Saqqara, Part 1: Djoser, Maya & Horemheb

On Saturday we visited Saqqara, my favorite cemetery in Cairo.

For more than 8000 years, people have been burying their deceased loved ones along the west bank of the Nile opposite what is today the Cairo megalopolis. Archeologists have identified more than 30 miles of cemeteries stretching from Abu Rawash on the north to Medium on the south.  Saqqara lies near the southern end, opposite ancient Egypt’s original capital, Inbu-Hedj, known to us by its Greek name, Memphis. Saqqara is most famous today because it is the site of the Step Pyramid, ancient Egyptian’s first attempt to construct a monumental, pyramid-like edifice in stone.

The Step Pyramid complex was the brainchild of a physician/architect named Imhotep, and he built the complex for Netjerikhet/Djoser, who ruled Egypt somewhere around 2600 BCE. Imhotep had the bright idea to stack layers of “mastabas” (the Arabic name for long, low rectangular tombs) on top of one another to create a stairway effect for Djoser’s tomb. Next to the pyramid, Imhotep built stone replicas of  shrines, a religious arena and possibly even Djoser’s palace.  Egypt had been unified as a nation about 200 years prior to Djoser’s reign, but  went through were recurrent cycles of political unrest until Djoser’s mother, Nimaathap, and her husband, Kasekhemwy, took the throne a generation before.  The Step Pyramid’s monumental architecture and rituals-embedded in stone were probably intended as both a statement of power and a ritual exercise in maintaining the country’s balance. 

Another aspect of this complex that I find fascinating is that portions may have been modeled after timber-and-reed cemetery shrines built 1000 years before Djoser’s reign, in an elite cemetery at Nekhen, south of Luxor.  Before Egypt unified, 3 “proto-kingdoms” competed for power in the Nile valley in Upper Egypt, eventually merging and absorbing the northern portions of the valley to create then “Two Lands.” (The famous Narmer Palette was found in Nekhen.) Djoser’s ancestry may date back to these early rulers.  

BTW: Netflix has a new documentary, “Unknown: The Lost Pyramid” centered around the search for a step pyramid built by Huni, one of Djoser’s successors. It features the ubiquitous, ever-entertaining, and not always accurate Dr. Zahi Hawass – always a good show.

Our drive to Saqqara took longer than expected, with Google maps frequently confused about where to go. (NOT an unusual occurrence, but this was extreme.) The reason? Egypt’s President (for life, if he can swing it) el-Sisi has embarked on a massive road demolition and bridge construction enterprise, all over the country. (The joke going around Egypt is that soon every Egyptian will have his own personal bridge.)  Apartment buildings are being sliced off and these new bridges frequently don’t seem to to connect to to the highway network. I couldn’t get a good shot of roadway construction from the car, but you can see how the new highway has shaved off portions of apartment buildings in the pictures below.

We saw a lot of tuk-tuks (auto rickshaws) as we passed through villages en route to Saqqara.  These relatively inexpensive vehicles are ubiquitous in south and sourest Asia, so I’ve always been surprised that they are not so common in Egypt.

Given the importance of tourism to Egypt’s economy, I was pleased to see the parking lot at Saqaara filled with tour buses – quite a change from our last visit here 9 years ago.

One of my favorite bits of this complex is the wall of cobras at the NW end of the heb-sed arena. Cobras played an important protective role in ancient Egypt, protecting the king by spitting fire at his enemies.

Last year, my sister and I attended the National Geographic’s “Immersive King Tut” exhibit when it visited Denver. The exhibition has very little to do with Tut, but I thought it was a really creative way to immerse viewers in the ancient Egyptian’s belief systems – including the importance of snakes. I think this picture from the “immersive” experience captures the role of these Saqqara cobras really well. (You’ll see more pictures from the Immersive experience when we get to Luxor.)

At this period in Egyptian history, people appear to have believed that the afterlife was located in the sky, somewhere around the circumpolar stars (the”Imperishable Ones”). On the north side of the Step Pyramid, there’s a little stone room with a statue of Djoser (a replica today) peering up through a peephole at the exact location where the north star would have been in his lifetime.

South of the Step Pyramid complex is a small cemetery with elite burials from the New Kingdom. We made the longish trek across the sand to visit the tombs of Maya/Meryt and Horemheb.

Maya & Horemheb lived during one of the most fascinating periods in Egyptian history, so let’s set the stage before entering their tombs.  We are going forward in time some 1200 years from Djoser’s burial. Egypt was at the height of its imperial glory, with an empire stretching south into central Sudan and northeast across the Levant and into Syria.  As the map below illustrates, this empire was created by Thutmose 3 and his much maligned predecessor, Hatshepsut. (If you’ve not read Kara Cooney’s biography of Hatshepsut, The Woman Who Would Be King, I highly recommend it.)

Along with the empire, Amenhotep 3 inherited a big headache: the cult of Amun-Re (a sun god), which had grown enormously powerful and wealthy through generations of “giving” by pharaohs grateful for the god’s blessings on their victories. Later in his reign, Amenhotep appears to have tried to curb some of the cult’s powers by elevating another aspect of the sun, the Aten, as a primary deity, then associating himself with the Aten as a divine being. 

Maya was from an elite family and probably grew up in the court of Amenhotep 3. Horemheb appears to have come from humble beginnings, and entered the military as a young man.

Amenhotep 3 and his powerful Great Royal Wife, Tiye. Today, this colossal duad looms over visitors in the great hall of the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square.

Amenhotep’s successor took things much farther, changing his name from Amenhotep (the god Amun is pleased) to Akhenaten (devoted to the Aten). He declared the worship of Amun to be heresy; disbanded the Amun-Re temples; and initiated a program of removing Amun’s name wherever it appears – which took a LOT of chiseling. Early scholars interpreted Akhenaten’s actions as setting up the first monotheistic religion, and many tried to tie his reign to the Judeo-Christian story of Joseph. Later research has shown that Akhenaten did not try to remove all the gods – only Amun – and he also set himself up as the sole intermediary between the Aten and the rest of humanity.  Power struggles and megalomania seem the better interpretation.

A few years into his reign, Akhenaten decided to up stakes and move Egypt’s capital from Wast (today’s Luxor) to a site that had not been polluted by previous worship of another god. Since humans had been inhabiting the Nile Valley for several thousand years, there wasn’t a lot of virgin territory to choose from. So he moved the court to a spot in the middle of nowhere (then and now) know to us as Tell el Amarna, and had a city built in very short order. Recent excavations in the workers’ cemeteries indicate that the folks doing the labor lived short and brutally hard lives, and the city may have been a virtual police state. In 1912, a German excavation at Amarna discovered (and smuggled out) the beautiful bust of Nefertiti, Akhenaten’s Great Royal Wife. (The bust resides in Berlin today, and it’s worth a visit. Egypt has been trying to get the bust back for decades.)

Maya was a high official in Akhenaten’s court and built a tomb at Amarna. While Maya worked on domestic policy, Horemheb was on the field of combat trying to hold Egypt’s eastern empire together against incursions by the Hittites.

Akhenaten died after 17 years on the throne and was succeeded by a mysterious figure named Smenkhkare. Historically, Smenkhkhare was a seen by scholars as an otherwise unknown younger brother or son of Akhenaten, but recent evidence indicates the s/he may have been Nefertiti, taking the throne in a time of crisis (as Egyptian queens frequently did). Smenkhkare began restoring the Amun temples before disappearing from the record after only a couple years on the throne. S/he was succeeded by the boy king, Tutankhamun.

Tut was about 9 years old when he came to the throne, and Maya was one of the adults “guiding” him, along with Horemheb and Ay (who may have Nefertiti’s uncle).  The capital was moved back to Wast and the Amun-Re cult was restored to its former glory. Maya concentrated on these domestic tasks while General Horemheb stayed focused on the military. Both Maya and Horemheb built tombs at Saqqara during Tut’s reign – Saqqara was probably the safest site to locate your Home for Eternity in those chaotic times. 

Tutankhamen died after only 9 years on the throne, and Maya organized his funeral rites. Tut was buried in a tiny tomb in the Valley of the Kings, with his funerary trappings stuffed in higgledy- piggledy since there was so little space. Fortunately for us, his tomb was soon buried under a mound of rubble generated through excavation of a later, grander royal tomb, and the contents endured nearly untouched until Howard Carter found the tomb in 1922. (Tut has been omnipresent the last couple of years as part of “100th Anniversary” celebrations.) 

Tut had no living heirs (two still-born fetuses were found in his tomb). Tut’s queen, Ankhesenamun, was the 3rd daughter of Nefertiti and Akhenaten. She tried to hold on to the throne by writing to the ruler of the Hittites, asking him to send a son for her to marry. A son was sent, but never made it to Egypt.  Ankhesenamun appears to have been forced to married Ay (thus securing his claim to the throne), then she disappears from the record. 

This head is believed to be Ankhesenamun. It’s in the Brooklyn Museum.

Ay was an old man when he took the throne. His tomb in the west branch of the Valley of the Kings may have been originally intended for Tut. Ay died without an heir, and the next ruler of Egypt was (wait for it…) Horemheb. 

Ay and Horemheb

 Horemheb married Nefertiti’s likely sister, Nutmodjmet, to cement his claim to the throne. He then did some historical revisioning, back-dating his reign in official records to show himself as the immediate successor to Amenhotep 3. He dismantled Akhenaten’s city at Amarna (reusing the stones in his own building projects) and wiped out nearly all traces of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamen and Ay wherever their names appeared.  Horemheb built a new tomb in the Valley of the Kings where he was presumably buried. His first and second wives, Amenia and Mutnodjment, were  buried in his Saqqara tomb. Maya served in Horemheb’s court until the 9th year of his reign, when he presumably died. Maya and his wife Meryt were buried in their Sahara tomb.  

Horemheb had no children so he appointed his vizier (who already had a grown son and grandson) to succeed him. This vizier took the name Ramses 1 and founded a new dynasty (the 19th). Ramses 1’s son and successor was Seti 1. We’ll return to Ramses and Seti when we visit the Valley of the Kings at Luxor.

Is this not the stuff of prime time TV serials and romantic novelists? Mike Waltari had great fun with this cast of characters in his 1945 novel The Egyptian, which I devoured as a teenager. (I never told my folks about all the sexy bits.) Waltari’s plot was based on a famous ancient Egyptian morality story called the Story of Sinuhe – which has everything one  could ask for in an adventure tale – but he moved the story forward a few centuries to set it in this chaotic Amarna period.  The Egyptian  was Hollywoodized in 1954, with Victor Mature playing Horemheb and Peter Ustinov in an unforgettable role as Sinuhe’s conniving servant, Kaptah. Great entertainment!

Now that you have the relevant context :>), back to those tombs we visited at Saqqara…

The upper portion of Maya/Meryt’s tomb was extensively looted over thea ages, and little remains of the mortuary temple and offering places that once graced the courtyard. It is notable today mainly for some lovely scenes in the underground chambers of this complex.

Horemheb’s Saqqara tomb is next door to Maya’s.  Much of its grand superstructure survived, and some lovely reliefs also survived – some with paint – or have been restored.

Sunken relief carvings on the east wall of the courtyard celebrate General Horemheb’s victories over Egypt’s enemies. Fight scenes and prisoners abound, and Tutankhamen is shown presenting Horemheb with the gold of honor, Egypt’s highest award.

After paying our respects to these fascinating 18th Dynasty characters, we walked back to the car park and traveled to another part of Saqqara to visit the Old Kingdom Mastaba of Mereruka and Waatetkhethor – but that’s for another post.

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9 thoughts on “Saqqara, Part 1: Djoser, Maya & Horemheb”

  1. Joni, thank you for taking us along on your trip with this beautiful and informative post. I did read The Woman Who Would Be around the time it came out. It is great to see that in this context. It’s fascinating how the stories of conquest, succession, power repeat themselves over and over and over…

  2. P.S. … and we get to see a little bit of the (pillaged) Egyptian treasures, craft, beliefs here in Paris at the Louvre

    • Every time I’ve gone to the Louvre the Egyptian galleries have been closed for one reason or another…until the last visit. I happily snapped and swooned my way through the galleries all the way to the astronomical ceiling at Dendereh, when they threw everyone out and closed the galleries because of some terrorist threat. The Louvre has cursed me!

  3. I love this Egyptian soap opera! Thanks for summarizing this period so eloquently. And I can just picture you devouring The Egyptian. Haha!


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