My classes at the American University in Cairo are amazing for several reasons. They are very small, giving us students the opportunity to pursue a more interactive classroom experience. My classes are also highly specialized. While I am taking all Egyptology courses, a narrow field in and of itself, these classes are further focused on one particular aspect of ancient Egypt: culture, history, etc. However, perhaps the greatest perk of my classes at AUC is the field trips sponsored by the school.
Today, my history class and I ventured out to Saqqara. This site is perhaps most notable for the Step Pyramid of Djoser. Built in the 3rd Dynasty, this pyramid is the predecessor to the Giza pyramids of Khufu and Khafre, which I visited several weeks ago. It is built with a series of mastabas or steps, six in total, forming a pyramid-like shape. Seeing it up close, it is understandable how this design could easily morph into that of the Giza pyramids.
We entered the complex through the mortuary temple, which consisted of a long corridor with columns on either side holding up a stone ceiling. As I walked down this corridor, there were niches on either side where statues likely would have been housed.
As we exited the mortuary temple, we were immediately accosted by the bright sun reflecting off the white sand. Up ahead was Djoser’s famous pyramid, bigger than I imagined it to be! This isn’t as popular of a tourist site as Giza even though they are very close to one another. It is a shame that Djoser’s pyramid doesn’t get as much attention as Khufu’s (the Great Pyramid). I feel that it is equally majestic and fascinating, if not more so since it was the first pyramid!
We hurried along the site seeing the surrounding complex. As we approached one building, we came upon a group of schoolchildren, age eight or nine. They were there with a few adults, likely their teachers. They were screaming and laughing as we approached them. They were playing some sort of game, but it took me a while to realize what was happening. They were playing tug of war, with about 20 people on each side. However, there was no rope! They were holding tightly onto the waists of the person in front of them and pulling! When one side lost, everyone cheered and jumped up and down. An interesting site at the Djoser complex. Surely this wasn’t what Djoser imagined for the atmosphere of his final resting place!
The next site was the pyramid of Teti, the first king of the 6th Dynasty. The picture (right) is of my friend Rebecca and me in front of this pyramid. While it looks more like a pile of rubble on the outside, the inside is far more interesting. We descended into the depths of the tomb with dozens of other people into a small antechamber.
There was a chamber on either side with a small doorway leading to each. On each of these walls was inscribed in very neat, precise hieroglyphics the Pyramid Texts. These are the famous religious texts from the Old Kingdom. These are spells specifically intended for the pharaoh and serve to guide him safely into the afterlife.
It was amazing to see these texts encompassing the entire wall. It took every ounce of my being to keep from touching them. But I resisted, because I understand how damaging the oils of our hands can be to ancient artifacts.
The chamber to the right was perhaps the most interesting. On the other side of the wall with the passageway, the pyramid texts continued as before. I looked up and was shocked to see stars carved over the space of the whole ceiling! These stars were the typical five-pointed stars that have graced their way across every modern child’s drawings at some point in time. I am surprised that our basic depiction of stars has remained the same for thousands of years!
As we left the pyramid behind, with the sun blazing on the hot sand, I felt very grateful to have this opportunity. After all, it isn’t every day one gets the opportunity to take a class field trip to such ancient sites as these.