Journal: Tuesday 26 September 2000
Early this morning Jenny and I were waiting outside the hotel for the taxi that we had arranged for a trip to Saqqara. We had asked the driver if he could take us first to Abbassiya so that I could get my antiquities pass and then on to Saqqara afterwards. Yesterday he had seemed keen for us to have the taxi for the day and said he would collect us from the Ciao Hotel at 8.30am. When by 10.00 the taxi still had not turned up, we were getting worried about wasting a precious day, so I decided to abandon the idea of getting to Abbassiya and we set about finding another taxi. At first none of the local drivers were willing to take us to Saqqara, but eventually we found one who said he would take us there. The old taxi looked reasonably roadworthy so we climbed into the back, settling back into the cracked red leather seat for the long drive. The driver, who said his name was Ahmed, turned around several times to grin at us, nodding his head and saying ‘Pyramids?’, to which we replied, ‘Yes, Saqqara pyramids!’. I didn’t take a lot of notice of the route, it was just too scary to watch the road as we weaved in and out of the fast-moving traffic, narrowly missing several other vehicles and pedestrians. To cut a long story short, we ended up at Giza, where the taxi pulled up and the driver again grinned and proudly said ‘Pyramids!!’ as though he had discovered them himself. This was not turning out to be a good day. It would seem that Ahmed had never heard of Saqqara and had certainly never driven there. By this time Jenny and I were determined to get to Saqqara today and after a lot of argument, persuasion and renegotiation of price, Ahmed reluctantly agreed to take us if I could tell him how to get there. I pulled out my trusty map and together we traced the route. How difficult could it be? As I remembered from my last visit there in 1995, it was a straight road south and turn off the road shortly after the Memphis (Mit Rehina) turn. At least we were now on the right side of the river.
Eventually we arrived at Saqqara without further mishap. Leaving Ahmed in the taxi with a spare bottle of our water, Jenny and I bought tickets and set out to see the site. We first walked around the Step-Pyramid complex, going in through the entrance which is the only doorway in a 10m high limestone wall, originally decorated with niches and false doors. Some archaeologists believe that the enclosure wall may have represented the earthly residence of the King and so the term ‘palace façade’ became used for this type of decoration and it is thought that the design imitates the wooden framework covered by woven reed mats which would have been used in earlier structures. The corridor of the entrance colonnade is lined with 20 pairs of engaged columns resembling bundles of reeds or palm ribs. This is one of the places where the challenging experiment of copying natural materials in stone is most evident. The columns were not yet trusted to support the roof without being attached to the side walls and the small size of the stone blocks used in the construction reflects the fact that previous structures were built from mudbricks.
Then we were in the open court before the Step Pyramid which rises magnificently above the plateau in a series of six stepped ‘mastabas’ and is surrounded by a complex of dummy buildings. Saqqara was the principal necropolis for the ancient city of Memphis where, from Dynasty I onwards, the Egyptian elite built their tombs. The area is best known today as being the site of the Step Pyramid, the first stone pyramid, built for a king of Dynasty III whose Horus name was Netjerikhet. The pyramid has been attributed to a King Djoser since the New Kingdom, but only the name Netjerikhet has been found on the monument. Several statue fragments were found in the entrance colonnade but the most important was a statue base (now in Cairo Museum) inscribed with the Horus name and titles of Netjerikhet and also with the name of a High Priest of Heliopolis and royal architect, Imhotep, to whom the construction of the complex is attributed. Imhotep, who may have been a son of Netjerikhet, was deified at a later date as a god of wisdom and worshipped as Asklepios, god of medicine, by the Greeks.
We investigated the dummy buildings, with their naturalistic-styled carvings that surely must be ranked among the finest ancient architecture in Egypt. We walked right around the pyramid to the mortuary temple and looked into the serdab, a tiny sealed chamber where a life-sized replica of Djoser’s statue can be see through a peephole. The King rests here on his throne, forever gazing out towards the northern stars and the land of Osiris. Climbing up over the southern enclosure wall, we arrived at the Pyramid of Unas, where the first Pyramid Texts were found, but unfortunately this was closed to the public, so we continued on down the Unas causeway.
At the end of the causeway we found the Old Kingdom tombs of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep (the Royal Hairdressers), Irukaptah (the Butcher’s Tomb) and Neferherenptah (the Birds’ Tomb) and visited all three. Back in the car park we found Ahmed fast asleep in the taxi, so leaving him to rest after his ordeal of driving us there we walked up to the pyramid of Teti, quite a distance away. Belonging to the first king of Dynasty VI, this is the most northerly pyramid at Saqqara and the only one open to the public. We went down the steep staircase leading into the subterranean chambers, where the walls are inscribed with columns of hieroglyphs, known as the Pyramid Texts. Following the example of Unas, they describe the King’s journey from the land of the living to the Netherworld, guiding the pharaoh successfully towards his eternal life with the gods. We found that Teti’s cartouche was easy to read among the beautiful rows of golden-coloured hierogyphs. Beneath a ceiling painted with stars, the base of Teti’s massive grey basalt sarcophagus still remains in the burial chamber but its lid was broken by robbers who plundered the tomb. The lower part, which is well-preserved, was originally decorated with gilded inscriptions (a single band of Pyramid Texts) and although unfinished, was the first sarcophagus known to be decorated.
The time went by far too fast, though we couldn’t leave without a quick look into the tombs of Mereruka and Kagemni. I could have spent hours there, but we really didn’t have time to do these large tombs justice. While I had seen them before, this was Jenny’s first visit to Saqqara and I was only sorry that we had to leave as the site was closing for the day. Poor Ahmed must have thought we had abandoned him and was quite agitated when we got back to the taxi. On the journey back to Cairo I realised why he had been so worried when we hit the rush-hour. We seemed to have been queued up for hours in the slow-moving traffic, breathing in the disgusting exhaust fumes from the surrounding vehicles. By the time he dropped us off at our hotel our driver was white-faced and looked exhausted and I’m sure he was telling himself that he would never give rides to tourists again. He didn’t ask us if we needed a taxi for tomorrow, but I didn’t think he had had such a poor deal, earning LE150 for five hours’ sleep.
Sharing a pizza later in a local cafe, Jenny and I decided that the trip to Saqqara, despite the day’s delayed start, had been well worth the hassle and all in all, Cairo was given a reprieve.