Although most tourists associate Egypt with the Pyramids of Giza, there are known to be at least 118 ancient pyramids scattered around the country, with more being discovered every few years or so. The majority of these monuments are spread out along the desert between the Giza Plateau and the semi-oasis of Al-Fayoum. They include the must-see Step Pyramid of Zoser at Saqqara and the Red Pyramid and Bent Pyramid of Dahshur. These three pyramids represent the formative steps of architecture that reached fruition in the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops).
About 10km south of Saqqara. lies this impressive 3.5km-long field of 4th- and 12th-dynasty pyramids. Although there were originally 11 pyramids here, only the two Old Kingdom ones remain intact. Pharaoh Sneferu (2613–2589 BC), father of Khufu, built Egypt’s first true pyramid here, the Red Pyramid, as well as an earlier version, the Bent Pyramid. These two striking pyramids are the same height, and together are also the third-largest pyramids in Egypt after the two largest at Giza.
The pyramids here are just as impressive as their counterparts at Giza, but the site is much more peaceful (no camel touts in sight). Before founding the necropolis at Dahshur, Sneferu also began the Pyramid of Meidum in Al-Fayoum. The area surrounding the Bent Pyramid is still a militarised zone, so it can only be admired at a distance. Fortunately, the wonderful Red Pyramid is open to visitors. Tickets are purchased at a small gatehouse on the edge of the site; there are no other facilities.
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. The name Saqqara is most likely derived from Sokar, the Memphite god of the dead.
Old Kingdom pharaohs were buried within Saqqara’s 11 major pyramids, while their subjects were buried in the hundreds of smaller tombs. 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 exposed until 1924, and it is in a constant state of restoration. French architect Jean-Philippe Lauer, who began work here in 1926, was involved in the project for an incredible 75 years until his death in 2001. More recently, there has been a string of new discoveries, including a whole slew of mummies and even a new pyramid.
South Saqqara is home to several Old Kingdom tombs, pyramids and mounds of rubble, interesting to the more dedicated pyramid fans.
The most remote site in South Saqqara is the unusual funerary complex called the Mastaba of al-Faraun, also called the Pharaoh’s Bench. It belongs to the last 4th-dynasty pharaoh, the short-lived Shepseskaf (2503–2498 BC). Shepseskaf was the son of Menkaure (builder of Giza’s third great pyramid), though he failed to emulate the glory of his father. Occupying an enclosure once covering 700 sq m, Shepseskaf’s rectangular tomb was built of limestone blocks, and originally covered by a further layer of fine, white limestone and a lower layer of red granite. Inside the tomb, a 21m-long corridor slopes down to storage rooms and a vaulted burial chamber.
Working your way back north, you pass the Pyramid of Pepi II (2278–2184 BC). The pharaoh’s 94-year reign at the end of the 6th dynasty was probably the longest in Egyptian history. Despite Pepi’s longevity, his 52m-high pyramid was of the same modest proportions as those of his predecessor, Pepi I. The exterior is little more than a mound of rubble, but the interior is decorated with more passages from the Pyramid Texts.
South Saqqara is also home to the pyramids of Djedkare, Merenre and Pepi I. Known as the ‘Pyramid of the Sentinel’, the 25m-high Djedkare pyramid contains the remains of the last ruler of the 5th dynasty, and can be penetrated from the north side. The pyramids of Merenre and Pepi I are little more than slowly collapsing piles of rock, though the latter is significant as ‘Memphis’ appears in one of its names.
Surrounded by sand dunes, the pyramids of Abu Sir form the necropolis of the 5th dynasty (2494–2345 BC). Most of the remains are less impressive than those in Giza or Saqqara, but it is bliss to enjoy a moment of peace at the humble ruins, and revel in the serene desolation of the surrounding desert. Of the four pyramid complexes at Abu Sir, Sahure’s is the most complete.