The pyramids at Giza didn’t arrive fully formed – it took the ancient Egyptians around 400 years to perfect their building art. Evidence of this architectural experimentation lies a short drive south of Giza at the older sites of Saqqara and Dahshur, where several pyramids, including one stepped, one bent, and one red, form the necropolis for the old royal city of Memphis.
The idea of using pyramids as mausoleums arose during the Third Dynasty of ancient Egypt, and the funerary complex at Saqqara contains five of the original structures, along with a cluster of smaller mastaba (mudbrick) tombs that provided
an early model for the pyramids. Dominating the site is the Step Pyramid of Zoser – the first Egyptian pyramid and the tomb of Pharaoh Zoser. The royal sarcophagus was sunk into the bedrock of the desert, then surrounded by a granite platform that was gradually expanded into a four- and then six-step pyramid according to very precise calculations. The pharaoh’s engineer, Imhotep, oversaw the design and construction of this pyramid so well that he was later raised into the pantheon of the gods – an honor only bestowed on a handful of people in ancient Egypt. Although smaller pyramids surround Zoser’s resting place, the tomb of Imhotep – the world’s first-named architect – has never been found.
The pharaohs of the Sixth Dynasty chose Dahshur, to the south of Saqqara, as the site for their cemetery. Leading the way was the ruler, Snefru, who ordered the building of Dahshur’s two most iconic pyramids, the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid, and kick-started the golden age of Egyptian pyramids in the process. The Red Pyramid, named after the color of its limestone blocks, is thought to be the first true pyramid, with sloping slides rather than steps and descending passages through the blockwork to a series of tomb chambers. The construction techniques obviously took time to hone, though, since the nearby Bent Pyramid displays a noticeable – and unexplained – change in angle halfway up one side. It also strangely has two separate entrances. Snefru’s son Cheops, inspired by his father’s architectural efforts at Dahshur, went on to build the Great Pyramid of Giza, which was completed in around 2560 BC.
Getting There: Saqqara and Dahshur are respectively 16 miles (25 km) and 22 miles (35 km) south of Cairo. This accessible location makes the pyramid sites ideal for a day trip from the city.
When to Go: The best time to visit Egypt is from October through to April, when the weather is at its coolest.