Pyramid & Mortuary Complex of Djedkare-Isesi
The southern pyramids of Saqqara are not usually on the main tourist itinerary and they require a little more effort to visit.
Djedkare-Isesi was the penultimate king of Dynasty V, the predecessor to Unas. He was the first pharaoh to build a pyramid in the area to the south of the main Saqqara necropolis, moving away from the chosen burial grounds of his immediate ancestors at Abusir. Although Djedkare’s ancestry is still unclear, it is known that he reigned for at least three decades, during which time he was responsible for reforming the administration of Upper and Lower Egypt and reorganising the mortuary cult at Abusir.
The pyramid of Djedkare, overlooking the modern village of Saqqara, is known today as ‘The Sentinel’ (el-Shawaf) but was originally named ‘Beautiful is Djedkare’. It was visited by Perring, and recorded by Lepsius, but was first entered by Gaston Maspero in 1880 during his search for pyramid texts. In the 1940s the pyramid was excavated by Abdel Salam Hussein, although his work was never published. It has been sporadically investigated since then, especially in the area of the causeway, but due to the damage to the pyramid complex in antiquity little remains have been found there.
The core of the pyramid was built in six steps of small irregular limestone blocks, originally rising to a height of around 52m, but only the lower steps still remain today. Most of the limestone casing has also now gone. The entrance was found at ground level in the pavement in front of the eastern side of the north wall, where traces of a small entrance chapel have been found. A descending passage leads to a small vestibule, lined with limestone, in which many broken pottery sherds were found (perhaps part of a funerary ritual). Three huge portcullis slabs blocked the next horizontal corridor, with another blocking the end of the corridor. Beyond this was an antechamber with the burial chamber to the west and to the east a magazine with three niches. The plan is similar to some of the subterranean chambers seen in earlier pyramids. The gabled roof of the burial chamber consisted of three layers of massive limestone blocks.
Despite the blocking of the corridor, robbers still gained access to the underground chambers and did a great deal of damage. Fragments of a dark grey basalt sarcophagus which once stood at the western side of the burial chamber, have been partly reconstructed, and a niche sunk into the floor at its foot would have contained the King’s canopic jars. Among the debris the mummy of a 50 year old man was found. It was thought that the remains must have been those of Djedkare, but given his long reign this would mean that he would have been very young when he ascended the throne. Too little is known of the history of this period to be certain.
The King’s mortuary temple lies on the eastern face of the pyramid, built on sloping ground which had to be levelled before construction could begin. Two massive towers in the form of a pylon originally fronted the temple, but their purpose is still unclear and it appears that they did not contain any rooms. Fragments of reliefs found in the temple area suggest that it was once richly decorated, but it has been severely damaged and the area has never been completely excavated. The symmetrical plan seems to be similar to that of other pyramid temples of Dynasty V with an entrance hall and a central colonnaded court with magazines on either side. The 16 pink granite columns in the court bore the names and titles of Djedkare-Isesi. The inner and outer parts of the temple were separated by a transverse corridor, and beyond this was a chamber with five statue-niches, an antechamber and an offering hall and on the western side a false door was incorporated into the face of the pyramid.
At the south-eastern corner of the complex, within the enclosure walls was a satellite pyramid with a single chamber reached by a descending corridor from the north wall. A queen’s pyramid is situated at the north-east corner of the mortuary temple. This smaller version of the King’s pyramid has its own mortuary temple and even a tiny satellite pyramid within its own perimeter wall. Although it is not known who the small pyramid belonged to, its owner is likely to have been a consort of Djedkare, or a person of very high status.
Djedkare’s causeway joined his mortuary temple between the two towers of the entrance pylon and ran at an angle slightly towards the south, sloping down to the modern village of Saqqara which now covers the lower part of the causeway and the valley temple. Various decorated fragments have been found from these structures during excavations over the past few decades, and a few blocks have been found scattered among the houses of the village, although the area surrounding the pyramid of Djedkare has never undergone a thorough excavation.
How to get there
To reach the South Saqqara Pyramids, visitors can hire camels or horses near the resthouse at North Saqqara and ride a few kilometres across the desert which separates the two areas. Alternatively you can drive to the modern village of Saqqara on the western edge of the cultivated area. A reliable guide is recommended. A taxi from Cairo can be hired for the day.