First things are always special…first school, first rain, first love! When you see something for the first time after waiting for long period it becomes more special. Before arriving to Egypt we thought, the moment we land in Cairo, pyramids will be in the horizon to welcome us and we found nothing but disappointment while going to Cairo city from the airport. So we planned for a grand pyramid hopping on the very next day.
So, as per the plan, we visited the ancient burial complex of Saqqara, and finally we started to be soaked in the charm of an antique land. This is a huge funerary ground lied near Memphis, the ancient capital and it consists of several pyramids and tombs of the members of royal families and high officials from different eras (from old kingdom to Ptolemaic period)
Step Pyramid of King Djoser
Being the first built pyramid as well as the first stone-made monument of the world, this Step Pyramid, needless to say, dominates the whole area of Saqqara. Imhotep, the first genius recorded in world’s history was the mastermind behind this unprecedented task. He was a vizier and the chief architect of Pharaoh Djoser and was instructed to build a massive memorial for his master. Earlier days, late Pharaohs were buried under Mastabas (flat-roofed rectangular structure with outward sloping sides) made of mud-bricks or stones. Imhotep modified this idea by placing six stone-made square-shaped mastabas one upon another, from bigger to smaller, resulting a pyramid like structure.
This pyramid was enclosed by a wall made of soft Tura limestone and we had to make our way through a grand colonnade. The columns were designed so neatly and preserved so well, that it was hard to believe that everything was constructed almost 4600 years ago!
Imhotep did magic with limestone. On one side of the premises, we saw another masterpiece of limestone, a courtyard, built for the purpose of Heb-Sed, an ancient festival to celebrate the continuous rule of a pharaoh.
Here, we come in front of the Step Pyramid! Our first Egyptian pyramid! Any first experience is always very special and takes place in permanent memory. A very few numbers of tourists were there and nobody was watching us. We started to jump out of joy and saw horse and camel owners coming towards us. It was another first experience. From that moment, we had learnt how to deal with these pushy people, who were everywhere, in every popular historical site of this country.
The Step Pyramid of Djoser cannot be, rather should not be compared to Giza pyramids, the epitome of accuracy. It is the predecessor of all other pyramids of the world and that’s why its role in human’s history is unparallel. We were sad to see the poor condition of the back side of the Step Pyramid. To prevent from collapse, iron supports were set and work of restoration was going on. Hope, human’s first attempt of making colossal stone building, even though to house a dead one, will remain alive ever.
The burial complex of Saqqara spreads over a large area and here and there huge mounds of soil were seen. Initially we thought them as natural formation, but later found door on them. Actually all of them were pyramids, whose smooth surfaces had been eroded with times. They were mostly locked and we could visit only two of them.
At first, we entered inside the pyramid of Teti, the first Pharaoh of the sixth dynasty. It is situated to the north of the Step Pyramid, near the ticket counter. The short passage-way leading downwards to the inner chambers is one of the least difficult for visitors to enter. Here, for the first time, we saw hieroglyphics. That mysterious pictographic script of ancient Egypt was everywhere, on almost every wall of the chambers, apart from the ceiling, where numerous stars had been engraved.
Our next venture was inside the pyramid of Pharaoh Unas, immediate predecessor of Teti. This is situated south of the Step Pyramid. It was special for the initiation of pyramid text, as hieroglyphics were not found in any other pyramid, made before. A large sarcophagus was kept inside the main burial chamber and the walls around it were gorgeously decorated with colorful geometrical motifs. In some parts the colors like red, blue, yellow, green, black had been restored already.
Tombs of vizier Mereruka and vizier Kagemni were nestled just opposite to the pyramid of their master Teti. The first one, though worth-visiting was closed during our visit.
We stepped into Kagemni’s mastaba and got spell-bound! It was like a time-traveling to old days. All of its rooms were beautifully decorated in bas reliefs showing the common men and their struggle for existence. One can spend an entire day in this tomb exploring all details engraved. Some of the common scenes as we observed are like:
- Offering procession – Here, Kagemni himself is seen receiving offering and his figure is larger in size compared to his countrymen to highlight his higher position. People are carrying baskets full of fish, meat, animal heads and crops on their heads. One hand is holding the basket and the other one is carrying different items like drinks, flowers, bunch of papyrus sticks, killed geese, cubs of various domestic and wild animals etc. Some of them are entertaining Kagemni by dancing with rods in their both hands.
- Fishing and hunting scenes – Several different methods of catching fish, including the use of clap nets, trawl nets and multi-hooked rods are displayed. Even they are seen hunting big hippos from the boat. The boats are engraved with absolute intricacy. Here, underwater creatures are visible and different species of fish, distinct from each other are seen along with crocodiles and hippos indicating the fact that all these creatures were found in the river of Nile during the time of old kingdom. In a relief we noticed a hippo fighting with a crocodile. Goose was very common bird for hunting and we saw countless geese everywhere.
- Presence of papyrus – Now-a-days, papyrus is extinct in Egypt and found only in central Africa. But we saw buds of papyrus, which is a grass like plant emerging from the water in many panels, proving their existence in ancient Egypt.
- Husbandry – The scenes like stock breeding, plough using multiple cows, storage of crops were very common to see.
- Preparation of food and drinks – People are seen peeling skins of animals and cutting out flesh from their bodies. Legs of cows are kept tied with ropes for imminent killing. On a relief we noticed a goose being forcefully fed. Was it a preparation of ‘foie gras’,a goose-delicacy! Probably. One room was full with stone reliefs showing different methods of preparation and storage of drinks. Drinks were kept in huge jars and to bring those jars from one place to another, people were seen pulling them with the help of ropes.
A special feature of Kagemni’s tomb is the presence of a sealed statue chamber to house the statue of Kagemni. Hieroglyphics were engraved on the sealed door.
We came out from that tomb. There are several other tombs but, all of them are intentionally kept locked by the tomb-guards. It is an open secret. They usually approach to the independent visitors and assure them to unlock the tombs in return of Bakshhesh(tip). We, with the hope of seeing more tomb-reliefs spent some extra money in this way and visited four other tombs. They were not so big like Kagemni’s one and the depth of bas-reliefs were also less compare to the previous tomb, resulting less prominent engraving. The scenes were almost similar in nature, though some of them are still found colored; especially the portions covered with red colour remain intact. Interesting features as we explored are like:
- In one tomb, we found two rock-cut statues along with a half-length one.
- Thousands of birds of different species, like geese, ducks, cranes, egrets, ibises are engraved on one wall signifying the presence of migratory birds during that period.
- In one relief we noticed numerous birds had been caught in a hexagonal trap and it became so heavy that 3-4 people were struggling to pull the trap with a rope.
- Scene of a ruthless punishment like cutting one’s male organ was engraved on a relief. Group attack on a lady was also found in the same tomb, revealing the dark sides of their life.
- We noticed two scholars writing something, sitting in front of their writing desks and the desks were full with books.
During our stay in Egypt, we had visited several highly decorated royal tombs and temples where Kings, Gods and Goddesses are engraved on, but due to our limited knowledge on Egyptian history and mythology, those reliefs did not create much impact on us. History is always silent about the common men, the real builder of human civilization. Here, in these tombs of Saqqara we could see how did they look like, dress, earn their bread and treat their masters. Irrespective of time and place, these common men work and their struggle for life continue in same pattern. One should not be an Egyptologist to interpret these stories. That’s why these tombs were our favourite.
- Saqqara is located some 32 kms south of Cairo. To reach there, one can hire cab from Cairo or take a day trip with any tour operator that includes the visit of Saqqara, Dahsur, Memphis and Giza.
- There is only one single ticket for all pyramids and tombs of Saqqara.
- The ticket counter is close to the pyramid of Teti. So, first you go there, buy your ticket, visit the pyramid along with the tombs of Mereruka and Kagemni, and then proceed towards the Step Pyramid by car (no need of walking). Your cab driver may try to misguide you or make you skip the tombs and pyramids apart from the Step Pyramid, so let them know that you have sufficient idea about this place and make clear deal before hiring cab.
- The owners of camels and horses will try to convince you that there exist a lot of tombs and pyramids and you should take their animals to explore them. Remember that most of them are kept closed and every time you have to tip the tomb-guard to visit inside. So, keeping your budget in mind, decide what to do.
- Outdoor photography is permitted and it is free of cost. You are not allowed to take photograph inside any memorial, although the guards, in return of baksheesh may let you do so, though it is illegal.
- There is a place for burial of mommies of cows in the same complex, called Serapeum. Due to lack of time we couldn’t visit that, but according to our research that’s a place worth visit.
Wander with Reshmi & Saikat