Sakkara and Dashur. Our second full day in Cairo took us to the origins of the pyramids. In terms of historical significance, Giza is the third iteration, with Sakkara being the first attempt and Dashur, the second.
Sakkara (or Saqqarah or Saqqara) contains the world’s first pyramid, a step pyramid, built around 4500 years ago by Imhotep, an architect for the 3rd Dynasty ruler, Djoser. Until this point, rulers and other nobles were buried under mastabas, which were mainly piles of rock. If I remember the documentary correctly, this pyramid started out much smaller, but because it was successful and finished relatively quickly, they opted to continue expanding in several stages. This initial success paved the way for the pyramids at Dashur and later at Giza.
Unfortunately, the pyramid itself was mostly covered in scaffolding and was not open to visitors. Apparently restoration has been on hold since the revolution, due to lack of funding, but is due to start again soon.
The southern part of the complex contains the colonnade entrance. In a surprisingly recurring theme of the trip, we had nearly all of this site to ourselves and were able to wander through some of the world’s first columns (albeit not free-standing) all alone. Most of the Egyptian columns we saw were meant to look like lotus or papyrus blooms, however these were modeled after tree trunks and considering they were 4500 years old, were in pretty good shape.
The pyramid complex itself contains several hours worth of structures to explore, with another pair of (ruined) pyramids, some tombs (complete with tip-demanding guards) and an impressive stone pathway leading from one of the other tombs.
Over at the other end of the Saqqara complex are tombs from the 6th Dynasty (~2300 B.C), when the area once again was a royal burial ground. The pyramid of Teti is open to visitors, although the mound above the tomb is pretty much destroyed. On this day, we opted to skip the guide and explore on our own, as our pace is generally pretty slow and a bit spastic when touring about. However, thanks to our fancy new German skills, we were able to eavesdrop a bit on a a German tour nearby.
The tomb itself requires a semi-long squatting duck walk down a long hallway and ends in three small rooms. Off to the right is the sarcophagus and the first writing found on a tomb’s walls, while the other rooms are relatively empty.
This was our first foray into a tomb or pyramid and I would say it was interestingly mediocre, with a touch of surprise that being underground did not mean the temperature was any cooler.
Pressing on, we left the handful of fellow tourists behind and made the short drive to Dashur. If Sakkara was quiet, Dashur was desolate. The site was only recently opened to the public, after being part of a military site for many years. The site is still bordered by military buildings and fences but requires no special permission to enter.
I’m not sure if tour buses don’t make it out that far, or if we just hit it during a lunchtime lull, but it was us, a handful of guards and (for the first 20 minutes) one other couple. I never expected so much private time with the pyramids.
First stop was the Red Pyramid, Pharaoh Sneferu’s third pyramid and first successful smooth-sided one. With a 43 degree angle, it rises slowly and steadily and claims an impressive amount of space at the base. It’s also the third largest pyramid, after Khufu and Khafre’s at Giza, making it tricky to photograph without taking a long desert hike. Coincidentally, the three largest Egyptian pyramids were built in three generations, with Sneferu and the Red, his son Khufu and the Great Pyramid and Khufu’s son Khafre with the other major Giza pyramid.
(Side note: The fact that all the monuments slant at an angle in the photographs is driving me nuts. I’m going to assume that perhaps they’re not still perfectly straight. Either that or we are completely inept at photography.)
As the pyramid is currently open to visitors, we opted to make the hike inward, half squatting, half slipping our way down the wooden ramp. The inside smelled of…pee. Perhaps it was ancient pee. Pee of the workers building such an impressive structure, lingering over thousands of years because someone forgot to air out the place before closing it up. Nonetheless, that is my lasting memory of the structure, which is unfortunate because there is some excellent engineering on the inside. In each of the three chambers, the roof was created by stepping the rocks inward and using their horizontal pressure to keep the structure stable. (I apologize for that terrible explanation. Just go look it up.)
Anyway. Continuing in completely wonky chronological order, we made our way to the Bent Pyramid, Sneferu’s second successful structure. This project began a bit over-ambitiously, with an initial rise of 55 degrees tapering to 43 degrees midway up due to instability. While it may not be the most traditional looking structure, it is massively impressive. Not to mention, we had the entire thing to ourselves and spent some time wandering around, wondering if we should have brought shovels in order to find treasure buried nearby.
Sadly, all I found was an abandoned pack of Egyptian tissues. I’m pretty sure they were not from the 4th Dynasty of Sneferu, but I held onto them just in case.
Thus ends our slightly surreal tour of the Egyptian Pyramids. To summarize the experience in case this got too long to read (from youngest to oldest):
*Giza. Incredibly large and incredibly impersonal. Plenty of tourists and a lot of hassle.
*Dashur. Excellent. Deserted. Inspiring. Exactly what a pyramid visit should be.
*Sakkara. Historical. Hassle free. Great combination of tombs, temples and pyramids.
Next stop: Luxor