although we missed the new ones during our trip last November, there were plenty of other things to see.

Located about 30 km (19 mi) south of Cairo, Saqqara is better known as the necropolis for he ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis. The step pyramid of Djoser is the centrepiece of the complex, but there are a number of other tombs scattered throughout the area.

Map of the Saqqara complex

The first place we visited was the Tomb of Kagemni, a smaller tomb in the complex. Kagemni was a vizier from the reign of King Teti. He was actually buried in a mastaba, which we learned was a flat-roofed, rectangular tomb used during the early dynastic period and Old Kingdom (the earliest eras of unified Egypt). It was simpler in design than a king’s tomb, but still has some nice images in the interior.

Next we went to the Pyramid of King Teti. While the pyramid is in poor condition on the surface, the tunnels and burial chambers below are well preserved.

The fellows dressed in traditional clothing to my left would follow tourists down into the tomb, explaining things (whether you wanted it or not) and then asking for donations for their efforts. This was a common theme with ancient sites in Egypt
Heading down. You had to bend down low

As with some other tombs we visited, you had to be careful with low corridors in the tomb.

Cartouche on the wall inside the tomb of King Teti

After going through a series of corridors and antechambers. we finally made it to the sarcophagus. Although it had been looters millennia ago, some items were still found when archaeologists first set eyes on it including a jar with some of the pharaoh’s organs in it. As the lid had been broken in one corner we were able to look inside the sarcophagus of King Teti, though of course it’s empty. In the second photo below you can see the stars carved into the walls of the tomb above the sarcophagus

One of the pesky “guides” followed me around inside the tomb (our guide wasn’t allowed to enter, one of the rules at certain sites) telling us this and that and finally asking for his tip. I didn’t have anything less than a ten dollar bill but he was more than happy to come up with a combination of a few crumpled American dollars and some Egyptian pounds in return. After that experience we tried to ignore them as best we could. At some sites in Egypt even armed soldiers offered to take our photos with the expectation of a tip in return.

The way back out

Evidentially we made it to the Pyramid of Djoser, the most striking part of the complex. Even before we got to the pyramid itself, there were a number of sights along the way.

The Temple of the Festivals Complex along with the Pyramid of Djoser
Funerary complex of Djoser
Entry Hall into the complex. You can see the locals ready to assist tourists as they enter
Roofed colonnade corridor leading into the complex. The pillars were carved to imitate plant stems
Our guide showing us some of the original blocks from the complex, as most of the upper layers have been reconstructed
The Pyramid of Djoser with the ruined Pyramid of Userkaf in the foreground
Another interesting thing about the complex was that it was located just inside the desert, with the lush greenery surrounding the Nile river close by

Afterward we visited the nearby the small but impressive Mit Rahina Museum, where some of the surviving artifacts taken from Memphis have been put on display. Most of the museum pieces are displayed outdoors.

The most impressive piece at the museum was the colossus of Ramses II, a 10 m (34 ft) long limestone statue of the famous Egyptian pharaoh. The statue still stands where it was found in 1820 near the village of Mit Rahina.

We couldn’t visit all of the tombs and sights in the time we spent around Saqqara, but we did get a good sense of importance of a place that was once the ancient capital of the country. When we visited the site last year, our guide mentioned the new finds in the process of being unearthed at the site, but none of us had any idea how significant they would prove to be. With these new discoveries, it might well be worth a return trip someday.

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