The modern village of Saqqara, some 16 kilometers south of Giza, lends its name to the most important part of the cemetery of the ancient residence of Memphis. The name is possibly derived from the name of the funerary god Sokar who was prominent here in antiquity. The site features tombs and other monuments from nearly every period in the history of Egypt, from the Early Dynastic Period down to the end of the Pharaonic era and on through to the Coptic Period. Both the most visible and the most famous structure at Saqqara is the pyramid of king Djoser from the 3rd Dynasty, reportedly built by his architect Imhotep, who was later revered as a holy man. Also known as the Step Pyramid, it is the immediate predecessor of the later true pyramids, such as at Giza. Concerning the history of religion and epigraphy, the near-by pyramid of Unas is also important, as it was the first to have Pyramid Texts inscribed on the walls of its funerary chambers. Though Old Kingdom royal pyramids and related mastaba tombs of such officials as Kagemni, Mereruka and Ti predominate, there are also many tombs from the period when Thebes was the religious centre of Egypt. This because Memphis was the residence throughout most of Egypt's history and the vast administrative machinery was located there. Among the many New Kingdom tombs of high officials (re)discovered at Saqqara are those of general Horemheb (who would later ascend the throne after the deaths of kings Tutankhamun and Ay), treasurer to Tutankhamun Maya and his wife Merit, sister of Ramesses II, Tia and her husband Tia. Recently, another large, decorated tomb has been discovered by Leiden archaeologists dating to the Amarna Period and the succeeding reign of Tutankhamun and  belonging to the high-priest of the Aten Meryneith. From even later periods are the underground galleries intended for the burials of the sacred animals, such as baboons, ibises, hawks, cats, dogs, jackals and other animals. The most famous galleries those of the Serapeum, were reserved for the burials of the Apis bulls.

Saqqara is the name of a modern Egyptian village. It is situated on the west bank of the river Nile, about 30 km south of Cairo. In archaeology, the name designates the desert plateau due west of the village. The plateau forms the very edge of the great Sahara desert, in which the river Nile has scooped out its bed. The escarpment rises about 30 m above the valley; it consists of limestone cliffs alternating with sandy slopes and interrupted by a number of wadis (dry river beds). On the west, the Saqqara plateau is cut off from the high desert by another, less conspicuous wadi. The total dimensions of the plateau from east to west are c. 1.5 km, from north to south about 6 km.

From the edge of the Saqqara plateau, one can gaze down over the Nile valley: a narrow strip of green fields and date palms. The valley is here no more than 10 km wide. On the opposite side lie the steep cliffs of the Eastern desert, a mountainous area stretching all the way to the Red Sea. Like their modern descendants, the ancient Egyptians lived in the fertile valley. The deserts were only visited to obtain building stone, ores, and minerals. Some of the best limestone quarries are located just opposite Saqqara in the cliffs of Tura. The edges of the desert were also used to bury the dead, and that’s why we are so interested in this area: since the early dynastic period this desert plateau was used as a burial place for the Egyptian élite. In this way, no precious agricultural land was wasted. Moreover, the high location of the tombs ensured that they would not be flooded by the yearly Nile inundation. Most Egyptian cemeteries were located in the western desert, because that is where the sun sets. The Egyptians wanted to be reborn just as the sun rises again after the darkness of night.

The oldest mastabatombs in Saqqara are build in the time of Aha in the northern spur of Saqqara.  Around 2630 king Djoser build the first pyramid in Egypt here in Saqqara and several other kings followed his example and build their pyramids here. Around those pyramids the elite build there own tombs, most of the time mastabatombs, until the 10th dynasty. Then this grave field was left alone until the 18th dynasty, when the new elite started to build their tombs again in Saqqara. From then on we fiend tombs out of all periods, until the time of the Ptolemaic kings. A brief time later the Copts build one of their monasteries on this plateau.

There is another feature one can see from the Saqqara plateau. Some ancient mounds and ruins tower up from between the palm trees in the valley at one's feet. These are the remains of the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis. This great city was founded about 3000 B.C. by the first pharaoh of Egypt. He chose this location for various reasons. In the first place, the valley is here at its widest and the fields can feed a large population. Secondly, Memphis is situated near the border between the Nile valley and the Nile Delta and thus commands both parts of the kingdom. Thirdly, the proximity to the Tura quarries ensured the pharaohs a sufficient supply of building stone. And finally, the Saqqara plateau offered a perfect location to install the tombs of the kings and their courtiers.

The pharaohs of the first Egyptian royal Dynasty (c. 3000-2800 B.C.) chose to be buried at Abydos in Upper Egypt. Their courtiers, however, started a cemetery of massive rectangular tombs (known as mastabas) on the northern tip of the Saqqara plateau. From the Second Dynasty onwards, royal tombs were constructed at Saqqara too. Not much is known of these simple subterranean galleries. Although the last king of this line, Khasekhemuy, was again buried in Abydos, he also constructed a huge rectangular enclosure at Saqqara. This so-called Gisr el-Mudir set the example for his successor Djoser of the Third Dynasty (c. 2630-2611 B.C.), whose funerary complex comprises a similar enclosure of 545x277 m. Its centre is occupied by a dazzling architectural innovation: a 63 m high Step Pyramid, made by piling up six mastabas on top of each other. The rest of Djoser’s enclosure contains a number of temples and dummy buildings, all built in bright white Tura limestone.

After Djoser, step pyramids soon developed into proper pyramids. At the same time, the enclosures became much smaller and merely enveloped a pyramid temple, joined to a valley temple at the edge of the cultivation by means of a sloping causeway. Most kings selected other Memphite cemeteries for their pyramids: Giza and Abusir north of Saqqara, or Dahshur and Meidum to the south. Still, Saqqara boasts the remains of the step pyramid of Sekhemkhet ( Third Dynasty), the mastaba tomb of Shepseskaf (Fourth Dynasty, 2472-2467 B.C.), and the proper pyramids of Userkaf, Djedkarê, and Unas (Fifth Dynasty, 2465-2323 B.C.),and all the kings of the Sixth Dynasty (Teti, Pepi I, Merenrê, Pepi II, 2323-2150 B.C.). The five last monuments contain copies of the oldest religious texts from Ancient Egypt, the so-called Pyramid Texts.

By the time of Pepi II, many areas of the Saqqara plateau were already lined with mastaba tombs of Memphite courtiers and officials. Usually these rectangular structures comprise a number of offering chapels with wall decoration in limestone relieves. Thus, Saqqara still forms a large open-air museum of Old Kingdom art. During the Middle Kingdom (2040-1640 B.C.) and New Kingdom (1550-1070) both the capital and the major cemeteries moved further south, and only two more pyramids were built at Saqqara.  These mud brick pyramids were build in the 13th dynasty. One of them is build by Chendjer, the other owner is unknown.  Large-scale construction at Saqqara was not resumed until the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty (from about 1400 B.C. onwards), when the pharaohs again devoted more attention to Memphis. Numerous high officials, priests, and artisans built their tombs in several clusters dispersed all over the plateau. These tombs were of a new type: a free-standing offering chapel or funerary temple, sometimes with open courtyard and pylon gateway, with rock-cut burial chambers deep underground. This fashion lasted for about two centuries, when the attention shifted again to the new capitals in the Nile Delta. During the last millennium B.C. a great number of shaft tombs was cut, until the whole substructure of the desert was honeycombed.

The same period witnessed great religious activity on the Saqqara plateau. The site developed into a place of pilgrimage, centered around the burial place of the sacred Apis bulls of Memphis (the Serapeum). The latter consists of vast underground galleries lined with the burial chambers for the individual bulls. Similar galleries were cut for other animal cults (cows, baboons, cats, dogs, ibises and hawks). This upsurge of the traditional Egyptian cults was followed by Christianity, which brought several monastic communities to the desert of Saqqara. After about 850 A.D., the plateau became utterly deserted and most of its monuments were gradually covered by drift sand.


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