The Giza Pyramids virtual challenge - Postcard 2

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Postcard 2

20210403 second postcard

Sitting modestly before the vast Saqqara Necropolis is the Imhotep Museum, housing archaeological artifacts pertaining to the history of Ancient Egypt. Opened in 2006, it was named after the royal architect Imhotep, who was credited for building the first monumental structure out of stone, being the stepped Pyramid of Djoser.

The Saqqara Necropolis is a vast, ancient burial ground with many pyramids and mastabas within its boundaries. Mastabas were rectangular, flat-roofed tombs, made out of mudbricks. They were used by eminent Egyptians, such as Mereruka in the Early Dynastic Period and Old Kingdom. Mereruka was a vizier, a high ranking and powerful official, and son-in-law to King Teti, the 1st pharaoh of the sixth dynasty. The Mastaba of Mereruka is the largest of all non-royal tombs in Saqqara. Elaborately decorated with vibrant reliefs and a lifelike statue, the tomb was hidden from view until archaeologist Jacques de Morgan discovered and excavated it in 1892. The mastaba is also the burial ground for his wife (daughter of King Teti) and their son. The mastaba has a complex floorplan consisting of 33 chambers of which 21 are dedicated to Mereruka himself and the rest to his wife and son.

Beside Mereruka's mastaba is the Pyramid of Teti. Once a smooth-sided pyramid, it now resembles more of a hill, largely due to poor preservation. However, the interior chambers and corridors are very well preserved. It is unknown how long Teti reigned but it is estimated at 12 years. Teti had several wives and up to 13 children (3 sons and 10 daughters). It is thought that he was murdered by his bodyguards in order to make way for Userkare's reign. It is debated whether Userkare was possibly a son of Teti and whether he was a legitimate heir. Regardless of circumstances, his reign was short-lived, less than 5 years, when he was succeeded by Teti's son Pepi I.

Teti's predecessor was Unas, the last pharaoh of the 5th dynasty. His smooth-sided pyramid built in the 24th century BC was the smallest of the Old Kingdom. What made it significant though was the discovery of Pyramid Texts which were funerary texts carved into walls of burial chambers to help a pharaoh's spirit to be preserved in the afterlife. Unas' pyramid was the first inscription of such texts and at that time was reserved for pharaohs only. The Pyramid Texts were the predecessors to Coffin Texts when the spells were written on coffins and the Book of the Dead which were spells written on papyrus.

Egyptologists weren't able to agree on Unas' reign so it is guesstimated at between 15-30 years. It seems that Unas died without a male heir, as his only son predeceased him. As such it brought the end of the 5th Dynasty.

Diagonally across from the Pyramid of Unas is the Pyramid of Userkaf, the founder of the 5th Dynasty. He reigned for about seven years in the early 25th century BC. He had one daughter and one son, Sahure, who succeeded him. Little is known about his activities other than ascending the worship of Ra, deity of the sun. Ra was believed to rule the sky, the earth and the underworld. He was the god of the sun, order, kings and the sky. Pharaohs were closely aligned to Ra, referring to themselves as "Sons of Ra". Pyramids, obelisks and sun temples were specially aligned to honour Ra.

Userkaf's pyramid was very roughly put together. The core was built with small, roughly-hewn limestone blocks which likely saved a lot on labour but also produced an inferior quality pyramid. However, the outer layer was of fine limestone giving it a grand impression. Sadly as stone robbers removed the outer limestone, the loosely built core was exposed and crumbled leaving a pile of rubble in the shape of a hill. It was customary for pharaohs to build burials for their wives nearby and Userkaf had built a smaller pyramid to the southwest corner of his own using the same construction material and style. Unsurprisingly, the Queen's pyramid is in rubbles too and her pyramid was stripped to such an extent that her burial chamber became exposed to the elements.

And this brings me to the final pyramid. Between the smaller pyramids of Unas and Userkaf stands the Pyramid of Djoser. It is a stepped pyramid built by the royal architect Imhotep and the oldest stone structure of its size in the world. Built in the 27th century BC, this six-tier, four-sided structure dominates the Saqqara landscape. The pyramid once covered in polished white limestone was originally 205ft (62.5m) tall with a base of 358x397ft (109x121m). Beneath the pyramid is a 6km labyrinth of tunnelled chambers and galleries that meets with a central shaft, providing the king with space for his and his family's burials and the storage of goods and offerings. Once completed it stood out from the large mastabas that were constructed out of mudbricks.

Djoser's pyramid is the only stepped-pyramid that was fully completed and continues to exist. A pyramid typically requires 20 years to complete. Djoser, one of the principal leaders of the 3rd Dynasty, ruled for between 19-28 years, as such he saw the completion of his pyramid. Djoser's successor Sekhemkhet planned to outdo the building of his own pyramid by making it taller with a bigger base but unfortunately he died within 9 years of his reign and the pyramid remained unfinished. After Sekhemkhet's there was one more stepped-pyramid just south of Giza but it is not confirmed whether it was finished or if it just eroded over time as it is a ruined structure now.

The Saqqara Necropolis has many more minor pyramids, mastabas and funerary complexes that are known of but there's nothing more exciting than when new discoveries are made. A recent discovery (late 2020) of 100 intact wooden coffins, brightly covered with hieroglyphs and well-preserved mummies inside has been found in the Saqqara.