Saqqara is the richest archeological site located in the land of the Pharaohs. This ancient area that started as the royal necropolis of the old kingdom starting from the 3rddynasty (2890 - 2686 BC) contains a large number of interesting findings, with the step pyramid of Djoser as the center and most important monument of Saqqara. Excavation works are still unearthing valuable findings in Saqqara until today.
The monuments located in Saqqara span around 3000 years starting with the earliest ancient Egyptian funerary structures to Coptic Monasteries erected in the 3rd and 4th century AD.
Saqqara has developed as the first known royal necropolis of the first capital of a unified Egypt , Memphis that was first established by Menes around 3500 BC. As Memphis grew larger and stronger, so did it's necropolis at Saqqara to cover a surface area of 7 kilometers from North to South.
Saqqara was used as the burial site of the royals belonging to the Old Kingdom for many years until it was abandoned being replaced by the necropolises located in Giza and Abu Sir afterwards.
There were no findings to be excavated in Saqqara except for the step pyramid of Djoser that was buried under the sand for years before being unearthed in the 19thcentury.
In 1805, the famous French archeologist, Auguste Mariette, was able to discover the Serapeum, the underground burial chamber of the sacred Apis bulls. Afterwards, excavation works have been going on in Saqqara unearthing new discoveries until recent times.
The Step Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara
The step pyramid of Djoser, constructed in 2665 BC as the most ancient rock structure in the human history, is the centerpiece of the Saqqara necropolis.
This remarkable structure was erected to for Djoser (2667 – 2648 BC), the second king of the 3rddynasty belonging to the Pharaonic Old Kingdom . The pyramid was designed by the architect of the king, Amhotep who served as a high priest as well.
The step pyramid of Djoser marks an unparalleled leap forward in the world architectural history. Before the construction of this pyramid, the royal tombs mainly consisted of underground rooms or even small holes in the ground in the very beginning. Afterwards, low, flat, mud brick box shaped structures called "Mastaba" were added to the top of these underground burial chambers.
The distinguished pioneer, Amhotep, had a marvelous plan to construct one of the world's most famous structures. First of all, Amhotep chose rock stones to be used to construct the pyramid in stead of mud brick stones in order to be stronger and more suitable to host other structures on top of it. He started by building one Mastaba and then he added five more Mastabas on top of each others with each additional layer thinner than the one below it.
The wide area surrounding the step pyramid of Djoser has also marked another architectural achievement of Amhotep. This vast enclosure was bounded by a limestone wall that was originally more than 10 meters high. It included wide open courts, pavilions, shrines and chapels.
On the north side of the step pyramid of Djoser, there was a life-size statue of the king with a Crypt to allow the dead king's spirit to interact with the world of the living. The statue that is now present in Saqqara is only a replica of the original statue that is on display at the entrance of the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo.
The Pyramid of Unas
Located just to the South of the enclosure wall of the step pyramid of Djoser, the pyramid of Unas (2375 – 2345 BC), the last king of the 5thdynasty is just a crumbled small pyramid in comparison to that of Djoser. The remarkable feature of this pyramid is the chambers of the pyramid which are crowded with vertical columns containing hieroglyphic inscriptions that included hymns, prayers, and secret magical spells. These inscriptions are the most ancient known decorative writings used to ornament the chambers of the royal tombs.
However, the internal chambers of the pyramid of Unas are now closed for public visitors. Fortunately, there are more than 200 Mastabas and tombs that are marvelously decorated and located in the causeway running east of the pyramid of Unas and all of them are open for public.
The Pyramid of Teti
The Pyramid of Teti (2345 – 2323 BC), the first king of the 6thdynasty, appears from outside as nothing but a large pile of rubbles. However, the burial chamber is very interesting as it contains the huge royal basalt sarcophagus of the king.
The inner walls of the pyramid are decorated with religious inscriptions, the same as that of Unas. Although this feature is common in many tombs in Saqqara, this is the only location that public can view this type of Pharaonic tomb decorations. The ceiling of the burial chamber is remarkable as well as it contains many colorful stars.
The Tomb of Mereruka
This tomb consisting of 33 chambers that belongs to Mereruka, the son in law of the king Teti, is one of the highlights of Saqqara.
The tomb contains some beautiful colorful wall decorations with Mereruka hunting birds, fish, and hippos. The largest hall inside the tomb contains a life-size statue of Mereruka standing beside a false door.
The Tomb of Ankhma-Hor
This tomb is called the tomb of the doctor or the tomb of the physician. This is because its walls contain amazing wall paintings of ancient surgical operations.
This includes a surgery being implemented on a man's toe and a circumcision operation done in the style that was common during the period of the 6thdynasty. This tomb is among the most remarkable monuments in the Saqqara complex .
The Serapeum is the strangest monument located in the Saqqara complex. It consists of the underground burial chambers of the sacred Apis bulls. It includes series of long dark passage ways lined with many side burial chambers hosting 25 huge granite sarcophagi weighing 70 tons each on average.
These sarcophagi used to host the mummified corpses of the Apis bulls which were seen as an incarnation of Ptah, the god of Memphis. This was why it was considered a sacred animal and priests used to look after them. When Apis bull died, they used to be buried with great mortuary ceremonies in the different chambers of the Serapeum.
These catacombs were first started by Amhotep III (1390 – 52 BC) and they continued using it until 30 BC.
South Saqqara complex
The necropolis located to the south of Saqqara contains some smaller ruined pyramids of Pepi I (2321 – 2287 BC) , Pepi II (2278 – 2184 BC), belonging to the 6thdynasty, and Djedkare (2414 – 2375), who was the 8thking of the 5thdynasty.
The pyramid of Pepi II in particular includes some wonderful tomb inscriptions that are quite remarkable.
Nearby, there is the Mastaba of the Pharaohs or the Pharaohs bench which a large monolithic mortuary complex is dating back to a king belonging to the 4thdynasty .
The Saqqara complex is one of the most remarkable archeological sites in Egypt . Excavation missions are still working until today in Saqqara unearthing new treasurers every year. A visit to Saqqara is a must for any Pharaohs or ancient Egyptian history fan. The complex opens daily from 9 in the morning till the sunset.
BY: Seif Kamel