Journal: Sunday 17 December 1995
The high point of the day for me was our next stop, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Saqqara is the location of the principal necropolis of ancient Memphis, dating from the time of the foundation of the city. The site covers an area of 900 hectares, crowded with burials which span almost the whole period of Egyptian antiquity. The plateau contains a great number of massive tombs belonging to members of the first royal families and high officials from Dynasty I onwards. The name of the first ruler of unified Egypt, Narmer, whose tomb is at Abydos, further south, is also known at Saqqara. Many of the Early Dynastic rulers appeared to have funerary monuments at both Saqqara and Abydos and there is much debate between archaeologists about which site contained the actual burials of these rulers.
The most famous monument at Saqqara is the step pyramid complex of the Third Dynasty King, Djoser, which was thought to be the first large funerary monument constructed in stone and much of its architecture is based on the natural materials which had previously been used in the construction of royal tombs and temples. This is the monument most people come to visit, although there are many other pyramids, including those of Kings Userkaf, Teti and Unas. Many important officials resided in Memphis during the New Kingdom and although the kings of the period are known to have been buried at Thebes (Luxor), many of the elite constructed elaborate tombs at Saqqara. To the north-west of the Step Pyramid are the animal cemeteries, including tomb galleries of mummified baboons, ibis and falcons as well as the ‘Serapeum’ – underground galleries in which the sacred Apis Bulls were buried. From the Late Period onwards there were vast numbers of animals, including dogs or jackals and cats being embalmed and buried in huge catacombs.
The Step Pyramid itself, constructed by Imhotep, a great architect and magician who was revered throughout ancient Egyptian history, was not open to visitors because of its dangerous condition, but we wandered around the periphery looking at the incredible structures with intricately carved pillars and cornices that echoed in stone, the natural materials that the designs were based on. Elaborate friezes of cobras were carved on top of the walls surrounding the pyramid complex. From the top of the ridge we had a spectacular view across the desert, north towards Abusir, and Giza and south towards Dashur. I sat for a while looking over the desert and talking with one of the camel drivers, who told me his camel’s name was Whiskey. His own name was Ahmed, a sprightly old man with twinkling eyes set in a brown wrinkled and weathered face who wore a long grey striped galabeya and shawl, with a scarf wound around his head to keep off the blistering sun. Ahmed told me in his broken English that he had been working here at Saqqara for four decades and had seen many changes.
Our journey back to Cairo involved the traditional visit to a carpet factory. Hassan had been a good taxi driver and had been very patient with us all day, so we went along with the visit as it seemed to please him more than our tour of the monuments and no doubt he hoped to earn commission from any purchases we made. The carpet factory, in the village of Haranaya was in fact also a tapestry school where children as young as five were taught to create the intricate designs that had been woven for centuries. Their tiny fingers worked at great speed with multi-coloured skeins of wool and when they were older, they graduated to fine silks which shone with the colour of jewels. Often they did not even have a pattern to follow, having learned the design through years of practice. We were told, as we watched the children and admired their work, that it takes three months to create one metre of silk carpet, which was reflected in the prices of those gorgeous examples for sale in the gallery above.
We had had a lovely day and were very tired as Hassan drove us back to Cairo through the rush-hour traffic, relying, as he told us, on good brakes, good horn and good luck.