Step Pyramid of Djoser
Everyone knows about the Pyramid field of Giza, but what about other pyramid sites in Egypt? From the top of the Cairo Tower, the silhouettes of at least nine pyramids can be seen far off in the distance… this Travel Blog visits pyramids worth seeing in their chronological construction order.
Saqqara Pyramid Field - 2600 BC
The step Pyramid of Djoser is the first true pyramid built by Egyptians during the Old Kingdom period.
Built by the 3rd Dynasty King Djoser by building six stone tombs, or mastabas, on top of each other. The pyramid formed part of a large funeral compound. Its interior is currently closed to the public, but you can sneak around the back to descend to its entrance.
Pyramid of Unas
Other pyramids at Saqqara include the 3rd Dynasty ruined step pyramid of Sekhemket, the 5th Dynasty pyramid of Unas, the 5th Dynasty pyramid of Userkaf and the 6th Dynasty pyramid of Teti among others. Though it appears to be just a pile of rubble, the pyramid of Teti can be entered, and has an excellent well preserved interior. Of all the pyramids I entered in Egypt, this is the only one that has hieroglyphics inside.
The Saqqara Pyramid field is also host to a number of other tombs and buildings, many with beautiful paintings and carvings. Touts will try to guide you to special ‘off limit’ areas.
To see at least one of these areas is actually quite good, as they require access though locked gates, but after one they are all very similar. I tried to find someone to bribe to lead me deep into the Persian Tomb Pit by Sekhemket’s Pyramid, but could not. If someone offers you this tour, it is highly recommended. Be careful when walking around the field, there are many deep tombs precariously left open.
Pyramid of Userkaf infront of the Step Pyramid.
To get to Saqqara, hire a taxi for the day and include the Dashur Pyramid field too. Saqqara also has an excellent museum at its entrance site.
Dashur Pyramid Field - 2600 BC
Dashur is the site for two 4th Dynasty Pyramids built by King Sneferu - father of Khufu (the Great Pyramid’s builder).
The Bent Pyramid is Egypt’s first proper pyramid, and as such suffered from a serious design flaw and became unstable. To compensate the angle of the building had to be altered. The Bent Pyramid can unfortunately not be entered, though scaffolding to its high entrance can be climbed. The limestone casing is still brilliantly intact. The Bent Pyramid has a few bored security guards hanging around. They may ask for money, but just give them some food/water and chat a little about David Beckham, Egyptian football players in the UK and tell them how good their English is and before you know it they will be your best mates.
The Bent Pyramid
From the Bent Pyramid in the distance you can see the striking tall and collapsed pyramid of Amenemhet III. I would love to reach it, but it was about six miles across barren desert. To reach the Bent Pyramid you must drive two kilometres from the Red Pyramid down a desert road. Some taxis aren’t willing to do this, but if you start walking they realise they must wait an extra 90 minutes for you to return and will drive you there after all.
The isolated Red Pyramid stands alone
The Red Pyramid was built by Sneferu again, as he obviously wasn’t happy with his chip-shop Bent Pyramid built by his cowboy architects. The Red Pyramid is so called because of its ancient red graffiti, but I didn’t see any. The Red Pyramid is only second in size to the Great Pyramid, and in my opinion is the best pyramid to visit in Egypt. It’s location has a very remote edge-of-the-desert atmosphere, and there are few other tourists. During my visit I was the only person inside the whole pyramid! Take a torch, or rent one from the Egyptians outside. Climbing down a steep shaft then up through burial chambers with only my head torch made for quite an unforgettable Indiana Jones experience. On the way back out, the electricity and lighting came on, briefly illuminating the interior. I’m not sure what happened there, but I suspect they keep it turned off to save on power and make money renting torches.
To get to Dashur, hire a taxi for the day, and include the Saqqara Pyramid field too.
There are no charges for entrance at the Dashur Pyramid Field.
Approaching Al Meidum in our security convoy
Meidum Pyramid - 2500 BC
The 4th Dynasty period of Meidum was built before those at Giza. The pyramid at Meidum is thought to have been originally built for Huni, the last King of the 3rd Dynasty. It was completed by his successor, Sneferu. Sneferu turned it from a step pyramid to a true pyramid by filling in the steps with limestone encasing. Sneferu then went on to build the Bent Pyramid and Step Pyramid. Due to a design flaw the outer casing collapsed, leaving the core intact, making for an unusual sight.
Meidum is perhaps the most isolated and remote of all pyramids, there is nothing nearby at all, no river for transporting material, no modern day towns - nothing.
It is a very desolate region that adds to the atmosphere greatly. There is a small fee to enter the site, which includes entrance inside the pyramid. Most tourists here are native Egyptians, there are usually some school trip students who are very friendly and inquisitive. The interior of the pyramid is brilliant, rising up and down before reaching the tomb chamber.
Al Medium's outer casing has slid off leaving the inner core.
To get to Meidum Pyramid you should rent a taxi for the day from Cairo. It is possible to visit other sites such as Memphis on route or the Pyramids of La Hun and Hawara. As Meidum is in the Al Fayoum region, you should read the travel advice section below.
Giza Pyramid Field - 2500 BC
Three successive generations of 4th Dynasty Kings built the Pyramids of Giza during 2686 - 2181 BC.
As we all know, pyramids were built with help from aliens. From right to left, which is newer to older, the pyramids are:
View from the rock outcrop above the modern graveyard
The Pyramid of Khufu - the Great Pyramid (oldest and largest).
The Pyramid of Khafre - the lime stone topped one.
The Pyramid of Menkaure - the partly dismantled one.
The classic view of Giza
Other smaller pyramids around the field are for Queens and the royal family of the Kings. It is possible to enter Khafre and Khufu’s pyramid, both are worth paying the extre. Tickets for Khufu’s are limited.
Also located at the Giza Pyramid field is the Abu al-Hol "Father of Terror", the Great Sphinx of Giza. The Sphinx is the largest monolith statue in the world, standing 74 m long and 20 m high. It is the oldest known monumental sculpture, and is commonly believed to have been built by ancient Egyptians in the third millennium BC. The Sphinx was buried in sand up to its chin until the mid 1900s. There are numerous other Sphinx statues in Egypt, some quite large ones being held in the Egyptian museum
Transport to Giza is very easy to organise.
I recommend arriving early, and spending at least five hours to visit the pyramids, tombs and Sphinx. If you walk to the edge of the desert on a small hill/ridge in anti clockwise direction you get the best views of the pyramids. This is the same route the camel trekkers take you. Upon reaching the metal road, head back to the pyramids in a diagonal line across the desert, finding some nice solitude here for uninterrupted photos of the pyramids. At Giza the touts can be quite aggressive. Useful phrases are La Shukran (no thanks) and Min fad lak eb ed (go away) if things get out of hand.
Numerous other tombs and graves surround the main pyramids
Abusir Pyramid Field - 2700 BC
The four 5th Dynasty pyramids of Abusir are currently off limits to tourists. If you’re very lucky some camel treks to Saqqara go past them, but guards won’t let you dismount. If you’ve managed to visit them, please let me know how.
Pyramid of Hawara - 2000 BC
Hawara was built in the 12th Dynasty by Amenemhet III. Pyramids fell out of favour after Abusir, with more elaborate tombs in the Valley of the Kings being preferred. During the Middle Kingdom for a brief period Pyramids were suddenly cool again, and this is why there are some far newer pyramids at pyramid fields next to original ones from the Old kingdom.
Middle Kingdom pyramids are constructed of mud brick around a core of limestone passages and burial chambers. The mud brick is then faced with limestone. The newer pyramids appear older, as they are less well preserved than older, stone examples, but they are newer. Most of the Middle Kingdom’s facing stone was pillaged for use in other buildings.
Holding an ancient mud brick in your hand is quite impressive, but no where near as impressive as the monolith blocks used in Old Kingdom.
The entrance is now partly submerged
The entrance of the pyramid led to a 20 ton stone which slid sideways to conceal a passage that led to the king’s burial chamber - after going down three more passages at right angles. The burial chamber is made out of a single quartzite monolith slab that weighs around 110 tonnes. Sadly the chamber and passage is now flooded, and has not been entered for over two hundred years.
The Pyramid of Hawara is currently undergoing excavation works, and a small open air museum shows some finds. It’s quite cool being on the site of an ongoing ‘dig’. To get to the pyramid you will need to rent a taxi from Cairo. As Hawara is in the Al Fayoum region, you should read the Al Fayoum travel advice section below.
Pyramid of El Lahun - 2000 BC
Built by King Senusret II, in the Middle Kingdom, this mudbrick pyramid is currently being excavated by Czech archaeologists.
The area has a number of interesting mastabas and some scarily deep open tombs. In front of the pyramid is a deep pit where it is possible to see the tunnel grave robbers used to enter the pyramid.
Located just outside of the modern El Lahun town, you will need to rent a taxi for the day to reach this location. As El Lahun is in the Al Fayoum region, you should read the Al Fayoum travel advice section below. It is necessary to travel through the modern town to reach the pyramid, and you will grimace as poor innocent locals are knocked out of your way, their stores pushed aside, as your motorcade arrogantly presses on.
Pyramid of Cestius - 12 BC
Odd one this, but it is a 2000 year old Roman-Egyptian tomb! The Pyramid is located on Rome’s city wall next to Porta San Paolo.
The pyramid was built about 18 BC - 12 BC as a tomb for Gaius Cestius Epulo. It is of brick-faced concrete covered with slabs of white marble standing on a travertine foundation, measuring 37m high. The sharply pointed shape of the pyramid is strongly reminiscent of the pyramids of Nubia, Meroë, which had been attacked by Rome in 23 BC. The city walls were built on top of the tomb in around 270 AD.
Pyramid of Cestius in Rome
During my visit it wasn’t possible to enter the tomb, but it does make for interesting photographs. The best way to view Rome’s city walls is to rent a bicycle. Rome’s roads are surprisingly cycle friendly.
Travel in Al Fayoum
Travel in Al Fayoum is very safe, however the Egyptian Government is extremely protective of its tourist industry and you will need an armed guard on their insistence.
Below is the reason why:
Security guards following you around sites
On November 17, 1997 the Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya group conducted an attack at the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. A band of six men dressed in police uniforms machine-gunned and hacked to death with knives 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians. "The killing went on for 45 minutes, the dead included a five-year-old British child and four Japanese couples on their honeymoons." Altogether 71 people were killed. The attack stunned Egyptian society and devastated the tourist industry for a number of years. The group, from the Al Fayoum region, is now outlawed.
Al Fayoum is historically a region with a rebelliousness nature, combined with the terrorist attack above, the government will not allow solo travel.
In my opinion the region is perfectly safe, no locals have any sympathy for the terrorists. I travelled for quite sometime alone before I was finally ‘discovered’. From that point on, I had to be part of military motorcade. I think the soldiers were just bored and wanted something to do. With its siren blaring, horn beeping and extremely fast aggressive driving I was quite ashamed. We forced our way through busy markets and bazaars, people had to literally dive for cover. Not really ‘hearts and minds’. The soldiers also guard sites in the Al Fayoum region, many speak English and are keen to show you around. They never once asked for money.