SAQQARA: LET STONE SET THE TONE
You may not believe it, but the Egyptians found a profound path with the right rapid math to integrate a great empire. It is a simple concept, they had at the onset. It lies in the ability to create a harmonious monument at the grandest and most minuscule scales.
For a while, the ancient Egyptians lived in a divided land, and a land divided cannot stand. Upper Egypt was the land of lotus. Lower Egypt was the land of papyrus. Around 3000 BC, King Menes united the two lands, forming the united states of Lotus and Papyrus. By 2700 BC, a mighty lord of the two lands triumphed over the rich and the mighty and acceded to the throne.
A monumental mental momentum was shaping the dynamic dynastic destiny of Egypt. He was King Zoser. In my mind’s eye, it was Zoser’s worry about leading an afterlife of neglect that led him to elect an architect of great intellect who was able to detect a way to protect and project the pharaoh’s image to great effect. The architect was Imhotep, a modern mind in an ancient body. Imhotep was a scholar, an astronomer, a physician, a priest and, all in all, a polymath, all rolled into one. He won himself his reputation by imitation of the original into stone. It was Imhotep alone who allowed stones to set the tone.
In Saqqara, survive the archives of kings and queens, noblemen, and women in the city of the dead that Imhotep caused to live forever. As we journey back in time to find the mind behind the fine pyramid of Zoser, we reach an abode beyond the boundary of death. We discover an illustrated atlas of Egyptian architecture turned into stone. By building with stone, Imhotep created a perfectly petrified, imperishable record of Egyptian architecture, freezing time in stone before Ahmed Zewail. Thanks to Imhotep’s ingenuity, we know what ancient Egyptian architecture at the dawn of history looked like. Imhotep translated every single simple and complex feature into stone. His architectural complex accomplished eternity.
Behind the fabulous facade, Imhotep managed to add an adorable door with hinges, all turned into stone. Look up and you will see a ceiling of palm logs turned into stone. It is this log that allowed Imhotep to log into the pages of history. We are now walking through an ancient Egyptian blog in the first hypostyle hall. Imhotep dared to try. He knew that our doubts “make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”
As we step south, we enter a divinely delineated domain, dominated by the diminutive pyramid of Unas. Although it is so shaken and forsaken that it looks like a mound, the glorious ground around the mound abounds with countless treasures, revealing the site’s majestic nature, through a hieroglyphic signature.
On the south side of the pyramid of Unas is an enticing trace of the first and largest museum labels in history. Over a thousand years after the age of the pyramids, in the New Kingdom, a son of Ramses the Great came here. Khaemwaset was disconsolate to see neglect breaking the neck of the necropolis in Memphis. As a digger, he could figure out the names of the elder builders. Khaemwaset was able to label the fabled cemetery.
From here, we head east on the causeway of Unas, the last king of the fifth dynasty who was the first to inscribe the burial chamber with texts, an ancient Egyptian GPS for the afterlife. Away from the pyramid of Unas and almost at the foot of the cliff is a mastaba tomb for the royal manicurists and pedicurists of the king. If you are in charge of the professional care and cosmetic treatment of the hands, fingernails, feet, and toenails of the pharaoh, then you may trim your eternity with a beautiful mastaba tomb. Thanks to the beautiful scenes, which are not seen in other tombs, and the inscriptions they bear, the status of the men in charge of royal professional care is laid bare.
In the fourth dynasty, we, Egyptians, started to build true pyramids, such as the only surviving wonder of the Seven Wonders, the Great Pyramid of King Cheops. “True” here means without steps. However, the course of constructing true pyramids never did run smooth.
If you can beat, the dry desert heat, you espy a plethora of pyramids of awesome stature, occurring in nature, sculpted by wind with a structure that is bound to win. The habit of copying the habitat was uninhibited among the inhabitants of the Nile valley. Their idea was not to inhibit and prohibit, but rather to exhibit their tantalizing talents. They would have agreed with Benjamin Franklin. “Hide not your talents. They for use were made. What’s a sundial in the shade?” What a source of inspiration! The first pyramid is a mass of mastabas piled up like a wedding cake, celebrating the pharaoh’s marriage with eternity. The art of mummification was not invented in vain.
To the north, after a six-minute drive, we arrive at the sixth dynasty cemetery of King Teti. This titan tightened the security route to the afterlife. His burial bears a burnished version of the pyramid texts, inscribed to describe a path to the netherworld. In this life, Teti was able to muster a cluster of courtiers and a vizier to enhance his career and add to his luster. While the pharaohs relished the royal prerogative of pyramids, the leading lights of society mastered the art of constructing a mastaba tomb. It is a tomb in the shape of a bench for the henchmen of the pharaohs.
We are about to enter one, the tomb of Mereruka, the prime minister of Egypt under King Teti. At the entrance, Mereruka is painting figures of a flood, growth and harvest, three seasons, and what was the reason? He was a man of all seasons. After all, he collected a hundred titles, mirroring his meteoric rise to high office. The tomb is so grand that it dwarfs the pyramid of his king, for Mereruka was the power behind the throne. His titles included overseer of that which heaven gives and earth produces, overseer of the king’s harem, and confidant of the king in every place.
From womb to tomb, the ancient Egyptians were not obsessed with death, doom, and gloom. Their graves are graced with scenes, jumping with life and bloom. The Egyptian word for a ceremonial monument of death is not a tomb, but rather a house of eternity. There is, in the reception hall, a happy happening – a hippopotamus attacking a crocodile, and then a crocodile attacking a hippopotamus. What goes around comes around. Let not such a sorry story make you worry. The ancient Egyptians made a deal with the most monstrous animals for the sake of peace and harmony. There is more than I can say, but balance is the grammar behind the glamour of Egyptian art.
The vizier of Egypt, on behalf of the king, controlled the world of gold. As dwarfs shone, they are shown handling a gold necklace. As the dwarfs blow the melted gold, the hieroglyphs highlight, with deft strokes, the words, the tone, and the skill that they hone in stone. “Blow well as I have taught you to do.”
Dwarfs gained eminence for eliminating the elements of dullness. Their tenacity for details gave vivacity to tales. Those great royal mates animated the life of the king. The comfort they brought to the court made it a veritable fort, with their ability to entertain and exhort the pharaoh, and his cohorts. We chance on dancing dwarfs and singers. Thanks to their nimble fingers, the Egyptians managed to manipulate metals at a minuscule scale.
Saqqara is a pleasurable treasure-trove of tombs, temples, pyramids, and a museum – a modern memorial to the genius of Imhotep, who comes in peace. It is a stunning stone story that began with a brilliant man.
- February 2019 (11)