In between Djoser’s Step Pyramid and the Great Pyramid of Giza, a king named Sneferu made a name for himself as Egypt’s greatest ever pyramid builder. Snefuru, who took the throne in 2575 BC, is credited with two large pyramids at Dahshur, a site just south of Saqqara. One of them is the Red Pyramid, the world’s first-ever smooth-sided pyramid. And as of 2019, it’s now possible to enter the enigmatic Bent Pyramid of Sneferu, the only pyramid to have been built at two different angles.
Neither pyramid is as large as the Great Pyramid of Giza, which is attributed to Sneferu’s son, Khufu. Sneferu, however, also built another pyramid at Meidum in addition to a small step pyramid at a site called Seila.
If Sneferu really is responsible for all these pyramids within his 24-year reign, it means that he oversaw the quarrying and transport of roughly 9 million tons of stone. That’s over three times the amount of stone in the Great Pyramid, and equivalent to around one million truckloads! Such a task would surely be impossible to carry out even in modern times – and the ancient Egyptians had no trucks.
Dahshur is easily combinable with a visit to the ancient capital of Memphis. Today, almost nothing remains of the city itself. There is a small open-air museum, however, in addition to a colossal granite statue of Ramesses II that shouldn’t be missed.
The Red Pyramid
The Red Pyramid is named as such because of the reddish hue of its limestone blocks – long exposed to the elements after its outer casing stones were quarried away. It’s also known as the North Pyramid for being at the northern edge of Dahshur.
Egyptologists believe that Sneferu, after two botched attempts (Meidum and the Bent Pyramid), finally succeeded here at making the world’s first true pyramid. It was built at a slope of 43°22′ – considerably less steep than the 51.5 degrees of the Great Pyramid.
Though I’d planned to visit the Bent Pyramid of Sneferu first, I saw that there were no other visitors around as I passed by the Red Pyramid with my driver. And so I took advantage of the opportunity to explore the pyramid alone.
The Red Pyramid’s inner chamber is accessible via an entrance along its north face. The tunnel is set at a steep slope and stretches out to over 60m long.
You’ll need to crouch down so as to avoid hitting your head, and the journey takes many people’s breath away. Also be forewarned that the Red Pyramid is infamous for its musty, acrid smell.
Once at the bottom, you’ll encounter the first antechamber. Looking up, take note of the narrow corbelled roof.
This is a common feature at all of the pyramids attributed to the 4th Dynasty, including those at Giza and Meidum. Interestingly, it seems that no other pyramids, such as Saqqara’s Step Pyramid or those built later, have these roofs in their chambers.
A short passageway then leads to yet another antechamber with a corbelled roof. Notice how perfectly straight and precise the huge blocks of stone have been set.
The entrance to the main burial chamber is several meters off the ground, now only accessible thanks to a modern wooden staircase. Supposedly, this level change was implemented to deter ancient thieves. But what was inside the Red Pyramid that needed to be so tightly guarded?
The central burial chamber also has a corbelled roof. But looking down, you’ll see a pile of rough stone. It greatly contrasts the precise, smooth masonry of the stones in the upper part of the room.
Prominent Egyptologists such as Mark Lehner believe that this is where Sneferu was buried. No traces of a burial have ever been found, however. His hypothesis is based on the belief that Sneferu would’ve seen his other pyramids unfit for burial.
According to orthodox Egyptology, the 4th Dynasty pyramids functioned as tombs and nothing but tombs. And surely, there’s little doubt that the pyramids of the 3rd, 5th and 6th Dynasties were tombs.
But there are many mysteries surrounding the 4th Dynasty pyramids which leave the question open for debate. Sneferu, for example, built three pyramids, but no evidence of a burial has been found in any of them. Furthermore, all 4th Dynasty pyramids lack decoration or carvings of any kind.
The mysteries surrounding Sneferu’s constructions are only just beginning. Following your visit to the Red Pyramid, head a couple kilometers south to go inside the Bent Pyramid, one of the most enigmatic structures in all of Egypt.
The Bent Pyramid of Sneferu
The Bent Pyramid is the only pyramid in Egypt to have been built at two angles. Egyptologists claim that following the Step Pyramid of Djoser, the Egyptians were still in an experimental phase on their quest to create a true pyramid.
According to the official narrative, the Bent Pyramid was first designed as a regular smooth-sided pyramid. But some pesky structural issues called for a change of plan midway. This was supposedly the result of two things: the pyramid having been built atop unstable, soft clay, and the initial angle proving to be too steep for such a massive project.
The bottom half of the pyramid is inclined at 53°27′. That’s much steeper than the Red Pyramid (supposedly built later) and even a few degrees steeper than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Around midway up, the angle suddenly changes to 43°.
Notably, for a structure deemed to be a mistake by the academic community, the Bent Pyramid is arguably the best preserved pyramid in all of Egypt. This was immediately apparent as I approached from the desert.
The first thing I noticed was the casing stones and how many remain. At Saqqara and Giza, they’re only evident around the base of the pyramids (except for the Pyramid of Khafre which has some near its top). Despite its peculiarity, the core structure of the Bent Pyramid remains remarkably intact as well.
The Bent Pyramid has only opened up for visitors as recently as the summer of 2019, and I couldn’t wait to take a look inside.
The main entrance is on the pyramid’s north side. The tunnel is 65m long, leading visitors below ground level. As you can probably guess, the climb down and up is just as arduous as at the Red Pyramid.
Once all the way down, you’ll enter an antechamber with a corbelled roof, now equipped with a modern ladder. And after a brief uphill climb, you’ll find yourself inside of a huge chamber – also with a corbelled roof.
This is considered to be the Bent Pyramid’s burial chamber. But oddly, it’s only one of two inside this pyramid. And the second burial chamber is our final destination.
To proceed, walk up the long series of steps (a modern addition, needless to say). And once at the top, you’ll need to crawl through a small hole which is where the real adventure begins.
This rough and narrow tunnel is probably the smallest passageway at any of the 4th Dynasty pyramids (at least which the public can access). Heavy bags are not recommended here. Thankfully, while I’d read complaints of loose electrical wires hanging down from the ceiling, this was not the case during my visit.
Clearly, this passageway was created by hacking through the masonry after all of the tunnels and chambers had been completed. Undoubtedly, the workers were very familiar with exactly where the two burial chambers were located.
Once out of the narrow connecting passageway, you’ll suddenly find yourself in a perfectly smooth, long hallway. It almost seems brand new. Were you to turn to the right and walk straight, you’d come out of yet another exit on the pyramid’s west side. That’s right – not only does the Bent Pyramid have two angles and two chambers, but it also has two entrance tunnels.
But the western entrance is blocked off, so turning left is your only option here.
Walking down the hallway and then up a flight of stairs, you’ll enter the second burial chamber. Just don’t expect to find yourself alone. The chamber is inhabited by dozens – if not hundreds, of bats!
Bats would repeatedly swoop down from the ceiling, barely missing my head (or so it seemed). It was much too close for comfort, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from appreciating the chamber.
If you can ignore the bats for a moment, notice the roughness of the corbelled ceiling. This was possibly caused by corrosion and stone flaking, and greatly contrasts the well-preserved ceiling in the lower chamber.
Aside from the rough ceiling, the chamber remains in pretty good shape. Uniquely, there are beams of cedar, likely placed for structural reasons, that date back to the time of the pyramid’s construction.
While some Egyptologists cite this as proof that the builders were dealing with structural issues, there’s no evidence that things were caving in. Notably, both of the burial chambers and their connected passageway are situated within the lower half of the pyramid, well beneath the point of the Bent Pyramid’s angle change.
But is it appropriate to call them burial chambers? No traces of a burial or even a sarcophagus were found in either one. As mentioned above, the Red Pyramid also lacks such evidence.
Shimmying my way back out of the connecting passageway and back down the stairs, I returned to the bottom of the lower burial chamber.
And over to one corner I noticed a tall opening blocked off with stones. This must be what people call the ‘Chimney,’ a shaft which directly aligns with the Bent Pyramid’s central axis.
What’s more is that another shaft directly beneath it descends well into the ground, though nobody’s certain of just how far.
Some experts even suspect there could be more tunnels, shafts and chambers within the pyramid still waiting to be discovered.
Walking back out into the desert, I had a lot on my mind, and I walked around the pyramid to take it in from all sides.
I had a hard time believing that this was all a mistake – especially considering the ancient Egyptians’ obsession with duality. We know that the Bent Pyramid already had two passageways and two ‘burial’ chambers built into its lower half. So why wouldn’t two angles have been planned from the start?
Dualistic symbolism can be found all throughout Egypt. One of many examples is the pharaohs wearing dual crowns to symbolize the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Notably, to the Egyptians, duality itself was a symbol of unity. According to the symbolist school, the goal of Egyptian religion – and thus all Egyptian art and architecture – was the transcendence of duality and the return to unity, or the ‘source.’
While it’s true that no later rulers would attempt to copy this design, perhaps there was no need. As we can see throughout the New Kingdom era, for example, there were many one-of-a-kind temples designed to serve very specific symbolic functions.
Walking around to the pyramid’s east side, you can see a small mortuary temple built during Sneferu’s reign. The main chapel remains in good condition today. In its center is a small limestone box containing an altar for offerings. Originally, there were also two slabs behind it inscribed with Sneferu’s name. Additionally, the whole thing was surrounded by mudbrick walls.
Leading out from the mortuary temple was a causeway connecting it with a valley temple further out in the desert. The ruins consist of a court and some stone pillars, and statues of Sneferu were also once found there. It’s seemingly inaccessible today, however.
The Satellite Pyramid
On the south side of the Bent Pyramid is a smaller satellite pyramid. Lehner suggests that this was the first ever Egyptian pyramid built by altering courses horizontally rather than vertically. He also believes that the method of casing stones used here would go on to influence the method later used at Giza.
The pyramid can be entered, and reaching the main chamber, you’ll notice that it’s much too small for burials. Like many other things at Dahshur, its true function remains a mystery.
Dahshur's Middle Kingdom Pyramids
By now, during your explorations of Red Pyramid and Bent Pyramid of Sneferu, you’ll surely have noticed some other ruined pyramids off in the distance. Dahshur, in fact, is home to no less than four pyramids built during the Middle Kingdom.
This time period, which lasted from around 1975 to 1640 BC, consists of dynasties 11 through 13. Following the shadowy and chaotic times of the First Intermediate Period, pyramid building started again with the 11th dynasty who built a few at Al Lisht.
But it was the 12th dynasty who took a particular liking to Sneferu and even revived the (by then) ancient king’s cult. And they also chose Dahshur as a place to build some pyramids – none of which hold up nearly as well as Sneferu’s do today.
Note that you can’t get near any of them but only look from a distance.
The White Pyramid
The oldest of the bunch is also in the worst condition. So much so that you’d just think it was just a hill of sand if you didn’t know where to look.
The White Pyramid was built by Amenemhet II, the third king of the 12th Dynasty. It was mostly built of limestone which was heavily quarried over the years. Uniquely, a long rectangular enclosure wall was built around it.
Though numerous tombs were discovered nearby, extensive excavations have yet to be carried out.
Pyramid of Senusret III
Rather than stone, many of the Middle Kingdom pyramids were built of a mudbrick core encased with Tura limestone. While little more than just a mound today, Senusret II’s pyramid is at least discernible from a distance.
It’s situated northeast of the Red Pyramid on the grounds of a military base separating Dahshur and South Saqqara.
The pyramid also had three small satellite pyramids on either side of it.
The Black Pyramid
By far the most interesting of Dahshur’s Middle Kingdom pyramids is the Black Pyramid, built by Amenemhat III. It’s situated almost directly east of the Bent Pyramid.
But despite its close proximity to Sneferu’s structure, which was most likely built atop solid bedrock, the Black Pyramid was constructed on much softer ground. This is what likely caused the mudbrick pyramid to collapse.
Notably, despite the Black Pyramid’s ruined state, its pyramidion is the most complete royal pyramidion ever found. Pyramidions functioned as a pyramid’s capstone, and they also represented the whole pyramid in miniature, utilizing the same angle and proportions of the original.
Amenemhat III’s is well worth a look during your visit to the Cairo Museum (or who knows – maybe it will soon be transported to the Grand Egyptian Museum). The carvings show a winged sun disk above two eyes (wedjat) and below them three signs for nefer, or beauty. The hieroglyphs read: ‘Amenemhet beholds the perfection of Re.’
The 13th Dynasty at Dahshur
Compared to the other dynasties of the Middle Kingdom, we know relatively little about the 13th Dynasty.
Their base of operations was near the Fayoum Oasis but the power of the pharaohs was likely well on the decline by this point. Eventually, all of Egypt would be taken over by the invading Hyksos.
Despite there being 30 or so rulers of the 13th Dynasty, only two of them would manage to produce a pyramid. Pharaoh Ameny Qemau, who ruled in the 1790s BC, built a pyramid south of the Black Pyramid which is hardly discernible today.
A few decades later, a pharaoh named Hor took the throne. And while he didn’t build a pyramid, his tomb was discovered intact near the White Pyramid.
A striking wooden statue representing the king’s ka, or spirit, is now on display at the Cairo Museum, in addition to another statue of Hor that was found at Dahshur.
As a matter of convenience, Dahshur and Memphis are often visited on the same day – either independently or as part of a tour. The site is located within the modern city of Mit Rahina, near Dahshur and around 20 km south of central Cairo.
Memphis, however, didn’t just have a connection with Dahshur, but with the other major necropolises of Saqqara and Giza.
It long served as the capital throughout the Old Kingdom period and remained extremely important up until the demise of Egyptian civilization. While there’s hardly anything left now, it’s well worth exploring for about an hour or so.
The Open-Air Museum
Memphis was founded at least early as 3300 BC by the first pharaoh of a unified Egypt, Menes (a.k.a. Narmer). However, there may have been a city at the spot even in predynastic times.
Though once a vast metropolis, the site is now pretty much a collection of relics within an enclosure wall. And despite being one of Egypt’s oldest settlements, much of what we see today dates from the New Kingdom period (16th – 11th centuries BC).
In addition to being an important administrative center, Memphis was the abode of the god Ptah. To the Egyptians, Ptah was the divine architect of both heaven and earth and represented the creative fire. Accordingly, he was also the patron of craftsmen and architects.
But in Egypt, it was also common to worship prominent deities in triads. Particularly popular in Memphis was the trio of Ptah, Sekhmet and Nefertum.
Sekhmet, depicted as a lioness, was paradoxically the goddess of both destruction and healing. Also associated with fire, lone statues of her were always carved from igneous rocks like basalt or granite.
The male and female creative fires of Ptah and Sekhmet created Nefertum, a god associated with both the first rays of the morning light and the lotus flower. The lotus plays an important role in Egyptian creation myths, and Nefertum represents perpetually renewed creation.
Many of the surviving sculptures on display at the open-air museum aren’t particularly impressive in their own right, especially compared to what you can see at the museums. One of the noteworthy pieces, however, is a tall statue of Ramesses II. And just nearby you’ll find a column base belonging to the throne room of King Merneptah, Ramesses II’s son.
Also of note is a large alabaster sphinx, estimated to weigh around 80 tons. The face is believed to resemble Amenhotep III or possibly even his ancestor Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh.
The Ramesses Statue
But without a doubt, the most impressive piece on display at Memphis is the colossal granite statue of Ramesses II. It’s so big that they even built an entire museum around it!
Ramesses II, who ruled from around 1279–1213 BC, was the most prodigious builder in Egyptian history (though to be fair, he also usurped a bunch of stuff from his predecessors). Interestingly, while there was a noticeable decline in the quality of his temples’ relief carvings, sculpture was at its absolute apex during his reign.
The statue stretches out to ten meters in length. Amazingly, it was all carved from a single huge block of granite which had to be shipped from Aswan. It isn’t just the gargantuan size that boggles the mind, but the level of precision used to carve it.
As a single piece of stone, there was no room for error here, but the sculptors somehow carried out the task flawlessly.
Visitors can take in the masterpiece from both the ground level and from a second-floor balcony. Look out for the cartouches featuring Ramesses’ name in addition to a carving of his son Kha-m-was near the legs. (This was the same prince found buried inside the Serapeum in Saqqara.)
In his book Lost Technologies of Ancient Egypt, engineer Christopher Dunn writes how the two sides of the statue’s face are identical mirror images of one another. This is pretty much an impossible task to pull off with basic sculptors’ tools, especially on a sculpture of this size.
This piece, along with the other colossal statues of Ramesses in Luxor, raises a lot of questions regarding what tools the ancient Egyptians really had access to.
But after a long day of pyramid hopping, there were only so many puzzles and mysteries my brain could absorb. I returned to my driver, barely able to keep my eyes open on the ride back to my hotel.
There’s no public transport to Dahshur and Memphis, so you’ll either need to hire a private driver or join some kind of guided tour.
I was able to hire a driver for the day for around $40 USD, arranged through my hotel. However, I was staying very close to Saqqara. Expect to pay a bit more if you’re coming from Giza or Central Cairo.
Note that you can also visit Saqqara for an hour or two on the same day as Dahshur and Memphis. If you have the Cairo Pass (more below) or don’t mind paying again, it’s a good chance to see some things that you missed. (As mentioned in our guide, at least a full day at Saqqara is required to see all of the highlights.)
Access to the Dahshur costs 60 EGP and the ticket for Memphis costs 80 EGP.
But during your travels throughout the Greater Cairo Area, I recommend buying the Cairo Pass for $100 USD. This allows access to every site in Saqqara, Giza (including inside the pyramids), Dahshur and Memphis. It also allows entry to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and its mummy room, not to mention the sites of Islamic and Coptic Cairo. (Learn more HERE)
As the pass is only valid for 5 consecutive days, there’s no way you can see everything in the Greater Cairo Area with it. But you’ll likely still save some money after just 3 or 4 days. After my trip, I did the math and found that with everything I saw, I saved around $50 with the Cairo Pass.
Even better is that if you get the Cairo Pass, you can get 50% off the Luxor Pass. This includes the ‘PREMIUM’ Luxor Pass (which allows entry to the Seti I and Nefertari tombs) which normally costs $200. But with the Cairo Pass, you can buy this same ticket for $100!
I visited just about every attraction in Luxor and ended up saving around $200 thanks to having bought the Cairo Pass. That means that with both passes, I saved over $250 in Cairo and Luxor!
Note that the Cairo Pass can only be purchased at Giza and at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (be sure to ask them about it, as signage is nonexistent). Therefore, plan your itinerary accordingly if you want the pass.
To get the Cairo Pass, you’ll need to bring your original passport, a copy of your passport, a passport photo (exact size isn’t so important) and $100 USD in cash. You also need the same for the Luxor Pass which, at the time of writing, can only be purchased in Luxor at Karnak Temple and near the Luxor Museum.
At the time of writing, photography with a cellphone is free inside any tomb or pyramid in Egypt. But if you want to take photos with a DSLR, you need to buy a photography pass at each individual site.
Officially, you’re supposed to pay 300 EGP just to take pictures inside of the two pyramids at Dahshur. If you ask me, that price is absurd for just two locations. It’s much easier in this case to tip the guard instead.
On my way into the Red Pyramid, the guard, who’d already seen my camera, told me I could take photos. “But we’ll talk about it later,” he added, implying that he was expecting something at the end. On the way out I slipped him a tip and he didn’t complain.
Luckily, some other people were coming in as I was leaving the Bent Pyramid, and I made it out without having to make a ‘donation.’
There are definitely some sites in Egypt where you want to play it safe and buy the photo pass, but Dahshur isn’t one of them.
The Greater Cairo Area is home to many of Egypt’s, and the world’s, most impressive sites. The city of Cairo itself, on the other hand, is overwhelming in terms of both traffic and pollution, yet rather underwhelming in regards to tourist attractions. Therefore, I recommend that people stay in Giza and not in Cairo.
I find it puzzling that so many travelers decide to stay in central Cairo and then commute multiple times to reach Giza, Saqqara and Dahshur. For archaeology enthusiasts, it makes much more sense to stay in or near Giza and dedicate 3 or 4 full days to exploring the various pyramid sites. As Saqqara and Dahshur are both south of Giza, which itself is southwest of central Cairo, staying in Giza gives you a big head start for those excursions.
You will want to commute to central Cairo at least once, however, to visit the Egyptian Museum and maybe an additional day for Islamic Cairo.
Staying in Giza, right by the Giza Necropolis, allows you to get there right when the pyramids open at 8:00am. That means you’ll get at least 90 minutes or more with the entire complex all to yourself (as long as you don’t visit on a Friday or Saturday, that is).
While the modern suburb of Giza has a reputation for being dirty and rundown, it’s no worse than the average neighborhood of Cairo. And while there are lots of touts around, they’re not nearly as bad as the East Bank of Luxor.
I took things even further and also stayed for a few nights in the small village of Abu Sir, just north of Saqqara. I then switched to accommodation in Giza for a few nights so that I could visit the pyramids right when they opened.
Later, at the end of my trip, I based myself in downtown Cairo for better access to the historic sites in the city center, not to mention the airport.
In Abu Sir/Saqqara I stayed at the Sakkara Inn. Not only is the hotel situated in an authentic local village, but Mohamed the owner can set you up with reliable drivers for an affordable price. (I even continued to have him arrange drivers for me after checking out, as other places were quoting me much higher.)
In Giza I stayed at Abo Stait Pyramid View Homestay. It’s literally a one-minute walk from the Sphinx entrance of the Giza Necropolis. The family who runs it was very friendly and helpful. And while the bathroom is shared with a few other guests and family members, it wasn’t a big deal.
I’m a budget traveler, but those with more money to spend will find no shortage of accommodation options in the Giza area.