At Last, the First

Our trip with Overseas Adventure Travel ended on Saturday, but we tacked on a couple days to see some additional pyramids and to have one day of relaxation. I’m so glad we did! I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to Egypt, and our visit to the ancient metropolis of Memphis (Men-Nefer to the Egyptians) was yet another amazing experience.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) at Giza, which we saw at the beginning of our trip, isn’t the first pyramid to be built. About 15 miles south of Giza, in the Saqqara necropolis, sits the “Step Pyramid” of Djoser. It’s the first pyramid-like structure, built in the third dynasty, around 2665 B.C., and the first monumental structure made of stone. As the name implies, it resembles a series of steps, but it definitely looks like a pyramid and inspired the works to come.

The “Step” pyramid

A few miles further south in the Dahshur necropolis are two more pyramids, both built by Khufu’s father, Sneferu of the fourth dynasty (~ 2600 B.C.).

The “bent pyramid,” Sneferu’s first attempt at building a pyramid with smooth sides didn’t work out so well. But his engineers got it right the second time around.

The first true pyramid

The first “true” pyramid, which achieved the desired perfect slope, is now dubbed the “red pyramid” for the reddish hue of the limestone. Like all the pyramids, it was once covered in smooth white limestone which was taken to be used in other structures over the centuries. That’s a continuing story at these ancient sites.

You can go inside both pyramids, but the guide told us you literally crawl on your hands and knees, and it has a bad odor from the bats. Also, there is no sarcophagus or texts to see inside. Despite all that, I considered going in just so I could title this post “Batshit Crazy.” Luckily, common sense prevailed.

The oldest pyramids are still in an isolated area.

Dahshur was fairly remote and didn’t have anything to see beyond the two pyramids. The Saqqara necropolis, however, had a lot more going on than just the Step pyramid.

There is also the funerary complex of Teti, a labyrinth of low ceilings and steep descents that reminded us of the interior of the Great Pyramid – but with more crouching required. The ceilings were decorated with the star drawings we saw in the Valley of the Kings and the sarcophagus still rested in the innermost chamber.

Nearby was the tomb of Teti’s vizier, Kagemni. There were walls decorated with scenes of everyday life, with some color intact. The final chamber showed vessels for oils and other chemicals that would be used in the process of mummification. There was also the “false door” that the deceased used to enter the underworld before rising again with the sun.

Last but not least was the Serapeum. The serapeum is supposed to be the burial place for the sacred bulls of the Apis cult. However, archaeologists found 24 granite sarcophagi here, each weighing around 80 tons, but no bull mummies.

The sarcophagi were buried under ground level in vaulted tombs. It’s a wonderfully eerie and mysterious place, made more so by the mystery of how they got these huge sarcophagi here from Aswan in the south, then down into the ground – and why? All of the sarcophagi were open except one when the place was rediscovered in 1850, but when they opened that one (using dynamite!) nothing was inside.

They’ve basically figured out how and why the pyramids were built, but this place is still a mystery.

Our last stop was at an outdoor museum that houses some of the stones and statues from the greater Memphis area. The place isn’t that exciting except for a sphinx with the head of our favorite female king Hatshepsut, and a reclining statue of Ramses II, who we know and love from Abu Simbel and Luxor.

It’s almost time to leave, and I’m going to miss this country. But archaeologists continue to make new discoveries – we saw an active site in Saqqara where new tombs and the oldest and most complete mummy have been found – so we may be back!

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