Experimentation …that is what seems to result in many of the world’s greatest discoveries. From flight to medicine, cooking and more, we figure out great things through the process of simple experimentation. Also known by less favorable terms like trial and error, it can be a difficult experience, and that is probably what Imhotep, an ancient vizier to Egyptian pharaohs, probably felt about it. After all, it is he who is given credit for the Saqqara Step Pyramid, the very first pyramid built by these fascinating ancient people.
Also known as the Pyramid of Djoser (pronounced as Zoser by some), it is dated at over 4,700 years in age. It gets its name, the Saqqara Step Pyramid, because it is not a pyramid as most us would describe. Instead, it is built like a fancy cake with tiers or stepped layers leading to the top. It began as a classic “mastaba” tomb, which was simply a flat roofed structure with gently sloping sides. However, Imhotep began to experiment and expand the structure, evolving it into six layers built one atop the other.
Encompassing more than 11 million cubic feet of clay and stone, it also features around 3.5 miles of hidden tunnels within the structure itself.
Yet, it is important to note that the Saqqara Step Pyramid is not a monolith, standing in the desert all alone. It is part of a vast and visually stunning complex; the Saqqara necropolis that is nearby the city of Memphis. Just 12 miles from the Giza complex (home to the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx), it also features a collection of other structures and significant points of interest.
WHY IS THE SAQQARA STEP PYRAMID SO INTERESTING?
Apart from being the very first of the now famous Egyptian pyramids, the Saqqara Step Pyramid is considered one of the most important because it is the first large scale, cut stone structure in human history. It is also part of a beautiful and expansive complex. In fact, the Saqqara Step Pyramid sits at the heart of more than 35 acres of stunning scenery, architecture and design. There is a massive limestone wall over ten meters high surrounding the entire property with multiple false gates. The only entrance is at the southern end of the easternmost façade. This entry connects to the “South Court” via a stunning, roofed colonnade. At its end is a court for the famed Heb-Sed or simply Sed Festival, and a southern chapel and tomb that seem to map out the tunnels within the Saqqara Step Pyramid. Within are boundary markers, false or dummy buildings that include chapels and pavilions, many thought to be ritual in nature.
The pyramid is set at the northern side of the complex where the pharaoh’s mortuary temple is also located. Many of the decorative carvings and ceremonial structures surrounding the Saqqara Step Pyramid are considered to be some of the more stunning, including rows of cobras poised in protective stances in an alley at the base of the pyramid.
In fact, the sights include the necropolis, the Pyramid of Djoser, the Serapeum, pyramid of Teti I and necropolis with his nobles and officials, tombs of Mereruka, Kagemni, and Ankmahor, the pyramid of Unas (and the causeway leading to it), and an Old Kingdom mastaba belonging to Ti, and long considered one of the finest in Egypt. There is also a museum dedicated to Imhotep, and his many trial and error experiments over time. It contains five large halls displaying a tremendous amount of fascinating information and can only enhance your visit, not only to Saqqara but all of Egypt’s historical sites.
KEYS TO A GREAT VISIT TO THE SAQQARA STEP PYRAMID
If you are heading to this amazing location, there are several things to know to ensure the visit is the best possible. First is that visitors can no longer enter the pyramid due to a few safety issues. However, this should not diminish the experience of a visit to the complex as there is so much to see and do.
As we recommended to our visitors learning more about a visit to the Giza Pyramids, one of the wisest things to do is hire a guide. Experts agree hiring a trained Egyptologist will bring the site to life and offer knowledge of every corner of the location, even pointing out lesser known “gems” easily overlooked by a novice visitor. Guides can be part of a formal tour you pre-book or they can be hired upon arrival. The latter is not the best approach since language barriers, large group sizes and crowds of travelers can make it tough to find an authoritative and legal guide. Instead, to make the most of the visit, book a guided tour in advance of your arrival.
Fans of Egyptology will be thrilled to learn that the Pyramid of Unas (the final Pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty) is open to visitors and where fantastic examples of the famed Pyramid Texts are found in the central chamber. The pharaoh’s sarcophagus also remains and this part of the site can be an incredibly experience.
Nearby to this pyramid is the Double Mastaba of Nebet and Khenut (wives of the pharaoh). Classic mastabas, Nebet’s is beautifully preserved and contains a lovely court that features amazing decorative elements, including mural reliefs thought to be among the most unusual and beautiful in Egypt.
Another must-see in the complex is the Tomb of Mereruka for its detailed paintings of ancient daily life and many depictions of the Mereruka himself conducting his daily life, inspecting livestock and more. The Mastaba of Ptahhotep is also famed for its murals and their beautifully preserved colors. Lastly, the Serapeaum is essential as it still contains twenty of the sarcophagi of the famed Apis bulls’ mummies remain. Made of red or black granite, they are in a massive underground corridor and sure to be an unforgettable part of your visit.
The Mastaba of Ti is also one of the key parts of a visit to Saqqara and its Old Kingdome reliefs and overall design are considered one of the most appealing experiences at the site, and in Egypt itself.
MAKE THE SAQQARA STEP PYRAMID A MUST
Running more than four miles in length (from north to site), this complex has tombs from almost all periods of Egyptian history. It has been plundered over the ages and yet remains a place of great interest and value. While other pyramids and pyramid complexes seem to be built to last for all time, the Saqqara structures are some of the more fragile. It is believed that the Step Pyramid, without a lot of conservation and intervention, may collapse due to its fragility and degradation over the past four and a half thousand years.
At this time, the Egyptian government is working in cooperation with a British-based engineering firm to maintain and even restore the site. When planning a visit, it is a wise idea to find out the current conditions and which areas are open to visitors. Booking with a guide or through an organized tour is often the ideal way (many experts say the only way) to enjoy the best experience and see as much of this stunning property as possible.