Though relatively unknown and skipped by most travelers to Egypt, the Saqqara pyramids are quite incredible. In fact, the Saqqara pyramids predate the pyramids of Giza and the 4,700-year-old Step Pyramid is Egypt’s oldest surviving pyramid. It is approximately 200 years older than the Pyramids at Giza. How such an incredible site could remain relatively unknown for so long is questionable, but the fact remains, that Saqqara was under excavation for a long time. The recent findings of more than 100 intact wooden coffins with brightly painted scenes and hieroglyphs; well-preserved mummies inside and an astonishingly preserved nobleman’s tomb catapulted Saqqara into the limelight and these have been quite the findings of the century. Other discoveries included funerary masks and statues of the funerary deity Ptah-Sokar, all of which has untouched for nearly 2,000 years. The event was so important that the Egyptian Antiquities Department celebrated the press announcement by opening a coffin live on stage; X-raying the mummy inside; revealing the individual to have been an adult male, whose brain was removed through his nose as part of the embalming process. Now if that is not impressive, I don’t know what is.

This is the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara

Step Pyramid is the highlight of Saqqara

To understand the importance of the Saqqara pyramids, we need to realize the importance of the site. Located 40 km southwest of Cairo, Saqqara used to be one of the most important cemeteries of Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt. The site is quite a large one. It goes along the edge of the desert plateau for about 8 km. Abu Ṣir marks its northern boundary and in the southern boundary lies Dahshur. In 1979 the ancient ruins of Ṣaqqārah, Abu Ṣir, Dahshur, Abu Ruwaysh, and the Pyramids of Giza, were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. At Saqqara, one will find several tombs and artwork from the Old Kingdom. It is in fact the best place to discover and learn about Egyptian history that is older than the Pyramids of Giza. Although the area is dotted with several funerary temples and small square tombs (mastabas) of the kings and noblemen of the first and second dynasties, the most important site is the Step Pyramid of Djoser. In fact, it is so important, that every time someone mentions the Saqqara pyramids, it is Djoser’s pyramid, that springs to mind. The world’s oldest monumental structure entirely made of stone, Step Pyramid is dedicated to the third dynasty Egyptian king, Djoser (c.2686–2613 BC).

This is a site older than the Pyramids of Giza

A site older than the Pyramids of Giza

I like the Saqqara pyramids very much. They are, of course, less crowded, look older and more sedate, and there is a sort of rough quality about them. They seem to me in my eyes, like early trials and scribbles of a mathematical problem’s solution. However, it doesn’t mean that the Saqqara pyramids are ungainly. It is just that time has left more marks on them than their younger neighbours in Giza. Another thing that I like about the Saqqara pyramids is their setting. They stand in the midst of the gently undulating expanse of the Western Desert, far from the maddening urban crowds. The Pyramids of Giza sit bang in the middle 0f Cairo’s satellite city and there is no escape from crowds, noise, or traffic there. The city seems to have engulfed everything around them leaving the pyramids of Giza like an isolated island in midst of teeming millions. The Saqqara pyramids on the other hand enjoy splendid solitude. The only signs of human settlements around them are date farms and sleepy little hamlets. As you drive by an ancient Nilotic canal towards the Saqqara pyramids, you seem to leave Cairo far behind. The wide road is bordered by agricultural fields and one finds endless farmers riding on donkeys trundling down the highway. As you get closer to the site, even this seems to fall away and only huge tracts of date plantations can be seen. Their tall skinny trunks spiral towards the sky and their feathery green leaves shade the alfalfa grass that grows richly on the ground. Farmers in galabeyas toil in their fields as their women cook, shop, mind children, and look after the household in general. At the beginning of the site, however, even these cannot be seen and one’s eyes are met with only endless acres of empty golden desert.

The lesser known Saqqara Country Club

The sun shines stronger here and the lack of shade dazzles the eyes. One can immediately recognize Saqqara as a site that is still being excavated and it adds to the thrill of the place. Most people enter the site from the main gate and drive up to the Djoser Pyramid. The other secret way is through the Saqqara Country Club. It is a sprawling dilapidated, yet charming country club that lies at the edge of the desert, not far from the pyramids. Service is slow there and the food is mediocre. The club, however, has a lot of pros. It has a rich, wildly flowering garden, a pool that is a blessing in summer, and a very famous stable. Horse riding is offered at Saqqara Country Club and at sunset, one can even ride all the way to the Saqqara Pyramids. It is all empty quarters there and you can gallop, canter, or trot in any direction as you may please.

Saqqara, the burial ground of Memphis

Incidentally, although, the Saqqara is an empty place right now, it was not so for more than 3,000 years. Findings at Saqqara have revealed a wealth of information on a wide time frame in ancient Egypt’s history – from the Late Period (664-332 B.C.) and the Ptolemaic period when Greeks ruled as Pharaohs (305-30 B.C.). It is believed that during this period, Saqqara had more importance than a cemetery. It was a renowned pilgrimage site. The fact that even then, monuments such as the Step Pyramid were already thousands of years old, made people believe these were burial places for gods. Hence, they wanted to be buried close by. Saqqara’s importance, however, as a burial site ebbed and flowed with time. While kings of the fourth dynasty chose the Giza Plateau for their funerary monuments, kings of the fifth and sixth dynasties returned south to Saqqara to construct their pyramids and most of their high officials’ tombs.

New discoveries of the Old Kingdom

Today, it is a site in Cairo that is worth exploring. Go there with a good, well-informed guide and Saqqara will reveal a history that is older than the Pyramids of Giza. Walk through the sites and you will find yourself traveling through time: from one era to another. The earliest remains at Ṣaqqara are located at the northernmost end of the site. Here, one can find the noblemen’s tombs of the earliest dynasties. Locally known as mastabas, these are large mud-brick tombs. South of the early dynasties’ cemetery lies the Step Pyramid complex. It belongs to Djoser, the second king of the 3rd dynasty. This king had a very smart architect Imhotep. In order to please the king with a novelty, Imhotep presented Djoser with a plan for a new form of burial structure. It was laid out into six stages and was shaped like a pyramid. After Djoser’s complex lies the pyramids of some of the most important rulers of the Old Kingdom. These kings belonged to the 5th and 6th dynasties and the most famous pyramids include the pyramid of Unas. Additionally, Saqqara is also full of the tombs of the noblemen of this period. These are wonderfully preserved and decorated with scenes and texts of great beauty and craftsmanship. The most fantastic feature is that despite being thousands of years old, these tomb paintings have maintained their vivid colours.

Relics of other faiths in Saqqara

Among the most important of Saqqara’s monuments is the Serapeum. It is like a huge underground vault that has a series of galleries in which the Apis Bulls were buried from the 18th Dynasty (c.1550–1295 BC) to the Ptolemaic Period (332–30 BC). Apis Bull was considered an incarnation of Ptah, one of the most important gods of Memphis. These were very sacred religious animals. Hence when they died, they were buried with full honors here. Funnily enough, Egyptian Coptic history can also be seen here and there are remains of the Monastery of Apa Jeremiah, which was in use until the 10th century AD. Long story short, Saqqara is like a massive history book that is densely packed with important Egyptian eras and their doings. To get a grip, I suggest stopping over at the onsite Imhotep Museum before starting your tour. The wide variety of exhibits will give you an idea of the site’s immense immense chronological span and you will feel less lost in time.

Saqqara Pyramids Travel Tips

Pros and Cons

Saqqara was the burial ground for the royals and noblemen of Memphis, the ancient capital city of Egypt. So many kings, queens, royal kin, and noblemen are buried here, that the area can be correctly termed a necropolis and the pyramids found here are older than those at Giza. So quite understandably, Saqqara is a very interesting site to visit especially if you are keen on ancient history. However, owing to its popularity as a burial ground, the overall area of Saqqara is both huge and very densely packed with tombs, funerary temples, and pyramids. Not all of them belong to the same era or dynasties and there are no clear chronological demarcations. Most visitors quickly find their heads spinning with too many names, eras, and dynasties, and the lack of proper facilities does not make the experience easier. Add the fact, that not all tombs are always open and there is no updated information on which are accessible and which are closed. Moreover, there are no maps on site. The best way to explore and experience Saqqara to the fullest is with a good professional guide. However, one can, with proper information and awareness, also explore Saqqara alone.

Orientation of the site

Saqqara can be broadly divided into three zones: Central, Northwest, and Northeast. The largest of the zones, the Central Zone consists of the famous Step Pyramid Complex, the Unas Pyramid, its causeway, its surrounding tombs, and the New Kingdom Tombs to the south. Once you reach the entrance of the Step Pyramid, the entire Central Zone can be explored on foot. Alternatively, you can hire camels or donkey rides. Parking areas are available in all three zones. The Northwest and Northeast zones are accessible by car. Lying beyond these three zones are the Imhotep Museum, the Bubasteion Tombs, and the Userkaf Pyramid.

Recommended Guide on visiting Saqqara

Saqqara is open daily from 0800 hrs – 1700 hrs in summer and from 0900 hrs – 1600 hrs in winter. There is not much shade in the vast site and I recommend starting early. Begin at the Imhotep Museum to get a grip on what you are going to see. Then go immediately to the Step Pyramid, explore the complex and then return the same way. Now go left around the enclosure wall to reach the Wenis or Unas Pyramid. This walk will take you past the tombs of Mehu, Idut and Unas Ankh, and Inefert. If you wish to explore the beautiful tombs of Irukapta and Khnumhotep, then you must continue walking east on the Unas Causeway. Near the eastern end, lie the excellent tombs of Irukapta and Khnumhotep. However, there is no guarantee that these will be open. In that case, you simply have to backtrack. Return to the parking area and drive over to the Northwest Zone. This area contains the famous Serapeum, the Mastaba of Ti, and the Tomb of Ptahhotep. After you are done, drive over to the Northeast Zone to see the Pyramid of Teti, the tombs of Mereruka, Kagemni, and Ankhmahor.

Entrance Fees and other costs

  • Entrance Ticket: 180 EGP, 90 EGP student with a valid ID
  • Camera Ticket: 300 EGP
  • Vehicle Parking Fee: 10 EGP

Things to know before you visit

  • Saqqara site is large, hot, and dusty. You should be prepared for winds, harsh sun, and dust.
  • The toilet facility is available on-site and at the Imhotep museum.
  • Make sure to carry water and snacks.
  • Use plenty of sunscreens and wear hats or caps.
  • Carry your own toilet paper or wet wipes.
  • Remember that most tombs are closed at noon and you will have to find a caretaker to open them for you. He will expect a small tip or a baksheesh as it is locally called.

Painting inside the tomb of Mehu

What to see at Saqqara

  • Imhotep Museum and the Step Museum of Djoser
  • Unas Causeway Area and Unas Pyramid
  • The tomb of Mehu – the most colourful tomb in Saqqara
  • The tomb of Idut – for beautiful reliefs
  • The latest and the most stunning tomb of Irukapta
  • The tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, manicurists of a 5th dynasty king

Inside the tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum    PC Wiki

The New Kingdom Tombs

  • The tomb of Horemheb
  • The tomb of Maya
  • The tomb of Pay and Raya – well-known for its noticeable sarcophagus

Relief seen inside the tomb of Horemheb

The Northwest Zone

  • The Serapeum – the cemetery for the holy Apis bulls

The Northeast Zone

  • Tomb of Kagemni near the Pyramid of Teti – famous for a beautiful relief of balancing acrobats
  • Tomb of Ankhmahor – the royal physician’s tomb containing medical reliefs including that of men being circumcised
  • Tomb of Mereruka

Depictions of men being circumcised inside the royal physician, Ankhmahor’s tomb

Inside the tomb of Mereruka in Saqqara

Scene from daily ancient Egyptian life depicted inside the tomb of Kagemni

The rural beauty surrounding Saqqara

This is how Saqqara actually looks like

This is the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara

Saqqara is a site that is still being excavated

Inside the tomb of Irukapta, the latest find at Saqqara

P.S – This blog post is part of the weekly series called the Cairo Chronicles. Every week, Maverickbird will try to focus on a new theme, emotion, and beauty of expat life in the exciting, maddening city of Cairo.

Follow the rest of the Egypt series here