The necropolis of Saqqara is the largest group of Egyptian tombs of antiquity. It is a unique archaeological site, filled with royal and non-royal tombs. The centrepiece is undoubtedly the funeral ensemble of Djoser, the first pharaoh of the Third Dynasty. Ancient Egyptians used this site as a cemetery from the First Dynasty before updating it again during the New Kingdom.
- Location of Saqqara Necropolis
- History of Saqqara Necropolis
- Early Dynastic
- Old Kingdom
- Middle Kingdom
- New Kingdom
- After the New Kingdom
- Monuments of the Late Period, the Graeco-Roman and later periods
- Site looting during 2011 protests
- Recent discoveries
Location of Saqqara Necropolis
More precisely, Saqqara is about 15 km south of the Giza Necropolis, facing the city of Memphis. The necropoleis of Dahshur and Abousir respectively border it in the South and the North.
Saqqara, also spelt Sakkara or Saccara in English, is an Egyptian village in Giza Governorate that contains ancient burial grounds of Egyptian royalty. These burials serve as the necropolis for the ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis. Located some 30 km (19 mi) south of modern-day Cairo, Saqqara covers an area of around seven by 1.5 km (4.3 by 0.9 mi). Also, Saqqara contains numerous pyramids, including the Step pyramid of Djoser and several mastaba tombs.
Saqqara is located less than 10 miles south of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile River and runs about 3.75 miles on its north-south axis. The site is generally broken down into North Saqqara and South Saqqara since clusters of monuments are on each end. However, there are some exciting features in the middle portion as well. While the Step Pyramid of Djoser is by far the most famous monument at the site, Saqqara is a rich network of pyramids, temples, and tombs dating from Egypt’s first Dynasty to Greco-Roman times, an impressive span of more than 2,500 years. Indeed, Egyptologists have only uncovered a small fraction of the remains.
Besides the Step Pyramid, several other important discoveries have been made here. Most significant is the earliest example of the Pyramid Texts, found in the pyramid of Unas. Excavations have been continuous for more than 150 years, so dedicated Egyptologists are still uncovering rich tombs, some of them having been undisturbed for more than 2,000 years.
North of the area known as Saqqara lies Abusir, and south lies Dahshur. Some scholars believe that Saqqara did not gain its name after the ancient Egyptian funerary deity, Sokar, despite a local Berber Tribe called Beni Saqqar. The Memphite inhabitants at different times used the area, running from Giza to Dahshur as a necropolis. Recently, it was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979.
The entire site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is open to visitors. While not as grandiose as the pyramids at Giza or as imposing as the temple at Karnak, a visit to Saqqara is well worth the trip, not only standing on Egypt’s first pyramid site to explore the numerous well-preserved tombs. It is an easy day trip from Cairo; consequently, tourists devote a whole day to it to fully appreciate the tombs, temples, and pyramids that are open to the public. There is also a museum on-site that explains the history of Saqqara and displays the artefacts found there.
History of Saqqara Necropolis
The pyramids of ancient Egypt have captured the world’s imagination for centuries. While the image that usually comes to mind is of the magnificent pyramids of Giza, there are many other pyramid fields in Egypt, and the one at Saqqara is the oldest and largest. It was the site for pyramids, built by at least 11 pharaohs, along with subsidiary pyramids for their queens. In addition to having the most pyramids of any pyramid field in Egypt, Saqqara contains hundreds of smaller tombs.
Saqqara contains the oldest complete stone building complex known in history, the Pyramid of Djoser, built during the Third Dynasty. Another sixteen Egyptian kings built pyramids at Saqqara, which are now in various states of preservation. Also, high officials added private funeral monuments to this necropolis during the Pharaonic period. Moreover, it remained an essential complex for non-royal burials and cult ceremonies for more than 3,000 years, well into Ptolemaic and Roman times.
The earliest burials of nobles date back to the First Dynasty, at the northern side of the Saqqara plateau. During this time, the royal burial ground was at Abydos. The first royal burials at Saqqara, comprising underground galleries, date to the Second Dynasty. The last Second Dynasty king, Khasekhemwy, was buried at Abydos. He built a funerary monument at Saqqara consisting of a large rectangular enclosure known as Gisr el-Mudir. It probably inspired the massive enclosure wall around the Step Pyramid complex. Djoser’s funerary complex, built by the royal architect Imhotep, comprises many dummy buildings and a secondary mastaba (‘Southern Tomb’). French architect and Egyptologist Jean-Philippe Lauer spent the more significant part of his life excavating and restoring Djoser’s funerary complex.
Early Dynastic monuments
- tomb of king Hotepsekhemwy or Raneb
- tomb of king Nynetjer
- Buried pyramid, a funerary complex of king Sekhemkhet
- Gisr el-Mudir, funerary complex of king Khasekhemwy
- Step Pyramid, a funerary complex of King Djoser
- Funerary complex of Djoser
Nearly all Fourth Dynasty kings chose a different location for their pyramids. During the second half of the Old Kingdom, under the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, Saqqara became the royal burial ground again. Ancient Egyptians did not wholly build the Fifth and Sixth Dynasty pyramids of massive stone blocks but instead a core consisting of rubble. Consequently, these pyramids are less well-preserved than the world-famous pyramids built by the Fourth Dynasty kings at Giza. Unas, the last ruler of the Fifth Dynasty, was the first king to adorn the chambers in his pyramid with Pyramid Texts. During the Old Kingdom, it was customary for courtiers to build mastaba tombs close to the pyramid of their king. Thus, the richer formed clusters of private tombs in Saqqara around the pyramid complexes of Unas and Teti.
Old Kingdom monuments
- Mastaba al-Fir’aun, the tomb of king Shepseskaf (Dynasty Four)
- Pyramid of Userkaf of the Fifth Dynasty
- Pyramid of Djedkare Isesi
- And, Pyramid of king Menkauhor
- Mastaba of Ti
- Mastaba of the Two Brothers (Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum)
- Pyramid of Unas
- Mastaba of Ptahhotep
- Pyramid of Teti (Dynasty Six)
- Mastaba of Mereruka
- Mastaba of Kagemni
- And, Mastaba of Akhethetep
- Pyramid of Pepi I
- Pyramid of Merenre
- And, Pyramid complex of king Pepi II Neferkare
- Also, the Tomb of Perneb (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York)
First Intermediate Period monuments
- Pyramid of king Ibi (Dynasty Eight)
Memphis was no longer the country’s capital from the Middle Kingdom onward, and kings built their funerary complexes elsewhere. Archaeologists found few private monuments from this period at Saqqara.
Second Intermediate Period monuments
- Pyramid of king Khendjer (Dynasty Thirteen)
- Pyramid of an unknown king
During the New Kingdom, Memphis was an important administrative and military centre, being the capital after the Amaran Period. From the Eighteenth Dynasty onward, many high officials built tombs at Saqqara. While still, a general, Horemheb built a large tomb here. Although he later was buried as pharaoh in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes. Other important tombs belong to the vizier Aperel, the vizier Neferrenpet, the artist Thutmose, and the wet-nurse of Tutankhamun, Maia.
Many monuments from earlier periods were still standing but dilapidated by this period. Prince Khaemweset, son of Pharaoh Ramesses II, repaired buildings at Saqqara. He restored the Pyramid of Unas and added an inscription to its south face to commemorate the restoration. He enlarged the Serapeum, the burial site of the mummified Apis bulls, and was later buried in the catacombs. The French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, in 1851, rediscovered the Serapeum, containing one undisturbed burial of an Apis bull and the tomb of Khaemweset.
New Kingdom monuments
- Several clusters of tombs of high officials, among which the tombs of Horemheb and Maya and Merit. Reliefs and statues from these two tombs are displayed in the National Museum of Antiquities at Leiden, the Netherlands, and London’s British Museum.
After the New Kingdom
During the periods after the New Kingdom, when several cities in the Delta served as the capital of Egypt, Saqqara remained in use as a burial ground for nobles. Activities sprang up around the Serapeum, and extensive underground galleries were cut into the rock as burial sites for many mummified ibises, baboons, cats, dogs, and falcons. Moreover, the area became an important destination for pilgrims to several cult centres.
Monuments of the Late Period, the Graeco-Roman and later periods
- Several shaft tombs of officials of the Late Period
- Serapeum (the more significant part dating to the Ptolemaic Period)
- The so-called ‘Philosophers circle’, a monument to critical Greek thinkers and poets, consisting of statues of Hesiod, Homer, Pindar, Plato, and others (Ptolemaic)
- Several Coptic monasteries, among which the Monastery of Apa Jeremias (Byzantine and Early Islamic Periods)
Site looting during 2011 protests
Saqqara and the surrounding areas of Abusir and Dahshur suffered damage by looters during the 2011 Egyptian protests. These looters broke into the storerooms, but they did not mainly harm the monuments.
During routine excavations in 2011 at the dog catacomb in Saqqara necropolis, an excavation team led by Salima Ikram and an international team of researchers led by Paul Nicholson of Cardiff University uncovered almost eight million animal mummies at the burial site next to the sacred temple of Anubis. The mummified animals, primarily dogs, passed on the prayers of their owners to the deities.
Gilded Burial Mask
In July 2018, a German-Egyptian researchers’ team headed by Ramadan Badry Hussein of the University of Tübingen reported the discovery of an extremely rare gilded burial mask that probably dates from the Saite-Persian period a partly damaged wooden coffin. The last time a similar mask was found was in 1939. The eyes were covered with obsidian, calcite, black-hued gemstone, possibly onyx. “The finding of this mask could be called a sensation. Very few masks of precious metal have been preserved to the present day because the tombs of most Ancient Egyptian dignitaries were looted in ancient times,” said Hussein.
Caches of Mummies
In September 2018, a team of Polish archaeologists led by Kamil Kuraszkiewicz from the Faculty of Oriental Studies of the University of Warsaw found several dozen caches of mummies dating 2,000 years back. The Polish-Egyptian expedition works under the auspices of the Polish Centre of the Mediterranean Archaeology University of Warsaw.
Tomb of Vizier Merefnebef
For over two decades, archaeologists carried out explorations in the west of the Djoser Pyramid. The most important discoveries include the tomb of vizier Merefnebef with a funerary chapel decorated with multi-coloured reliefs, uncovered in 1997. as well as the tomb of courtier Nyankhnefertem discovered in 2003. The expedition also explored two necropoles. Archaeologists revealed several dozen graves of noblemen from the 6th Dynasty, dating to the 24th–21st century BC. They also announced the discovery of 500 graves of indigent people dating approximately to the 6th century BC – 1st century AD. Most of the bodies were in poor condition. In addition, all organic materials, including the wooden caskets, had decayed. The tombs discovered most recently (in 2018) form part of the younger, so-called Upper Necropolis.
The research of the Polish-Egyptian expedition also focuses on the interpretation of the so-called Dry Moat, a vast trench hewn around the Djoser Pyramid. The most recent discoveries confirm the hypothesis that the Dry Moat was a model of the pharaoh’s journey to the netherworld, a road the deceased ruler had to follow to attain eternal life.
seven Ancient Egyptian Tombs
In November 2018, an Egyptian mission located seven ancient Egyptian tombs at the ancient necropolis of Saqqara. These tombs contained a collection of scarab and cat mummies dating back to the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties. Three burials were used for cats, some dating back more than 6,000 years. The remains of cat mummies were unearthed, gilded and 100 wooden statues of cats and one in bronze dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet. In addition, the mission found funerary items dating back to the 12th Dynasty beside the skeletal remains of cats. Furthermore, one of four other sarcophagi was unsealed.
In mid-December 2018, the Egyptian government announced the discovery at Saqqara of a previously unknown 4,400-years-old tomb containing paintings and more than fifty sculptures. It belongs to Wahtye, a high-ranking priest who served under King Neferirkare Kakai during the Fifth Dynasty. The tomb also contains four shafts that lead to a sarcophagus below.
On 13 April 2019, an expedition led by a member of the Czech Institute of Egyptology, Mohamed Megahed, discovered a 4,000-years-old tomb near Egypt’s Saqqara Necropolis. Archaeologists confirmed that the tomb belonged to an influential person named Khuwy, who lived in Egypt during the 5th Dynasty.
“The L-shaped Khuwy tomb starts with a small corridor heading downwards into an antechamber and a larger chamber with painted reliefs depicting the tomb owner seated at an offerings table”, reported Megahed. Some paintings maintained their brightness over a long time in the tomb. Mainly made of white limestone bricks, the tomb had a typical tunnel entrance for pyramids. Archaeologists say that there might be a connection between Khuwy and the pharaoh. The reason is that the mausoleum was found near the pyramid of Egyptian Pharaoh Djedkare Isesi, who ruled during that time.
Sealed Sarcophagi with Mummies
On 3 October 2020, Khalid el-Anany, Egypt’s tourism and antiquities minister, announced the discovery of at least 59 sealed sarcophagi with mummies more than 2,600 years old. Archaeologists also revealed the 20 statues of Ptah-Soker and a carved 35-centimetre tall bronze statue of god Nefertem.
On 19 October 2020, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced the discovery of more than 2,500 years of colourful, sealed sarcophagi. The archaeological team unearthed gilded wooden statues and more than 80 coffins.
100 Delicately Painted Wooden Coffins
In November 2020, archaeologists unearthed more than 100 delicately painted wooden coffins and 40 funeral statues. The sealed, wooden coffins containing mummies date as 2,500 years. Other artefacts discovered include funeral masks, canopic jars and 1,000 ceramic amulets. According to Khaled el-Anany, tourism and antiquities minister, the items date back to the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Scientists opened one of the coffins, and a mummy was X-ray-scanned, determining it was most likely a grown-up about the age of 40. Within another 2100 BC-dated burial site, archaeologists found a buried whole family, considered a rich person’s family based on the male’s weak bone structure; death was determined to be malaria.
52 Burial Shafts
In January 2021, the tourism and antiquities ministry announced the discovery of more than 50 wooden sarcophagi in 52 burial shafts which date back to the New Kingdom period, each around 30 to 40 feet deep and a 13 ft-long papyrus that contains texts from Chapter 17 of Book of the Dead. It also held a papyrus scroll written in hieroglyphics that belonged to Bu-Khaa-Af. His name can also be seen on his sarcophagus and four wood-and-ceramic figurines called ushabtis.
Funerary Temple of Naert
A team of archaeologists led by Zahi Hawass also found the funerary temple of Naert or Narat and warehouses made of bricks. Researchers also revealed that Narat’s’ name was engraved on a fallen obelisk near the main entrance. Previously unknown to researchers, Naert was a wife of Teti, the first king of the Sixth Dynasty.