Covering a 7km stretch of the Western Desert, Saqqara, the huge cemetery of ancient Memphis, was an active burial ground for more than 3500 years, and is Egypt’s largest archaeological site. The necropolis is situated high above the Nile Valley’s cultivation area, and is the final resting place for deceased pharaohs and their families, administrators, generals and sacred animals. Old Kingdom pharaohs were buried within Saqqara’s 11 major pyramids, while their subjects were buried in the hundreds of smaller tombs found in the great necropolis. Not surprisingly, the name Saqqara is most likely derived from Sokar, the Memphite god of the dead.
Most of Saqqara, except for the Step Pyramid, was buried in sand until the mid-19th century, when the great French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette uncovered the Serapeum. Since then, it has been a gradual process of rediscovery: the Step Pyramid’s massive funerary complex was not discovered until 1924 and it is still being restored. French architect Jean-Philippe Lauer, who began work here in 1926, was involved in its restoration for an incredible 75 years until his death in 2001. In 2006 and 2007, a string of new discoveries captured international media attention; these included the mummified remains of three royal dentists, a doctor and a Pharaonic butler.
Today, although Saqqara is one of the most popular attractions in the Cairo area, independent visitors are few and far between, and the organised tour groups quickly rush in and out during the morning hours. As a result, here on the edge of the desert, you’ll find a peaceful quality rarely found at other ancient sites in Egypt.