While nearly everyone that doesn’t live under a rock knows and has seen pictures of the Great Pyramids at Giza, relatively few know about the older and groundbreaking pyramids located just a day trip away from downtown Cairo. Just a mere thirty kilometers from the city lies the large necropolis of Saqqara, which contains the world’s oldest known pyramid, and Dahshur which is home to the world’s oldest true pyramid. Stopping here allows visitors to see a history of the progression of pyramid building advancements in front of their very own eyes. Both sites are easy to organize from Cairo and can be done in the same day. We strongly recommend checking these out before going to the ‘newer’ pyramids at Giza in order to view these marvels in chronological order.
Saqqara: What to See
Saqqara, other than the name of Egypt’s most famous beer, served as the necropolis of Egypt’s old capital of Memphis (not much of the capital remains today). The age of the pyramids coincided with the time Pharaohs ruled with absolute power. This was the golden age to be a ruler of Egypt and the Pharaohs of this age were not afraid to express their unlimited powers, building massive tombs that would be the world’s tallest structures for millennia. Egypt’s elite were also buried here, but in rather humble tombs when compared to the Pharaohs resting in the pyramids that dot the lanscape.
Most of what you see today was buried and forgotten by the world until excavations were undertaken in the late 1800s. Today there are 11 major pyramids that once contained some of Egypt’s most powerful rulers, with all but the Step Pyramid of Zoser being nothing more than a pile of rubble. Surrounding the pyramids are hundreds of small tombs for non royalty, with only a handful being open to the public. As there is much to see here and the complex is very large, you will want to dedicate most of your day to the Saqarra site.
While there is much more to explore around the site, we highlight the must sees while you are here.
Step Pyramid of Zoser
While it will not be the first monument that comes up when you search for Ancient Egypt online, there is no denying that this pyramid is by far Egypt’s most important monument. The Zoser pyramid is the world’s earliest known pyramid and in addition to being the world’s oldest standing stone monument. The pyramid paved the way for other Pharaoh’s to leave their lasting marks in the deserts of Egypt.
Dating all the way back to 2650 BCE, at first site the pyramid won’t blow you away like your first glimpses of the Pyramids of Giza will. It is not until you begin processing the information and significance of this structure that you that you begin to fully appreciate the pyramid before you. Before the pyramid, royalty were buried in underground tombs with a mud brick mastaba (like a house) built on top of it. Zoser, essentially requested that builders to replace the mud with a more lasting material, stone, and to then build subsequent layers on top of it to make the structure, creating a pyramid that still stands today.
To the west of the Zoser pyramid is a small structure that has ancient graffiti left by a scribe in 1232 BCE. The apparent translation expresses the scribe’s admiration for Zoser while on a ‘holiday’ to Memphis. In front of the pyramid is an alter that was important for the Jubilee Festival where the Pharaoh would run around markers to prove his fitness to rule Egypt.
The Zoser pyramid is in critical condition today and is at risk of collapsing. As a result, the decorated interior is off limits and giant balloons were inflated inside the pyramid to help support the structure. This was meant to be an emergency stop gap measure but restoration was stalled due to the revolution in Egypt and today, further risks are added to the pyramid as the company carrying out the restoration has no prior experience in dealing with ancient structures.
Pyramid of Unas
Unas ruled between 2375 – 2345 BCE and his pyramid is only 300 years younger than Zoser’s but is now just a pile of rocks. Don’t let this deter you as it is what is inside this pyramid that counts. The Pyramid of Unas contains the first burial chamber to be decorated. Inside are the icoic stars of heaven that adorn the ceiling that you will see in most tombs thereafter and more importantly, the walls are covered in funerary texts that would eventually become part of the Book of the Dead. Most of the inscriptions are spells and lists than contain items that would be needed by the deceased in the afterlife.
Next to Unas are several shaft tombs which date back to around 500 BCE. The tombs represent the lengths that Egyptians would go to in order to try to prevent grave robbers, with these being some of the deepest cut tombs in all of Egypt. Despite their efforts, these tombs eventually fell to the pillaging of robbers much like the fate of most in Egypt.
Tomb of Akhethotep and Ptahhotep
This tomb housed Akhethotep and his son Ptahhotep, both being high ranking officials during the rule of Pharaoh Djedkare and Unas. The tomb has several chambers which are beautifully decorated with some of the color remaining. The tomb’s most well known feature is the display of animals that adorn the walls and an image of Ptahhotep in a panther skin robe.
Mastaba of Ti
The Mastaba of Ti, way off in one of the far corners of the park is a must see while in Saqqara. To get here, have your driver go to the nearest parking lot from where it is a five minute walk to the tomb. When it comes to Old Kingdom tombs, this is the best preserved and for archaeologists, is one of the few important sources of knowledge into the time period.
Ti was an overseer of many of the projects constructed at Saqqara during the 5th dynasty. Images of the late Ti and his wife adorn many of the walls inside the tomb including a life size statue (a copy of the original now in the Egyptian Museum)that spooks those who peer through the small eye holes at the back of the tomb.
Pyramid of Teti
Now just a mound of sand and rock, the Pyramid of Teti was completed in 2323 BCE. The funerary texts are in good condition here and includes the Pharaoh’s sarcophagus which was the first to include inscriptions on the exterior.
Tomb of Kagemni
This tomb feels similar to the Tomb of Akhethotep and Ptahhotep, but contains some special scenes that are worth a look. While in the tomb be on the look out for a depiction of the Nile full of catfish and eels and a hippo in battle with a crocodile.
Dahshur: The Three Big Pyramids that are not in Giza
Dahshur is located another 10 kilometers down the Nile and is home to Egypt’s largest pyramids outside of Giza. The pyramids here are just as significant as those found at Saqqara as it is home to Egypt’s first true pyramid. The scale of these pyramids will impress you just as much. The area is surrounded by military bases so security is tight and movement within the area is restricted.
Surly the oddest looking of all the structures found in Egypt, Bent Pyramid was the world’s first attempt at constructing a true pyramid. Ordered by Pharaoh Sneferu (2613 – 2589 BCE), the bottom portion of the pyramid was built at a steep 54 degree angle that was then changed to a 43 degree angle towards the top. Why the change? No one knows for certain but archeologist best guess is that the pyramid began to show signs of weakness as the builders went higher, forcing them to switch to a more stable angle of 43 degrees which is the same angle as nearby Red Pyramid.
Unlike the other pyramids, the outer limestone casing of Bent Pyramid remains mostly intact, offering visitors a glimpse of how grand the other pyramids of Egypt must have looked back in the day. Most outer casings of the pyramids in Egypt were snatched away over time to build newer structures, leaving them with their rough, outermost inner layer exposed to the elements.
Due to military bases surrounding the area, visitors can only appreciate the pyramid from afar, although guards will entice visitors with a closer look for a little baksheesh. Also be sure to get permission before snapping away photos of the surrounding area as some areas near the pyramid are off limits to photography and can get you into trouble.
The world’s first true pyramid, Red pyramid was built shortly after the Bent pyramid by the same Pharaoh. Clearly learning from their previous building mistakes, the pyramid was and still is today a architectural marvel. Standing at 105 meters tall, the grand size and uniformity of the pyramid lasts to today and will be the first pyramid in Egypt that will make you say ‘wooooooow’.
Other than its impressive outward appearance, Red Pyramid is also a cheap alternative to exploring the inner chambers of the more famous Pyramids of Giza. The ticket into Dashur costs 120 EGP (as of 2018) and includes entry inside Red Pyramid. Giza will cost you 120 EGP just to get into the complex and another 300 EGP to get inside one of them. The layouts are fairly similar so by going into Red Pyramid and skipping out on the Great pyramids, you aren’t missing out on much.
Getting into the inner sanctions of the Pyramid is sure to bring out the adventurous explorer buried inside you. After climbing a quarter of the way up the side of the pyramid there is a small passage way guarded by a sleepy attendant. It is quite the journey down and up again, with the passage standing only 3 feet high and 4 feet wide, sloping down into the pyramid’s chambers for 61 meters at a 27 degree angle. By the time the passageway opens up into the large antechamber, your legs will be throbbing after doing a permanent squat all the way down (sucks to be tall here).
The passage opens up to 12 meter high corbeled ceilings but the air here is still thick and musty smelling. While there is lighting inside, a flashlight helps bring out some of the smaller details. On the walls you can spot charcoal graffiti left by British explorers in 1800s proving that assholes have been defacing ancient treasures for all of time. After climbing up a series of modern but creaky steps, visitors can explore the burial chamber with its 15 meter ceiling.
While the interior is rather plain, the experience of being inside one of the world’s most ancient pyramids is unbelievable. The dark interior and seemingly ancient air inside allow a little piece of you feel like Indian Jones searching for the world’s hidden ancient treasures. If you are on a budget, get inside Red pyramid and skip the ticket to go into one of the Great Pyramids in Giza.
Black Pyramid can only be viewed from very very afar, again, due to military installations nearby. The pyramid gets its name from its dark appearance and is now partially collapsed.
If you don’t know what Baksheesh is, you will most certainly know once you travel to Egypt. Baksheesh is essentially a tip (although alms giving to the poor is also considered Baksheesh). Unlike tipping in the United States, Baksheesh covers essentially any service provided to you. Whenever you are unsure whether to give baksheesh or not, an attendant or worker will be sure to eagerly let you know.
This custom most certainly pertains to attendants and guards at the tomb complexes you will go to while in Egypt. As of 2018, anywhere between 5-10 EGP is considered exceptable. Baksheesh also creates opportunities that would otherwise not exist. With a little extra tip, closed off areas become open and photography is magically permitted. .
Many attendants, seeking more baksheesh, will try to follow you around and point things out to you as you walk along the walls of the tomb. Usually this is not helpful as they are pointing out obvious things like “look, here is a cow”. To avoid awkward encounters later on in your visit, kindly smile and inform the attendant that you want to have a look by yourself.
While you may feel the urge to ignore attendants and skimp out on the system, doing so is cutting out a very important source on income for these workers as pay is terribly low. The .25 to .50 cents means a lot more to them than it does to you, so don’t be that tourist that is ignorant to the cultural practices of where you are and be sure to tip.
The hardest part of baksheesh is having enough small change in order to give it out. Once you get a hold of 5s and 10s, DO NOT give them up unless it is for baksheesh! Throughout all of Egypt, small bills seem to be in short supply and even businesses can be unwilling to give you small change. Before going to sites like Saqqara and Dashur, be sure to stack up on these. Worst case scenario, attendants often have plenty of change even though they will tell you otherwise. If they refuse to change a larger bill for you, say a 20, then inform them that you will not give any baksheesh and they will cave in. Want to learn more about Baksheesh and other pracitces? Be sure to look out for our post on what you need to know before Egypt shortly.
How to Get There
Trying to get here using public transportation is a headache even for the most veteran of travelers. As the sun is hot here and the sites require a lot of walking to begin with, hiring a driver or taxi is the best option for independent travelers. As the two sites are popular, most hotels and hostels will offer some kind of trip to guests. As of 2018, expect to pay between 350-400 EGP for a driver for the day. If you can split this with others in your hostel, it ends up being a pretty good deal. The driver provided to us from Freedom Hostel was good, with decent English and was fun to have a conversation with as we went from place to place.
Saqqara and Dashur: A Glimpse into the Old Kingdom
The old kingdom was the high point for Pharaohs to rule in Egypt. After this ancient time period, Pharaohs were forced to share power with nobles and other elites as is evidence that pyramids were only built during old kingdom Egypt. Walking through the necropolises of Saqqra and Dahshur is to take a trip back to the age of Pharaohs. It was an incredible experience the first time and I would love to go revisit the sites again in the future.