Saqqara is, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating and important archaeological sites on the entire planet. But being just a short drive away from the Giza Plateau – arguably the world’s most famous attraction – means that it doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves. Though many visit Saqqara as part of a half-day tour, it’s absolutely worth dedicating at least one full day here. In this in-depth Saqqara guide, we’ll cover all of the sites which are open to the public and how to reach each one.
Saqqara functioned as the main necropolis for the ancient capital of Memphis. Burial sites here date back to the Early Dynastic times, and the site was in regular use up until the Roman takeover. That means that Saqqara was in continuous usage for around 3,000 years!
The main focus here, however, is undoubtedly the Old Kingdom period of ancient Egypt (c. 2686–2181 BC). The most notable landmark from that time is Djoser’s Step Pyramid – Egypt’s very first. And while many of the 4th Dynasty burials took place in Giza, later 5th and 6th Dynasty kings would return their attention to Saqqara.
In addition to the several ancient pyramids still standing, this is by far the best place in Egypt to admire tombs and artwork from the Old Kingdom.
Saqqara Visiting Tips and Recommended Route
The overall area of Saqqara is both huge and very dense. Confusingly, it’s not always clear what tombs are currently open, nor are there any maps on-site at all. Furthermore, before my visit, I couldn’t come across any online articles with detailed advice on logistics and itinerary planning. This Saqqara guide, then, is meant to help those who want to see it all independently but aren’t sure how.
ORIENTATION: It’s best to think of the Saqqara area as three distinct zones: Central, Northwest and Northeast. The Central Zone is by far the largest, comprising of the Step Pyramid Complex, the Unas Pyramid, its causeway, its surrounding tombs, and also the New Kingdom Tombs to the south. You can get around to all these areas of the Central Zone on foot.
But to get to the Northwest and Northeast Zones, you will want a driver. There are parking lots in each of the three zones.
There are also a few additional sites that don’t fit into any zone, such as the Imhotep Museum, the Bubasteion Tombs and the Userkaf Pyramid (currently closed).
RECOMMENDED ROUTE: Saqqara is open from 8:00 – 17:00 in warmer months and from 9:00 – 16:00 in winter. Even in winter, if you start early and skip lunch, you can see most of the highlights covered below in a full but exhausting day.
If you get an early start, begin at the Imhotep Museum. But if you’ve been delayed by traffic, skip it and head straight for the Step Pyramid. Spend awhile exploring the pyramid complex (including the interior, which may close at noon). Then come back out the same way you came and walk left around the enclosure wall.
A pathway will take you past the tombs of Mehu, Idut and Unas Ankh and Inefert. (Some other notable tombs around here seem to be closed for 2020.) Then enter the Unas Pyramid, which also normally closes at noon.
Next, walk east along the Unas Causeway. South of the causeway, near the eastern end, you can find the excellent tombs of Irukapta and Khnumhotep / Niankhkhnum (these may be locked and you may have to backtrack just to find a guard with the key).
You can then head back west and take the trail leading south which takes you to the group of New Kingdom tombs. If you are short on time, however, consider skipping these to make room for the other sections of Saqqara. If you could choose just one tomb from here, see Horemheb’s.
If you somehow still have some time left over, you can stop at the two open Bubasteion Tombs (New Kingdom era) on your way out.
TICKETS: Basic entry costs 180 EGP, but many of the attractions in Saqqara require their own separate tickets. Certain tombs may be grouped together under a single ticket even if they’re at different parts of the necropolis. To save yourself time and confusion, I recommend you buy the all-inclusive ticket for 440 EGP. Even better, though, is getting ahold of the Cairo Pass (more below).
Understand that if you want to take photos inside the tombs with anything other than a cellphone, you’ll need to purchase a photography pass for 300 EGP, valid for all tombs at Saqqara.
Visiting the Tombs
As you explore the tombs of Saqqara, there’s one crucial thing you need to keep in mind: the artwork in the tombs was never intended for the eyes of the public, or even for the living. The reliefs were only meant to be observed by the spirit, or ka, of the deceased.
These tomb reliefs have provided us with a lot of crucial information regarding daily life activities in ancient Egypt. But were they merely pleasant scenes from the life of the deceased, or did they contain a deeper symbolic meaning?
Though the precise meaning is up for debate, it’s highly likely that every scene in the tombs was symbolic to some degree – even if they also did accurately portray daily life.
We know this because at much later temples, like at Edfu, the classic scene of bird netting, for example, reappears. Only this time it’s the gods, and not people, doing the netting. It’s clear then that this was not merely a “charming” portrayal of daily life, but a scene with a deeper religious significance.
Before my trip, I was able to get ahold of the fantastic guidebook The Traveler’s Key to Ancient Egypt by the late John Anthony West, author of Serpent in the Sky. In his book, sadly out of print, West describes each tomb from the symbolist perspective. I’ll be sharing some of West’s fascinating insights in the Saqqara guide below. And I also plan to dedicate an entire article to Egyptian tomb symbolism sometime in the future.
The Imhotep Museum & The Step Pyramid
The first place you’ll pass by upon entry to the site is the Imhotep Museum, named after the architect of King Djoser’s iconic Step Pyramid. This is a great place to learn more about the Step Pyramid’s construction. And the signage and lighting here is a whole lot better than at the dim and disorganized Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.
Additionally, the museum contains artifacts found throughout Saqqara, most of which date back to the Old Kingdom period. This is a good place to learn more about the Old Kingdom without feeling overwhelmed, as you can see everything in the museum in around 30 minutes.
The Step Pyramid of Djoser is undoubtedly the main highlight of Saqqara and it’s where you’ll want to start your day. Now that the pyramid burial chamber has opened to the public after 14 years of restoration, you’ll want to dedicate a good chunk of your day to exploring the complex.
We’ve already covered the Step Pyramid in-depth in a separate guide, so be sure to have a look. With so much else to cover, let’s now skip ahead to the Unas Causeway Area.
The Unas Causeway Area
The Unas Causeway Area includes the Unas Pyramid and the long causeway that extends east of it. There are numerous open tombs both north and south of the causeway. But there’s also a whole lot more that’s currently closed to the public, meaning it can be rather tricky to find what you’re looking for.
Many people exit the Step Pyramid Complex via the southwest section of the Great Court, heading straight for the Pyramid of Unas. But let’s try a different route.
To find the tombs of Mehu and Idut, you should exit the Step Pyramid Complex the same way you entered – via the colonnade. Once outside the enclosure wall, walk around the left side of the wall.
There’s a diagonal path which is not yet the causeway, though it ultimately leads to the Pyramid of Unas. It’s on this path that you’ll find numerous notable tombs, the first one of which should be the Tomb of Mehu.
You can later walk back east along the causeway after visiting the Unas Pyramid.
Tomb of Mehu
Though first discovered in 1940, the tomb of Mehu was just opened to the public in 2018. Mehu was a vizier of King Pepi I of the 6th dynasty his tomb is arguably the most colorful in all of Saqqara. It should definitely not be missed.
The tomb consists of four rooms and is aligned east-west. The reliefs depict various scenes from daily life – many of which you’ll encounter again and again over the course of the day.
As mentioned above, many, if not all of these scenes hold a deeper symbolic message. The bird trapping scene, for instance, is commonplace all throughout Egypt. John Anthony West suggests that birds represent one’s wild inner nature that needs to be tamed.
To make matters more complex, different birds each had their own symbolic significance. The stork, a migrant bird, may be a metaphor for the soul. Other birds, meanwhile, symbolize specific divinities. The falcon represents Horus and the goose Amun.
Elsewhere, you’ll encounter numerous colorful depictions of Mehu and various offerings being presented to the gods. The artwork here is truly exquisite and, while somewhat faded, remains in remarkable condition considering it’s 4,300 years old!
Note: Unless you get there just as another group is inside or leaving, you’ll likely find this tomb to be locked. Keep walking straight until you find a guard near the Tomb of Idut and they’ll get someone to come and unlock it for you.
Even though you’ve paid for the ticket, be prepared for multiple people to ask you for baksheesh in exchange for their “services.” This behavior is only a small preview of what’s to come in Saqqara. And all throughout Egypt, for that matter.
Tomb of Idut
Princess Idut was a daughter of the 5th dynasty pharaoh Unas, and her tomb is just nearby his pyramid.
The reliefs here are in a good state of preservation. While not in contention for the most remarkable tomb of Saqqara, it’s still worth stopping in for at least a few minutes.
One of the notable reliefs depicts hippo hunting – a common scene throughout Old Kingdom tombs. Both hippos and crocodiles are symbolic of Set. In Egyptian mythology, Set was the adversary of both Osiris and Horus. He represents chaos and the disruption of the natural order, or Maat.
The numerous hunting scenes on display throughout the tombs, then, surely represent the necessity of conquering and subduing these forces within the world and within one’s self.
It’s worth pointing out, however, that Set isn’t quite the same as the ‘evil’ Satan of Christianity – even if that’s where the word originated. Set plays a necessary role and can never be eliminated entirely. In order for one to muster the strength to overcome opposition, there needs to be some kind of oppositional force in the first place.
Just by the tomb of Idut is that of Unas Ankh, one of Pharaoh Unas’s sons. The reliefs are largely faded, but there’s no harm in a quick visit if you already have a ticket.
Just next door is the tomb of Inefert, a vizier of Unas. It contains a rare scene of Inefert and his wife entering a bedchamber, though it can be hard to spot amongst the other feint reliefs.
The Pyramid of Unas
Egypt’s 5th dynasty lasted from around 2456–2323 BC and consisted of nine kings. Many of them built pyramids which, while still standing today, are no match for the 4th-dynasty pyramids of Giza and Dahshur.
And here at Saqqara, the Pyramid of Unas, the final ruler of the 5th dynasty, looks puny in comparison with Djoser’s nearby Step Pyramid.
Be that as it may, Unas implemented a brand new innovation in his pyramid tomb that would change royal tombs for the remainder of Egyptian civilization. It’s here that the Pyramid Texts appeared for the very first time.
But before heading in, take a moment to observe the pyramid from the outside. Notice how in comparison with the relatively shoddy masonry of the core, the remaining casing stones appear nearly as tight and precise as those at Giza.
An inscription on the southern end of the pyramid mentions reconstruction efforts carried out during the reign of Ramesses II. They were done by his son Kha-m-was over 1,000 years after the pyramid was built.
Inside, the burial chamber is entirely covered in hieroglyphs and nothing but hieroglyphs. This is in great contrast to the vivid imagery found throughout the royal tombs of Luxor. But the texts on display in those later tombs, such as the Book of the Dead, the Amduat and the Book of Gates, can all trace their roots back to the Pyramid Texts.
To put it very simply, the texts were meant to help the ka of the dead king properly navigate through the netherworld. If all went well, he would emerge as Horus and be resurrected in eternal union with the gods.
Notably, even by the time of the New Kingdom, the language of these texts was already archaic. It’s thanks to New Kingdom scribes that Egyptologists can decipher the original Pyramid Texts at all!
Note the large granite sarcophagus in the burial chamber. It appears to be as perfectly crafted as those inside the Giza pyramids and in the Serapeum (more below).
Yet it feels strangely oversized here. Was the box carved to just barely fit inside the chamber? Or was the chamber designed later around the box’s dimensions?
Note: At the time of writing, the Pyramid of Unas is only open for visitors each day until noon. If you miss it, don’t fret. The 6th dynasty Pyramid of Teti in the Northeast Zone is nearly an identical copy and remains open until closing time.
The Unas Causeway
Outside of the temple, to the east, are the remains of Unas’s mortuary temple. Notice the basalt floors, which is a fairly common feature of Old Kingdom temples. As basalt is a volcanic stone, the Egyptians often used it symbolically to represent the element of fire.
A long causeway then leads east from the ruined mortuary temple. Originally, it would’ve been entirely lined on either side with carved reliefs, only some of which survive.
Most of the carved scenes are from daily life (though most definitely also symbolic). Notably, they share some similarities with scenes found inside the tombs.
One of the most notable reliefs found at the Unas Causeway is no longer on display at the causeway itself, but at Saqqara’s Imhotep Museum. It’s a scene of a famine, an extremely rare portrayal in Egypt of a negative event.
Tomb of Irukapta
Continue heading east down the Unas Causeway and you’ll encounter a few tombs to the south. If they’re locked, you may have to backtrack all the way to the central area until you can find someone with the key. The guard will accompany you and eventually demand a tip for the “trouble.”
During my visit, only two tombs were open in this area, but they were among the most impressive. The first was that of Irukapta, also dubbed the ‘Tomb of the Butchers.’
Irukaptah was a ‘Superintendent of the Royal Slaughterhouses’ during the fifth dynasty. Appropriately, his tomb features many butchering scenes.
Butchering scenes, in fact, are common all throughout Egyptian tombs. They likely play a similar role to that of the offering scenes. Ritual sacrifices were likely carried out at the time of the funeral as an offering to the gods.
The real highlight of the tomb, though, isn’t its reliefs, but the series of ten statues of the deceased. On the opposite wall are additional statues of some of Irukapta’s family members who were buried along here with him.
The Tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum
Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum both worked as manicurists for the 5th dynasty pharaoh Niussere. They were buried in this tomb together along with their families. But why didn’t each man have his own tomb?
The tomb artwork, many believe, provides us with an important clue. In multiple places, the two men are shown standing next to one another in a close, intimate embrace. This has led many to speculate that they were lovers.
Others, however, believe that they were merely brothers – perhaps even twins. In any case, it’s clear from the art that they really, really liked each other.
There are a lot of other charming reliefs to admire throughout the tomb. For example, note the cow giving birth by the entrance.
We also have the typical netting and funeral scenes and what appears to be two men wrestling. This is a unique Old Kingdom example of what would later be a common motif throughout Middle Kingdom tombs.
The Pyramid of Sekhemkhet
By walking several minutes southwest into the desert from the Pyramid of Unas, you can find the unfinished pyramid of Djoser’s successor, Sekhemkhet. That makes this Egypt’s second-ever pyramid!
Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot to see. But it’s worth the walk for the historical value alone. You can also head here when finished with the New Kingdom tombs.
The Persian Shafts
Just south of the Unas Pyramid are some shaft tombs of high officials built during the two centuries of Persian rule. They’re linked to each other by an underground passageway but are currently inaccessible to the public.
One of the tombs contains hieroglyphs copied from the Pyramid Texts. Unas’s Pyramid was conveniently just next door, though it and its texts predate the Persian Shafts by around 2,000 years!
The New Kingdom Tombs
Though most of the prominent tombs built throughout the New Kingdom period (16th – 11th centuries BC) are in Luxor, many nobles had tombs built here in Saqqara, the necropolis of Memphis. Even in later periods of Egyptian history, long after the seat of political power shifted to Thebes (Luxor), Memphis remained an important religious and political center.
But as mentioned above, these New Kingdom tombs are skippable if you’re short on time. Pretty much every tomb in Luxor is from the New Kingdom period. It makes more sense, then, to focus on the Old Kingdom stuff while in Saqqara.
The path to these tombs isn’t well marked, but find whatever path you can taking you further south into the desert. If you’re somewhere off-limits, a guard will likely let you know!
Tomb of Horemheb
The Tomb of Horemheb is the most noteworthy of Saqqara’s New Kingdom tombs – both visually and historically. Horemheb was the last king of the 18th dynasty. But before that, he was a general for Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Not of royal blood and probably never expecting to take the throne, he had a tomb built here in Saqqara during his military career.
Notably, he also has a royal tomb in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings, and it was ultimately his mother who was buried here. It would be great if people could visit both to compare them, but sadly, Horemheb’s Luxor tomb is currently closed.
You’ll notice straight away how these New Kingdom tombs are not quite like the others. They almost resemble temples more than they do the mastabas of the Old Kingdom. They’re also very unlike the rock-cut tombs of Luxor.
The reliefs here depict Horemheb’s military campaigns. Though Horemheb was a general who did indeed embark on numerous foreign campaigns, even war was symbolic to the Egyptians. In addition to being historical to some degree, battle scenes typically symbolized the forces of light vanquishing the forces of darkness.
In the New Kingdom, the four races of foreigners known to the Egyptians are also commonly depicted, together symbolizing the four corners of the world.
Another notable scene here shows the general and future king being rewarded by King Tut.
Sadly, due to looting, the original artwork is now on display at museums throughout the world. Much of what you see here are replicas, as is the case with Saqqara’s other New Kingdom tombs.
Tomb of Maya
The next most notable tomb in the area is that of Maya, the Royal Treasurer under pharaohs Tutankhamun and Horemheb.
At this tomb, you can walk down into the subterranean chamber which is entirely carved in reliefs. The scenes, all done in white and yellow, show Maya and his wife in the company of various divinities.
When visiting the Cairo Museum, you can also spot some of the original, albeit fragmented, scenes on display.
Pay & Raya
Pay was the Overseer of the Harem of King Tut and Raya was his son. The notable feature of this tomb is its large sarcophagus.
Tia worked for Ramesses II as the Treasurer and Overseer of cattle. He even married the pharaoh’s sister. Very little art remains here.
Ptahemwia was the Royal Butler of Akhenaten. His tomb should be visited by those with an interest in Amarna art, though it lacks any depictions of the Aten sun disk.
During his controversial reign as pharaoh, Akhenaten built a temple to the Aten at Memphis, and Meryneith was its steward. This is another tomb for those with a special interest in the Amarna period.
Warning: It was here at Saqqara’s New Kingdom tombs that I had my most unpleasant interaction with a tomb guard anywhere in Egypt. At first, he was more than willing to take me from one tomb to the next, and I tipped him what I felt was appropriate.
He then complained that it wasn’t enough – a very common reaction in Egypt. But the problem was that he tried to physically block my exit out of the tomb until I paid him more! I refused and sternly told him to get out of my way, and he eventually obliged.
Needless to say, this kind of behavior is absolutely uncalled for. I’m not entirely sure how often the guards get switched around at each site, but be careful here.
The Northwest Zone is home to a couple of Saqqara’s finest tombs, in addition to one of Egypt’s most enigmatic attractions: the Serapeum. There are only a few things to see here so navigation won’t be an issue.
An increasing number of visitors to Egypt are finding themselves enamored with something they may have never thought about before their trip: granite boxes.
Many of the granite sarcophagi in Egypt, such as those in the pyramids of Giza and at the Pyramid of Unas, appear to be absolutely perfect. It remains a complete mystery how the ancient Egyptians were able to make something so precise out of one of the hardest stones. And supposedly, with only very primitive tools.
And here at the Serapeum, the granite boxes are just as precise as those made for the pharaohs. But they’re also much, much larger, with some weighing between 60-80 tons. To top it off, there are more than 20 of them. But what were they for?
The Serapeum is said to have been a burial site for Apis bulls. Apis bulls were long revered in Egypt for representing the god Ptah. Ptah represented creative fire and the generative powers of nature. And he was also the patron deity of Memphis.
Later on in Egyptian culture, the Apis bull was assimilated with Osiris. Osiris, lord of the underworld, also represents the cyclical aspect of nature. The names of the Apis bull and Osiris combined to form Osarapis, and then Serapis in Greek.
Though the Serapeum is believed to date back to the New Kingdom, Osarapis worship continued throughout the Ptolemaic times, with the tradition mirroring Dionysus worship in Greece.
Strangely, however, no bodies of bulls were ever discovered in any of the sarcophagi. Some bull heads were found in niches throughout the tunnels, however.
As you explore the dimly lit crypts, you’ll surely be asking yourself ‘How’d they do it?‘ again and again. The massive boxes were all carved from single blocks of stone.
Not only is their creation a complete mystery, but it’s unclear how they were placed in their current positions. Note how each individual crypt is a couple meters lower than the central walkway.
You may even get lucky enough to enter inside one of the boxes. Run your hands over the granite and feel how perfectly smooth it is. The granite even seems to have a polish to it.
Christopher Dunn, engineer and author of Lost Technologies of Ancient Egypt, observed how the inside corners of the boxes are very sharp – an incredibly hard task to pull off with such a hard stone like granite. During his visit, he brought a precision-ground parallel and found the surfaces of the box’s interior to be completely flat.
Why would such exactitude be required for the burial of an animal – no matter how sacred?
In his book, Dunn also details his communication with the Tru-Stone Corporation, an American manufacturer of granite surface plates. They admitted that they didn’t have the capability to create such a box out of a single piece of granite, but would need to assemble it out of five different pieces.
In modern times, the Serapeum was first excavated by August Mariette in the 19th century. Though many of the boxes were already opened, he found one that was sealed shut. And so he blew it up with dynamite, only to ultimately find . . . nothing.
Most of the boxes are completely void of decoration or inscriptions. One box has a couple lines of hieroglyphs inscribed on the lid, however. And another box has writing and patterns etched all along its sides.
But even the most casual of observers will notice the strange contrast between the crude writing and the smooth polished granite. It’s highly doubtful that the people who left these carvings were the same ones that built the box.
Back near the entrance, you’ll find a seemingly unfinished box that got stuck in transport. Another lays on the floor nearby. The transportation of these boxes is another unsolved mystery.
Even before carrying them through these tunnels, the granite first needed to be shipped all the way from Aswan.
As mentioned above, no bull mummies were ever found inside the Serapeum. One royal human mummy was, however.
It was none other than Kha-m-was, the son of Ramses II. As mentioned earlier, he helped restore the Pyramid of Unas. And being a high priest of Ptah, he asked to buried here in the Serapeum upon his death.
Mastaba of Ti
Located just northeast of the Serapeum is the Mastaba of Ti, a 5th dynasty nobleman. Ti was overseer of the pyramids and the Sun Temple of Abu Sir. One can get a clear view of those pyramids from outside his tomb, while the pyramids of Giza can also be made out further in the distance (see below).
Ti’s official titles can be seen inscribed on the entrance chamber, and here we learn that Ti’s wife was a royal princess.
Scenes in the court include women bringing offerings and an ox being slaughtered. Ti is shown merely looking on as an observer.
Also look for scenes of a dwarf leading a greyhound and a monkey. According to John Anthony West, the greyhound represents instinct while the monkey likely represents one’s inner mischievous nature. Here we see both being subdued and brought under conscious control.
Other reliefs show Ti wearing panther skin, part of a high priest’s ceremonial dress. The panther represents the predatory aspect of nature. The priest wearing panther skin, therefore, represents victory over this aspect of nature.
One of the notable features of this tomb is that it still houses Ti’s statue, or serdab, in the sacrificial chamber. The ka of the deceased was believed to inhabit these statues from which they could look out at the tomb art.
Supposedly, after internalizing the lessons conveyed in the symbolic imagery, the ka could then implement them in the netherworld, or perhaps in a future incarnation.
It’s also possible to head further down to see the burial chamber, where Ti’s sarcophagus remains intact.
Given the excellent reliefs and the presence of the serdab and sarcophagus, it’s no wonder why the Mastaba of Ti has long been considered one of Saqqara’s highlights.
Tomb of Ptahhotep
Ptahhotep was a vizier and Inspector of the Priests during the 5th dynasty. The reliefs at his tomb are widely regarded as some of the finest carved during the Old Kingdom. But while still open during my visit, large portions of the tomb were blocked off. Therefore, I wasn’t able to find many of the notable carvings.
Overall, the tomb contains scenes which are typical of tombs from this era, such as scenes of reaping and sowing and winemaking. Many tomb scenes place an emphasis on various processes – likely metaphors for inner spiritual transformation.
Perhaps it’s ironic, then, that some of the reliefs were left unfinished, indicating that Ptahhotep died before his tomb was completed.
Ptahhotep is notable in Egyptian history for authoring a book of wisdom called The Maxims of Ptahhotep. The book is comprised of teachings intended for his son, Akhethotep, who would replace him as vizier (and who’s also buried here at this tomb).
Notably, over 4,000 years later, and in a completely different world to that of Old Kingdom Egypt, Ptahhotep’s advice holds value today. He emphasizes listening to the wise and to avoid spreading harmful gossip. He also warns against being arrogant, as “knowledge has no limits, and none has yet achieved perfection in it.”
Around Northwest Saqqara
At the eastern end of this section is a collection of Greek statues known as the ‘Philosopher’s Circle.’ The statues, now all headless, include the likes of Plato and Aristotle. They were placed here during the reign of Ptolemy I (305-285 BC).
Over by the Mastaba of Ti, there’s a small assortment of 3rd dynasty tombs. Sadly, they’re now full of trash, while a lone limestone sarcophagus sunbathes in the sand nearby.
Be sure to take in the views of the distant pyramids. Notice how the alignment of the Giza pyramids inspired the 5th dynasty pyramids of Abu Sir. While those at Abu Sir were built around 100 years after the Giza pyramids, the gap in engineering quality is especially striking from this vantage point.
The Northeast Zone largely revolves around the Pyramid of Teti and the tombs of his family and administrators. Most of the highlights in this area were constructed in the 6th dynasty. But, as mentioned below, some of Egypt’s earliest burials can be found around here as well.
Pyramid of Teti
Teti was the first pharaoh of the 6th dynasty, taking the throne just after Unas, the 5th dynasty’s last ruler. His pyramid also contains the Pyramid Texts.
Interestingly, the pyramid was restored during the Middle Kingdom’s 12th dynasty. Even the Cult of Teti was revived at this time, centuries after his death.
Like the Unas Pyramid, the entire wall is inscribed in hieroglyphs. The colors of the interior are different, however. It’s interesting to note how similar the Unas and Teti pyramids on the inside in contrast to those at Giza.
The pyramids of Khufu and Khafre, for example, may look nearly identical from the outside – but their inner chambers have very different designs and overall atmospheres.
Tomb of Mereruka
Mereruka was a son-in-law of King Teti. And within his spacious tomb are also his son and wife. John Anthony West comments on the decline in artistic quality when compared with the tomb of Ptahhotep, just a few generations prior. Be that as it may, this tomb is still worth a visit.
In the entrance chamber, you can find a scene where a hippo and a crocodile, both aspects of Set, are in conflict with one another.
In the third chamber, you can see a scene which shows village elders being punished for tax evasion. Why would such a scene be displayed in a private tomb if it didn’t have a deeper symbolic meaning? Perhaps it’s meant to remind the deceased of the need to pay one’s dues, at least in the metaphorical sense.
Other rooms contain lotus imagery. The flower seems to have played as important a role in Egypt as it has in Indian culture.
Tomb of Kagemni
Just next to Mereruka’s tomb is that of Kagemni. He was a high priest and judge under three kings of both the 5th and 6th dynasties, including Pharaoh Teti. The tomb is full of well-preserved reliefs, many of which depict hunting, fishing and the transport of special oils.
One of the notable reliefs of the tomb, located in the three-pillared hall, is a scene of an acrobatic ballet. Also note how one of the chambers makes use of a mirror image effect with the same reliefs appearing on either wall.
Tomb of Ankhmahor
Ankhmahor was a priest and vizier to King Teti. His tomb, however, is nicknamed the ‘Physician’s Tomb’ due to its numerous medical-themed reliefs.
The most famous scene, located near the doorway, depicts two men being circumcised. This is a very rare tomb scene in Egypt and it’s unclear why Ankmahor would’ve had it included it here.
Subject matter aside, notice the left arm of the man on the right. Clearly, things didn’t always need to be so precise in symbolic tomb reliefs. Yet, for whatever reason, precision was of utmost importance for the creators of the granite boxes.
Tomb of Neferseshemre (?)
Just next to the tomb of Ankhmahor is another tomb without any signs or labels. But according to a map, this may be the tomb of Neferseshemre, yet another vizier of King Teti.
Inside you’ll find some high quality reliefs in addition to an excellent trio of statues carved into the false door.
Around Northeast Saqqara
The northeastern section of Saqqara is one of the oldest and most dense parts of the necropolis. And if you have some extra time to spare, it’s worth taking a walk around for 15 minutes or so.
The western part of this zone is home to some of the oldest masatabas of ancient Egypt which date back to the very earliest dynasties. Most of them are rather small and made of mudbrick.
Supposedly, some early kings are even buried here. But without any signage, it’s not clear who’s buried where. Many of the early kings and nobles, however, were buried at Abydos rather than Saqqara – an area now largely off-limits to tourists (except for the fantastic temple of Seti I).
Walking around, I saw what appeared to be large alabaster cones or bowls. There were at least three or four of them, and they’d surely be a prized possession for any fine arts museum around the world. Yet here they are, just lying in the sand!
Heading further east, there are even more tombs and even pyramids associated with King Teti of the 6th dynasty. The sites are technically off-limits, though you can get a pretty good view from the various pathways.
The most notable construction is the pyramid of Queen Sesheshet, Teti’s mother. Its shape is rather unique and it appears more like some kind of step mastaba rather than a true pyramid. Looking inside (from a distance), you can see an intact sarcophagus. Sadly, though, the pyramid is also full of trash.
We still haven’t even covered all there is to see in Saqqara. If you still somehow have some time and extra energy, you can stop at the sites below which don’t quite fit into any particular zone (see map above).
The Bubasteion Tombs
The Bubasteion Tombs date from the New Kingdom period. Supposedly, however, there was also a Late Period-era temple here named the Bubasteion, dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet.
While there are quite a few tombs in the area, only two are currently open to the public. One of them belongs to Maia, the wet nurse of King Tutankhamun. And another belongs to an official named Ptahmose.
Some of the other tombs are said to feature Amarna art from the reign of Akhenaten, though these were sadly closed during my visit.
The Pyramid of Userkaf
While driving over to the Northwest Zone, you’ll pass by the Pyramid of Userkaf which is currently closed to the public. Userkaf was the founder of the 5th dynasty and was the first pharaoh to build a pyramid at Saqqara since the reign of King Djoser. His 5th dynasty successors would go on to build their pyramids at Abu Sir – at least until the reign of King Unas.
There’s no public transport to Saqqara so you will need to hire a private driver, taxi or Uber. Overall, the Saqqara site is very large. And while the central part of the necropolis can be explored on foot, there are two additional areas to the northwest and northeast that would take quite awhile to walk to and then back again.
I was able to hire a driver for the day through my hotel for $40 USD. Other places, however, were telling me it would cost as much as $70-80!
Sadly, many people only visit Saqqara for just a couple of hours as part of a guided tour which is combined with Dahshur and/or Giza. If you only have a few days in the Cairo area, then this is certainly better than nothing. But if you can, it’s well worth delegating an entire day to Saqqara as there is so much to see.
In fact, I spent an entire day at Saqqara but still couldn’t see everything. Since I had the Cairo Pass (more below), I asked my driver to make another stop the next day in between my visits to Dahshur and Memphis. And as mentioned above, I visited a third time weeks later to visit the Step Pyramid’s interior.
If you have the slightest interest in Egyptian culture and history, exploring Saqqara should be one of your top priorities during your stay in the Greater Cairo area.
As at many sites throughout Egypt, Saqqara has a confusing ticketing system. All in all, there are at least a couple dozen attractions which visitors can currently see throughout the vast necropolis. While entry to the site itself costs 180 EGP, many of the other sites (often grouped together) require their own tickets which can cost 100 EGP or more.
The basic Saqqara ticket allows entry to the Imhotep Museum and you’ll be free to walk around the Step Pyramid area. (Apparently, the basic ticket also allows entry to the other pyramids of Unas and Teti.) Entry to the inner chamber of the Step Pyramid, meanwhile, costs an additional 100 EGP while the Serapeum costs 150.
And if you change your mind while out in the desert, you’ll have to return all the way to the ticket gate at the entrance to purchase new tickets.
That’s why I recommend buying the 440 EGP Inclusive Ticket, which allows access to every site of the Saqqara necropolis. Not only will it save you money, but also time and hassle.
Note that this doesn’t include the photography pass, which costs 300 EGP on its own. At the time of writing, visitors are allowed to take photos with their smartphones everywhere in Egypt as long as they don’t use a flash. However, if you want to use a DSLR, you’ll need to buy the photo pass to take pictures inside the tombs or pyramids (Sadly, each photo pass is only valid for that particular site.)
An even better option than the Saaqara Inclusive Ticket, however, is to buy 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.
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 and Saqqara. 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.