For most tourists, pyramids mean Giza, the spot on the outskirts of Cairo where timeless desert meets restless modern city. But though the greatest, the Giza pyramids were not the first. That honour belongs to Saqqarah, some 10 miles south of the city on the West bank of the Nile. To understand more fully the achievement of those later wonders, and to enjoy experiences unique to the place, a visit to Saqqarah is indispensable. For at Saqqarah is laid out for those who have eyes to see the extraordinary story of the pyramids, their birth and their ramifications.
Around the time of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by King Narmer the use of stone for building was restricted to the characteristic low, flat-topped tombs now known as mastabas - so named from the Arabic word for the benches which they resemble. Some three hundred years later, about 2700 BC, something miraculous happened. While the funerary mastaba for the pharaoh Zozer was being built, someone had an inspired idea: to stack smaller such mastabas on top of the first, to produce a pyramid-like shape, albeit in steps, six of them. We will never know what prompted this leap of imagination, but it seems highly probable that we do know the name of the man who one day came up with this innovative masterstroke.
He was Imhotep, Zozer's Grand Vizier, High Priest, Chief Judge, Architect and Supervisor of Building Works - perhaps the first Renaissance man in history. Later generations were certainly impressed, and he was soon revered as a god. What is important for us is that he is one of the first people other than a king or a queen to emerge from the past's obscurity with not only a name, but also an achievement and a life. More so perhaps than the king he served, he has through his works attained immortality.
Once the conceptual breakthrough of the pyramid form had been made, others soon followed. But as might be expected in this land of the extraordinary, some unusual events punctuated this progress. The next pyramid to be built was at Meidum, some 50 miles south of Cairo. It too was a stepped pyramid to begin with, though a true pyramidal casing was later added. Today it is just a heap of rubble, for mistakes were made in the design - clearly no Imhotep was to hand - and at some point during the building the mis-directed weight of thousands of tons of rock proved too much, and the whole thing collapsed, leaving only the core we see today.
This in itself might only be of passing interest, were it not for the fact that its occurrence allows us to make an astonishing deduction about the way pyramids must have been built. Another pyramid begun around the same time about 10 miles south of Saqqarah is known as the Bent Pyramid, because it is just that: two-thirds of the way up the angle of the four faces changes dramatically to a less steep one. The explanation seems to be that this was the point attained when the disaster at Meidum occurred. As a result, the builders lost confidence in their plans, and flattened out the pyramid design for safety's sake.
If this interpretation is true - and it seems very likely - then it is clear that more than one pyramid was worked on at once. Indeed, this is in accord with other facts which suggest that the pharaoh concerned - king Sneferu - was responsible for other pyramids too. But if a pyramid was intended as a final resting place for the king, and for him alone, why did he need more than one?
The answer seems to have to do with the logistics of building such colossal structures. The organisation involved in constructing pyramids - still the largest such projects in history, unsurpassed even in our own day - was immense and without precedent. As well as full-time teams of thousands of skilled specialists such as quarriers, stone-masons, surveyors and so on, there would probably have been seasonal forces of tens of thousands of men, perhaps even a hundred thousand men, who would have carried out the mind-boggling task of moving hundreds of thousands of blocks of stone without the aid of wheels or pulleys, using huge earth ramps which first had to be built. The task of housing and feeding such numbers required an organisational skill never before seen - because never before needed.
Having set this immense machine in motion, King Sneferu seems to have taken the eminently sensible decision to use these unparalleled forces to work on more than pyramid at once, each specialist group moving on as each successive stage was completed. After all, later pharaohs would require just such tombs; when and by whom they were built was unimportant.
Whether Sneferu or his advisers thought exactly along these lines is an interesting question, but the alternative is even more intriguing. It could be that having set up the organisation to build his own pyramid, he or his advisers realised that the focus of that single task had created something unique, and uniquely important. It had created a powerful apparatus for getting things done, with the workforce drawn from the whole kingdom of Egypt, Upper and Lower. It demonstrably unified the country in a common goal. Moreover, to work, the new forms of that apparatus called for a hierarchy of overseers - with the pharaoh at the very top of what turned out aptly enough to be an organisational pyramid. In other words, the invention of the pyramids not only brought about a revolution in building technology, it also changed fundamentally the society which built them. With the pyramids, the Egyptians invented large-scale architecture and, more importantly, the concept of the organised state.
Whatever the explanation for Sneferu's actions, the outcome was the same: the construction of the pyramids became the main catalyst in the creation of the unified Egyptian nation led by the pharaoh in a dual capacity as both god and as head of the associated apparatus of state. That this power became independent of the pyramids is shown by the fact that the building phase ended almost as abruptly as it began, a mere 350 years later.
The site of Saqqarah is therefore of unique importance in understanding the rise of the Egyptian Empire. It also offers the tourist many other treasures. As well as Zozer's stepped pyramid, there is the Pyramid of Unas - one of the last built during this golden age - which contains on its interior walls the first mortuary texts dealing with the passage of the soul from this world to the next. Also of note are the fine mastabas of officials nearby, dating from the same era, and the extraordinary underground Serapeum from the Ptolemaic period, late in construction but with ancient and sometimes disturbing roots in pre-history.