Egypt: Sakkara (Saqqara), history of ancient Egypt near Cairo, Egypt

An Overview of Saqqara Proper in Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston

>> Pyramid Index / Saqqara

Sakkara is one section of the great necropolis of Memphis, the Old Kingdom capital and the kings of the 1st Dynasty as well as that of the 2nd Dynasty. are mostly buried in this section of the Memphis necropolis. It has been of constant interest to Egyptologists.

Three major discoveries have recently been made at Sakkara, including a prime ministers tomb, a queens pyramid, and the tomb of the son of a dynasty-founding king. Each discovery has a fascinating story, with many adventures for the archaeologists as they revealed the secrets of the past.

Sakkara is best known for the Step Pyramid, the oldest known of Egypt's 97 pyramids. It was built for King Djoser of the 3rd Dynasty by the architect and genius Imhotep, who designed it and its surrounding complex to be as grand as it was unique and revolutionary. Imhotep was the first to build stone tombs in honor of the king's majesty. His many titles included 'Treasurer of the King of Lower Egypt', 'Administrator of the Great Palace', and 'Imhotep the Builder, the Sculptor, the Maker of Stone Vessels'. Imhotep may have also designed the pyramid of Djoser's successor, Sekhemkhet.

Pyramid of Unas at Saqqara

Pyramid of Unas

5th Dynasty kings such as Userkaf (pyramid) and Djedkare-Izezi built their pyramids at Sakkara. The last king of 5th Dynasty, Unas, decorated his burial chamber with the famous 'Pyramid Texts', spells written to help the king ascend to the heavens and descend again, which reveal the relationship of the king to the gods. 6th Dynasty kings such as Pepi I, Merenre and Pepi II built their pyramids to the south of Sakkara.

The Sector of the Pyramid of Unas

Sakkara is also famous for its private Old Kingdom tombs (see our feature story on 1st Dynasty Tombs), which contain beautiful and revealing scenes: men force- feeding geese, cattle crossing a canal, men dragging a statue on a sled to the tomb. The best-known tombs are those of Ti, Kagemni, the 'Two Brothers', and Ptahhotep; the most famous is that of Meruruka.

During the New Kingdom (c 1570-332 BC) Memphis took second place to Thebes as Egypt's capital. But although the administration was established at Thebes, the government officials who ruled Upper Egypt lived in Memphis and were buried at Sakkara. Here Geoffrey Martin found the famous tomb that Horemheb built for himself before he became pharaoh, while he was still the overseer of Tutankhamun's army.

The Goddess Isis

The Goddess Isis

Martin also found the tomb of Mava, Tutankhamun's Treasurer. The first of the recent discoveries at Sakkara dates from the New Kingdom. This site is being developed by the French Archaeological Mission of the Bubasteion at Sakkara under the direction of Alain Zivie, Director of Research at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique at Paris.

Zivie started work at a place in Sakkara called Abwab el-Qotat, 'The Doors of the Cats', so called because hundreds of cat mummies were found here. The Ancient Egyptians worshipped the cat goddess Bastet, whose main place of worship was at Tel-Basta near Zagazig in the east
of the Delta. At Sakkara her sanctuary or Bubasteion stood above a cliff in which some New Kingdom tombs were cut, some of which were re-used much later for cat burials connected with the Bubasteion.

The Abwab El-Qotat site had been neglected for many years. It was dangerous because the cliff was crumbling and the tombs were falling apart, but the French archaeological team has been working here for the last 14 years. The main focus of their work has been the tomb of the Vizier Aperel or Aperia. In the 14th century BC he served as the prime minister of Lower Egypt under the Pharaohs Amenhotep III and his son Amenhotep IV, known as 'Akhenaten'. (The latter worshipped a single god, the sun's disk or 'Aten'.)

Aperia's tomb was discovered in 1987, and several seasons of excavation and consolidation of

the tomb gave Zivie the opportunity to clear almost completely a huge burial complex on four levels. The last level still contained a large part of the funerary treasure of Aperia, his wife Tauret and their son Huy, a prominent general.

The big surprise was the discovery of the funerary chamber, which was found hidden behind the stairway. Despite an ancient plundering this was still full of funerary equipment and other furnishings which was an extraordinary find for archaeology as well as for art history.

Statue from the Tomb of Mery-Sekhmet

Statue from the Tomb of Mery-Sekhmet Aperia and his Dautgher

Aperia and his dautgher

Aperia and his Dautgher

The remains of the Vizier, his wife and their son were found in beautiful coffins, along with canopic jars of alabaster, objects of daily and religious use, and many jewels. The gold was transferred to the Cairo Museum and is on exhibit there. The beautiful rings and bracelets can be compared only with those found at Thebes at the beginning of this century.

Dr. Zivie's report, referring to the funerary chamber as the 'chapel', stated that:

"...until the end of 1993, only a small part of the chapel itself, near the entrance, was known. A late masonry, very compact and thick, was present almost everywhere at the first level of the tomb, preventing investigation. This masonry is no only present in Aper-El's tomb, with its representations of the Vizier. Three cult niches were revealed when we removed the masonry and gebel (dry stones) which had blocked the entire chapel..

The decoration on the main, central, niche remained in a very good state of preservation. On the sides are paintings of the Vizier, each with his complete name, Aper-EI, receiving offerings of flowers or purification from two sons previously unknown to us. Their names and titles are present: one, Seny, was a high official; the other, Hatiay, was a priest. The representations are important because they illustrate the art of the time of Akhenaton (the Amarna Period) and its aftermath not at Amarna or at Thebes, but rather at Memphis, which remained the main city of the country.

But also in some neighboring tombs. This masonry can almost certainly be dated to the beginning of the Ptolemaic (Greek) Period. The site would have been consolidated then for re-use in cat burials at the sanctuary of Bastet above the cliff.

It was necessary to remove the blocking (late masonry) in order to explore the chapel completely... a technical task, not a work of excavation. We undertook it with the agreement of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. The operation provided the Mission with a chance discovery: the larger part of the chapel of the tomb had been hidden by the masonry. The decoration had been very well preserved behind the stones and mortar.

The work took several months, but the chapel is now completely cleared... Now we have a complete picture of the first level of the tomb. The result is impressive. There are three square pillars, one completely unknown before, on the inner faces of which one can still discern representations of the Vizier and of his son. The fourth pillar is no longer present. A splendid ceiling, beautifully decorated in brilliant colors, is also almost completely preserved.

The most important discovery in the chapel was the back wall, side of the burial chamber. Near the sarcophagus was found the canopic chest of the king, with his viscera wrapped in bandages of fine linen.

" Examining the high sand mounds on the south side of Pepi I's pyramid, the expedition found small pyramids of queens and others who may have been queens. We know that Pepi I married two sisters, the daughters of the Mayor of Abydos (which could be the first recorded case of an Egyptian god-king marrying a commoner). From the French team's work we now know for the first time the queens for whom these pyramids were built. The first, for example, was built for Queen Nwb-wnt.

In 1995 they found the pyramid of Queen Meryt-it-is. We already knew this name as that of the wife of King Khufu (Cheops), builder of the Great Pyramid. She enjoyed the titles of 'King's Wife' and 'King's Daughter'. Her newly- found pyramid raises Egypt's total of pyramids with superstructures to 97.

It is expected that the expedition will find more 8th Dynasty pyramids in this area. We know that Sakkara was the burial-place of those kings, and have already located the pyramid of King Iby..

The Sector of the Pyramid of Teti

The third recent discovery at Sakkara was made while excavating in the vicinity of the pyramid of Queen Iput I, a wife of Teti, first king of 6th Dynasty. His reign was about 68 years and he married two queens, Iput and Khuit.

The new Pyramid of Meryt-it-is

The new Pyramid of Meryt-it-is

Obelisks, Temple of Queen Inti

Obelisks, Temple of Queen Inti

The historian Manetho stated that King Teti was assassinated by his bodyguard, but some scholars believe that Teti's eventual assassination was motivated by resentment at the eclipse of priestly authority. Naguib Kanawati of Macquarie University, Sydney, has uncovered evidence to support the murder theory.

The name of Teti's pyramid was 'The Pyramid Which Is Enduring Of Palaces'. Its original height was 52.5m/172ft. It was first opened in 1881 and was found to resemble other 6th Dynasty pyramids. Inside was a sarcophagus of gray basalt, and near it were found Teti's viscera in a canopic chest like that of Pepi I.

Queen Iput's and Khuit's pyramids are located about a ninety meters north of Teti's. In 1897-99 V. Loret excavated it and found a large limestone sarcophagus, containing the cedar wood inner coffin of the Queen. Inside the coffin were her remains. On the bones of her right arm were found scattered remains of her necklace and a gold bracelet.

We excavated around Queen Iput's pyramid, and found most of the rooms of its funerary temple. It was decorated with beautiful scenes. Also found in the temple was a monument dating from the 3rd Dynasty reign of Djoser, for whom the Step Pyramid of Sakkara was built.

This monument resembles a pillar. The shape of its top is called a Serelh, which means 'palace facade'. On it is written the name of Djoser, and above it is the falcon god Horus wearing the Double Crown on Upper and Lower Egypt.

Beneath Horus is a lion or lioness followed by a jackal. They are arranged in 12 registers. We believe that it could have been part of an entrance gate for the pyramid complex of Djoser. On its top would have been a lintel with Djoser's titles. Another monument similar to this one has also been found.

Another major discovery near Queen Iput's funerary temple is the tomb of Teti's son Teti-ankh-km, which means 'Teti-ankh the Black'. The false door of the tomb bears his name, the title of 'King's Son', and his most important title of 'Overseer of Upper Egypt'.

The tomb contains beautiful scenes of daily and religious life, including ladies bringing offerings, the slaughtering of animals, the deceased standing with his wife (represented in smaller scale), the lotus flower, and many other scenes. The colors in the scenes are distinctive, and the style is characteristic of the tombs of Sakkara during the Old Kingdom. Even during the later New Kingdom, most of the tombs at Sakkara display the same style and colors.

Statues from the Tomb of Mery-Sekhmet discovered by A. Zivie

Statues from the Tomb of Mery-Sekhmet discovered by A. Zivie

'The back wall of the niche was originally decorated with a painted scene of Aper-El, Huy, and other members of the family before the god Osiris. In the 19th Dynasty [c13191200 BC] an important alteration was made. The painting was partly defaced and the wall was carved with a new and very impressive representation of Osiris flanked by the goddesses Isis and Nephthys.

This example is hard to explain, but it seems clear that the figures were used as cult representations, like statues. Because of the large size of the figures the niche, now cleared and visible from a distance, is really striking.

'The smaller western niche was found empty, but the Ptolemaic masonry of the eastern niche contained the mummies of cats, the most notable one in a limestone coffin with a superb cat mummy in linen wrappings. This was the first in situ cat burial found at Sakkara. It has nothing to do with Aper-El's tomb or time period. It was dedicated to Bastet when the site was blocked up and re-used, probably in the early Ptolemaic Period (4th century BC).

Pyramid text inside the Pyramid of Pepi I

Pyramid text inside the Pyramid of Pepi I

In order to consolidate and protect the fragile parts of the cliff, as well as to study and understand the site, the masonry from other tombs in the vicinity were removed. Excavation work then concentrated on the tomb of the Royal Scribe and Chief of the Granaries, Mery-Sekhmet, who lived in the 19th Dynasty. This tomb, unknown before the Mission began to explore the site, is only partly preserved, but what is left is quite exceptional. The stone masonry of the Ptolemaic Period was systematically removed to reach and protect the original decorated walls of the tomb. The task was difficult and has proceeded slowly over several years.

The preserved walls of the chapel are now almost cleared and cleaned. They are decorated with superb relieves, partly inspired by the mastabas [tombs] of the Old Kingdom. In addition to religious scenes, they depict Mery-Sekhmet and his wife Iuy attending to agricultural work. Partly blackened by fire in ancient times, the reliefs and their color have been excellently cleaned and reinforced.

The main surprise awaited the Mission at the back of the tomb, where the removal of the masonry led to the discovery of a walled niche. The high humidity led to fears that nothing had been preserved in this remote part of the tomb, but this was not the case. The niche was slowly and methodically cleared in January 1994 and the winter of 1995. It contains a pair of superb statues carved in the rock.

These are standing figures more than 3ft high, still colored, of Iuy and Mery-Sekhmet, who holds a standard with small figures of Osiris and Re-Harakhte. This is the first time that such New Kingdom statues, carved into the rock, have been discovered at Sakkara. The faces of the man and woman are quite beautiful. Despite the fragility of the stone and the colors, the statues are well preserved. The joint team of Egyptian and French conservators pooled their efforts to stabilize and restore them.'

The second recent discovery at Sakkara was also made under the supervision of a famous French Egyptologist: Jean Leclant. This French expedition worked around the pyramid of Pepi I, the third king of the Old Kingdom's 6th Dynasty. In his reign Egypt reached a peak in art and culture. One of the king's courtiers, Weni, recounts that Pepi I appointed him to investigate a conspiracy on the part of Queen Imtis. But Weni does not say what she plotted against the king, nor what kind of punishment she suffered.

Jean Leclant and Jean-Phillippe Lauer studied the Pyramid Texts in the pyramids of the 6th Dynasty. Unfortunately the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the inner walls of Pepi I's pyramid had crumbled to the floor. The French team accomplished one of its most important tasks, reconstructing the inscriptions by computer. It took them almost five years to complete this impressive achievement, of which everyone is all proud.

As an amendment to this article, note that there is now an Museum with a special room dedicated to Jean-Phillippe Lauer's work located in Saqqara, with many other exhibits on this archaeological site, named the Imhotep Museum.

Map of the Saqqara Area