Friday, January 03, 2014

Stargazing at Saqqara . . .

On our third day in Cairo, we met with Mohammad, a guide well trained in Egyptian history, to travel south to the pyramid complex at Saqqara. On the drive south past fields of alfalfa and sugar cane, we passed carts drawn by water buffalo and saw White Nile Herons skimming along the Nile. Houses with wires sticking out seemed half-built until Mohammad explained the parents will build the next level for their children, thus avoiding taxes by not finishing construction.

Saqqara is perhaps best known for the stepped pyramid of Djoser, built some 2,900 years ago. Each level (and there are 6) is made up of successively smaller layers, rather like a square cake, with the actual burial chamber far below the pyramid.

Djoser's Stepped Pyramid (Camp 2004)

I never realized that the snake that appears on the center of the pharaoh's crown was a very real symbol of the power of life and death the pharaoh held -- until we visited Saqqara. This frieze along the South Court reminds us of the awe the pharaoh inspired.

Limestone Cobras (Camp 2004)

Entrance to Pyramid of Teti
What remains most memorable came near the end of our day-long stay, as we crossed the great open courtyard to the Pyramid of Teti.

There we were taken down a stone stairway to visit the funerary chambers underneath the pyramid. We walked crab-wise along a long stone tunnel, bent over, for what seemed almost more than I could manage, until we came to the 'stand up' room. Then after another small tunnel (not quite as long as the first), we entered the small rooms that once held the mummy of Teti.

There we saw the chamber for the coptic jars, four stone jars designed to hold key body parts from embalming (for example, the stomach, the intestines, liver and lungs). The heart remains with the mummy so that the soul can find its resting place.

Throughout the chamber, shawabtis would have been placed, those small figurines forever on call, to do the pharaoh's bidding, but now on display at a museum. I could use a shawabti now and then.

There we also saw the magnificent stone carvings Teti commanded be placed next to her tomb.. All along one wall, prayers had been carved -- with stars above. No photographs were allowed when we visited in 2004, but the chains of hieroglyphs covered the wall from floor to ceiling, awe-inspiring. Today, on Wikipedia, we can see the fantastic detail of the hieroglyphic prayers and stars that kept watch over Teti.

Wall of prayers from Teti's Tomb (Wikipedia)
Was I claustrophobic underneath the Pyramid of Teti? Yes! For I had just learned even for the Pyramid of Khufu, some 2.3 million blocks had been used, each estimated to weigh 2.3 tons. Broken stones everywhere reminded me how fragile these pyramids are -- and yet they remain.

Read more about Djoser's pyramid.
Read more about Teti's tomb.

These entries on Egypt are an excuse for me to revisit the trip we took in 2004. I hope you enjoy!

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