Travel Photos VII: Saqqara and Dahshur, Egypt

Since I just wrote something about it, I thought I’d put up a few of my pictures of the Saqqara complex and the Pyramid of Djoser. And then, since I visited both places in the same car trip and it seemed like a good idea, I thought I’d throw in a couple of pictures of nearby Dahshur. Taken together they actually tell a story about the development of Egyptian pyramid building.

Djoser was a Third Dynasty pharaoh who reigned sometime in the first half of the 27th century BCE. To the extent that anything can be known about events that far in the past, we know that Djoser pacified the Sinai Peninsula. Apart from that, we know that he commissioned the building of the pyramid that now bears his name, under the oversight of his great vizier, Imhotep. Imhotep has the distinction of being one of the few non-pharaohs in Egyptian history to be deified and worshiped as a god (though that didn’t happen until a couple of millenia after his death). In that sense his legacy actually eclipsed that of his patron, since pharaohs were worshiped as themselves after death but Imhotep seems to have been conflated with the major Egyptian god Thoth, as the god of architecture and medicine.

Prior to Djoser and Imhotep, pharaohs and other important Egyptians were buried under mastabas, flat raised rectangular structures that presumably evolved from more primitive burial mounds. Architects started experimenting with layered mastabas, but it wasn’t until Imhotep that this form reached fruition and became the pyramid. Djoser probably commissioned the site as a mastaba just like any other, but the longer his reign went on (there are two records that put his reign at 19 and 29 years respectively, but scholars think the longer figure makes more sense), he had Imhotep keep adding smaller mastabas on top of the ones that were already there, until the whole thing became the six-level “Step Pyramid” we can see today:


There’s more to Saqqara than the Step Pyramid, though. For one thing there are a bunch of pyramid ruins all over the site; these probably crumbled on their own, although people may have helped themselves to their limestone over the years and hastened their collapse. Most if not all of these mounds actually have their own designations today, but I couldn’t tell one from the other, so here are a couple of pictures just so you get the idea:


There’s also the rest of Djoser’s funerary complex:


and a much later (I mean Ptolemaic period later) monument called “The Philosophers’ Circle,” which at one time had statues of great Greek thinkers and poets like Homer, Plato, and so on (only parts of a couple of the statues are still there):


The neat thing about Saqqara aside from the monuments themselves is that it’s kind of in the middle of a lot of other stuff, and on a reasonably clear day, off in the distance, you can see things like the Giza pyramids:


and the Red and Bent Pyramids in Dahshur:


Dahshur was where we went next, and it’s the next stop if you’re tracing the evolution of the pyramid from mastabas to Giza. Clearly, once the Step Pyramid had been built, Egyptian architects saw the smooth-sided pyramid as the next big step forward. So Pharaoh Sneferu, who founded the Fourth Dynasty and ruled around the turn of the 26th century BCE, charged his builders with making a smooth sided structure. They began work on what is known today as the “Bent Pyramid, because the builders corrected the angle of construction in the middle of the project and created this funny effect:


Obviously they realized they were building the sides at too steep an angle for the finished pyramid to be stable. There’s evidence from another site to the south of Cairo, Meidum, that late Third Dynasty pharaohs were also trying to build a smooth sided pyramid, and that Sneferu continued that work in addition to commissioning another project in Dahshur. It may have been the collapse of the smooth-sided attempt in Meidum that woke engineers up to the fact that the one they were building at Dahshur, at the same angle, wasn’t going to stay up either.

So they managed to fix the angle in time to salvage the structure, but clearly Sneferu wasn’t happy with this crooked attempt and ordered that yet another smooth-sided pyramid be built. The engineers, having learned from their mistake, built the entire pyramid at the same angle that they’d used on the top half of the Bent Pyramid, and lo and behold they struck paydirt (though later architects would learn that they actually could go a little steeper than this and still build a stable pyramid). The result is what is known as the “Red Pyramid,” so called because of the reddish granite that was revealed when the structure was stripped of its white limestone for the 10th century construction of the new city of Cairo. I actually went inside the Red Pyramid but my favorite photos of it are the ones that I took from around the base of the Bent Pyramid:


The Red Pyramid is believed to be the earliest successfully built smooth-sided pyramid anywhere on Earth, and when you see pictures of the Great Pyramid at Giza, keep in mind that this relatively modest effort is the direct ancestor of that massive one.


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