Journal: Sunday 19 January 2003
Jane left for England early this morning. Abdul drove her out to the airport at Heliopolis at 5.00am and Sam went with them to see her off safely, but I’d already said my goodbyes and I stayed in bed for the extra couple of hours, meeting up with Sam for breakfast. Sam and I had made tentative plans to go down to Tanis, in the Delta today, but when we checked with Abdul he told us that his taxi permit didn’t cover him for that area. After a brief discussion we decided that another day at Saqqara would be good – there was still enough to see there to keep us going for days yet. It was cold, dull and misty as we drove along the now familiar west bank road south of Cairo. We had a very scary moment when a truck almost wiped us out on the road near the Saqqara turnoff. It was one of those long overloaded flatbed trucks with a long trailer that we had seen tragically overturned on the desert highway towards Minya and it was hurting towards us on our side of the road, looking like the driver had lost control. There was nowhere for us to go because the steep drop to the canal was on our left and the oncoming traffic was on our right. Even now I’m not sure how Abdul avoided a collision because my eyes were tightly closed and I was thinking ‘Goodbye world’. But we somehow survived, thanks I’m sure to Abdul’s quick thinking and we were all silent the for rest of the drive.
When we arrived at the ticket office at Saqqara our friendly antiquities inspector Hasan Faoud was there and very kindly offered to escort us around, having missed us yesterday. I could get used to this privileged treatment. We went first to the mastaba tombs of Ptahotep and Ti, which I thought were closed, but the gafir was there and opened them up. To the west of the Step Pyramid, the tomb of Akhethotep and Ptahhotep, father and son, is a double mastaba dating to Dynasty V. They both held the important offices of Vizier among other things during the reigns of Djedkare-Isisi and Unas. This is a double tomb situated among a group of mastabas on the west side of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Akhethotep was ‘Chief Justice and Vizier’, and ‘Overseer of the Pyramid Towns and Inspector of Priests of the Pyramid of Niuserre, Menkauhor and Djedkare-Isesi’. His son, Ptahhotep, whose tomb is an annex on the southern side of that of his father, was also named as ‘Chief Justice and Vizier’, ‘Inspector of Priests of the Pyramids of Menkauhor and Djedkare-Isesi’ and ‘Inspector of Wab-Priests of the Pyramid of Niuserre’. In the first corridor the damaged remains of the painted walls include scenes of agriculture and fowling, watched by Akhethotep and his eldest son Ptahhotep as a child. There is a chapel dedicated to Akhethotep with many traditional Old Kingdom scenes, a false door and a serdab. Going through a small vestibule we came to Ptahotep’s part of the tomb, decorated with many scenes of industries, offerings and fishing and fowling and we could see Ptahotep with his own young son enjoying these pursuits. Many animals are colourfully and realistically portrayed in this tomb – leopards and lions, hyenas, antelopes, desert animals and domestic animals and birds. There are even two porcupines, one of which is eating a cricket. Ptahotep had two elaborately decorated false doors in his tomb and on the southern one the deceased is shown on the left side being carried in a sedan chair and on the right side seated in a kiosk. The reliefs in this tomb chapel are very beautiful with well-preserved colours.
Next we went into the nearby tomb of Ti, one that I had seen pictures from and have long wanted to see for myself. Mr Faoud had told us that we could take photographs here and I was delighted, although the tombs were very dark. Ti’s mastaba is very well preserved and the reliefs are magnificent with a lot of bright colour. Ti was an ‘Overseer of the Pyramids of Niuserre’, and ‘Overseer of the Sun-Temples of Sahure, Neferirkare and Niuserre’, making him a high-status official during Dynasty V and after visiting these sites a few days ago it was good to see the tomb of one of the people responsible for the monuments of those kings. It brought him to life. This tomb has been well restored and reconstructed and is known as probably the most beautifully decorated mastaba in the Saqqara necropolis. The tomb not only has superb reliefs, but the variety of subjects also makes it very interesting. The main part of the tomb has two large offering chambers at the end of a corridor and in the largest of these, where the roof is supported by two square pillars the most beautiful reliefs can be seen including musicians and dancers, agricultural activities and scenes of boat-building. The most famous scene and most beautiful is on the northern wall of the offering hall and depicts Ti standing on a papyrus boat presiding over a hippopotamus hunt. Papyrus stands erect behind the boat which floats on a swamp full of different fish. Ti is depicted with a dwarf and pet and there are scenes of marshland industries such as gathering papyrus and fishing. The colour here is beautiful. The southern wall has three restored apertures through which the serdab statue can be viewed. The serdab (statue hall) now holds a replica of the original life-sized statue (in Cairo Museum) – Ti would have communicated with the world of the living and witnessed his ritual offerings through these apertures and it was a little spooky to see him gazing back at me. While we were in the tomb a party of French tourists came in and had given the gafir a lot of baksheesh to take photographs. Fair enough – that’s how things work here. But I got really angry that they were using flash everywhere (definitely not allowed) and Mr Faoud was not saying a word, though he did apologise to us afterwards. This whole photography ban has supposedly come about for just this reason, because of people having no regard for the paintings and continuing to use flash which is said to destroy the the colours.
We came out of Ti’s tomb and walked past the ‘Philospoher’s Circle’ on the way to the resthouse. This is a curious semicircle of Greek statues set up by Ptolemy I as a wayside shrine and the best-preserved figures include Plato, Protagoras and Homer. It now stands below ground level and the pit was full of rubbish, making the shrine look derelict. After a welcome cup of coffee at the resthouse we went off to see the Pyramid of Userkaf and had a good look around Userkaf’s mortuary temple with its basalt paving still intact in places and its queen’s pyramid and satellite pyramid remains. Known as the ‘Ruined Pyramid’ because its limestone casing was removed in antiquity leaving it in poor condition, this was the first pyramid of Dynasty V and introduces quite a few non-traditional elements.
Hasan Faoud next took us over to the Unas pyramid complex and we examined the Khaemwaset inscription on the southern side of the pyramid. Khaemwaset was a son of Rameses II and priest of Heliopolis, who restored many of the Old Kingdom monuments, including those of Unas, 1000 years after they were built and who is sometimes referred to as the ‘first Egyptologist’. We also visited the nearby tombs of Unas-ankh, Inefert, the Persian shaft tombs and the Dynasty II tombs which are near the Unas complex. We met an Egyptian archaeologist who was working on the tomb of Princess Idut and with whom we had an interesting conversation. He was most apologetic that he couldn’t show us the tomb because there was a team of Italian archaeologists inside photographing it.
To the south of Unas’s Pyramid a little way out into the desert is the ‘Buried Pyramid’ of Sekhemkhet, Djoser’s successor. This structure seems never to have risen more than a few metres high and was previously unknown before Zakaria Goneim excavated it in the 1950s. All that remains today is the entrance trench on the northern side of the enclosure and a passage and burial chamber underground. Parts of a stone-built niched facade, like that which surrounds the Step Pyramid, could also be seen in places, representing the lower courses of an enclosure wall. The name of Sekhemkhet was found on seal impressions on vessels in the corridor which gave the identification of the pyramid’s owner. At the time of excavation, many precious objects of various materials were found and Goneim was convinced he had discovered an intact burial when he found a highly-polished alabaster sarcophagus in the burial chamber. It was carved from a single piece of stone and uniquely blocked at one end with a sliding stone panel plastered into position. The sarcophagus was opened on 26 June 1954 with great ceremony – but to the huge disappointment of the excavator and the crowd, it was empty. Zakaria Goneim’s sensational discovery of the ‘Buried Pyramid’ with its hoard of treasures ended in tragedy in 1959 when he committed suicide at the height of his career. Knowing this story and that there is a mystery surrounding the pyramid as to why it was never completed, made me feel sad to explore the remains.
Our day at Saqqara ended by once more walking down the Unas Causeway and back to the car park where we found Abdul fast asleep in the taxi. We thanked Mr Faoud the inspector, for his time and for sharing his knowledge with us and said goodbye for the second time. Sam and I had offered him a gift of substantial baksheesh for his trouble, but he flatly refused to take it. That has to be a first in Egypt!