Saqqara is a special spot because its monuments cover every period of ancient Egyptian history, from the first dynasty to the Ptolemaic and Persian periods. It is located 22 mi/33 km south of Cairo, on the west bank of the Nile.
Start your visit to Saqqara with the Step Pyramid in Zoser's mortuary complex. Enter it via the Hypostyle Hall, which has 40 pillars ribbed to resemble stalks of papyrus. In the Great South Court, a rebuilt section of wall features a frieze of cobras, and in the center of the court are stone altars representing the thrones of Upper and Lower Egypt.
The Serdab, a stone structure in front of the pyramid, contains a wooden box with two holes drilled into it. Look through them and you'll see Zoser himself: Inside is a painted life-size statue of the king (a copy of the original statue, which is in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum). The Serdab was designed so that the pharaoh's ka (spirit) could communicate with the outside world.
The Pyramid of Unas has been declared structurally unsound and is closed. Teti's pyramid, though less beautiful than Unas, has some of the same famous, perfectly carved pyramid texts. The tombs of Ti, Ptahhotep, Mereruka and others are carved with hieroglyphs and are beautifully decorated with scenes of oxen and other animals, musicians and dancers, and many still retain some of their brilliant colors. For those who really like to explore ancient sites, few places in Egypt offer more beauty for the buck than Saqqara.
Not far from Saqqara is Dahshur. It is a good place to see how pyramids were constructed—without having to battle crowds while looking. There are two fourth-dynasty stone pyramids and three 12th-dynasty mud-brick pyramids. The most famous ones are the "red" and "bent" pyramids. If you like to sing, musicologist Gundula Schultz wrote that the three chambers in the red pyramid are "connected as in a musical instrument."
The best way to visit Saqqara and Dahshur is with a private tour from Cairo. Allow at least four hours for the excursion.
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