Constructing the Sacred: Visibility and Ritual Landscape at the Egyptian Necropolis of Saqqara

Constructing the Sacred at Royal Funerary Landscapes in Egypt

Funerary rituals and landscapes acted as especially powerful stages for enacting and reinforcing dominant social ideologies and political authority in ancient societies.1 This work contends that the most elite Egyptians developed a consistent practice of sacred landscape creation, and that these practices created uniquely Egyptian funerary spaces that effectively intertwined community identity with state social order. In Section 3, I argue that visibility was one key strategy harnessed by Egyptian royals and elites to create a sense of sacred space in the funerary landscape at Saqqara. While architectural monumentality and engineered aspects of visibility and experience were critical to forming a funerary landscape demarcated from both near and far as ‘sacred’ at Saqqara, examination of the site shows evidence for additional strategies in use. In this section, I identify a series of techniques for landscape intervention that repeat at Saqqara and appear at other ritual sites in the Nile valley. I focus in this work exclusively on periods of state unity and political power, those moments when monumental architecture flourished, and when its construction would have been influenced by royal control (in contrast with the Intermediate Periods, when construction may have acted as a means of asserting regional or personal influence outside the control of a single state-sponsored narrative). 

In additional to intentional visibility and invisibility, strategies for sacred place-making in Pharaonic Egypt included the integration of multiple ritual spaces in a region into larger ‘cosmic’ landscapes, connecting ritual spaces at multiple locations through defined networks of ritual movement, as well as the adaptation of aspects of the local natural environment into ritual service through religious metaphor. These practices created a type of visual, spatial, and even mental vocabulary that inscribed the landscape with forms recognizable to the community as demarcating a special place of funerary ritual. All of these basic strategies can be discerned at various points in time at Saqqara or other major royal sites of focus in the Pharaonic Period in the Nile valley, and Saqqara is here contextualized alongside other key ritual sites. Using comparative evidence from multiple elite landscapes, I formulate a royal/elite methodology for such sacred funerary place-making. This review is not comprehensive but calls on some of the best-documented examples from royal and elite sites studied by other scholars. While the common strategies clearly emerge from within the shared cultural framework and religious conceptions of ancient Egyptian royal and elite communities, also interesting is the way practices of sacred place-making are localized and adapted to the specific setting. 

That formalized practices for the creation of a sense of sacred space spread across multiple cities and spanned numerous royal reigns is well known from the Egyptian divine temple context. Enclosure walls (and other forms of control over spatial access), visual and architectural metaphors linking the temple to primeval forms, manipulation of light and darkness, monumentality, and visibility/invisibility have all been thoroughly investigated to understand how the temple was constructed carefully and intentionally as a sacred space, outside the confines of everyday life.2 Necropolises were equally important to the Egyptians in terms of their relationship to the divine, yet cemetery landscapes were formed in different ways than the temple and offered different types of potential for individual and community memory (for the king, but also for elites), different ways to express hierarchy (again for both groups), and different natural environments and metaphors from the temple (temples located frequently within the settlement zone, with cemeteries in contrast along desert edges). Looking closely at how sacred space was constructed at a series of necropolises through time helps to frame the choices made at Saqqara, as well as to illuminate the sophisticated nature of Egyptian sacred place-making.

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