The Step Pyramid at Saqqara, near Cairo, is impressive. Not just for its looming size and fascinating shape – but for its story.
You see, the Step Pyramid – also known as the Pyramid of Djoser – is the oldest pyramid in the world!
(As an interesting sidenote, there were also pyramids being built at a similar time at Caral Supe in Peru, but it’s believed they are not quite as old as this one.)
The famous Giza Pyramids are usually the ones that get all the attention in Egypt (and for obvious reasons – they are incredible things to see). But even though the Giza Pyramids are only 14 kilometres away from Saqqara, the ancient pharaohs didn’t start building those ones until about 80 years later.
In some ways, the Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara is much more important than any of those at Giza.
It was built in about 2650BC under the reign of King Djoser, the first pharaoh of what Egyptologists called ‘The Old Kingdom’.
Although Djoser oversaw many large construction projects, the Step Pyramid is the most iconic. And, for this reason, I think it’s safe to say it is the symbol for the birth of Ancient Egypt.
That’s because to build the pyramid, Kong Djoser had to centralise power and dedicate the country’s resources to the project at a huge scale. No leader had ever done that before and so it was his reign that heralded the first Golden Age of Egypt.
The enormous pyramids at Giza, the vast sprawling temples like Karnak and Edfu, the ornately-decorated tombs at Luxor, and the military and political power of this empire – it all started here.
Step by step, the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt would build upon the base that was laid here at Saqqara to create the greatest civilisation the world had ever seen.
Pyramid of Djoser
I’ve come on a day trip to Saqqara from Cairo as part of my Egypt Upgraded tour with G Adventures.
Arriving, the Step Pyramid is the first thing I see. But, to get to it, you need to walk through a temple that is part of the rectangular royal complex that surrounds it.
My first thought is how recent it looks. The facade for the temple seems like it’s in such good condition, it could have been built just a few years ago.
Inside, the columns that line the pathway also seem so strong and faultless even after the four millennia they have stood here in Saqqara.
The columns of this complex were the first to be built in Ancient Egypt. And although they seem impressive on first glance, you can see they’re not advanced as later ones.
For instance, the columns aren’t freestanding and they’re actually connected by a wall. But this wall would have been painted black and the columns painted red to give the illusion that each one is independent.
You can’t really blame the people for not being able to make the engineering perfect, seeing as they were basically inventing a new form of architecture.
Even the main Step Pyramid at Saqqara is cheating a bit. It’s assumed that it started as a square flat-roofed structure that then had another one built on top later, then another, and so on until it reached its final shape.
Eventually it reached a height of about 63 metres and would have been covered in white polished limestone, giving it an impressive sheen. But there would still have been signs that this was a first attempt – for instance, the base is not a perfect square and is actually 121 metres by 109 metres.
Unlike future pyramids, the pharaoh was not technically buried inside the structure. He was actually put to rest in a tomb under the ground that the enormous pyramid sits on top of.
Although the Step Pyramid is also known as the Pyramid of Djoser, after the king who was entombed beneath it, there’s actually another person associated with it.
When we think of the world’s greatest historical monuments, we normally think about the people they are built for. The castle of a king, the tomb of a queen, the temple of a god.
The builders are often anonymous – especially the further back you go in history. I’m guessing you wouldn’t be able to name the architect of Indonesia’s Borobudur Temple, Rome’s Colosseum or Mexico’s Chichen Itza pyramid.
But it’s different with the architect of the Pyramid of Djoser.
The architect of this Step Pyramid was a man called Imhotep, the vizier to the Djoser. And he wasn’t just simply famous. Ancient Egyptians ended up worshipping him as a god!
Little is known about him from a historical point of view. Where did he come from and where did he go? (His tomb has never been found.)
Yet in the centuries (and millennia) after he lived, Imhotep became known as an architect, engineer, astronomer, poet, doctor, and even a magician.
Was he Egypt’s Leonardo da Vinci… just 4000 years earlier? If so, you can imagine why he was considered to be such an incredible genius.
Or was he, as some might have you believe, actually an alien or a deity, sent to Earth to teach this new civilisation the foundational information it would need to flourish and set humankind on its course of intellectual development?
Imhotep is certainly an interesting figure who deserves a lot of credit for changing the world. However, these days, most people are more likely to know him as the cursed high priest from the movie The Mummy.
Pyramid of Unas
The Pyramid of Djoser is currently having restoration work done, so you can’t go inside. But nearby is another (much smaller) pyramid belonging to King Unas.
You can go inside the Pyramid of Unas and it’s a fascinating experience.
Down a steep path, deep into the earth, crouched over to avoid hitting my head. At the end I emerge in a flat pathway that I walk along, still crouching.
But at the end, finally in the tomb, I am able to easily stand. The three rooms here are high and at the end of the main one is a large sarcophagus.
The walls are covered in inscriptions of hieroglyphics. When archaeologists translated the, they were astounded. This is the first record the world has of the famous Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Tombs of Saqqara
Other than the pyramids, the highlights of Saqqara are the tombs. This area was the main necropolis for the first few dynasties of Ancient Egypt and hundreds (maybe more) people were buried here.
I go into one of the tombs near the Pyramid of Unas, built in the Old Kingdom. Apparently it belonged to someone called Idut.
Inside is a small complex of about 4 rooms. On the walls you can still make out the hieroglyphics and other images that were carved and painted into the walls.
Outside, where the sand blows across the rolling yellow hills, you can see the entrances to dozens of smaller tombs. They would once have been completely covered but excavation work has found the doors under the sand.
In another part of the Saqqara site, a short drive away, there are more tombs. Here, in the shadow of the Pyramid of Teti, is one of the best-preserved tombs.
It belongs to Kagemni, the vizier to King Tetit, who ruled in the Sixth Dynasty (around 2330BC).
The rooms inside are incredibly well decorated. The paintings and carvings show scenes of daily life like dancing and hunting. And the decoration in one room is specially dedicated to the transportation of the seven sacred oils.
The detail here is so vibrant. Again, I have to stop myself and remember that this was all done more than 4000 years ago, and before many of the other remarkable sites that I see on this G Adventures trip through Egypt.
Even if you knew nothing about what was going to happen in Ancient Egypt for the next 2000 years, you would look at the tombs and pyramids at Saqqara and proclaim this to be a great civilisation. The fact that everything here was able to be improved on, refined, and done on grander scaled is incredible.
But it was only able to happen because of the foundations that were created here at Saqqara – with the architect Imhotep as the creative genius behind much of it.
Perhaps it is appropriate that he was worshipped as a god. Maybe he even was one? To be able to inaugurate the most iconic symbols of this grand civilisation – almost the first the world had ever seen – is somewhat divine.
I travelled to Egypt with the support of G Adventures in my position as a G Wanderer. All the opinions expressed are my own – I truly believe G Adventures is one of the best tour companies that you can use for a trip to Egypt.