In Saqqara, the Pyramid Texts
Famous for the Djoser's Step Pyramid, the Egyptian site is full of wonders, including the tomb of pharaoh Unas, the first one with inscriptions that would later be compiled into the Book of the Dead, and the Imhotep Museum.
Cairo – The Great Pyramids of Giza and the sphinx are the best-known attractions in the Cairo area – and in Egypt –, but a bit south of the capital, the Saqqara necropolis houses some of the most important buildings of the era of the pharaohs. The site is known for Djoser’s step pyramid, which is Egypt’s first and regarded as the world’s oldest stone monument. The pharaoh made a request to his architect Imhotep for its construction in 2650 BC.
The Djoser funerary complex is impressive and worth a visit on its own, but there’s much more to Saqqara, after all it used to be the necropolis of Memphis, Egypt’s capital during the Old Kingdom, the first historical period of the pharaonic era, therefore it’s chock-full with the pyramids of kings and tombs of the nobles and other prominent figures.
A highlight is the Pyramid of Unas, which faces the Djoser complex. Built by pharaoh Unas (2375 to 2345 BC), the last of the 5th dynasty, the monument looks like a pile of rubble on the outside, but on the inside it’s a completely different story. It’s the first Egyptian royal tomb to have a decorated burial chamber. On the ceiling there are stars; on the walls, numerous hieroglyphs, the first ones in the famous Pyramid Texts.
The practice was later replicated in other of the Saqqara pyramids, and the texts compiled into the so-called Book of the Dead. The inscriptions are enchantments designed to protect the king’s soul in the afterlife. They’re prayers, chants, and lists of items such as food and clothing that the pharaoh would need in the hereafter.
The Pyramid of Unas reopened to the public in the first half of 2016 after a long hiatus, in line with Egypt’s policy of broadening the range of attractions to pull in more tourists. However, as of ANBA’s visit to the site on Sunday (September 11), the entrance was closed, and a guard had to be found to open it.
Saqqara’s monuments open and close from time to time, so before going, it’s best to find out what’s working. Entry to the Djoser Pyramid is prohibited, however, because the structure is fragile. Part of it is covered with scaffoldings due to restoration work to prevent a collapse.
In order to enter the tomb of Unas, one must descend into the underground by almost crouching along a low-ceilinged passage. First, one enters an anteroom replete with hieroglyphs across its four walls, and starts on the triangle-shaped ceiling.
In the adjoining mortuary chamber there are more hieroglyphs and other decorations. Even though much of the pigmentation has waned, one can still see traces of the original colors, like the blue texts with other gradations in the background, where the king’s stone sarcophagus lies. Only vestiges of the mummified body were found during the site’s exploration.
The causeway that leads to the pyramid is flanked by other tombs that can be visited, including princess Idut’s, the pharaoh’s son prince Unas Ankh’s, and Inefrt’s. Highlights of those include bas-relief portrayals of day-to-day scenes and animals. Some have retained their original colors.
In Saqqara still, go visit the Imhotep Museum, named after Djoser’s architect, who was also a physician – maybe the first in history –, a priest, a sage, a scribe, poet, astrologer, vizier and, later on, during the New Kingdom, worshipped as a god. Although small, the place is well organized and displays some wonders found in Saqqara.
The highlights are the seafoam green faience pieces that used to decorate the galleries under the Djoser Pyramid, now assembled as a reproduction of the monument’s walls. Also a highlight is the mummy of Pharaoh Merenre I (2297 to 2292 BC). He’s the most ancient complete mummy to have been found in Egypt. Also, look for a mummy that, although anonymous, is richly decorated with its strong colors still intact. Admire also highly realistic statues of the Old Kingdom and the wood sarcophagus of Imhotep himself. Photos are prohibited.
The ticket to the Saqqara site also gives you entrance to the museum and costs EGP 80 (USD 9.01 or BRL 30.02). There are many other monuments in the park that are worth a visit, such as the Pyramid of Teti and the Mastaba (tomb) of Ti, so it’s a good idea to set aside a day to visit the place, which is an hour’s drive from Cairo. It’s recommended to bring a snack, water, sunscreen and a cap, since the sun is relentless.
Like in other famous sites in Egypt, it’s common for vendors, tourist guides and locals to come up to people offering camel, horse or donkey rides. Since tourism is currently facing a downturn in the country, they will resort to emotion, claiming that the numbers of visitors is down, that business is down and that they need the money to eat. This doesn’t mean that you have to open your wallet. Buy something only if you really want and negotiate the price. As for tips, give what you think it’s fair and don’t bother if they ask for more.
*Translated by Gabriel Pomerancblum and Sérgio Kakitani