The Road Less Travelled – The Other Pyramids of Egypt: Saqqara + Dahshur
I know there isn’t enough time to fit in everything when we travel, especially when we head to destinations rich in history. Egypt is one of those countries where visitors often have to choose between several – equally compelling – places. The four things that seem to be on every traveller’s list are the Pyramids of Giza, the Valley of the Kings/Queens, the Egyptian Museum and Khan el Khalili. While most of these places are worth the entry fee and hassle you’ll endure, there are many overlooked sites in Egypt that should really – in fact – be on everyone’s list.
The pyramids of Saqqara and Dahshur are two sites south of Cairo and they’re worth handing over half a day of precious holiday time to see. I’d even go as far to say that visiting Saqqara and Dahshur is 100 times better than spending a stuffy afternoon in the bowels of the horrifically organized Egyptian Museum.
I mean, why would anyone want to do that to themselves?
The Saqqara burial ground is the closest to Cairo, and home to the former ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis. Contrary to popular belief, the ruins of Saqqara are far older than those at Giza, as they were constructed between 2630 – 2611 BCE by the infamous architect Imhotep (tell me, how many of you can say “Imhotep” and NOT get a flash of an army of the undead trying to annihilate Brendan Frasier in The Mummy?). The most well known structure at Saqqara is the Step Pyramid of Djoser, a pyramid currently covered by scaffolding that archaeologists and engineers are working on restoring.
Though one can’t enter Djoser there is a newly minted museum to visit and several tombs worth exploring. One in particular, Serapeum of Saqqara, has been extremely well excavated and restored and is a sight to behold. Located north of the Step Pyramid the Serapeum was last resting place for the sacred Apis bulls (living manifestations of the Egyptian god Ptah). Because people believed that bulls (and many other animals) became immortal after death, they were often mummified and buried with members of the high court as a form of company and protection in the afterlife. Serapeum was incredible to walk through and my friends and I marveled at every nook and cranny, twist and turn. It must have taken tens of thousands of people years to build these tombs. I mean, special chambers were designed to make way – and hold – granite sarcophagi weighing in at almost 70 tonnes.
Now that’s a lot of animal love.
Southeast of Saqqara lies the pyramid field of Dahshur, one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites and perhaps one of my favourite places in Egypt. The three pyramids that undoubtedly catch your eye are the Red, Black and Bent. The Red Pyramid is deemed the oldest of the bunch and is the only structure that visitors can enter. Made of slightly reddish limestone, the pyramid is impressive to visit in the mid-late afternoon when the sun sinks low on the horizon. Apparently, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world when first erected and was also the world’s first successful attempt at constructing a “true” smooth-sided pyramid. Gazing up you can’t help but wonder how the hell people were able to make such structures and build them to last.
It takes your breath away.
The Bent Pyramid, on the other hand lies 2 kilometers south from the Red and was the second structure built by Pharaoh Snefru (the Red being the first). Many have speculated as to the curious shape of the Bent Pyramid with some positing that the builders got tired and wanted to finish their job faster by reducing the pyramid’s volume, while others suggest that the structure exemplifies the transition between step-sided and smooth-sided pyramids.
The best part of both Saqqara and Dahshur is that few tourists venture out to both sites (even before the 2011 uprising this was still the case). When we went last weekend there were probably only a hundred or so people at Saqqara and even less at Dahshur. It was so empty, in fact, that when we arrived at the Red Pyramid we were 12 of (maybe) 50 tourists there. We took opportunity of the low numbers (and because we can) to indulge in a picnic feast that would make the most finicky of Egyptian pharaohs proud.
Eating, talking, laughing and getting lost in the silence that blew through the majesty of the Red Pyramid and the funnily shaped Bent one, it was one of the best afternoons I’ve had in a long time. As the sun sat warm on my face and the sand gave way underfoot, it hit me that here I was: in Egypt! That Egypt, and while the cacophony and brackishness of Cairo gets to me (I fear it always will), the life that I’ve led here…well…it hasn’t been all that bad. It’s been quite a blessing in fact.
Seems I needed a handful of 70 ton sarcophagi and one rudely shaped pyramid to remind me of that.