Djoser Step Pyramid in Saqqara

The funerary complex of King Zoser ( Djoser) is the largest in Saqqara, and its Step Pyramid heralded the start of the Pyramid Age. When Imhotep, Zoser’s chief architect, raised the pyramid in the 27th century BC, it was the largest structure ever built in stone- the “beginning of architecture”, according to one historian.

Before it was stripped of its casing stones and rounded off by the elements, Zoser’s Pyramid stood 62m high and measured 140m by 118m along its base. The original entrance on the northern side is blocked, but with permission and keys fron the site’s Antiquities Inspectorate you can enter via a gallery on the opposite side, dug in the XXVI Dynasty. Dark passageways and vertical ladders descend 28m into the bedrock, where a granite pluf failed to prevent robbers from plundering the burial chamber of this III Dynasty monarch (c.2667 – 2648 BC). False doors occur at intervals for the convenience of the pharaoh’s Ka, but visitors can only enter at the southern corner, which has largely been rebuilt.

South of Zoser’s funerary complex are several tombs and other ruins, dating from various dynasties. During the Old Kingdom in Egypt, nobles were buried in subterranean tombs covered by large mud-brick superstructures; the name mastaba ( Arabic for “bench” ) was bestowed upon them by native workmen during excavations in the 19th century. Three such edifices stand outside the southern wall of Zoser’s complex; they are often closed for no apparent reason, but it’s usually just a question of locating and tipping the caretaker for opening them up.

The Mastaba of Idut is the most worthwhile, with interesting reliefs in five of its ten rooms. Among the fishing and farming scenes, notice the crocodile eyeing a newborn hippo, and a calf being dragged through through the water so that cows will ford a river. The chapel contains a false door painted  in imitation of granite, scenes of bulls and buffaloes being sacrificed, and Idut itself. Idut was the daughter of Pharaoh Unas, whose pyramid stands just beyond the Mastaba of Nebet, his queen. The reliefs in Nebet’s Mastaba are also worth seeing: in one scene, Nebet smells a lotus blossom.

Unas’s Pyramid, at the end of the causeway, looks like a mound of rubble from the front, but retains many casing stones around the back, some carved with hieroglyphs. Inside, the walls are covered with Pyramid Texts, on which the Egyptian Book of the Dead is based. The one worth seeing is the Tomb of the Two Brothers, belonging to Niankh-khnum and Khnum-hotep, two V Dynasty officials depicted kissing each other and performing various activities together. They were probably brothers, and possiblt twins, rather than a gay couple, as their families are also pictured in the tomb. The nearby Tomb of Nefer is smaller and less interesting; that of Ruka-Ptah, if the caretaker can be persuaded to open it up, has no lights inside, so you’d need a torch.

The Mestaba of Mereruka, the largest tomb in the street belongs to Mereruka, Teti’s vizier and son-in-law, whose 32-room complex includes separate funerary suites for his wife Watet-khet-hor, priestess of Hathor, and their son Meri-Teti.  In the entry passage, Mereruka is shown playing a board game and painting at an easel; the chamber beyond depicts him hunting in the marshes with Watet-khet-hor (the frogs, birds, hippos and grasshoppers are beautifully rendered), along with the usual farming scenes. Goldsmiths, jewelers and other artisans are inspected by the couple in a room beyond the rear door, which leads into another chamber showing taxation and the punishment of defaulters. 
Beyond the transverse hall, with its tomb shaft, false door and reliefs of grape-treading and harvesting , lies the main offerings hall, dominated by a statue of Mereruka emerging from a false door. The opposite wall shows his funeral procession; around the corner are boats under full sail, with monkeys playing in their rigging. To the left of the statue, Mereruka is supported by his sons and litter-bearers, accompanied by dwarfs and dogs; on the other side, children frolic while dancers sway above the doorway into Meri-Teti’s undecorated funerary suite.

The Mastaba of Ti, discovered by Auguste Mariette in 1865, this V Dynasty tomb has been a rich source of information about life in the Old Kigdom. A royal hairdresser who made an advantageous marriage, Ti acquired stewardship over several mortuary temples and pyramids, and his children bore the title “royal descendant”. Ti makes his first appearance on either side of the doorway, receiving offerings and asking visitors to respect his tomb. All of these passageways are decorated with impressive reliefs.
Peer through one of the apertures and you will see cast of his statue inside its serdab. The original is in the Egyptian Museum. A cluster of III Dynasty tombs to the east of Ti’s mastaba is now reckoned a likely site for the tomb of Imhotep, as yet undiscovered.

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