Egypt: Reminiscences of Saqqara

Reminiscences of Saqqara

by Alan M. Fildes


A few of my favorite ancient Egyptian sites are within the vast necropolis of what is today called Saqqara, the burial grounds for the noble populace of ancient Memphis (Ineb hedj, White Wall). This area's history spans time from the Archaic to Coptic times, over 3500 years of activity ( c 3200 to 500 ad ). From the crude to the magnificent, Saqqara caters to every student of Ancient Egyptian History. Over the years since my earliest exhilarating visit in December 1979, I have enjoyed the drive from Cairo along the main north/south route that turns west and is flanked by fig palm clad fields approaching the awesome Step Pyramid. The Step Pyramid is always at its best shimmering in a light smoky haze. I am sure my pulse starts to race with the impending expectation of another glorious day for the site is as yet undiminished in my eyes after all these years. Of the highlights, and there have been many, I remember March 1986 and walking through the Archaic Cemetery with Professor Geoffrey T Martin to the long ago sanded up remains of the tomb of the great Hesy re. Hesy re was the greatest of Physicians and Dentists dating to the III Dynasty. I Stand completely spellbound, listening to stories in my mind told by the great W.B. Emery before he would enjoy a mint tea in the Egypt Exploration Society dig house. He would be viewing a copy of the epigraphy from Horemhebs tomb before meeting Dr Eugen Strouhal a very charming gentleman.


Anyone who has had the good fortune to enter the Step Pyramid will explain the feeling of awe when one arrive in the center peering down the burial shaft . The rickety old steel safety fence does not inspiring any amount of confidence. To see the ancient entrance / exit possibly last used by Imhotep himself after the burial rites of Djoser had been completed is a grand vision. The way in today is via the Saite tunnel, but the columns they left generate apprehension . There is an overall feeling of reverence and great antiquity as our own inadequacies way heavy on the mind. This is a place I didnt want to leave. Working in the tomb of Kagemni for Dr Yvonne Harpur in March 1998 checking fish species room by room, I soon came to realize how demanding field Archaeology can be. I can honestly say it is the hardest I have ever worked , the reward being the involvement in something very special. When an invitation arrived from Professor Karol Mysliwiec Field Director for the Polish / Egyptian Mission to visit the newly discovered tomb of Merefnebef, a Vizier of the late VI Dynasty, I was very excited.


Dr Harpur obviously thought I needed a break allowing me to visit this wonderful and so far unique tomb, with its colors still as pristine as though completed yesterday. The entrance is so narrow it is unlikely it will ever be possible to allow access, Professor Mysliwiec spent over an hour explaining the excavations, especially the problems facing consolidation and renovation of the beautiful reliefs, before he introduced me to his team. The importance of this discovery can be judged by the temporary staircase built to accommodate President Hosni Mubarak. This area, until recently unexcavated, is believed to be adjacent to Djosers dry moat ( a fascinating theory ). One of the great joys of Saqqara away from the touristy places are the sanded up tombs with perhaps part of a lintel jutting out of the sand . To read the Hieroglyphic inscriptions, and of course recite the name of the occupier, makes me feel as though I am performing an ancient ritual ( the invocation ritual ). He who passes by my tomb may he, etc .


Another excellent day at Saqqara , I remember Professor Martin inviting me to visit Mayas subterranean rooms. There, he delighted in explaining the significance of the golden reliefs . I felt very privileged. Although totally committed to the Old Kingdom, its nice to view the New Kingdom excavations especially with such an authority as G.T.M.. I know through my travels that many people have visited the tomb of Nefer just south of the Unas Causeway. I recall climbing down the wooden steps to view the face of Waty that showed great dignity after 4350 years. It is amazing just try to imagine how the world has changed since his last breath. To gaze upon his face seems surreal. One day the unexpected happened and worked to my benefit. It was February 1996 and I had arranged to meet an old friend, Stan Ladd.


He was due to arrive from Luxor and rendezvous with me at Djosers main entrance, but as it happened Stan had internal flight problems did not arriving in Cairo until the following day. I sat on a bench waiting for an hour, having spent most of my previous visits running around like a headless chicken . This was when I realized the benefits of just chilling out and enjoying the wonderful timeless views that are so very rewarding, especially if uninterrupted . Finally in October 1993, I remember arriving at Saqqara before the ticket office had opened. It was around 8.00 am. In fact no one seemed to be anywhere so I proceeded on my travels and arrived at the tomb of Ti while the guardian was still asleep on his woven mat just inside the tomb. The necropolis is so mysterious before the sun has risen. All the mists and shadows are full of rich colors that are so pleasant on the eye before the sun bleaches them all away for another day. I very much doubt you could do this today but it is worth the effort.


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