Saqqara is the name of a modern Egyptian village. It is situated on the west bank of the river Nile, about 30 km south of Cairo. In archaeology, the name designates the desert plateau due west of the village. The plateau forms the very edge of the great Sahara desert, in which the river Nile has scooped out its bed. The escarpment rises about 30 m above the valley; it consists of limestone cliffs alternating with sandy slopes and interrupted by a number of wadis (dry river beds). On the west, the Saqqara plateau is cut off from the high desert by another, less conspicuous wadi. The total dimensions of the plateau from east to west are c. 1.5 km, from north to south about 6 km.
From the edge of the Saqqara plateau, one can gaze down over the Nile valley: a narrow strip of green fields and date palms. The valley is here no more than 10 km wide. On the opposite side lie the steep cliffs of the eastern desert, a mountainous area stretching all the way to the Red Sea. Like their modern descendants, the ancient Egyptians lived in the fertile valley. The deserts were only visited to obtain building stone, ores, and minerals. Some of the best limestone quarries are located just opposite Saqqara in the cliffs of Tura. The edges of the desert were also used to bury the dead, and that's why we are so interested in this area: since the early dynastic period this desert plateau was used as a burial place for the Egyptian élite. In this way, no precious agricultural land was wasted. Moreover, the high location of the tombs ensured that they would not be flooded by the yearly Nile inundation. Most Egyptian cemeteries were located in the western desert, because that is where the sun sets. The Egyptians wanted to be reborn just as the sun rises again after the darkness of night.
The oldest mastaba tombs in Saqqara were built in the time of Aha on the northern spur of Saqqara. Around 2630 king Djoser built the first pyramid in Egypt here in Saqqara and several other kings followed his example. Around those pyramids the elite constructed their own tombs, most of the time mastabas, until the 10th dynasty. Hardly any activity took place during the Middle Kingdom, and it was not until the 18th dynasty that the new elite started to build their tombs again in Saqqara. From then on we find tombs of all periods, until the time of the Ptolemaic kings. A brief time later the Copts founded several monasteries on this plateau.
The explanation for the presence of these vast cemeteries is of course the proximity of a large city. Some ancient mounds and ruins tower up from between the palm trees in the valley at one's feet. These are the remains of the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis. This great city was founded about 3000 B.C. by the first pharaoh of Egypt, Menes. He chose this location for various reasons. In the first place, the valley is here at its widest and the fields can feed a large population. Secondly, Memphis is situated near the border between the Nile valley and the Nile Delta and thus commands both parts of the kingdom. Thirdly, the proximity to the Tura quarries ensured the pharaohs a sufficient supply of building stone. And finally, the Saqqara plateau offered a perfect location to install the tombs of the kings and their courtiers.
Like all Egyptian cities, Memphis was built in non-permanent materials such as unbaked mudbrick, wood, and reeds. Only the temples were built in stone. As long as the dams and other irrigation systems were kept up, these constructions survived. When pharaonic civilization came to an end, most of the city was soon washed away by the inundations. Its temples fell prey to vandalism and quarrying. What survived, is nowadays buried under a thick layer of Nile clay and covered with modern houses and fields. So today, most of Memphis is lost but the cemetery of Saqqara still testifies of its former wealth and glory. Like the temples, the ancient Egyptian tombs were built in permanent materials, because life after death was thought to last for ever.