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City of the Dead Volume 59 Number 3, May/June 2006
by Andrew Lawler

The vast Egyptian necropolis of Saqqara is now emerging from the shadow of Giza and the Valley of the Kings.

Pilgrim, priest, or pharaoh, each made the same sacred journey. Starting at dawn from the sprawling capital of Memphis along the west bank of the Nile River, they first crossed a shallow lake by boat to reach the great necropolis--a symbolic journey to the land of death. Stepping ashore, they began the climb up from the floodplain to the forbidding desert plateau. Silhouetted tombs of nobles from the 1st Dynasty appeared on the left, and, as the path curved south, ahead loomed the celebrated Step Pyramid, tomb of King Djoser, founder of the 3rd Dynasty (2662-2597 B.C.) and builder of Egypt's first pyramids. In the early morning sun, the massive 200-foot-high tomb with its six limestone-encased steps sparkled brightly. A dozen other royal pyramids, each at the center of its own collection of temples and tombs, some enclosed by elaborate porticos and most filled with hand-carved reliefs in dim rooms, rose above the dusty plain. Smoke from offerings drifted over the site, day and night, blowing in the dry desert wind over the capital in the lush valley below.

It is hard to imagine today that Saqqara--the oldest cemetery of unified Egypt and arguably the world's most elaborate and extensive burial ground--was built to impress as well as inter. The modern entrance into the famed graveyard is anything but inspiring. As I arrive on the bumpy road from Cairo in a rickety taxi traveling alongside fetid canals, drink stands under date palms give way to a concrete guardhouse; the tarmac winding up the barren hillside leads to a jumble of dun-colored mounds presided over by the crumbling Step Pyramid, shorn of its limestone. Even the few tourist buses parked near the pyramid seem swallowed up in the vast landscape and relentless sun of a late fall day. Unlike the majesty of Giza to the north or the austere silence of the Valley of the Kings to the south, Saqqara feels simply desolate.

The Saqqara Geophysical Project uses various techniques to detect subsurface remains. Left: a sledge with ground-penetrating radar is pulled across the sand. Right: results from a magnetic gradiometer survey show buried walls of tombs, temples, and other structures. (The Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project)


It is, at the same time, overwhelming. I'm not sure where to start. Thousands of tombs are spread across an area nearly four miles long and nearly a mile wide, and covering more than 3,000 years of complex Egyptian history. "Saqqara is a virgin land," says Zahi Hawass, director of Egypt's Supreme Council on Antiquities and a long-time excavator at the site, when I visit him in his downtown Cairo office. "If you dig anyplace, you find a tomb. You don't even really have to dig." Two dozen archaeological expeditions are currently at work here--Egyptian, European, American, Australian, and Japanese--finding new tombs and restoring old ones. And because many of the early efforts were poorly documented, they are rediscovering those tombs already "lost" after more than a century and a half of excavations. Yet archaeologists estimate that they have only uncovered perhaps half of the tombs in this vast necropolis.

Saqqara has yielded some of antiquity's most compelling art and architecture, from the magnificent complex of Djoser, which set the standard for future pharaonic tombs, to intimate, carved stone friezes picturing some of the most moving scenes of daily life in ancient Egypt, such as one in the modest grave of Nefer, a minor official, in which a farmer gently feeds and pets his bull. But it also remains vexing. Whether people actually lived there is in dispute. And despite all the Old Kingdom royal tombs, no mummies of rulers have been identified. At the same time, excavators have found tens of thousands of mummies of cats and dogs, ibis and fish, baboons and crocodiles. No concrete evidence of the workshops one would expect at such a vast funerary metropolis has been found, and, despite the richness of individual tombs, there is as yet no completed modern survey of the site. The gaps in knowledge leave many archaeologists frustrated. "It's a pretty sad picture," says Miroslav Barta, an archaeologist at Charles University in Prague who has dug at the site since the 1970s.

That is slowly changing. Instead of treating the site as a vast mine of mummies and artifacts, archaeologists now are starting to take a more comprehensive view of the site and to make more sophisticated interpretations. One team is near to completing a 16-year-long detailed survey of the area, which is uncovering both new sites and those found in the last century but lost in the drifting desert sands. And researchers are beginning to see Saqqara as a vast layered sacred space, rather than simply a huge collection of tombs spread willy-nilly across the plateau.

Hawass' council is also sprucing up the place, which has long been a primitive site for tourists and excavators in comparison with Giza or Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. A young Egyptian Egyptologist proudly gives me a tour, as construction workers put the finishing touches on a new, white-painted museum, administrative center, and secure storage facilities, while work on guest houses and labs for foreign researchers is well under way, neatly hidden from view beneath the plateau in deference to the ancient structures nearby.

Andrew Lawler is a staff writer for Science Magazine, who also writes for National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Discover. He lives in rural Maine.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America