It’s widely regarded as the world’s very first pyramid. And, for that matter, the first-ever major stone structure. And now, over 4600 years after its construction, Saqqara’s Step Pyramid continues to make headlines. For the first time in 14 years, the subterranean labyrinth beneath the pyramid has just opened up to the general public. Having entered the other open pyramids throughout Egypt, I found that stepping inside the Step Pyramid of Djoser was an experience unlike any other.
Djoser, who ruled in the 27th century BC, was a pharaoh of ancient Egypt’s 3rd dynasty. We know relatively little about his reign. But thanks to his monumental pyramid at Saqqara, Djoser remains a household name even millennia after his lifetime.
Djoser, however, wasn’t the first pharaoh to build at Saqqara, a vast burial ground situated some 30 km south of modern Cairo. The site, which served as the royal necropolis for the old capital of Memphis, contains tombs dating back to Egypt’s Early Dynastic times.
And amazingly, royals would continue to build tombs there up until the Roman period. But even after 3,000 years of continuous building activity at Saqqara, the Step Pyramid of Djoser continues to loom over everything around it.
The King, the Architect & the Pyramid
One of Egypt’s earliest monarchs, King Djoser remained highly revered throughout the rest of ancient Egyptian history. While regarded as a wise and benevolent ruler (as evidenced by the Famine Stelae at Aswan), he was also considered by his later successors to be one of Egypt’s most innovative.
As mentioned above, the Step Pyramid is considered to be the world’s first pyramid. But aside from the pyramid itself, there are numerous other world firsts that visitors can spot inside the Step Pyramid complex. And it’s all thanks to the mastermind behind the project, Imhotep, Djoser’s head priest, vizier and architect.
Upon entering Saqqara and before your visit to the pyramid, it’s worth stopping by recently-opened Imhotep Museum to learn more about the architect and his legacy.
We don’t have any writings which reveal the thought process that went into the Step Pyramid’s design (we do, however, have a diagram of a nearby vault.) But with the casing stone gone, the exposed Tura limestone blocks reveal the stages of building and rebuilding which helped the Step Pyramid take its final form.
In Egypt’s Early Dynastic times, kings and nobles were buried under what we now call mastabas, an Arabic word for ‘stone bench.’ These were typically flat-roofed rectangles made of stone or mudbrick, under which burial chambers were dug for kings or nobles. Numerous early mastabas can still be seen throughout Saqqara today.
It’s believed that the Step Pyramid started as a simple limestone mastaba, though, unusually, a square one and not a rectangle. But at some point, Imhotep decided to expand the base and add three additional smaller mastabas on top of it, resulting in a four-stepped pyramid.
And later, the base was enlarged yet again. Two additional levels were added to the top, resulting in its final 6-tier form. Supposedly, as many as five changes of plan took place during construction.
Though it sounds simple enough, it was highly revolutionary for the time. And notably, today, the 60 meter-high Step Pyramid remains in better shape than all other Egyptian pyramids from the 5th dynasty onward.
Imhotep was so widely respected for his contribution to Egyptian civilization that he was later worshipped as a healing god during Ptolemaic times. In fact, he, along with New Kingdom architect Amenhotep Son of Hapu, were perhaps the only commoners to have cults developed around them.
During your travels around Egypt, you’ll encounter shrines dedicated to Imhotep installed at Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple in Luxor as well as at Philae Temple in Aswan.
Entering the Complex
The complex’s outer enclosure wall looks surprisingly modern. Visitors would be forgiven for thinking it was designed by a contemporary architect in recent times. And while yes, the current wall is largely a reconstruction, the original design is no less than 4,650 years old.
The limestone wall towers over its surroundings at over 10.5 meters. But this is just a small section of the original which once encompassed the entire pyramid complex. When complete, it formed a huge rectangle of about 550 by 275 meters. It was possibly based on the enclosure wall surrounding the capital city of Memphis.
Despite there being over a dozen false doors placed along the enclosure wall, there was only one single entrance for visitors. Situated near the southeast edge of the complex, this is the same entrance used by tourists today.
Stepping inside, you’ll encounter the entrance colonnade, another architectural feature unique to the Step Pyramid complex. Lining the walkway is a series of pillars meant to resemble bound reeds.
Like many other parts of the Step Pyramid complex, here we see representations of wood and plants immortalized in stone.
Each column consists of 17 or 19 stalks. There are forty of them in total, possibly meant to represent the 40 or so nomes, or territories, of Egypt at the time.
Another thing that sets this colonnade apart from later constructions is that the columns here are not freestanding, but connected to the walls with masonry.
Notably, the distance between columns gradually narrows so as to present an illusion of distance. Or, given the ancient Egyptian mindset, possibly for purely symbolic reasons.
Like the enclosure wall, the columns we see today are largely reconstructed, albeit with original parts discovered in the sand. They’re widely believed to be the world’s oldest columns made of stone.
The Great Court
Coming out of the dim colonnade, visitors find themselves in front of the open and vast Great Court. This expansive stretch of desert contains almost nothing except the remains of two small altars. It was here, as part of the Heb-Sed ceremonies, that the king would run laps to demonstrate his physical fitness.
But more on the Heb-Sed festival later. For now, turn around and look at the southern wall.
Along the upper portion of the southern platform is a series of cobra friezes – thought to be the oldest stone friezes in the world. Notably, the cobra was a symbol of Lower Egypt. As you’ll see, symbols of a unified Upper and Lower Egypt repeat themselves again and again throughout the complex.
Visitors can also walk up the steps to take in the view of the entire court. And though currently inaccessible to visitors, behind the platform lies the South Tomb.
Situated at the bottom of a huge shaft, the South Tomb was designed as a mirror of King Djoser’s royal palace. Yet it also shares much in common with the set of chambers directly beneath the pyramid.
To this day, experts still aren’t entirely sure why Imhotep would construct two different tombs.
Over to the east of the court are remnants of a building and columns. While its true function remains unknown, this mysterious structure is the only one to have actual internal spaces. The others, in contrast, are filled with solid masonry.
Notice the many carvings of djed pillars on the door lintels. Djed pillars represent the backbone of Osiris, god of the underworld, and also the stability of the kingdom as a whole. But spinal imagery has long held a deeper esoteric significance in many cultures throughout the world.
The Heb-sed Court
Walking through a narrow passageway, you’ll reach the so-called ‘Heb-Sed Court’ to the east of the Great Court. But just what was the Heb-Sed? From the very early dynasties up until the end of ancient Egyptian civilization, long-reigning kings would participate in a special ritual to prove they were still fit to rule.
As mentioned above, the aging Pharoah would have to run around the markers in the Great Court to demonstrate his physical fitness. But as with just about everything in ancient Egypt, there were surely deeper symbolic elements to the Heb-Sed ceremonies as well.
The Heb-Sed festival took place on the thirtieth year of a king’s reign, meaning only a select few of Egypt’s pharaohs ever got to have one. (Later on, however, this number wasn’t always strictly observed.) Subsequent Heb-Sed festivals would then happen every three years.
The Heb-Sed court contains 25 chapels in total, and they likely played a special role in the ceremonies of the festival. Notably, these are completely solid structures that can’t be entered, meaning their function was purely symbolic. The shapes of these sanctuaries seem to copy arched-roof cabins made of reeds and wood.
There are, however, numerous shrines which likely contained statues of the Egyptian neters, or deities. Notice how they’re fastened with ‘dummy gates’ which mimic real ones but have no practical function.
Also note the two staircases which together likely represented the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt.
It was here in the Heb-Sed Court that plays or rituals were carried out that commemorated the death and resurrection of Osiris, lord of the underworld. All ancient Egyptian pharaohs identified with Osiris in death. Their ultimate goal was to be reborn as his son Horus and ascend to the heavens, unifying themselves eternally with the gods.
Accordingly, at the far eastern end of the Heb-Sed Court, we can see a series of statues depicting Djoser as Osiris, This is a motif used again and again throughout the remainder of Egyptian civilization.
In the northern section of the Heb-Sed Court, one can find the remnants of a large building, now referred to as the ‘Southern Pavilion.’ It likely once towered over the courtyard at 12 m high, though today only the doorway and some columns remain.
Notice how similar these columns are to the Doric columns of ancient Greece, such as those found at the Parthenon. Yet these predate the ones in Athens by a full 2,000 years!
However, like the other columns at the Step Pyramid complex, they’re not freestanding but attached to the walls.
Stepping inside the small pavilion, one can see graffiti (perhaps the world’s oldest) left in the Hieratic script by visitors during the 18th and 19th dynasties – over 1,000 years after the reign of King Djoser. There’s also a set of three niches which surely contained statues. (Beware here of a ‘guide’ who points out the obvious in hopes of a tip.)
Also nearby, one can find remnants of a set of statues of King Djoser and his family. Today, nothing but the feet remain.
Walking over to the northern face of the pyramid, don’t miss one of the most peculiar aspects of the Step Pyramid complex. Within a limestone box sits the serdab, or statue, of King Djoser himself.
To the ancient Egyptians, spirits of the gods or kings could inhabit physical objects like statues. And so two holes were carved into the box so that the statue to look out at the court in front of it. And at night time, it would also get a clear view of the North Star.
Today, the general area north of the pyramid is filled with blocks cleared out from the South Tomb at the opposite end of the complex. Notice how many of them are carved with stars to represent the night sky. As we’ll go over below, you can find many more like them inside the Step Pyramid.
Though the area is largely in ruin, the remnants of some stone flooring, along with pieces of ancient pillars can clearly be distinguished. And the north section of the pyramid also features yet another large pavilion which mirrors that to the south.
This is yet another a solid structure meant for symbolic purposes only. But notice the papyrus columns in front, which symbolized Lower Egypt (the southern half of the country).
We can conclude, then, that the two pavilions represented the unification of the two Egyptian kingdoms in dynastic times.
Directly in front of the north face of the pyramid is what remains of King Djoser’s mortuary temple. These temples, intended for the continuation of the cult of the dead king, were commonplace throughout Egypt. And they were typically built nearby the king’s tomb.
Accordingly, it’s through the mortuary temple that visitors can access the elaborate tomb of King Djoser. In fact, as of March 2020, this is now only possible after 14 years of renovations.
I’d visited Saqqara twice early on in my travels around Egypt. As much as I loved the site, I had no intention of visiting again. That is until weeks later, I heard a rumor that the underground chamber of the Step Pyramid would finally open up to the public. The inauguration ceremony was supposed to take place the following day – my very last in the country.
I didn’t hesitate to cancel my plans (sorry, Coptic Cairo) and booked a driver to take me to Saqqara early next morning. But I still had doubts about whether I’d really make it inside the Step Pyramid.
Even at the ticket gate, nobody could give me a straight answer. They told me that the Minister of Antiquities would have to formally open the pyramid at a ceremony which might at end 11am. Or maybe twelve. Or maybe not at all. I might have to come back again tomorrow, they said.
As this was my only shot, I bought the ticket anyway, went over to the Step Pyramid, and waited around. The entire area was heavily guarded and there were already dozens of cameramen and photographers gathered by the northern tomb entrance.
Before long, the Minister of Antiquities and Tourism, Khaled al-Anany, arrived with his entourage. They all went down into the pyramid together, emerging out of breath some 20 minutes later.
With my camera out, I managed to blend in with the international press. But it didn’t do me much good. Even the press were barred entry, and few of us knew what was going on. ‘Come back in an hour or so,’ one of the guards told me.
Over by the southern entrance, the same process repeated itself yet again – seemingly multiple times. And all of a sudden, the Prime Minister himself arrived, as a stampede of guards and journalists accompanied him across the Great Court. (This could be the closest we’ll ever get to a modern Egyptian ruler reenacting the ancient Heb-Sed rites.)
It was an exciting spectacle, for sure. But nobody could tell us when – or if – we’d be able to go inside the Step Pyramid. It was almost midday and the press, along with numerous tourists who’d come for the opening, were growing impatient.
The government officials gave their speeches at a stage in the middle of the court. And before long, the crowds suddenly dwindled. Was that it? we wondered.
Just when I was ready to give up, I saw a small group of people quietly descending the southern staircase. I hurried over, and the guard, who’d surely noticed me waiting around all morning, waved me in. I’d made it.
Inside the Step Pyramid of Djoser
The inside of the Step Pyramid can be accessed by two different entrances on the north and south sides. Notably, the two sides do not connect, so to get the full experience, be sure to enter both.
The Southern Entrance
The south entrance was constructed during the 26th dynasty, over 2,000 years after the Step Pyramid was originally completed. The 26th dynasty, which ruled before the takeover of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, was one of the last native dynasties to rule Egypt.
As with the prior Nubian-led 25th dynasty, these later pharaohs showed great reverence for their ancient predecessors. As such, they worked hard to renovate and restore many of Egypt’s oldest monuments.
The southern entrance, modern restoration of which began in 2006, consists of a single hallway leading to the main burial chamber. Visitors reach a platform overlooking the massive shaft which runs directly beneath the pyramid.
And looking down at the bottom, you can see a sight quite unlike any other in Egypt.
Unlike the granite sarcophaguses placed inside pyramids from the 4th dynasty onward, here we see a massive rectangle comprised of no less than 32 granite blocks.
Looking at it from above, it appears to barely rise above the ground. But this is an illusion, as the rectangle stands at 4.7 meters high. As I’d soon learn, only by standing right next to the granite blocks can one sense of how mammoth this construction really is.
Being among the first group from the general public inside this place in years, I stood for awhile in awe of what lay before me. But the best was yet to come.
The Northern Entrance
Coming out of the southern entrance, I was disappointed to find the northern entrance still locked. ‘It’s closed today. Come back tomorrow,’ a guard told me. But there were still several people lingering around, and I decided to wait a bit longer.
Nearly thirty minutes later, just when I was about to return to the parking lot, there were whispers that the door had suddenly opened. Apparently, someone had unlocked it from the inside.
The northern entrance is the original chamber designed by Imhotep. In complete contrast to the short and straight pathway of the newer entrance, we soon realized that we were traversing through a vast subterranean labyrinth.
I encountered multiple pathways and staircases to choose from. Though unsure of exactly where I was headed, I eventually encountered a room that I’d seen before in pictures.
One large section of the chamber consists of walls entirely decorated in blue tiles, said to resemble rolled-up reed mats. Though most of them have fallen off, plenty of the originals remain in place.
It’s both a beautiful and unique decorative element that you won’t find anywhere else at a pyramid, tomb or temple in Egypt.
In addition to the blue-green tiles, this section also contains a few different carved reliefs of the king. Here we can see Djoser running – a clear depiction of the Heb-Sed festival. The imagery here mirrors similar art at the bottom of the South Tomb at the other end of the Great Court.
After walking through another series of tunnels, I arrived at the same burial vault I’d just seen from above. But standing just next to it, the massive collection of blocks was simply too big to take in all at once.
The chamber here was surely meant for burial. As you’ll observe throughout your travels, it’s of a completely different nature to the mysterious corridors and chambers of the Giza and Dahshur pyramids.
Surrounding the large granite blocks are multiple other passageways leading deeper into the labyrinth. With no signage, it was easy to get lost and disoriented, but that was all part of the experience.
Ultimately, all of the passageways lead to dead-ends. Some spaces were filled with blocks adorned with carvings of stars. Meanwhile, there were other areas filled with stone rubble and pot shards.
Supposedly, these corridors inside the Step Pyramid once contained many of King Djoser’s possessions. Some of the more interesting ones are now on display at both the Cairo Museum and the nearby Imhotep Museum. They’re perfectly carved vessels of alabaster, many of which are believed to date back to even earlier, predynastic times.
Peering down through some of the tunnels, it was clear that the underground labyrinth goes on even much further than what visitors have access to. All in all, the burial chamber is perhaps even as impressive an engineering feat as the Step Pyramid itself.
Yet why did Imhotep feel the need to build such an extensive network of tunnels? This is likely something people will be pondering for years, if not centuries, to come.
After getting lost a few more times, I was finally sure that I’d fully explored the vast tunnel network. More than satisfied, I made the long journey back to the surface.
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.