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Saqqara: Ancient Egyptian Burial Ground

Saqqara: Ancient Egyptian Burial Ground

At the heart of ancient Egypt’s culture lay a deep reverence for and belief in the afterlife. Enormous care was taken to create vast necropolises to serve not just the royal family and members of the aristocracy but the general population.

Saqqara set in Lower Egypt, was one of Egypt’s oldest and most enduring burial sites. With its first tombs, dated to the start of the 1st Dynasty and its last dating to the Ptolemaic Dynasty, Saqqara remained an important burial complex for over 3,000 years. Nearly 20 ancient Egyptian pharaohs constructed their pyramids in Saqqara, including Djoser’s famous Step Pyramid.

These ancient structures were incorporated into a collective World Heritage site incorporating Saqqara, the pyramids of Giza, Abu Ruwaysh, Dahshūr and Abū Sīr in 1979.

Facts About Saqqara

  • Saqqara is a vast necropolis for ancient Egypt’s former capital Memphis containing the pyramids of nearly 20 pharaohs
  • The necropolis is located close to the entrance to the Nile delta in Egypt’s Lower Kingdom
  • It’s signature structure is Djoser’s Step Pyramid one of the earliest pyramids built in ancient Egypt
  • From its earliest 1st Dynasty mastabas to its ibis mummies from the Ptolemaic Period, Saqqara was a continual burial site for 3,000 years
  • When the Abwab el-Qotat site in Saqqara was excavated, archaeologists found hundreds of mummified cats
  • Old Kingdom tombs containing numerous well-preserved drawings are at Saqqara
  • Saqqara was declared a World Heritage Site in 1979

Saqqara’s Enduring History

The earliest of Saqqara’s burials date back to the nobles of the First Dynasty. These graves were discovered to the complex’s north. This was a new development in ancient Egyptian burial practices as Abydos was the established royal burial site.

Khasekhemwy was the Second Dynasty’s last king. According to custom, his burial took place at Abydos, however, in Saqqara he constructed Gisr el-Mudir a large enclosed rectangular monument to his enduring name. Egyptologists suspect this monument provided the model for the vast enclosure surrounding Djoser’s Step Pyramid.

Other early dynastic monuments excavated at Saqqara are:

  • King Djoser’s burial complex highlighted by his Step Pyramid
  • The burial complex of King Sekhemkhet including his Buried Pyramid
  • King Nynetjer’s tomb
  • King Hotepsekhemwy’s tomb

During the Fourth Dynasty, most of the pharaohs elected to use alternative sites to construct their pyramids. However, by the Fifth and later the Sixth Dynasties, the pharaohs had resumed construction of their pyramids and sprawling burial complexes in Saqqara. Around this period in ancient Egypt’s history, the nobility built large mastaba tombs near the pharaoh’s pyramid. This resulted in clusters of tomb complexes appearing around these pyramids.

Highlights of Saqqara’s Old Kingdom memorials include:

  • Pharaoh Pepi I and II’s pyramid complexes
  • Pharaoh Shepseskaf’s Fourth Dynasty tomb
  • Haram el-Shawaf the Pharaoh Djedkare’s pyramid compound
  • Pharaoh Userkaf’s Fifth Dynasty pyramid complex
  • Pharaoh Teti’s Sixth Dynasty pyramid complex

During the time of the Middle Kingdom, the pharaohs had moved Egypt’s capital and the pharaohs built their mortuary complexes elsewhere. Saqqara has yielded few finds from this time in Egypt’s history. The New Kingdom saw Memphis emerge as the seat of Egypt’s administration and military headquarters. Tombs built for numerous senior government officials have been discovered in Saqqara.

As the New Kingdom receded into the Roman period, Saqqara continued its role as the primary burial site. Monuments such as the Serapeum, Coptic monasteries, the Philosophers Circle and several shaft tombs sunk for senior officials have survived from this period.

The Serapeum was dedicated to the Apis bulls and formed their burial site. These bulls were considered to be the god Ptah’s sacred avatars. They were thought to achieve immortality following their death.

Early Use

Saqqara’s earliest discoveries are from its early dynastic cemetery. These were substantial mud-brick mastabas found at the most northerly boundary of the site. While storage jars unearthed in these mastabas bore the names of 1st Dynasty (c. 2925 to c. 2775 BCE), kings, it appears these tombs were built for senior officials from that time.

Saqqara’s Location

Saqqara is set on the west bank at the confluence of the Nile Delta, where the river splits into several streams. Its first tombs, date to the early1st Dynasty were constructed on a ridge on the desert plateau west of Memphis, then Egypt’s new capital. Giza is some 17 kilometres (10 miles) to the north, Cairo is 40 kilometres (25 miles) to the southwest while Dashur is around 10 kilometres (six miles) south.

Saqqara’s Layout

Saqqara sprawls over some 3.5 square miles. It is divided into two sectors Saqqara North and Saqqara South. Each zone is often further subdivided into several smaller necropolises.

North Saqqara

This area stretches from the Archaic Tombs south of Abusir to the incomplete Sekhemkhet complex. North Saqqara holds the Teti, Unas, Netjerikhet and Northern cemeteries. The Netjerikhet Cemetery is home to Djoser’s Step Pyramid and its enclosed complex.

The majority of mastabas tombs in north Saqqara date to Egypt’s 5th and 6th Dynasties. Giza was the primary burial site for the 4th Dynasty so there are few burials dating to that Dynasty. Several cemeteries containing the embalmed remains of the sacred animals were found to the west of the Old Kingdom’s necropolis.

South Saqqara

This zone starts south of the incomplete Sekhemkhet complex and holds several royal monuments, pyramids and tombs. Shepseskaf’s unusually shaped tomb is one of its most interesting monuments.

South of Sekhemkhet’s incomplete complex, are the pyramids of three kings. The 5th Dynasty’s King Djedkare was the first king to return to Saqqara after his predecessors had opted for Abusir for their tombs.

Two other 6th Dynasty royal monuments are those of Pepi I and Merenre I Pepi’s son. Archaeological research around Pepi’s pyramid revealed several smaller pyramids used as tombs for Pepi I’s numerous queens. So famous was Pepi I’s funerary complex that later generations attached its name, mn-nfr to nearby Memphis.

Some Egyptologists see Dahshur as forming part of southernmost Saqqara. However, Shepseskaf the Fourth Dynasty’s last king constructed the monument furthest to the south of Saqqara. At the commencement of that dynasty, pyramids were already being constructed in Dahshur and a sweeping expanse of untouched desert separating it and Saqqara.

Last Monuments

The final royal funerary monuments constructed at Saqqara are Pepi I and Pepi II’s pyramid complexes. These are situated northwest of Shepseskaf’s tomb and northeast of Ibi’s small pyramid.

Djoser’s Step Pyramid

Djoser’s Step Pyramid is the Saqqara necropolis’ most famous monument. Designed by Imhotep a legendary ancient Egyptian architect who also served as Djoser’s vizier, the pyramid is formed from several stone mastabas built one on top of other, giving the final structure its distinctive step-like form.

Surviving records are unclear as to whether the Pharaoh Djoser was the first or the second king of the Old Kingdom’s Third Dynasty. Constructed sometime in the 27th-century BC, the Step Pyramid represented an innovative approach to building colossal structures and paved the way for the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Djoser’s Step Pyramid was groundbreaking as it was the first substantial ancient Egyptian monument built using stone. Up to its construction, monuments were built using mud-bricks for their construction. Building the Step Pyramid also demanded a highly organised labour force on site and an extensive logistical supply network to furnish them with the building materials, food and housing needed during the construction phase.

Surrounding the Step Pyramid itself was an expansive complex of chapels together with a vast courtyard enclosed by an enormous rectangular mud-brick perimeter wall.

A massive trench sunk into the rock was excavated outside Djoser’s enclosing wall. Djoser’s enormous complex comprises the:

  • Step Pyramid
  • Burial Chamber
  • Roofed Colonnade Entry Hall
  • North Temple
  • Heb-sed Court
  • Serdab Court
  • South Tomb
  • South Court
  • Enclosure Wall
  • Great Trench

Reflecting On The Past

In many ways, Saqqara is a snapshot of ancient Egypt. Its first tombs, date to Egypt’s very beginnings with the 1st Dynasty, while some 3,000 years later, it was still in use by Egypt’s last dynasty, the Ptolemaic Dynasty. That it managed to remain such an important burial complex for this span of time is a testimony to Saqqara’s place in ancient Egyptian culture.

Header image courtesy: Michael Tyler [CC BY-SA 2.0], via flickr