For my last day in Egypt I had arranged to visit the “other” pyramids at Dashur and Saqqara, close to, but further away than, the better-known Giza pyramids. I didn’t want to book a guided tour and instead went with an Uber taxi driver I had met two days earlier. He was almost unique in that his car had rear seat belts, he spoke some English and (especially rare) he drove carefully.
I had a clever plan for the day – I needed to check out of my houseboat, so planned to take my luggage with me in the taxi and then go straight from the pyramids to the airport. This would save time and solve the problem of where to keep my bags. My clever plan began to seem a bit shaky when my taxi driver texted me that he could not find the houseboat. It took several explanatory messages, and finally sending him my location on Whatsapp, to bring him to the right place.
After this hiccup, we made it to Dashur without incident. The whole plain south of Cairo, from Giza to Dashur, is dotted with ancient pyramids in various degrees of preservation – this area was close to the capital of ancient Old Kingdom of Egypt, Memphis. First I visited the Red Pyramid, Egypt’s first successful attempt to build a large smooth-sided pyramid. It was built from 2575 to 2551 BC and is the third largest pyramid in Egypt (after Khufu and Khafre in Giza).
A long and steep passage led down into the heart of the structure and the pharaohs burial chamber – not a place for the claustrophobic!
It was an elegant structure, but I think I preferred the nearby “Bent Pyramid”. This was constructed slightly earlier. Initially, it was constructed with a steep angled slope, but when it was half finished, it became clear that it was not stable. The builders changed plans and began to build with a more stable, shallower slope – giving the pyramid its unusual shape.
From Dashur we headed back towards Cairo to visit Saqqara, the place where pyramid building started. It is home to the step pyramid of Zoser, whose building was started in 2650 BCE. The construction was a radical step-up in complexity from the simple graves of earlier pharaohs – tombs dug into the ground, topped by a small mud-bricked structure. It was reputedly designed by the brilliant architect Imhoptep and is the world’s oldest ever large stone monument. Imhoptep is a shadowy figure. He was little mentioned in texts around the time of his life, but his popularity grew in the 3000 years following his death, until he became one of very few non-pharaohs to be deified. In contemporary culture, he survives as the main antagonist in the “Mummy” films. If indeed he did design this pyramid, he succeeded brilliantly, and his work survives today, over 4,500 years later.
Although smaller than the pyramids at Giza, I found Saqqara more impressive, since it marked such a dramatic change from anything humanity had attempted before. The site was also much more pleasant to visit – only a handful of people hassled me for a camel ride. Climbing the embankment that surrounded the pyramid I was treated to a magical moment. In the distance I could see the pyramids of Abu Sir, and beyond them the great pyramids of Giza. Other than them, the land was a totally empty expanse of sand, which the wind blew up into small clouds. Suddenly the call for prayers started and wind carried the sound from the hundreds of distant mosques in Giza and Cairo to me, as I stood beside one of humanity’s greatest achievements.
From the main attraction of Zoser’s pyramid, I explored further and found the Serapeum, a temple dedicated to the god Serapis, who was associated with the sacred bull Apis. The main site visible today is an underground complex, built by Ramses II, containing dozens of huge black granite sarcophagi – the tombs of sacred “Apis” bulls.
Finally I sought out the tomb of Ti, the overseer of the Abu Sir pyramids and sun temples under several kings in the 5th dynasty. His tomb probably dates from around 2450BC, and had astonishingly fine artwork, chronicling daily life in this period.
The tomb of Ti was the very last thing I visited on my tour around Egypt. From there, my driver took me straight to the airport in time for the long flight home (my clever plan had worked!). It was a fitting end to a trip that saw me visit some of ancient civilisation’s greatest achievements – as well as enjoy the river Nile, the Red Sea, and the frenetic metropolis of Cairo.
I will leave the very last word to Ti. The heart of his tomb contains a “serdab”, or small room containing his statue, with two small holes for him to look out at the world. Ti has been staring out from his resting place for nearly 4,500 years – who knows how much longer he will keep his vigil?