Monday, April 1, 2013

Preparing for Egypt, Part One (Step Pyramid/Saqqara)

It's Spring Break for me, so I have a week off to catch my breath and do some reading and blogging (and, well... and I do have a stack of literature essays to grade as well... a teacher's work is never done!), so I thought it might be fun to post a little about some of the sights in Egypt that my tour group is going to be visiting at the end of May. This will get me researching the various temples and sites so I can better appreciate what we'll be seeing while I'm there.

The first stop is Saqqara (alternate spelling is Sakkara) where some of the Old Kingdom pyramids are. The most famous of these (pictured) is the Step Pyramid of Djozer, the world's oldest freestanding structure. It's about 4000 years old and constructed of limestone instead of mudbrick. The area is basically a necropolis that was near the then-capital of Memphis, so there are several pyramids, mastabas, and also the Serapeum, where the Apis bulls were buried. That's right, mummified bulls. They were considered to be living representations of the god Ptah (the creator god).

The step pyramid may have originated as a simple mastaba (a single-level stone "mound" built over a tomb), but when walls were erected around the necropolis, they hid the mastaba from view. It's theorized that Djozer's vizier, Imhotep, dealt with the problem by adding another mastaba on top of the first, and then another, and then another, each one smaller than the one under, thus creating a series of steps--and thus the birth of the first pyramid structure in Egypt. Others say the intent was to create a kind of "stairway to heaven" for the resurrected Pharoah. But it was also surrounded by courts, temples, and other important buildings. There are also two boundary markers in the large court to the south of the pyramid--the Hed-Sed Court, a representation of where the Pharoah showed off his athleticism in Memphis during the Hed-Sed Festival (also called the heb sed run). The court itself represented the four corners of Egypt and celebrated Djozer's recrowning after he had ruled Egypt for 30 years.

Also of interest at Saqqara is the Pyramid of Unas, which contains the Pyramid Texts that were solely for the king. These later morphed into the Egyptian Book of the Dead, funerary texts inscribed on papyrus and left in tombs of anybody wealthy enough to afford one (prices ranged from cheap versions to carefully illustrated, expensive ones). They are said to be collections of spells or "utterances" to protect the deceased and to help him or her pass through the various obstacles or challenges they'd be faced with after death on their journey through the afterlife. (An interesting comparison is to the Tibetan Book of the Dead.)

Now, there is some argument about the Pyramid Texts or Egyptian funerary texts and all of the spells in them. I'm not going to quibble about that here, but alternative views of the texts see them as more shamanistic in nature than funerary, in much the same way that alternative views of the Great Pyramid see it not as a tomb for Pharoah Khufu at all but a ceremonial chamber or temple. But one thing's for sure: they are some of the oldest religious writing that we know of. You can read more about the Pyramid Texts here. If you're feeling really adventuresome, you can see the layout of the Pyramid of Unas and look at some of the actual texts here.

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