Wednesday, 23 January 2013


Zoser's stone stairway to heaven
Thursday 20 December: I'm in Cairo, Egypt's capital, a teeming north African city of 20 million inhabitants and today I feel like I've bumped into all of them. Chaos, uncertainty, infrastructure breakdown, dust, dirt, cigarette smoke, noise, air pollution, horn after horn pumping loudly, market traders shouting, bus televisions and taxi radios blaring. But, warts and all, I like this city. Popping down to Tahir Square I take a look in on Garden City House, an old British archaeologists hang-out that I know well, then I return to Cairo's magnificent colonial-style Ramses station to book my sleeper berth south to Aswan. As much as I like Cairo it's getting cold in the evenings and there's likely to be violent protests this weekend, so this is just a short visit. 
Friday 21: For all map-makers out there, not surprisingly, Mubarak metro station has changed it's name but at other stations down the line the name 'Mubarak' has simply been crossed out, not yet replaced. I'm taking the cheap and surprisingly clean Metro (92nd mode of transport) southbound to Giza Station and, once there, I find myself sitting in one of those noisy taxis, radio blaring, driver chain-smoking, but I'm happy, I'm on my way to Saqqara.
Step Pyramid
My reason for travelling to this remote spot, southwest of Cairo, is that I want to to see the Step Pyramid, or Zoser's Pyramid, the world's earliest cut-stone structure. Also it's the world's oldest pyramid, built in 2,650BC (nearly five-thousand years ago) by 3rd Dynasty royal architect Imhotep as the tomb for his pharaoh, Zoser. In Old Kingdom Egypt royals were normally buried in underground vaults marked only by a mud-brick mastaba but Imhotep originated two innovations. Firstly, he used quarried stone as a building material and, secondly, he constructed a pyramid-shaped structure with it. This was a colossal step both in tomb design and also in project management. This innovation heralded not only the construction of all of Egypt's later architectural wonders but many other pyramids including the world's newest and Europe's highest, London Southbank's glass-clad skyscraper, The Shard.
Interestingly, despite much research over many years, the location of Imhotep's own tomb remains a mystery. Don't you just love it? I've been here before, years ago, but since then several new discoveries have been made and I'll soon be coming back to investigate them.
Slideshow of Saqqara.

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