Although the pyramids at Giza are without a doubt the most-visited and iconic ones in Egypt, literally hundreds of pyramids exist through the land of the Pharaohs. Sound overwhelming? It is.
Thankfully, three of these pyramids — conveniently, some of the most important in Egyptian history — are located close enough to Cairo and Giza to visit on the same day you see the ones that everybody else does. Visit the “step” pyramid at Saqarra and the “bent” and “red” pyramids in Dashur to get pieces of the pyramid puzzle most visitors to Egypt miss.
Where They Are and How to Get to Saqqara
The “other” pyramids, as I call them, are all located within about an hour’s drive of Cairo. The step pyramid is the closest, situated in Saqarra, about 20 km due south of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile — you’ll notice all the pyramids are here, since this side of the river was know as the “City of the Dead.” The bent and red pyramids are located in Dashur, which is around twice as far from Cairo at approximately 40 km away.
For all intents and purposes, the only way to get to these pyramids is by taxi, which your hostel or hotel can arrange at a fixed price. Alternatively, you can negotiate with someone on the streets. No matter which option you choose, the maximum price you should pay for a taxi that takes you to these pyramids plus the pyramids at Giza is 250 Egyptian pounds, equal to about $42 in November 2011. This is a per-car price, not per-person.
The bad news is that this is kind of expensive, particularly for Egyptian standards. The good news is that the ride is amazing! After crossing over the Nile into the city of the dead, most of what you see is sprawling date palm forest, snow-white Ibises and local people doing their thing. Money well spent, if you ask me.
Pyramid of Djoser, or the “Step” Pyramid at Saqqara
Known officially by the moniker “Pyramid of Djoser,” who was the pharaoh who built it during the 3rd Dynasty in the 27th century BC, the step pyramid was the first pyramid ever erected in Egypt. Its stepped construction stems from the fact that it was built before Egyptians came up with the idea of smooth-sided pyramids — more on that later.
Upon arriving to the step pyramid, you’ll need to buy an entrance ticket, which costs 65 LE and isn’t included in the price of your tour. The ticket permits you entry into the pyramid and the ruins surrounding the pyramid, but not into it — you aren’t allowed to go inside the step pyramid.
There are less tourists — and, more importantly, less hacks — at the step pyramid than you’ll find at Giza, but these Bedouins are just as eager to rip you off as the ones waiting for you up the Nile. Avoid talking to them if you can.
If your driver is worth anything, he’ll give you a more detailed run-down of the pyramid’s history that I can before you leave the car, although he probably won’t come in, since he’d be required to pay if he did.
The Bent Pyramid at Dashur
The bent pyramid, located about 20 kilometers upstream from Saqqara in Dashur, was supposed to be the first “true” pyramid in Egypt. Unfortunately, about halfway through construction, the architects realized the 50-something degree angle at which the pyramid ascended would result in it being higher than technology would allow them to built, so they bent it in at 45 degrees and called it a night.
Interestingly, the bent pyramid was built in the 4th Dynasty circa 2600 B.C. by the Pharaoh Sneferu. Huge technological advancement for such a short gap in history, huh? When I visited Egypt in September 2011, it wasn’t possible to walk up to the bent pyramid or to go inside it, although that may change by the time you make it there.
The Red Pyramid at Dashur
The so-called “red” pyramid was almost built by Sneferu, presumably as an attempt to cover up his previously faux pas. Or at least that’s what I thought. Ironically, Sneferu actually chose to be buried in the botched bent pyramid, since it has been blessed and readied before they effed it up. That’s what they say, anyway.
I recommend visiting the red pyramid firstly because it’s free and secondly because it’s usually pretty empty, which allows you to go inside without much waiting, if you wait at all. If you’re extra nice to the guard on duty, he’ll let you take a camera inside, provided you promise not to use a flash. Don’t attempt to talk to the guards patrolling the area around the pyramid, however — they’ll shoot you, or at the very least tell you to stand the fuck back.
The passageway down into the pyramid is sloped and long and definitely good for people who are claustrophobic. Once you’re inside there isn’t a lot to see — and, more important, no guide to explain what there is to you — but the energy is positively electric. So is the odor, which is a lovely ammonia scent.
I won’t go so far as to say any of Egypt’s “other” pyramids are better or more important than the ones at Giza, but making the effort to visit them will be very much worth your while if you’ve already made the trek to Egypt.
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