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Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Visit to Memphis

You might recall reading of Memphis in ancient world history. This city on the Nile was an administrative center and the capital of Lower Egypt dating from around 3000 B.C. Yes, it is the namesake of B. B. King and Elvis' Memphis, Tennessee. There are also towns named Memphis in Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, New York and Texas.

Located only about a dozen miles to the south of Cairo, Memphis is at the center of a large number of pyramids and monuments. The most notable of these are found at Sakkara and Dahshur.

There are about 118 pyramids (or maybe 138 - it depends on who's reporting the total.) in Egypt. (UPDATE, 07/27/2010: Zahi Hawass appeared briefly on "Showcase Minnesota" today promoting the History Channel special "Chasing Mummies." His number was 123 including the last one he found. That has to be pretty close to official. Hawass is Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities.) You won't get to see them all, but a few in the Memphis area are well worth the trip. Many tours allow just a half day for this area but I recommend that you give it a full day. There are plenty of things to see and you can stop and have lunch at either a small local place like this one in Memphis.

Or you might want to try one of the fancier places like this.

Arranging the tour is easy. Ask the concierge at any hotel and they will arrange a private car and driver for you. You can go self-guided or pick up a knowledgeable local guide on site. (Helpful hint. Negotiate a firm price before you start!)

On this trip you are going to see three unique pyramids, two museums and a very significant funerary complex. We'll start with the open-air museum at Memphis.

There are numerous exhibits but the prize is a large statue of Ramses II. Ramses II was Egypt's great builder. Some say he was the pharaoh of the bible whom Moses dealt with. He also is credited with around a hundred children - some people say twice that number. Timewise, he doesn't really fit with the other things we will see in this area. Ramses II is from about 1300 B.C. and the pyramids that we are looking at are from around 2600 B.C. So why bring him up? Well, there is a dandy statue of him in the Memphis open-air museum. Ramses is lying flat on his back and the exhibit lets you photograph him from all sides.

Here you can see a group of Japanese tourists getting a few pictures. Note how this gentleman is getting just the right angle.

And of course, I did too.

It's only a short distance over to Sakkara from Memphis. The first stop you might want to make is at the Imhotep Museum. Imhotep was the architect who conceived and built the first pyramid which we are going to see next. The Imhotep Museum is a new and modern facility opened in 2006.

Imhotep's design for his king, Djoser, (sometimes spelled Zoser) was a step pyramid. The distinctive appearance shows up from as far away as the pyramids at Giza as seen in this picture. It's the one on the far right.

As you get closer, the step appearance really stands out.

You will tour a large funerary complex and can spend a lot of time checking out the tomb paintings and other relics of the past. Here I am, guide book in hand on an earlier trip. I've also done this area with guides a couple of times.

It's worth getting close to this one to look at the blocks and note how different the construction technique is compared to the pyramids at Giza.

The Sakkara area is still a very active archaeological area. There were recent reports of a significant new tomb being discovered just a month or two ago. Egyptologists suggest that maybe only 30% of the ancient relics have been uncovered so far. No one really knows.

Now you will want to head south to the Bent Pyramid at Dashur.

Archeologists have a couple of different theories for the shape. In any case, this appears to have been a transition design between step pyramids and the smooth sided ones.

The Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid, below, were both built for Seneferu. The explanations vary but involve collapse and construction problems. The Red Pyramid is my favorite. It has relatively few tourists so no one is going to try to sell you a camel ride or a postcard or a stuffed camel while you explore. In addition, you can freely enter it, take your time and explore the burial chamber. It has a huge burial chamber and once you descend to the chamber, you find yourself climbing a wooden stairs to a height of about thirty feet for a good look around.

You begin the trip inside with a moderate climb up a ramp and then descend through this narrow opeining.

The entire Dashur area was a part of a military area until fairly recently so not many people have seen it. This is a must-see if you are interested in pyramids since the Red Pyramid was the tallest structure in the world at the time it was built and is the third-largest pyramid in Egypt.

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