02 February 2008
Accommodation: Windsor Hotel, Cairo
Site: Saqqara (OK Mastabas, Complex of Djoser, Causeway and pyramid of Unas)
Saqqara is an excellent site, whatever your level in of interest in all things Egyptian. Naturally, the step pyramid and Heb-Sed complex for the afterlife of Djoser, a 3rd Dynasty (Old Kingdom) Pharaoh, dominate in every possible way. However the site is a veritable labyrinth of fantastic finds, from the pre-dynastic right up to the Greco-Roman period. Saqqara, like Karnak, has “something for everyone”.
The site has recently had a visitors centre developed below the main plateau, with a cafe, ticket office and the small yet excellent Imhotep Museum, featuring some finds from the site. I didn’t bother with the museum this time, since I visited it on my last visit here last summer, and since Saqqara’s public opening hours are extremely limited I wanted to dedicate all my time to the site proper. However, the museum is good and does repay time spent on it. Allow about an hour for a reasonably thorough look. The highlights have to be the faïence tiled wall from Djoser’s tomb, which is beautiful and more than vaguely reminiscent of the more art-deco features of the London Underground, and an interesting, and somewhat disturbing, carving depicting desert nomads suffering a famine.
The layout of the displays and the lighting of the museum are excellent, and a lot has obviously been learned from the success of the Luxor museum in this regard. I only hope that the new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza will continue the trend. I think the British Museum in London could learn a few things from Imhotep and Luxor museums when it comes to the sensitive issue of displaying human remains, which both the above have handled well. [Update – The BM is currently undergoing extensive remodelling of it's Egyptian section, so hopefully a more modern approach to the display of human remains will be included in this work]
One thing that is not at Imhotep Museum, and which surprised me in some respects, is the famous statue of Djoser himself. This earliest known full size sculpture of an Egyptian ruler remains in Cairo Museum, and despite some damage is a beautiful representation of the archetypical Pharaoh.
I used the car again from here, as it’s a long walk from the visitors centre to the plateau itself, and people on foot have not really been considered, road layout wise, with no real sign posts or walkways provided. Most tour groups continue straight to the main complex with the rather nice entrance to Djoser’s complex, perhaps an understatement. However, stopping off at the mastaba of the 5th Dynasty Ptah-Hotep is well worthwhile. I am not big on entering tombs, as anyone who knows me will happily attest. I do not like the idea of disturbing burial chambers. I will go to the chapel and no further in most cases (one exception so far, when I was happy with the atmosphere and felt welcome). The whirlwind of camera wielding tourists with sun burn and bad hats does not seem to be to perpetuate the memory and strengthen the Ka of the deceased, but rather to swamp him. Ptah-Hotep’s mastaba (actually a double mastaba, shared with Akhti-Hotep, though chambers are seperate) is an exception however. It’s atmosphere is as calm and quietly confident as the decoration is sublime, and it truly is. Should you visit, then ensure to pay your respects, and take time to appreciate the beautifully executed bas relief on the walls, and the beautifully painted patterns on the false door. The whole mastaba is like a jewel, and a delight in every possible way.
From here I purchased tickets for the “New Tombs” which included the one thing in Saqqara I really wanted to see, but hadn’t expected to (I had been informed it was closed to visitors), the mastaba of Khunumhotep and Niankhkhnum. These twins served as manicurists to the 5th dynasty Pharaoh Niuserra, and also served in various other roles, including holding the titles Master of Secrets and positions in the priesthood. It was common in Ancient Egypt for a noble to hold various titles and positions, particularly priestly ones (which seem almost mandatory at some points) but what is unusual about this joint tomb is the owners themselves. Believed to be twins, they shared all their same titles and responsibilities together, and had a shared mastaba featuring a single chamber with dual decorations and false doors for each of them. As one enters the tomb, mirrored (though not identical) wall carvings show funerary preparations for each of the owners, including the delivery of statues for each man, and the delivery of offerings. On the end wall of the chamber you will find a beautifully executed, though mostly colourless, banqueting scene showing both of the twins together at the table preparing to eat the bread of the afterlife, surrounded by their family, whilst on the other wall they embrace one another. It’s a beautiful tomb. Go there.
From there, I headed to the tomb of the Royal Butcher, which features no less than seven statues of the man himself in various phases of his life. This is something of a recurring theme, but as far as I am aware is almost unique to Egyptian culture. There is a similar set of statues now in the Cairo museum, of which I hope to write more later when I visit in a few days time. The mastaba itself is not decorated to the same standard as that of Ptah-Hotep or Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, but what is immediately eye catching is the large, brightly painted hieroglyphs, complete with beautifully detailed “M” owls complete with spotted feathering, and the beautifully detailed faces of the hawk. The vivid colouring on these glyphs has to be some of the most elaborate and bold, and is a real treat. It may not be as perfect and sleek as the works elsewhere in Saqqara, but it does give a real sense of life and joviality to the cool, beautiful formality of some of the other structures. Unfortunately, our butcher seemingly suffered a fall in grace, and his tomb was never completed, leaving much of the tomb unfinished and with a mix of finished surfaces, guidelines and draft drawings, and rough initial stone working. This is in itself quite interesting, both in seeing how the decoration and fitting out was done (not by random and fantastical ideas but by a carefully thought of plan of how to represent the life of the individual and his hopes and beliefs of the afterlife) and as a vivid reminder of how these veritable mansions for the deceased and their memory are in fact made from raw, rough rock – hacked, chiselled, chiselled again, then polished to an almost plaster smooth finish before being painted and fit for their owner to enjoy his afterlife in.
There are many ways to live, but there is only one way to die, and that has to be the Egyptian way, at least if your rich!
From here I went on to the main highlight of Saqqara, the funerary complex of the 3rd Dynasty Pharaoh, Djoser. Very nice it is too! Well worth a visit. The complex which we believe was built for the Pharaoh by his Chief Architect (amongst many other things) Imhotep, ranks as the world’s first large stone built structure, the world’s first pyramid, contained the world’s first ever large scale columns, first ever stone columns, and at the the time of it’s construction, the largest building in human history (alas, a crown it wouldn’t wear for long). It’s probably an understatement to say Imhotep was a visionary and a genius. He was later deified, an honour few would argue he hadn’t well and truly earned. Djoser was very pleased with him too, to the extent that he had Imhotep’s name inscribed on a statue of himself (Djoser that is, not Imhotep) and lavished titles and honours upon him. When you look a the complex today, it’s not hard to see why he was pleased, either.
The buildings in the complex surrounding the pyramid are quite different to the temple complexes that were constructed around the later ones that followed. The pyramid (originally intended as a far more conventional and modest mastaba) lies at the heart of a complex designed to set in stone the mud brick and wooden world of the buildings used for celebrating the Heb-Sed festival in Memphis, as well as the more common temple for the royal funeral cult. Entering through the beautiful and smoothly carved temple façade you pass through colonnade that forms a kind of proto-hypostyle hall (indeed, this complex is ultimately the ancestor of the “archetypical” Egyptian temple right through to the Roman era, two thousand eight hundred years later) leading into a perimeter wall enclosing the complex that contained not only the Heb-Sed court, but the House of the North and House of the South. These temples for each of the patron deities of upper and lower Egypt symbolised that most eternal of Egyptian ideals, the Uniting of the Two Lands.
From a distance the step pyramid itself seems quite squat and small, especially compared to the vast monoliths of Khufu and Khafra at Giza, or the Red Pyramid at Dashur (which really is….perfect), but take time to approach it, and the true nature of the structure reveals itself. It’s innovation, the true impact of it’s original appearance (when you note the smoothness and colour of the casing stone courses around the bottom on the south side) and and it’s sheer scale – those little brick-like stone blocks begin to resemble rocks the closer you get.
The Heb-Sed court is a very strange thing indeed. Nothing short of a “petrified building” the complex is what Djoser and Imhotep (a truly amazing team if ever there was one) intended to achieve, the working of a full-scale funery model court for the Heb-Sed festival (that was made in mud brick and wood) that would last forever. Imhotep quite literally took wood and mud brick, and recast it in stone, down to imitation stone doors, hinges, roof beams and more. In the most literal sence, a building was petrified. These buildings were never used for any actual Heb-Sed, and were never intended to be. The religion of Ancient Egypt holds that models of things anyone may need in life be placed with them, so that in the afterlife they may become real, or actualised, in the other world and be used by the deceased. And so it was with Djoser’s Heb-Sed court. The ultimate funerary model was created. An entire ritual complex for the Heb-Sed’s without number that he would celebrate for all eternity.
Saqqara is a beautiful site. After this I walked up the Causeway of Unas to his pyramid. It seems unpromising at first, but it is well worth visiting the South and West sides to get an idea of just how impressive all these structures would originally have been, as this pyramid retains a lot of finished casing stones still in place. It also gave me further time to marvel at the culture of ignorance of modern hands from all over the world, in adding their own, rather sad, attempts at immortality to it’s flanks. Sadly, this was not the first chance I had in Saqqara to ponder this. The Heb-Sed court is littered with graffiti left by modern hands, a tragic and disheartening state of affairs indeed. However, back to Unas of Pyramid Texts fame (“Unas does as Unas is told!” – By Ra that is, commoners may get a different responce). The pyramid contains, in the chambers beneath, the most complete set of the Pyramid Texts yet discovered, carved in beautiful reliefs across it’s walls. Alas, it was closed!
This gave me time to stop for a while and really appreciate the location. Out here on the edge of the main site you really do feel a world away from Cairo, which remains visible amid the lushness of the fertile strip. Beyond the desert stretches away, punctured by the pyramid fields of Dashur in the distance. I wonder exactly what it was that first made this precise location in all the vastness of the western desert to build for eternity? Good stone? Proximity to the capital? Alignments? Or perhaps, like the mountaineers of modern time, just…because it’s there…
Saqqara Practicalities (Visitors Info)
Location: Around 40 mins south of Cairo by road.
Transport: Limited. No nearby towns and dispersed site make chartering a car a sensible option, but not cheap. Access by public transport is possible by bus (multiple changes) or by taxi. Taxi travellers will need to arrange for the taxi to wait as the chances of finding one for the return trip from Saqqara site is small. If you have good Arabic skills then public transport is much easier.
Costs: LE50 entry, LE5 vehicle permit, LE25 for additional “New Tombs” ticket. Imhotep museum is included in the main entry ticket as of Feburary 2008.
Times: 9am to 4pm daily, closing at 3pm during Ramadan.
Notes: I cannot leave this article without giving note to the drinks and snacks stall just before the main entrance by the road side (right hand side as you approach). These kind folks sell drinks to thirsty foreign tourists at LE3 per can, compared to the LE15 charged by the café at Giza Plateau. Considering the monopoly and remoteness of the location, this a fair and honest price if you haven’t brought any supplies with you. In Cairo supermarkets expect to pay around LE1.50 per can.