Cairo, Egypt


The area on the south-west fringe of the sprawling city of Cairo, stretching down from Giza in the north to Dahshur in the south, was once widely used by the Egyptians for their necropoleis. Based around the ancient capital of Memphis, this entire area, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, includes the remains of hundreds of different pyramids, temples, palaces and other buildings. Most of these structures can be accessed from the main sites of Giza, Abusir, Saqqara and Dahshur.

It is difficult to access these sites without a vehicle, and a convenient way to get around is to organise to hire a single taxi for an entire day (be sure to confirm full costs before booking). However, it is strongly recommended that visitors utilise the services of a pre-arranged local guide (who typically include a driver and vehicle), as there are potentially hundreds of different sites to visit, and a guide can provide local expertise on the best and most accessible areas.

At the site of Memphis, very little remains visible on the surface. Sited around the area are the remains of a number of temples and palaces, and there is an open-air museum (the Museum of Memphis) that features a range of sculptures.

Image: Egyptian Antiques, Memphis

Creator: Gérard Ducher



One of the most important historic sites within this area is the Saqqara Necropolis, which is located about twenty kilometres south of the Giza Necropolis. Access to the site is gained by vehicle, with a small vehicle access fee to be paid at the bottom gate (ensure you secure a ticket at this gate before proceeding further, else you will need to double back down again). Upon parking, visitors are free to explore the site.

Saqqara typically does not receive as many visitors as the Pyramids of Giza, and as a result of this it is a much easier site to navigate around the area on foot. Visitors do not have to line up to enter the various sites, and there are far less hawkers here compared to Giza. Those who felt claustrophobic in the Pyramids of Giza may find the experience in the tombs of Saqqara more relaxing, as there is more open space, the rooms are easier to navigate, and there are less people to clutter up the passageways.

This image displays part of the southern area of Saqqara, showing a series of New Kingdom tombs in front of the unfinished step-pyramid of Sekhemkhet at the back-right.

Image: Saqqara Necropolis

Creator: Christopher Karykides

Pyramid of Djosser

The most prominent feature of the Saqqara Necropolis is the Pyramid of Djoser (also known as the Step Pyramid), as seen in this image. This is widely believed to be one of the first pyramids constructed in Egypt, being built by the 3rd Dynasty Pharoah Djoser in about 2630-2611 BCE. It was designed by the architect Imhotep as six successively smaller mastabas (a type of flat-roofed rectangular tomb), built one above the other such as to give the appearance of a series of large steps. As a result, the Pyramid of Djoser actually has a rectangular base, unlike the square pyramids that can be seen elsewhere. It is not known exactly why Djoser used this design, but it did not last long, with most later pharaohs using the ‘true pyramid’ design with smooth sides, such as can be seen at Giza.

The Pyramid of Djoser forms part of a larger complex that also incorporates an enclosure wall, a decorative great trench, a roofed colonnade entrench, and an additional separate south tomb. These are all generally open to the public and can be toured freely.

Image: Step Pyramid of Djosser

Creator: Christopher Karykides

Dahshur Necropolis

Even more overlooked than Saqqara is Dahshur, which lies at the southern end of the Memphis World Heritage Area approximately twenty-five kilometres from the centre of Cairo. As with Saqqara, due to the relatively low popularity of this site compared to Giza, this can make it a very relaxing area to visit. The most prominent features of Dahshur are its three large pyramids: Sneferu’s Bent Pyramid, Sneferu’s Red Pyramid, and the Black Pyramid of Amenemhat III.

The Bent Pyramid, seen in this image, was built by the Pharaoh Sneferu around 2600 BCE. Debate continues over why this pyramid was built at two different stages on two different angles, but it is widely believed that the initial steep stage was unstable, so a shallower upper level was built for more security. Another impressive feature of the Bent Pyramid is the surviving smooth limestone covering. Other pyramids had similar casings, but over time this has mostly been removed by builders looking for easily accessible building materials.

The Red Pyramid (also known as the North Pyramid) was also built by Sneferu and at the time of its completion was the largest structure in the world. However, it did not hold this title for long, as Sneferu’s son Khufu went on to build the Great Pyramid of Giza, which took the record and remains the largest pyramid in Egypt.

The Black Pyramid was built by the Pharaoh Amenemhat III. It was built of mud brick and clay, instead of the stone seen in other pyramids, which was then encased in limestone. Because of the use of these materials, in addition to several other structural problems, the pyramid has partially collapsed and sank over time, giving it its current appearance.

Image: Dahshur

Creator: Ippei Yuge




Alain Zivie, The Lost Tombs of Saqqara, American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2007.

Lorna Oakes, Pyramids & Tombs of Ancient Egypt: An Illustrated Guide to the Burial Sites of a Fascinating Civilization, National Book Network,  London, 2004.

Download PDF
Click images for more info