Written by: Matt Newkirk
Destination: Cairo, Egypt
Visited: August 2019
The pyramids of Egypt have captured the imagination of people for centuries. These monumental structures, which were built as tombs to house the mummies of the pharaohs of Egypt’s Old Kingdom in the afterlife are the oldest surviving mega-structures of the ancient world. The pyramids are a testament to the ingenuity and brute-force capability of humans at the dawn of civilization. It is mind-boggling to imagine how a civilization was able to build these towering structures nearly 4,600 years ago, without even having the use of metal tools. I mean seriously, they were literally pounding rocks against rocks just to carve the enormous blocks that they then managed to stack hundreds of feet in the air using only sheer determination and physical labor.
The Pyramid of Djoser is the oldest intact stone structure in the world.
While the most famous pyramids are built on the Giza plateau, the oldest pyramids are just a short daytrip from Cairo and provide a fascinating look into how the construction of the pyramids evolved over time. At Saqqara and Dahshur you can see how the pyramids went from single layered tombs called mastabas, into the “Step-Sided Pyramid” which looks like several mastabas stacked on top of each other. From the Step-Sided Pyramid they transitioned into the first flat-sided pyramid, which closely resembles the famous pyramids found in Giza. You can even see a failed attempt at building a pyramid with a visit to the Bent Pyramid. The best part is you can do all of this in a single day from Cairo, and still have time to check out what is left of Memphis, Egypt’s first major capital.
The entrance to the necropolis at Saqqara
Saqqara is home to the oldest remaining complete stone structure in the world, the Pyramid of Djoser. Sometimes referred to as the Step Pyramid, the Pyramid of Djoser does not have flat sides, like the pyramids at Giza. Instead the walls are built like large steps. This step-sided pyramid is the first pyramid ever built by the Egyptians, and it has survived remarkably over the ages. In fact, many newer pyramids can be found at Saqqara which were built centuries later during the New Kingdom, that have been reduced to mere sand dunes, as they eroded over the centuries.
Saqqara is also home to several mastabas, which were single-layered precursors to the pyramids. Looking at the mastsbas, it is easy to see how the pyramids evolved. The Step Pyramid looks like several mastabas stacked on top of each other.
Carvings detailing scenes from everyday Egyptian life adorn the walls of the Tombs at Saqqara
The necropolis at Saqqara was used well into the New Kingdom, and visitors can enter several tombs of nobles and viziers to the pharaohs. Seeing the original paintings on the walls of these tombs was my favorite part of visiting Saqqara. They were unique, because unlike the tombs of the pharaohs, which usually portray only interactions with Egyptian gods, there are many scenes painted on the walls depicting everyday life in ancient Egypt. It is fascinating to see how people dressed and how their typical days were spent at the market or hunting along the banks of the Nile.
The Red Pyramid at Dahshur is the first successful flat-sided pyramid
Dahshur is an interesting place to visit as it was here that the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom of Egypt learned how to build the pyramids. The oldest pyramid at Dashur is the Bent Pyramid, which was built by pharaoh Sneferu between 2613 – 2589 BC. Despite withstanding the ages, the Bent Pyramid was a complete failure. The ancient engineers made miscalculations when determining the size and placement of the stone blocks, which resulted in the structure partially collapsing under its own weight, giving the pyramid the appearance of having “bent” sides.
The sloping sides to the Bent Pyramid were not intentional, miscalculations caused the foundation to sink into the soft sand below.
Learning from these mistakes, pharaoh Sneferu and his engineers, built a second pyramid in Dahshur. This time they were successful in their attempt. The resulting pyramid is the “Red Pyramid” which gets its name from the layer of red limestone that originally covered the outside of the pyramid to give it smooth sides. The red limestone is almost completely gone today, probably stolen and repurposed by Greeks or Romans during their occupation of Egypt, but the Red Pyramid is still significant as it is the first “true” flat-sided pyramid in ancient Egypt.
Building upon the knowledge gained in Dahshur, Sneferu’s son and successor, Khufu went on to build the famous Great Pyramid in Giza. Without the early failures of the engineers at Dahshur, this wonder of the ancient world would have never been possible.
The steep steps leading up the the entrance to the Red Pyramid
While you are in Dahshur, be sure to go inside of the Red Pyramid. Climbing halfway up the huge structure, and then down the long steep corridor into the very center of the pyramid is included in the admission price of Dahshur. This is a bargain compared to the pyramids at Giza where going inside is almost twice the cost of admission to the Giza Plateau.
In the hot sun, the climb up the face of the pyramid to the entrance is a bit challenging, but it is nothing compared to the long, steep, narrow passageway leading down to the center of the Red Pyramid. The tunnel is just narrow enough to allow you to pass people going the opposite way, and the ceiling is intentionally built so that all who enter have to nearly crawl on all fours out of respect for the pharaoh. A soon as you enter the steep passageway leading down into the pyramid, you will notice the smell of “tomb air”. There is almost no ventilation or circulation inside of the pyramid, producing a strong smell reminiscent of ammonia that burns your nostrils. There is not a lot to see on the inside, the sarcophagus and burial treasures have been removed, but the climb through the tunnel is an experience in and of itself.
Sphinx statue at Memphis
Memphis was the capital of the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt from 2950 BC to 2180 BC. From a historical perspective, Memphis was one of the most important cities of the ancient world, as it was one of the birthplaces of civilization. Many historians estimate that Memphis was the largest and most populated city of its time. Although the capital of Egypt was eventually moved to Thebes, Memphis remained an important center due to its strategic location near the Delta of the Nile, which was critical for both agriculture and defence in ancient times.
Not a lot of Memphis’s original majesty remains today. There are still many crumbled temples and archaeological sites strewn amongst the village and farmland, but the real highlight of a visit to Memphis is the open-air museum, which houses the best of the statues and carvings that have survived the millennia.
Colossal statue of Ramses II at Memphis
One of the highlights of the open-air museum at Memphis is a 10-meter-high colossal statue of Ramses II. The statue is one of a pair that originally adorned the nearby temple of Ptah. The temple was dedicated to Ramses II, who was considered one of the most powerful pharaohs of Egypt’s New Kingdom. During his reign, Ramses II pushed back the invading armies of the Nubians and the Hittites, restoring the kingdom of Egypt to its original glory. The statue was discovered buried face down, which protected the front half from erosion from the elements. It is missing its legs, so the colossus is laying on its back inside the museum.
Saqqara Memphis and Dahshur can be easily reached on a day trip out of Cairo. Unlike Giza, these sites are not close enough that you can just call an Uber, instead you will need to hire a driver for the entire day to drive you from place to place and wait while you explore the pyramids.
Our hotel offered to arrange the trip for us for $60 USD, but we decided to try our luck with the taxi drivers in Cairo. It is easy to find a driver on the street who will take you to Saqqara, Dahshur and Memphis, but you will have to negotiate fiercely. We were able to get a driver for the day for both of us for $30 USD. If you are more comfortable booking ahead, transportation and tours can be found starting at around $20 per person via a simple online search.