The necropolis at Sakkarah which stretches for eight kilometers is the largest in the whole of Egypt. It is also historically the most important because the principal dynasties are all represented, from the 1st to the Ptolemaic and Persian. The necropolis is under the special protection of the god Sokar, hence the name of the locality, who is often represented as green with a hawk-headed appearance.
In the middle of the necropolis is the funerary complex of Zoser, the pharaoh who founded the IIIrd dynasty, and around it can be found other pyramids and mastabas characteristic of the various eras. The whole area is dominated by Zoser’s huge step pyramid. To fully appreciate the importance and originally of this pyramid it is necessary to explain what is meant by a <<mastaba>> which in the Arabic language means a bench. A mastaba was the burial chamber of the nobility and of court dignitaries and it was rectangular with slightly inclined walls. Zoser was the first pharaoh to entrust an architect with the construction of a grandiose funerary complex. This architect, who was called Imhotep and whose name can be found inscribed in hieroglyphic characters on the base of a statue representing Zoser, was thus historically the first architect to receive official recognition and his ingenious structure was the first funerary pyramid to appear in the world. Imhotep was also the High Priest a famous as a doctor. He was such a man of genius that the Greeks, two thousand years later, deified him under the name of Esculapius.
Now, what does Imhotep’s invention actually consist of? All he did was to first build a large mastaba and then over it he built a pyramid with four large steps. The pyramid in its final form has six steps on the west part of the mastaba. Centuries later the Sumerians perfected this type of construction in the <<ziggurat>>. Sixty-two and a half meters high this pyramid too was originally covered with a facing of smooth stone which today has completely disappeared. By the side of the pyramid are the remains of what is called the << South House>>, two fluted columns (strongly reminiscent of Doric columns) unevenly framing a doorway surmounted by a beautiful horizontal frieze bearing a motive of sacred knots to protect it for the future (the Khekern frieze).
To the south of the Step Pyramid is the pyramid of Unas, the last pharaoh of the Vth dynasty. Of relatively small size, less than 60 metres square, it was already ruined in 2000 B.C. and it is of interest mainly because it contained a large part of the <<Pyramid Text>>, the first collection of maigco-religious texts drawn up during the Old Kingdom and destined to protect the dead pharaoh in the other world. Written in hieroglyphs and painted in green they start in a corridor and extend over the four walls of the special chamber.
As has already been mentioned a mastaba is the tomb of a bobel or dignitary built to resemble the house in which the dead person formerly lived. The Sakkarah necropolis contains a considerable number of mastabas, some of which are among the most renowned for their beauty and the gracefulness of their decoration.
The Nebet Mastaba, dating from the end of the Vth dynasty, is a typical example because of the rare style of decoration found in the second chamber. This shows the queen herself in the palace harem ( the area reserved for the women) where she is witnessing the presentation of offerings while sniffing a flower. the Visir Unefert’s Mastaba, on the other hand, is VIth dynasty. He is depicted on a wall right at the entrance of the mastaba as an old man walking towards the interior of his sepulcher. The extant decoration in the Princess Idut’s Mastaba is of particular interest. The mastaba contains ten rooms but only five are decorated. One scene shows two seated scribes intent on their work. The artist has been at pains to show the case for their quills, the boxes for the colors and even the two spare brushes which the scribe on the left has lodged above his ear. In the Kagemni Mastaba are to be found tasteful and lively genre paintings. One quite unusual scene depicted is of a servant pouring out bird seed into an aviary while another shows a line of young girls engaged in an acrobatic dance. On the other side of the necropolis, there is the Mastaba of Ptah-Hotep, a high functionary of state, whose tomb is to that of his son Akhu-Hotep. This mastaba was discovered by the French archaeologist Auguste Mariette who arrived in Egypt in 1850. The magnificent bas-reliefs, which can perhaps be attributed to a certain Ankgen-Ptah, allow us to see with a wealth of detail what daily life in ancient Egypt must have been like. We can see servants bringing offerings and rowers in a boat whose gestures and movements resemble those of dancers. The most complex mastaba is that of Meraruka which was discovered in 1893 and is subdivided into three parts. It consists in fact of quarters for the owner, who is also called Meri or Mera, for his wife the Princess Uatet-Khethor, who was also a priestess of Hathor, and for their children. It was a mastaba appropriate to the rank of a person who like Meraruka had discharged various public functions during the VIth dynasty. Particularly original in its conception is the scene showing hunting and fishing, in which plants and animals are freely distributed all over the available space in a manner bordering on the fantastic.
The Mastaba of Ti is perhaps the most beautiful of all. It was already finished in 2600 B.C. when Cheops was preparing to build his great pyramid. Ti, the husband of the Princess Nefrhotep, lived during the Vth dynasty. Today we would describe him as a VIP, he was the director of all the Pharaoh’s works, his close friend, his confidant, and the man in charge of building the pyramids, or at least this is how he is described in the inscriptions on the tomb. The bas-reliefs in the mastaba are considered to be among the most beautiful examples from the period of the Old Kingdom both because of the high level of artistic expression achieved and for the balance of their composition. Particularly noteworthy is the procession of women elegantly carrying tall baskets on their heads.