Nestled in the desert southwest of Cairo and one of UN cultural agency UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, the Saqqara Necropolis stands as a testament to the grandeur of ancient Egypt.
With its rich history and archaeological significance as the home of the oldest stone building in the world, the Step Pyramid of Djoser, and its enormous ancient burials including other smaller pyramids, tombs, and funerary complexes, the site has long captivated the imaginations of visitors from around the globe.
Recent enhancements to the Saqqara Necropolis aim to provide visitors with an even more impressive and enriching experience, unlocking the mysteries of this ancient burial ground.
“The project bears witness to the keenness of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities to improve the quality of services provided to visitors to the area, one of the most important touristic destinations in the world,” said Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).
He added that the site entrance has been developed and the ticket office refurbished. Electronic gates have been installed along with information about the site and its monuments, a map showing directions, and the site visitor route. Signage has been installed at the foot of every monument showing information about it, its history, and its restoration work.
A visitor path has been created and slopes and pathways made for visitors with disabilities. New lighting and security systems connected to a control room have been installed. Sunshades, seats, and recycle bins are also provided on site.
“Our main objective from the moment we embarked on the project has been to upgrade the services provided at the Saqqara Necropolis such that they do justice to the greatness of ancient Egyptian civilisation and the magnificence of this historical site, while at the same time preserving the area from pollution and creating a fascinating experience for visitors,” Waziri said.
Egypt’s first site museum, the Imhotep Museum built at the necropolis in commemoration of the ancient Egyptian architect Imhotep and French Egyptologist Jean-Philippe Lauer, has also been renovated and is due to reopen soon.
Assistant Minister of Tourism and Antiquities for Archaeological Projects Hisham Samir, also supervisor of the ministry’s projects sector, said that the development at the museum had included replacing damaged stone flooring and upgrading the surrounding walls.
The irrigation of the visitor path area has also been improved, and restrooms and visitor routes have been upgraded. The administrative building for SCA employees and a residential complex for archaeological missions have also been renovated.
Moemen Othman, head of the Museums Sector at the ministry, said that the finishing of the exhibition halls in the museum had been completed, along with new showcases to host the treasured collections. Special panoramic lighting for the overall site has been installed, and the exhibited archaeological pieces, security and surveillance systems, building façade, and central air-conditioning units have all been upgraded.
Services for visitors have been improved by adding information signs and interactive display screens showing videos and photographs about some of the archaeological discoveries made at the Saqqara Necropolis.
Facilities have been provided for visitors with disabilities, including dedicated restrooms and pathways. Cafeterias and bazaars have been added to the site to enhance the visitor experience in line with the importance of the museum and the archaeological site as a whole.
ITE MUSEUM: The museum complex, with its gleaming white marble façade, stands at the foot of the Saqqara archaeological site waiting for visitors.
It has six galleries telling the story of the Saqqara Necropolis, the intricacies of Imhotep’s architectural style, and Lauer’s devotion to the restoration of the Step Pyramid. On entering the main gallery, visitors find the solid base of a statue of the Third Dynasty King Djoser on which are inscribed the name and titles of Imhotep.
Four graphics show different styles of architecture before and after Imhotep’s time, along with panels on Lauer and Djoser.
The second gallery displays masterpieces unearthed at Saqqara by various archaeological missions over the last century. Among them is a collection of clay and alabaster vessels in various shapes, statues of deities, an anthropoid painted coffin cased with gold, as well as medical instruments from the tomb of Qar the physician, a Late Period statue of King Psammatik, two funerary stelae, one of which bears the name of the Pharaoh Necho, and a large collection from the Aperia tomb.
The third gallery, entitled “Saqqara Style”, displays the various styles of art found in Saqqara in an exhibition of vessels, stelae, statues, instruments and tools used by the ancient Egyptians to build their colossal monuments.
Visitors then go through to the largest gallery, conceived to exhibit examples of Imhotep’s distinguished architectural style. It contains elements from the Step Pyramid including columns, blue-tiled walls, a panel of cobra decorations, a headless statue of Djoser, and the so-called Snake Pillar from the burial complex. The masterpiece of this gallery is a small bronze statue showing Imhotep seated and holding a papyrus stem.
To give visitors an idea of a typical Saqqara tomb, a tomb with a sarcophagus, boat and some funerary collection is exposed in situ. Objects featuring various schools of funerary art can also be seen.
The final gallery is dedicated to Lauer. On show are some of his excavation tools, and his hat, safari suit, camera and compass. On the walls are photographs of Lauer working on the site or guiding heads of state on official visits to Saqqara.
Precious artefacts have also been transferred from their cramped, musty mud-brick magazines to two enormous state-of-the-art storehouses behind the museum.
The idea of the Saqqara Museum emerged in 1990 as a way of offering a new perspective on site museums and to set an example for others planned by the SCA at other archaeological sites in Egypt. Such museums also offer highly efficient storage space, replacing the earlier haphazard storehouses which were regularly subject to theft. The artefacts are housed in a suitable atmosphere to prevent deterioration.
Since site museums are ideally suited to preserving and protecting Egypt’s treasures, as well as adding new tourist attractions to famous sites, the Saqqara Museum was the first in the series. However, for technical and financial reasons, as well as for reasons having to do with landscaping and site-protection, the construction of the museum was put on hold.
The project was kept under wraps until 1997, when construction began. The building was completed in 2003, and suitable objects were brought for display from archaeological storehouses at Saqqara and Abusir.
Mahmoud Mabrouk, minister of tourism and antiquities advisor for exhibition scenarios, said that Imhotep, the brilliant architect of the Step Pyramid of Djoser, should be universally remembered.
“He is the one who transformed the construction of the king’s tomb from a mastaba to a pyramid and for the first time used stone in the construction,” Mabrouk said. The Step Pyramid is the first large-scale structure to be built of stone in the world.
A commoner by birth, Imhotep’s intelligence and determination enabled him to rise through the ranks to become one of the king’s most trusted advisers. He eventually held the offices of high priest of Heliopolis and Lector priest, making him a very powerful and influential man whose name was given the honour of being inscribed on the base of one of Djoser’s statues.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly