Page update - Aug 30, 2023
Saqqara is the largest burial complex in Lower (Northern) Egypt, not far from the ancient capital, Memphis. It is one of the largest archaeological sites in the country and sealed tombs are still found there. Sadly, Saqqara is low valued by the Egyptian tourist industry, although there is much to see and do.
The big news! In March 2020, Saqqara's main monument, the pyramid of Djoser, reopened to visitors. The restoration is over and you can now see everything interesting inside. The necropolis was closed almost immediately due to a coronavirus, but it quickly reopened.
And more good news! Since September 2021 the Southern Tomb near the pyramid has been open after renovations. We can say that the restoration of the entire funerary complex is complete. It's high time to go and see Saqqara.
The official version is that the name Saqqara comes from the name of the ancient Egyptian god Sokar. More often the name of this god is pronounced as "Seker".
Sokar (Saker) was the god of the afterlife in Memphis. He was worshiped in the Ancient Kingdom until his cult was gradually replaced by that of Osiris.
There is one important feature of ancient Egyptian writing. Ancient hieroglyphs depict only consonantal letters, and there are simply no vowels in the inscriptions. All vowel letters are added by Egyptologists themselves, proceeding from experience and their understanding.
We cannot tell exactly how any word was read. Therefore, both versions of "Seker" and "Sokar" have equal rights to exist.
Of course, it is advantageous for Egyptians to support this version, as it is more attractive to tourists. Egyptologists also prefer the more romantic version of the ancient god. But there is a more plausible version about the origin of the name 'Saqqara', it comes from the name of the local Berber tribe 'Beni Saqqar'.
There are many historical sites in Egypt, but they all relate to a specific period. For example, if you go to the Karnak Temple, you will notice that its elements are in the same style of the New Kingdom era. The Egyptian Pyramids of Giza all look alike, it's the Ancient Kingdom era.
Saqqara preserves monuments of all dynasties from the 1st to the 31st and also of the Hellenistic period of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. It is the only such place in the world. The Cairo Museum has exhibits of all dynasties, but they are artifacts, not monuments.
Some burials at Saqqara date back to the I and II Dynasties of the pharaohs, suggesting that the burial complex originated in the pre-dynastic period. Until the 27th century BC, it was the burial place of the noble and wealthy citizens of the city of Memphis.
Pharaoh Djoser of the Third Dynasty was the first Egyptian pharaoh to start building a royal tomb at Saqqara. Before him all pharaohs were buried in the city of Abydos.
He has built Egypt's first large pyramid, which has survived to our days. It is Djoser's Step Pyramid that is the main local landmark.
After Djoser, the IV Dynasty pharaohs built pyramids further north from Saqqara on the Giza plateau. The pyramid of Khufu, the pyramid of Khafre, and the pyramid of Menkaure are familiar to all tourists. The Saqqara necropolis has been temporarily forgotten by pharaohs.
After Pharaoh Menkaure, the rulers of the V and VI dynasties again built the pyramids at Saqqara. We do not know the reasons for these changes in fashion for the location of the tombs, as very few written sources remain from the Ancient Kingdom. A total of 16 pharaohs were buried in Saqqara, possibly more.
In later periods of Egyptian history, Saqqara was the necropolis of the nobles. Horemheb, who was the military commander under the pharaoh Tutankhamun and later become a pharaoh, had his tomb built there. After Tutankhamun's death the power was usurped by the courtier Aya, and Horemheb deposed him. However, Horemheb made himself a new tomb in the Valley of the Kings, but his wives are buried at Saqqara.
In all eras of ancient Egypt, the rich and noble Egyptians were buried at Saqqara. As a result, the necropolis has grown to a record size of 4x1 miles (6x1.5 kilometers). But new tombs were not always built. During the Ptolemaic era, new sarcophagi were placed in old tombs.
Archaeologists are now actively working at Saqqara. The tombs almost always contain mummies from both the Old Kingdom and other eras. Old Kingdom mummies look absolutely ghastly. Often they are not even mummies, but their remains, torn to shreds.
Saqqara was completely looted in the early 2nd millennium BC during the First Intermediate Period. The looters were looking for amulets of precious metals in the shrouds of the mummies and were 'unceremonious'.
At Saqqara, several intact tombs of the Ancient Kingdom have been found with intact mummies. Such finds are great fortune and instantly become world famous. Of course, such a "catch" as in the tomb of Tutankhamun was not found in Saqqara, but some findings are of great value to science.
The most famous find among Egyptologists is the Saqqara Kings List of 58 pharaohs of ancient Egypt. It lists kings from the 1st to the 19th dynasties. This list is incomplete, but it has given us much to determine the chronology of Egyptian history.
First of all, Egypt's first great pyramid, where you can really wander around the many rooms inside. It's a unique pyramid and a unique experience, as the Great Pyramids at Giza only have narrow passageways, nothing more. Unfortunately, it is not so easy to get inside the main chambers.
In addition to the pyramid of Djoser, there are pyramids of the pharaohs of the V and VI dynasties, they are smaller in size. The biggest of them is the pyramid of pharaoh Unas (see the photo near, click on photo to enlarge).
All these pyramids were built not from stone blocks, but from rubble with clay. Blocks from limestone were still used, but not as the basic building material, but for giving a beautiful appearance.
All these pyramids look sad now. Many tourists do not even go to see them, paying more attention to the temples, mastabas, and the museum.
Surrounding the pyramid of Djoser is a large burial complex covering an area of 36 acres (15 hectares). On the north side of the pyramid, you can see a small structure called the 'serdab'. Through openings in this building gifts were brought to the deceased pharaoh.
Inside is a statue of Pharaoh Djoser. This is a copy but the original can be seen in the Cairo Museum. This statue is the first full-length Egyptian human sculpture. It was found there during an expedition in 1924-1925.
The complex was enclosed by a 34.5 feet (10.5 meter) high wall, which is now almost completely destroyed. In some places this wall can still be seen.
There were 14 doors in the wall, and only one in the southern corner was a real entrance. The rest of the doors were false, they had a ritual significance. These doors were thought to be a passage between the worlds of the living and the dead. The ancients believed that the deceased Pharaoh could enter the complex through any of them if necessary.
The colonnade leading to the southern square is well preserved. These columns reached 21 feet (6.5 meters) in height. When tourists see them they think they are Greek. In fact they are the work of Egyptian craftsmen, and these columns are 4500 years old. At that time in Greece there was not even a "smell" of columns, the Minoan palaces on Crete were just emerging.
We will not describe in detail the remaining sites at Saqqara. There is a lot to see, so come and see. Let's focus on how to get there.
The easiest way to visit Saqqara is with a guided tour. It's cheaper and easier that way. The only disadvantage is the limitation of time in the necropolis. You will not have time to see everything of interest.
On your own, you can get there by taxi. The trip from Cairo to Saqqara is about 15 miles (25 kilometers) and the cost will be about 100 to 200 Egyptian pounds one way. But bear in mind that you still have to go back, and it's difficult to hail a taxi in Saqqara itself for the return journey. It's better to pay the driver for waiting - 20 Egyptian pounds an hour.
There are buses to Saqqara, but they stop in the village, not on the plateau. Climbing up to the necropolis is not the most fun.
The price of entry to the necropolis is 300 Egyptian pounds.
A ticket inside the pyramid of Djoser is another 150 Egyptian pounds.
Some tourists tell us that they were not charged at the entrance to the necropolis and/or the pyramid. Apparently, the security there is working "off the books".
From 8 am to 5 pm (8-00 to 17-00). The mummies have no weekends or lunch breaks.
If you want to see the pyramid of Djoser and the most interesting sites, two hours is more than enough. If you want to see everything at Saqqara, plan a full day. The second option will be of interest to lovers of ancient history only. In our experience, the average tourist gets bored of Saqqara after the third hour.
Many of the finds from Saqqara can be viewed at the local museum, named after the priest Imhotep. His image is well known to tourists thanks to the Mummy movies. He became one of the most famous Egyptians in history. It was Imhotep who was the architect of the pyramid of Djoser, and after his death he was deified.
There are six halls in the museum. The first hall contains a statue of Djoser, which has partially survived. It greets visitors. This statue is notable because Imhotep's name can be found on it. The mention of a minister on a statue of a pharaoh is a rare honor.
The remaining halls display interesting artifacts found by archaeologists at Saqqara. The fourth hall is of particular interest. You can see elements of the tiles from the pyramid of Djoser in case you do not have time (or do not want) to go inside the pyramid.
The sixth hall is dedicated to the most famous archaeologist who worked on the excavations at Saqqara, Jean-Philippe Lauer (pictured right, click on the photo to enlarge). He worked there for 75 years.
Almost everything you will see at Saqqara was excavated by expeditions led by this man. His last expedition was at the age of over 90! Egyptian workers nicknamed him 'forgotten by the gods', as apparently the gods had forgotten to call this archaeologist to the afterlife. Jean-Philippe Lauer died in Paris in 2001 at the age of 99.
Many readers have probably heard of "pyramid texts" or "songs of the pyramids". These are texts of religious content that tell of Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife, the procedures for obtaining this second life, the gods and the pharaohs.
Many tourists enter the pyramid of Cheops at Giza with anticipation, hoping to see these inscriptions. But alas. There are no inscriptions there at all.
Before the V dynasty there was no tradition of covering the walls of the tombs with frescoes and bas-reliefs. This custom only emerged in the 24th century BC. During this period all the pharaohs were buried there.
No tourists are allowed into the pyramids of the V and VI dynasties, and that's for the best. The pyramids have been very badly damaged over time and it is not safe to be there.
- If you want to save some money, then in Cairo take the metro to El Monib station, the last one on the orange line (south). The taxi ride is cheaper from there. See our review "Cairo Metro" for the subway map and fares;
- It is better to exchange US dollars, UK pounds and Euros for Egyptian pounds beforehand in Cairo. Read our detailed review "How to exchange money in Egypt";
- Next to the necropolis is the village of Saqqara. There are cafes, shops and even a couple of guest houses there. You can come to Saqqara for two days if you wish.
Have a good experience in Saqqara and read other interesting pages about Egypt on our website (see the list of the links below).
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