Dominating the sandy plain of Saqqara, with its scattering of smaller pyramids, is King Zoser’s step pyramid – six massive, stone-block terraces stepping to a blunt peak.

step pyramid saqqara-egypt

Zoser’s step pyramid at Saqqara – Egypt

This is Egypt’s first pyramid and in fact, it’s the oldest stone structure of its size in the world. Built in 2700 BC, it was constructed about 2-300 years earlier than the bigger, triangular pyramids over at Giza.

The nearby necropolis at Saqqara had served the Old Kingdom Period, when Memphis was the Ancient Egyptian capital and from where the dead Pharaohs,  royal families and sacred animals were taken out in ceremony, to be entombed for their eternal life.

To get here: I’d caught the Cairo Metro 18 stops south to Helwan, an industrial suburb, from where I boarded a mini bus, then a ferry across the Nile, more minibuses followed by a taxi, and I’d made it to Saqqara.

I love the silence: the lack of humanity and commercial plastic, as I rest in the warm sands, eating a felafel-filled pita-bread, staring back over the vast desert to the pyramids of Giza (20 km north), and beyond, from where I bought this take-away lunch, there looms the smudgy, grey outline of high-rise Cairo.

tomb saqqara-egypt

Entrance to underground tombs of Saqqara

A sign in the sand declares:
GUARDS ARE STRICTLY FORBIDDEN TO GIVE ANY INFORMATION
I showed the guard my ticket
as I entered the tomb.

He nagged me for “baksheech (a tip)”. I said “laa! – No”, and wandered on down the dim subterranean passageways of the Serapeum; yellow, rock-cut walls.

A few minutes passed – before all the lights went out. And it was then, in the pitch-dark corridor that I could no longer see my hands. Deep under the desert without sound and sight; wandering this ancient tomb alone.

My guidebook had recommended: take a torch. I had. But the batteries were weak. Hopeless. Then the lights returned. The gatekeeper had proved his point. Bastard. Obviously he’d extracted cash from some tourists entering after me. I could hear but not see them.

Egyptian kids in street

Egyptian kids in street …

The Serapeum is weird. An underground maze of rock-cut galleries – reeking of antiquity; dust and stale air – with a wider, central passageway flanked by 25 large chambers housing black-stone sarcophagus, once entombing sacred, mummified bulls.

Saqqara fed me the best vibes on ancient Egypt’s vast menu.

It was grand, yet tranquil. Seemingly lost. And with way fewer tourists, and no touts or souvenir stalls, no modern city stabbing at the surrounding sands. Most of the day the sand dunes, pyramids, tunnels, and the road back to town were mine, alone.

But then, I was surrounded.

Quiet fields near the pyramid of Saqqara - Egypt

Quiet fields near the pyramid of Saqqara – Egypt

It started with one adolescent male. In 15 minutes thirty school children had joined him. Boys and girls chanting, grabbing my hands, laughing and screeching across this quiet, palm-shaded road.

Suddenly – shit, I saw it happening. Two boys on a bicycle approaching then smacking into kids … Miraculously, no one was hurt. Not a scratch, not a tear, nor a shriek. No haunting memories here in Saqqara, in this City of the Dead.

FLASHBACK – travels from notes in Egypt 1995 :: CONFIRMED: Am returning to Egypt in March 2013