topics: Imhotep, Step Pyramid, Zoser, Old Kingdom, Memphis, Dahshur pyramids, Pharaoh; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: November 26, 1997

Breakfast: Because we made such an early start from the hotel, we missed our chance at two more rolls with butter and jam. Somehow we soldiered on.

Lunch: After our return from Saqqara, we had a late lunch of kushari at one of our favorite places. The kushari itself is almost identical to that we've eaten elsewhere — macaroni, lentils, chick-peas, rice, onions, and a tomato sauce — but the hot sauce is considerably hotter. In fact, three drops were enough to make Corinne's mouth burn. Ethan and Anthony drenched their bowls with it. They acted as if nothing was wrong, but Anthony began hiccuping wildly while Ethan drank an entire pitcher of water.

Dinner: While the chat and debate was going on, Shady asked if we wanted to order out for some kushari. Who were we to argue?

Food of the Day: Rice pudding

The only other thing they sell in most kushari restaurants is "milk-riz" or rice pudding. Like kushari, the rice pudding is a simple but tasty concoction. At the beginning of the day, the cook mixes together a large batch of rice, milk, and sugar. When the mix has reached the perfect consistency, it is then separated into servings and refrigerated. There's no better way to top off a kushari feast.

Person of the Day: Imhotep

Imhotep was Pharaoh Zoser's chief architect and the man generally credited with designing Zoser's pyramid (see the Place of the Day). click to view a photograph His technical skill and daring architectural creativity paved the way the way for the development of the bigger pyramids at Giza and elsewhere.

The Egyptians themselves clearly recognized Imhotep's contributions. Indeed, he was so admired that later, during the New Kingdom, long after the pyramid building era had ended, the Egyptians inducted him (or rather his image) into their pantheon of gods. They actually began worshiping him as a god! Try to imagine what someone would have to accomplish that would lead future generations to revere him or her as a god. Anthony has high hopes that his spoke-fixing ability will someday be held in such regard.

Place of the Day: Zoser's Step Pyramid in Saqqara click to view a photograph

The major attraction of Saqqara is Zoser's Pyramid, also known as the Step Pyramid. In the 27th century BC, the reigning pharaoh, a powerful leader named Zoser, decided he wanted a final resting place more grand than the underground tombs or low, flat brick buildings (mastabas) in which most previous kings had been buried. Fortunately, Zoser had in his service an architect of brilliance, named Imhotep (see the Person of the Day). Under the direction of Imhotep, Zoser's tomb started as a large mastaba but soon evolved into a much more ambitious structure. Imhotep kept adding mastabas on top of one another until Zoser's tomb became a six-tiered pyramid 62 m (203 ft) high, built of thousands of carefully cut stones click to view a photograph all encased in a fine limestone shell.

Certainly one of the oldest standing stone structures in the world, Zoser's Pyramid was also the biggest stone building constructed up to that time. click to view a photograph Somehow Imhotep figured out the answers to the problems of moving, precisely placing, and securing each of the thousands of blocks it took to complete the pyramid. click to view a photograph The building of the Step Pyramid provided the inspiration and technical expertise that ushered in the age of pyramid-building. And while not as large or well preserved as the Great Pyramids in Giza, Zoser's Pyramid still deserves to be listed among one of the most impressive monuments we've seen.

Tech Fact of the Day: How to Build a Pyramid

Not all the pyramids were constructed in the same way. Some, like Zoser's Pyramid (see the Place of the Day) and the Great Pyramids at Giza, were constructed by the precise placement of hundreds of thousands (or millions) of huge stone blocks. In other cases, however, the builders saved time and money by just building an outer wall and filling the inside with sand and other debris. Not surprisingly, the ones made of stone seemed to have lasted longer. In this picture click to view a photograph we pass by a pyramid where you can see the original outer wall and what a pile of rubble inside looks like. Guess how they constructed this pyramid?

Group Dispatch, November 26

picture of Padraic

Today we made our long-delayed expedition to the archaeological sites at Saqqara, 30 km (19 mi) south of Cairo. As is usually the case in Egypt, getting there was a major part of the adventure. Deciding that our bicycles couldn't take us there and back in time for the evening's chat 'n' debate session and that public transport was not very practical because it could only get us to within a couple kilometers of the site, we set off to hire a taxi for the whole day. With some local help we stopped a cab that looked just big enough . . . and started haggling. After some discussion we arrived at a price — £50 for six hours — which was just enough time to get to Saqqara, see some of the sights, and return for the chat. Needless to say — and true to the art of bargaining — we acted amused and outraged that the driver would even consider charging us so much, but really the price was pretty reasonable — about $15 for a taxi for the day. So we were off.

It took nearly an hour to make it through Cairo traffic and then down the Nile River to Saqqara. Again we were amazed at how big Cairo is, but this time we were also amazed at how abruptly the city ended and the farms began. The scenery changed from gray concrete to brilliantly green farmland in just seconds. The green seemed that much more green since we could see the brown of the desert hemming in both sides of the valley that we often forgot we are in. We knew we had arrived at our destination when we saw a big sign welcoming us to the tourist sight. click to view a photograph Isn't that nice?

Curiously, if we had taken the same ride 4000 years ago, our taxi would have been brand new (it was a very old taxi) . . . and the urban and the rural areas would have been reversed. We would have been leaving rich farmland to enter a big city, instead of vice versa. Although there is little indication left within the valley itself, during the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt (long before Cairo had been founded), the nearby settlement of Memphis was the largest city and capital of Egypt. This helps to explain why there are so many archaeological treasures in the desert near what is today a tiny village.

It's probably time for a quick review. Do we all remember what the pyramids were for? Landing docks for alien spacecraft? Well, maybe in the movies, but most experts on ancient Egypt believe that the pharaohs, or kings, of ancient Egypt, built the pyramids as huge tombs to secure a peaceful resting place for their bodies (and their spirits) in the after-life.

So, as impressive as Zoser's Pyramid itself was, the huge funerary complex that surrounded it was supposed to be just as spectacular. As gods on earth, the pharaohs expected to be worshiped by their subjects even after death. The pyramids might have been the center point of the pharaoh's cemetery, but it was always surrounded by an elaborate complex of temples, chapels, and the burial sites of relatives and friends. For example, to enter the Step Pyramid site we had to walk through a long hallway of tall columns click to view a photograph and through an entrance flanked by carved snake heads to get to the large central courtyard just in front of the pyramid itself. click to view a photograph In this courtyard were the ruins of Zoser's two thrones (which symbolized the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt). Surrounding the pyramid were a number of ceremonial temples, including a mortuary temple at which Zoser's relatives were supposed to pay him homage after his death. click to view a photograph

Just next to this temple is a stone structure known as a serdab, in which you find a large wooden box with holes drilled into it. Peering into the hole you are startled to find Zoser himself staring back out at you! It's just a statue, but spooky nonetheless. click to view a photograph

After walking around Zoser's Pyramid, we climbed to the top of the wall that once surrounded the entire complex. We were rewarded by a nice view of the entire area. Besides the small pyramids of Unas, Sekhemket, and Userkef, which are only a few hundred meters from the Step Pyramid, we could also see pyramids stretching off into the distance to both the north and south. In one direction the Great Pyramids at Giza were just visible across the desert click to view a photograph; in the other direction we could identify the impressive "Bent" pyramid and "Red" pyramids in Dahshur. click to view a photograph It helped us realize that we were standing in a field of pyramids — many of which aren't very big click to view a photograph or have long since deteriorated — that stretches over 30 km (19 mi) along the desert ridge just west of the Nile. We tried to imagine what the site must have looked like thousands of years ago, when as many as 70 pyramids lined the ridge, and immediately understood why this whole area, including nearby Dahshur, is a included on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites! visit the World Heritage Site page

The sites at Saqqara also provide a good illustration of how not all pharaohs were buried in pyramids, not even during the pyramid-building phase of Old Kingdom Egypt. They, and many of the other prominent members of Egyptian society, also had less impressive but still fairly elaborate tombs — some in underground chambers, some in the low flat brick buildings called mastabas. Indeed, when we discovered that we were surrounded by many non-pyramid archaeological sites, we realized that dozens of pharaohs and thousands of ancient Egyptians were buried around us. We were in the middle of a huge city of the dead. With this eerie thought in mind, we set out to explore some of the other notable tombs. Here is a picture looking back over some of the other tombs towards Zoser's Pyramid. click to view a photograph

Just south of Zoser's pyramid we wandered through a number of ancient tombs, all of which were in various states of excavation and renovation. None of the mummies were still around, but we found a lot of neat art and hieroglyphics on the walls. click to view a photograph Particularly interesting were the tombs of Akhti-Hotep and Ptah-Hotep, father and son officials during the reign of the Pharaoh Djedkare. Inside their tombs we found pictures of the father-son duo in various settings — from hunting scenes to depictions of them receiving manicures. Although over 4000 years old, the pictures have been restored to their original bright color. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to photograph them (with a flash, which would have been necessary) in an effort to preserve the color for future generations.

Our next stop was the Serapium, the ancient burial chamber not for pharaohs or their servants, but for mummified bulls! As gods on earth, these bulls too received special treatment in death. A monument to the sacred bull, Apis (who is the incarnation of Ptah, the god of Memphis), the Serapium is a huge but dimly light underground chamber that once held the mummified remains of dozens of sacred bovine. All that remains of the remains are the gigantic outer coffins (sarcophagi), but these are impressive enough , some over 3 m (10 ft) high and 9 m (30 ft) long, carved out of black granite. They must have weighed tons. To get these immense coffins into the underground chamber, the builders dug big holes, filled them with sand, dragged the sarcophagi on top of the sand, and then dug the sand out from under them, slowly lowering the sacred remains into their final resting places!

Our final stop was the Mastaba of Ti, the tomb of a prominent member of one pharaoh's court. Again, the paintings and hieroglyphics on the walls of the tomb were remarkably well preserved and colorful. These decorations vividly portray everyday life in ancient Egypt, depicting such activities as the harvesting of grain, the butchering of cattle, and the brewing of beer. It also showed how well the elite of Egyptian society lived. Mister Ti himself is shown floating down the Nile on a barge, sniffing sweet-smelling flowers while being fanned by slaves! Unfortunately, once again, there was not enough light in the dim chamber for our pictures to turn out very well. Here's a look at our best efforts. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

After a long dusty day in Saqqara, we hopped back into our taxi and headed to the inTouch offices in Cairo to prepare for the regular Wednesday night chat 'n' debate — always one of the highlights of our week. But first we had another bout with Cairo traffic. After a number of near misses, this time our taxi actually hit a pedestrian! Fortunately the pedestrian was not hurt and both he and our driver seemed to get a good chuckle out of the whole thing. Still, it would be untruthful to say we weren't relieved when our long ride was over. Our driver received a nice tip for bringing us back in one piece. He went off to pick up more fares. We spent the rest of the evening chatting and debating with classrooms back in the States.

Go to Previous Rider Notes PageGo to Next Rider Notes Page

Questions? Ask Padraic Go To Padraic's Page!

Return to Fast Facts

BikeAbout Itinerary & Journal Discussion Groups About Egypt eDscape Projects BikeAbout Scrapbook
Discussions About

About BikeAbout Mediterranean Journey BikeAbout Partners Resource Library

InTouch Communications Services

Internet access while in Egypt was provided by InTouch Communications Services.

Daedalus Design Group Computer Curriculum Corporation Compaq

Copyright 1997-2004 BikeAbout. All rights reserved.