Roughly an hour’s drive from Cairo International Airport is one of Egypt’s greatest ancient sites. It’s called Saqqara, a vast area in the middle of a rather desert-like landscape that was once filled with stunning ancient Egyptian art and architecture.
It’s the ancient necropolis of the city of Memphis, the capital of ancient Egypt, which was founded in 3000 BC by Menes. Saqqara contains a host of burial chambers and pyramids, and is the oldest complete stone building complex in history.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Saqqara is home to 11 major pyramids sprawled over 6 miles. In total, Saqqara’s many pyramids were built across 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian civilisation, including those of the Fifth Dynasty kings Userkaf and Unas, to the incredibly well-preserved Pyramid of Teti I, built by the first ruler of the Sixth Dynasty.
Some believe that Teti I, whose queen is also buried at Saqqara, was assassinated by his bodyguard.
At one end of Saqqara, you have the world’s oldest known pyramid: the Step Pyramid of Pharaoh Djoser I. Dating to the time of Old Kingdom Egypt, this Pyramid was constructed more than 4,500 years ago.
At the other end of Saqqara is a massive subterranean complex known as the Serapeum. This was the home of the Apis Bull cult that thrived in Egypt during the latter half of the 1st millennium BC.
Saqqara is still filled with historical treasures today, not least of which is the Serapeum, under which you can see massive 60-tonne granite sarcophagi – each in their own little chamber.
These sarcophagi were designed to house the mummified remains of a specially chosen bull – the representation of the god Apis. Many of them are unmarked, but on some you can see hieroglyphs indicating when, and by whom, certain sarcophagi were interred here. They vary from an Egyptian rebel king fighting against the Persians in the mid-4th century BC to the famous Cleopatra herself at the very end of Ptolemaic rule over Egypt in the 30s BC.
Not too far away from the complex’s entrance is a semicircle of Greek-looking statues that are often overlooked. Not much survives of them today, but they’re called the Philosopher’s Circle. Scholars have been able to identify a couple of these sculptures. The central, seated figure depicts the epic poet Homer. On one end of the semicircle, you have the lower half of a statue of Plato; on the other end, you have the remains of the Theban poet Pindar.
It begs the question: what were these limestone statues of famous ancient Greek poets and philosophers doing here, at Saqqara? They have been tentatively dated to the reign of Ptolemy I in the late 4th century BC. Could they have been marking the entranceway to a room? Perhaps, to the initial burial location of Alexander the Great, when Ptolemy brought his body to Memphis in 321 BC?
As a massive historic site, it can take hours to see everything at Saqqara. For those short on time, the best places to see are in the north, which contains the Serapeum, Djoser’s funerary complex, and the Mastaba of Akhti-Hotep and Ptah-Hotep.
There are numerous ways to tour Saqqara, including camel, horse and donkey tours available around the Step Pyramid.
Getting to Saqqara
Saqqara is located in Egypt, around 17 miles south of downtown Cairo. The best way to get there is via a privately hired car or taxi, and it is recommended that you hire either for the full day so you may get around each of the site’s attractions easily. Alternatively, a number of hotels and travel agencies offer tours of Saqqara, which are often accompanied by a professional Egyptologist.
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