Journal: Friday 17 January 2003
Still on the pyramid trail, this morning saw Sam, Jane and I following the road out of Cairo in Abdul’s taxi to Dahshur, a little to the south of Saqqara. The Dahshur necropolis actually borders onto South Saqqara and until 1996 this area was closed as it was in a military zone, but is now open to tourists and contains two Dynasty IV pyramids of Snefru. We saw his first ‘practice’ pyramid at Meidum a few days ago. Leaving the main highway we crept along the military road to the pyramid site but could see nothing except a thick white mist. Snefru’s Red and Bent Pyramids are quite close to the track but even so we could not see them. A brief discussion led us to the excuse to go and have a coffee and we went back to Dahshur village and sat in a coffee shop for an hour waiting for the mist to clear.
Once the sun got through, the mist burned off quickly and we drove back to the site. Snefru was the father of Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza and I had the impression that after his father’s several tries at the art of pyramid building, Khufu eventually got it right. Snefru’s first monument here was the ‘Bent Pyramid’, named because the original angle of construction was too steep and it had to be altered along the way producing a curious bend two-thirds of the way up. Some of the smooth casing stone on this pyramid still remains on its sides and it is a good example of how these monuments would have originally looked. We walked around all four sides, looking at the entrance half-way up the northern side and investigating the mortuary temple on the east side. This funerary temple was constructed mostly from mudbrick, but there is a lovely limestone offering table in the form of a hetep symbol which was flanked by two round-topped monolithic stelae, similar to Snefru’s chapel at Meidum, but only the stumps of these remain in situ. On the southern side of the Bent Pyramid is a smaller satellite pyramid, still in quite good condition. To the north-east is the pyramid causeway and we walked the length of this down to the remains of the Valley Temple, currently being restored, which is one of the best examples I’ve seen.
Snefru’s second monument at Dahshur, about 4km to the north of the Bent Pyramid, is known as the Red Pyramid and was built to a less ambitious plan. On this third attempt he got it right and the Red Pyramid looks a more typical pyramid shape. It is called ‘Red’ because of its central core of a reddish limestone, though it would once have been encased in gleaming white casing stones. On its eastern side there are the remains of a mortuary temple which seems to have recently been restored and a capstone or pyramidion found here has been pieced back together and placed on a brick plinth. A plan of the temple has been reconstructed by the German archaeologists from the scant remains, which included a fragment of a pink granite false door stela, fragments of a sed-festival relief and remains of mudbrick store-rooms. The temple also contains several tree pits that I found very interesting. Although the pyramid was open to the public, a couple of tour buses had just arrived and I used the long queue at the entrance as an excuse not to go inside. I really don’t like being inside pyramids and feel very claustrophobic with the thought of all that stone above me – not to mention the stench of bats that usually permeates the underground chambers. Sam feels the same and Jane didn’t seem bothered one way or the other. Stopping by the road we could look across the desert to see the pyramids of South Saqqara in the distance.
By Mid-day the sun was shining brightly and we got back into the taxi for the short drive to Saqqara. Although Sam and I didn’t have specific permission to visit South Saqqara, which isn’t generally open to visitors, we went to see the antiquities inspector and he agreed to show us the site. Our letter from Zahi Hawass’s office seems to be opening many closed doors on this trip, even though we usually have to argue our case. Mr Hasan Faoud the inspector, showed us over the pyramid complex of Pepy I, where there were many more remains than I had expected. Although not the earliest, Pepy’s Dynasty VI pyramid was the first one found to contain pyramid texts, but the structure itself is now quite ruined and looks like a low hill of rubble. The extensive mortuary temple and queens’ pyramids however were beautifully restored. Since the 1980’s six queens’ pyramids have been found buried here, the most found in any pyramid complex. It’s a fascinating place to wander around and there are several colourful reliefs on fragmentary blocks on display between the low mudbrick walls of the temple complex. The golden light of the afternoon sun produced long shadows and was perfect for taking atmospheric pictures.
To the south we could see all the way to Dahshur and to the north, from a rise we could see the Saqqara Step Pyramid of Djoser. We walked further south across the sands to the pyramid of Djedkare-Isisi, the Dynasty V king who was the first ruler to build his pyramid at South Saqqara and from there we could also see the destroyed pyramid of Merenre and in the distance, the ruined pyramids of Pepy II, Ibi, Kendjer and the huge mastaba of Shepseskaf, the so-called ‘Mastabat el-Faraun’ a few kilometres away.
We’ve had a really lovely day seeing many new sites, but it was time to get back to Cairo, once again hitting the rush hour. Later in the evening we went out to eat at a quite famous vegetarian restaurant called Felfela on Tal’at Harb, where the food, though not cheap, was very good. Afterwards we wiled away several hours at a new coffeeshop in a big modern mall that seemed to be the ‘in’ place to go amongst the trendy youth of Cairo. I have to admit that I found the volume of the massive television screens around the walls showing music videos and the shouting of many voices trying to make themselves heard all a bit much and was glad when we decided to leave, proving that maybe I’m not so young and trendy anymore.