For most visitors, the highlight of a trip to Cairo is almost always the majestic pyramids on the Giza plateau and the Sphinx. As this spot is always on the top of must see lists, it is not uncommon for it to be the very first place all travelers in Egypt visit. As I was visiting Egypt on a guided tour, I already had my stop at the pyramids scheduled for a few days later. Instead I took the less traveled route and took a day trip even further back in time to the first pyramids of Egypt at Saqarra, Memphis, and Dahshur.
Setting up the Day Trip in Cairo
A day trip to these three destinations located 20-30 kilometers south of Cairo is quite an easy endeavor. The two options visitors have is to hail a yellow taxi on the side of the road and negotiate a daily rate ($25-$35) or arrange it via your hostel or hotel ($40-$50). For convenience in finding a reputable driver, we booked with our hotel for a flat $45 split between myself and a friend on the trip that was also in Cairo early. While this fee is on the high end, we felt comforted in knowing that the hotel arranged the driver and that he was fluent in English so we could communicate past my limited Arabic. Doing it yourself does not have such guarantee. After a few minutes waiting for the driver to arrive, we were on our way!
The Step Pyramid of Saqqara
Not a day goes by that you do not read about new archaeological finds at Saqqara. It is quite apparent when you visit as every corner of the site is full of activity from workers and archaeologists alike.
While the complex itself is quite impressive, the true highlight of Saqqara is the Step Pyramid of Djoser which is considered to be the first pyramid built in Egypt (completed around 2648 BC). To put this in perspective, the Step Pyramid was completed a full one hundred years before work on the pyramids at Giza even began. For its age, the structure of the Step Pyramid is as complicated as it is simplistic. Prior to this point many Egyptian burial sites were mastabas, a basic flat roofed structures. The Step Pyramid is comprised of six of these mastabas on-top of each other, giving the famous shape that remains today.
For a structure that is over 4,600 years old and is 200 feet tall, the Step Pyramid of Djoser was the perfect introduction to Egyptian pyramids, and they only get better after that. The next stop on our day trip was to the Red Pyramid of Dahshur!
The Bent Pyramid at Dahshur
Progressing forward in history, the next pyramids we stopped at on the day trip were the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid, both constructed in Dahshur around 50 years after the Step Pyramid of Djoser for Pharaoh Sneferu at the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty. (To put the rulers in perspective, Sneferu preceded Khufu for whom the Great Pyramid of Giza was built).
While we only got to see the Bent Pyramid from a distance, this one is unique not only for its bent shape, but for the fact that much of the original limestone still remains. But as a perfection of the true pyramid design we know and love today, the Red Pyramid is the originator, and this one you can go inside!
Going inside a pyramid should be met with a word of warning to all those who are sensitive to heat or confined spaces. Here you will find both. Climbing down a pyramid to the burial chamber takes a bit of grace and agility by all those who dare enter. As the passages are only a few feet wide and tall, and steps are nothing more than wood blocks, the best way to get down is by walking backwards with your hands on the ground as support. This is a necessity as the lack of space lends itself to no other option.
The Red Pyramid of Dahshur was relatively easy to get into, but pretty lackluster once you are inside. The burial space is simply that, space. As all of the artifacts have since been removed you are inside an incredibly small and intensely hot, empty space. Still, something about saying you are hundreds of feet inside a pyramid is something everyone should experience, even if the heat makes it bearable to stay for only a few seconds.
The Ruins at Memphis, Egypt
The final stop on our day trip was to the ancient capital city of Memphis. The city itself predates all of the pyramids that we visited during the day by at least 400 years and was the first capital of ancient Egypt, well before the rise and fall of Thebes and modern day Cairo. Now the city serves as the home of some of the most important archaeological finds over the millenia.
The most impressive feature in the collection at Memphis is the 34 ft long statue of Ramses II who ruled Egypt over 1,300 years after the pyramids were built and whose temple of Abu Simbel outside of Aswan is my personal favorite. This statue is impressive not only for its size but for the level of detail that the artist put into the sculpture. Even by today’s standards, the Colossus of Ramses II is a feat that can hardly be matched.
As an introduction to ancient Egyptian history, a day trip to Saqqara, Memphis, and Dahshur is rivaled by no other. Seeing the progression of pyramid design leading from the original step design in order to the Great Pyramid of Giza really shows how the architecture of the time made leaps and bounds in just over a century. Jumping forward over 1,000 years to the architecture during the reign of Ramses II is an impressive sneak-peak at what is about to come in the rest of your time in the country, and leaves you wanting so much more.
To all those looking to travel in Egypt, be sure to have a student ID on hand if you have one. All temples in Egypt are 50% off with a student ID. Our tour guide was so nice that he even refunded the difference to all the students in our group even though some temple entry fees were lumped in our tour price.