Travelling south from the famous Pyramids of Giza near Cairo you will see many other pyramids in the desert. One of these is the famous Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, 30 kilometres south of Cairo. This is an enormous complex of buildings comprising temples, pyramids, tombs etc. and the necropolis (City of the Dead) measures in total over 7 kilometres. From the time of the First Dynasty (from around 3000 BC) it served as the burial site for the nearby city of Memphis, at that time one of the largest cities in Egypt. Since 1979 the area has been a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The site contains the tombs of fifteen pharaohs of the Old Kingdom, many princes and princesses, priests and other important people from all periods of Egyptian history. Even in antiquity (from the 18th Dynasty onwards) the city was so important that it was a place of pilgrimage.
The famous Step Pyramid of King Djoser is the most recognisable structure in the complex. The tomb was built during the 3rd Dynasty, around 2700 BC. It is the oldest monumental stone structure in Egypt and can be seen as the forerunner of the classic pyramids as we know them.
The royal tomb stands in the middle of a complex of buildings which was once surrounded by a wall measuring 544 x 277 metres. The limestone wall incorporates fourteen gateways in niches, but only the gateway in the southeast corner is an actual entrance.
With its six sloping layers, the step pyramid reaches a height of 60 metres and covers a ground area of 121 x 109 metres. It was not all built at once. It first began life as a so-called mastaba (Arabic: bank, because it looked like a sandbank) on top of a grave. It was later extended several times until it became a pyramid, originally with four layers.
The monumental six-step construction, the stone ‘stairway to heaven’, by which the pharaoh ascended to the region of the gods, is the result of a final change in the plans.
The actual (inaccessible) grave is a completely enclosed walled chamber at the bottom of a 28 metre deep vertical shaft. 40,000 earthenware pots were found in the underground galleries.
Immediately in front of the pyramid stands a building with three columns. The function of this temple is uncertain.
Close to the Pyramid of Djoser stands the Pyramid of Oenas, the last king of the 5th Dynasty. The monument was once 44 metres high but is now just a pile of stones. The burial chamber is open and is worth a visit. The walls of the antechamber and the burial chamber are decorated with vertical hieroglyphs. Every sign is engraved and painted blue. Oenas was the first king to have his tomb decorated with this kind of text: they are ritual and magic formulae and prayers designed to guarantee the survival of the pharaoh after his death and his acceptance into the realm of the gods. The walls around the sturdy basalt sarcophagus are decorated with reed patterns and the tapered ceilings with patterns of stars.
The site contains many other graves, structures, temple complexes and much more. Plus of course whatever still lies hidden under the sand.
In clear weather many more pyramids are visible in the distance including the famous Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid of Sneferu, erected between 2639 and 2604 BC.