The Silk Route - World Travel: Saqqara, Egypt

Egypt: Cairo, Pyramids, Memphis, Saqqara
1989 & 2000

Cairo The Pyramids at Giza & the Sphinx Memphis Saqqara
Horus at the Temple of Edfu

Climbing inside the Great Pyramid was a great experience and the desert setting is lovely, if very close to Cairo and usually swarming with tourists.

For me the step pyramid at Saqqara is much more atmospheric.


Notes on chronology (dates very approximate) and kingdoms:1,2

Old Kingdom 2750-2150 B.C. 3rd-8th Dynasties: Saqqara step pyramid, Giza pyramids
First Intermediate Period 2150-2050 B.C. 9th-11th Dynasties: Egypt split north and south, reunified by Mentuhotep II
Middle Kingdom 2050-1700 B.C. 11th-13th Dynasties: worship of Osiris
Second Intermediate Period 14th-17th Dynasties: Hyksos invasion, collapse of central authority, Hyksos driven  out by Amosis I
New Kingdom 1550-1075 B.C. 18th-20th Dynasties: Tuthmosis I,II,III, Hatshepsut, Amenhotep III, Akhenaton/Nefertiti (Aten/Sun worship), Tutankhamun, Ramses I,II,III; Luxor & Karnak Temples
Late Dynastic Period 1075-332 B.C. 21st/31st Dynasties: period of decline and invasion, Alexander the Great 332 B.C.
Ptolomeic Period 332-30 B.C.: Alexandria founded, on Alexander's death Egypt ruled by his general Ptolomy; Cleopatra (51-30 B.C.) last of Ptolomeic line, Dendera and Edfu Temples

Some of the gods:
Amun: god of Thebes
Atum:creator god of Heliopolis, identified with Re
Hathor: the cow goddess, wife to Horus
Horus: the falcon god, son of Isis and Osiris
Isis: goddess of motherhood and rebirth, wife of Osiris
Mut: primal creator goddess, wife of Amun
Nut: sky goddess, shown with arched body to form heaven
Osiris: god of the dead
Ptah: creator god of Memphis
Re: the great sun god of Heliopolis, often linked with other gods
Re-Herakhte: falcon-headed god, fusion of Re and Horus
Seth: brother and murderer of Osiris
Sobek: crocodile god

The legend of Isis and Osiris tells how, when his brother Seth killed Osiris, dismembered and scattered his body, Isis searched out the pieces and, putting them together, restored Osiris to life in the Underworld where he reigned.



The Citadel


My abiding memories of Cairo are of dust and heat and galabiyya-clad men at pavement cafés. We didn't do any walking in the centre of the city so didn't get a chance to sample the coffee!

Khan El Khalili

In the courtyard of Mehmet Ali Mosque.

We did not spend a great deal of time in Cairo and made only shortish visits to mosques, bazaars and the Citadel which was begun in 1176 by Salah-el-Din and not completed to its present state until 700 years later.

In El Sawy Bazar, in the Khan El Khalili souk, I had a lovely silver and gold cartouche made with a hieroglyphic representation of my name - or as close as they could get..

The souk, over 600 years old, is fascinating with many merchants attempting to get you to buy anything from spices to slippers. The name is a reference to an ancient caravanserai, or khan, which once stood here. Merchants travelling vast distances stayed in caravanserais which stood all along the major routes, typically a day's camel drive apart.

We did not go to the north east of the city where lie the remains of the ancient city of Heliopolis (very little is left by all accounts), the City of the Sun God.

Salah El-Deen Square: the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan centre with the Al Rifai Mosque on the right; seen from the Citadel.

The traffic in Cairo is horrendous - particularly around the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. The Museum is justly famous and stuffed full of treasures, including the famous Tutankhamun artefacts such as the fabulous gold mask and innumerable beds! It is a huge place and would, I think, take several days to see even a modest fraction of its contents.

Mehmet Ali Mosque in the Citadel, also known as the Alabaster Mosque.
The Mosque built by Mehemet Ali in the Citadel.


The Pyramids at Giza & the Sphinx

the Great Pyramid
Thoroughly enjoyed the camel ride!

the Great Pyramid
Great Pyramid of Cheops

We were very surprised to see how close the pyramids and the sphinx are to the city. Built around 2500BC the pyramids at Giza are a testament to the building skills of the ancient Egyptians and even with all the tourists around the pyramids are still an impressive sight.

I particularly liked the view from a little way off when the pyramids looked to be surrounded by desert sands rather than extremely close to Cairo!

the Great Pyramid
Inside the Great Pyramid.

The three major pyramids of the group are Cheops - 230m on each side and 137m high (originally 147m), Chephren and Mycerinus. Close by are the so-called Pyramids of the Queens - for royal wives - and mastabas (flat-topped sloping-sided slabs) for royal princes and noblemen.

We climbed the interior of the Great Pyramid of Cheops - a difficult, steep confined space. This was quite an experience, it was dark and the staircase was narrow, between high walls. Not many people attempted the climb and it felt very isolated inside.  Eventually it reached the Great Gallery leading to the King's Chamber. This was a large undecorated room containing a stone sarcophagus and otherwise empty.


the sphinx
the sphinx

Chephren, the son of Cheops, had the sphinx carved from a natural outcrop of rock left standing in the quarry from where the stones for his father's great pyramid had been hewn.2

It is 20m high in the shape of  the body of a lion with the head of either a god or Chephren himself, wearing the royal headdress with the uraeus - the sacred serpent. It was the Greeks who named it the Sphinx. For much of its existence it has been buried to the neck in sand.

It was undergoing renovations when we visited. The scaffolding was wooden poles lashed together with rope.

the sphinx




Memphis, the ancient capital of the Old Kingdom (2680 BC - 2160 BC), was founded by the first king of a united Egypt, Menes, around 3000BC. Even during the period of the New Kingdom it rivaled Thebes (modern day Luxor) in grandeur. Because the principle building material was mud brick, however, little remains of this once splendid city.

A colossal statue of Ramses II is housed in a modern building. The famous 19th Dynasty pharaoh ruled from 1279 to his death in 1213 BC. The statue is missing its legs but even so is 10m long.

Ramses II
Colossal statue of Ramses II.





The vast necropolis of Saqqara, deep in the desert, is much more atmospheric than the tourist-swarming Great Pyramid complex at Giza.

The funerary complex of Djoser stands within the huge necropolis which was in use from the 3rd Dynasty through to the Ptolemaic Greco-Roman period of around 200 B.C. - almost 3000 years.

Djoser's funerary complex of beautiful chapels, halls and courts surrounded by a 10m wall was built entirely of stone and dominated by the magnificent 62m high step pyramid - the first ever pyramid.

The remains of two smaller pyramids can be seen to the right of Djoser's step pyramid, these are of the Pharaohs Userkaf, built around 2490 B.C., and Teti, around 200 years later.

Most early building, certainly of domestic architecture, was of mud brick and therefore not designed to last.

The entrance hall to the complex ends here with these unusual pillars. At this time the skill had not yet developed to incorporate free-standing load-bearing circular columns.

Early tombs were built underground but later they were also sometimes built above ground as low, mud brick, flat-topped blocks with sloping sides, called mastabas.

Around the time of the beginning of the Old Kingdom the idea of the ka developed - the indestructible vital force which only the pharaoh possessed.

The remains of a mastaba tomb.



The construction of more durable tombs was therefore required to forever house the eternal ka - using stone satisfied this need.

In Djoser's reign (3rd Dynasty 2628 BC - 2609 BC) stone was employed with great sophistication in his mortuary complex at Saqqara.


The great step pyramid at Saqqara.



Djoser's architect was Imhotep, though he was also grand vizier and fulfilled numerous other important roles for the pharaoh.

Imhotep first began the royal tomb as a single storey stone mastaba. This was then twice enlarged, still as a single storey, before Imhotep was inspired to expand the building vertically with a series of successively smaller mastabas on top, thus creating the step pyramid - the very first pyramid.


  1. Egypt Times Bartholomew Guide, Times Books, 1986
  2. Egypt Michael Haag, Cadogan, 1999.