October 14: The lonely necropolis (“city of the dead”) of Saqqarah and of Dashur boast the oldest pyramids and the first carved tomb hieroglyphics. Unlike at Giza, there were few visitors aside from ourselves and our guide, Bassem.
City of the Dead
In the ancient Egyptian religion, East is sunrise and life, and West sunset and death. The Pharaohs, divinity on earth, believed that after death, they would traverse underground and darkness with the sun, Re, to rise again. During their lives, they built mastabas (rectangular clay tombs) on the west (sunset) bank of the Nile to hold their body and also offerings to equip them for the journey. Around these were built a necropolis, which is Greek for “city of the dead”. The necropolis included temples and burial sites for nobles and family,
The First Pyramid
King Djoser, in about 2,650 BC, had a prosperous reign and wanted it to continue in the afterlife. So, with a clever chief priest/architect, Imhotep, he created the first pyramid. Djoser’s tomb, Faced with white limestone, was the first cut-stone structure on earth. It stands magnificently above the Nile, south of Cairo and across from the ancient capital, Memphis. The pyramid is part of a large walled necropolis complex where the king was “re-coronated” during his life and celebrated after his death. Later Pharaohs, not to be outdone, followed Djoser’s example for a thousand years, building pyramids and the accompanying cities of the dead up and down the west bank of the Nile.
While Djoser’s pyramid looks rough now, it was once cased in smooth white limestone, bright as the Washington Monument. Builders of Cairo pilfered the limestone 1000 years ago, leaving the pyramid in it’s current rough and bare state.
The Writing is on the Wall
Adjacent to Djoser’s Step Pyramid sits the Pyramid of Unas, built about 300 years later. On the outside, it is unimpressive – it looks like a melted pile. On the inside, however, it is remarkable. This pyramid has the earliest carved hieroglyphics, with faded paint still clinging in places. The writings are the “Book of the Dead,” instructions for the Pharaoh to traverse the afterlife and rise again.
The nobles’ tombs surrounding Una’s pyramid are even more interesting. These tombs are decorated with scenes of everyday life 43 centuries ago. Colorful 4,300-year-old paint highlights ancient Egyptians as they hunt, harvest, butcher, bake and pray. These walls do talk.
Bent and Smooth
After Saqqara, we drove to the necropolis at Dashur to see the next architectural evolution. In about 2,600 BC, Pharaoh Sneferu had a vision of a smooth-sided pyramid. Unfortunately, his first attempt, the Meidum Pyramid, collapsed during construction due to flawed design.
Undaunted, Sneferu tried again. His second attempt, the Bent Pyramid, was imperfect but stands still. It started with very steep sides. About ½ way up, the engineers noticed structural issues and, fearing another collapse, flattened the angle on the top, resulting in a “bent” shape. Not satisfied, Sneferu began again.
His third attempt, the Red Pyramid, succeeded. It was the first true pyramid and the third-largest ever built. It is, however, relatively flat, and as a result, stable. I guess the chief architect didn’t want to test the “3-strike” rule with the Pharaoh and so played it safe.
Inside the Tomb
We did climb inside the burial shaft of the Bent pyramid. It’s claustrophobic, hot, steep, and l-o-n-g. Quite frankly, there is nothing to see. It is not recommended!
If you want to go inside a pyramid, this is the place to go, though. Why? Because few tourists visit the site. There were only four of us inside the pyramid. If we had been at Giza, it would have been a horde. Even so, one guy climbing above us was shaking and panting. We feared he would collapse and knock us all down like bowling pins. So it was a relief to be back out in the sunshine!
As we left, we tried to imagine this impressive desert “city of the dead” as it once was, shining in white limestone. As remarkable as they are in ruins now, they would have been magnificent then. Pharaoh Sneferu’s children certainly took inspiration. Up the Nile in Giza, his son, Khufu, built the Great Pyramid, and his grandson Khafre the magnificent Middle Pyramid. These are the only pyramids larger than Sneferu’s first-ever true pyramid.
Next up – we head to Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, after his Greek army drive out the Persians that occupied Egypt.