All About Time

Saqqara, near Giza, Egypt

The famous step pyramid of Djoser stands tall amid other pyramids at Saqqara, Egypt.
“Old and Young”Click here to share this image.

Touring Egypt 23: Which of the two pyramids in the above photo is the oldest? (Ok, it is a dumb question. Rhetorical. You don’t need to answer. Is there any reader who won’t guess the one in the background, which is obviously in better repair?) This is Saqqara, home of the oldest Egyptian pharonic burial grounds near Cairo and site of what is believed to be the first pyramid tomb — the step pyramid of King Djoser (or Zozer, or Zoser, or Dozer, or Djozer, or … well, you get the picture). That is Djoser’s step pyramid in the background. It was designed and built in the third dynasty by the famous Imhotep. The theory is that this started out as a grand mastaba (an earlier tomb form), but when the pharaoh did not die it continued to be expanded by building out and then building successively smaller mastabas atop each layer, ultimately achieving this pyramid form. Though it is the oldest pyramid in Egypt, Djoser’s step pyramid survives in recognizable shape despite the collapse of newer pyramids all around — like the one in the foreground of the shot above, which is estimated to be many hundreds of years more recent in construction. This is partially because of the way Djoser’s pyramid was built with filled-in mastabas to make a solid structure and partially because Imhotep built it to last, whereas many later temples were built less durably.

Tourists wander the arena courtyard in front of the famous step pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, Egypt.
“Tourist Arena”Click here to share this image.

Djoser’s step pyramid stands in the center of a large funerary complex, with an arena courtyard at its center, surrounded by the remains of halls, temples, and other structures. The guides tell us that this provided a full palace complex for pharaoh and his entourage in this world and in the afterlife. Today, the open courtyard is preserved and wandered by throngs of tourists. Wandering the complex, the visitor finds a small hill at the back where excavations to old wells and surrounding buildings can be viewed.

Looking up, I was treated to a spectacular view across the plains of Saqqara. This was one of the earliest burial grounds in ancient Egypt. It was in use for pharonic burials from the first dynasties — well before the center of Egyptian religion moved to the area that is now Luxor (and the famous Valley of the Kings). From here beside Djoser’s pyramid, I could see tens of excavations, pyramids, and tombs all the way to the famous great pyramids at Giza (in the distance on the left in the photo that follows).

Tens of pyramids dot the plains of Saqqara, leading all the way to the Great pyramids at Giza in the distance.
“Field of Dreams”Click here to share this image.

(Top [“Young and Old”]: Nikon D70s, Nikkor zoom at 34mm, ISO 500, f/10 at 1/400 sec. with circular polarizer filter.)

(Middle [“Tourist Arena”]: Nikon D200, Nikkor wide zoom at 19mm, ISO 250, f/11 at 1/500 sec. with circular polarizer filter.)

(Bottom [“Field of Dreams”]: Nikon D200, Nikkor zoom at 55mm, ISO 250, f/11 at 1/500 sec. with circular polarizer filter.)