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

The Hidden and the Seen

The study of sacred landscapes asks scholars to look beyond economic and demographic aspects of the human relationship with the land and broach questions of how meaning and significance were constructed by ancient people.1 An important focus of such studies centers on the material culture of ritual, and how material forms are especially effective at communicating and actively shaping religious ideology.2 The archaeological site of Saqqara offers a unique opportunity to examine how ancient Egyptian royals and elites linked to state governance created and perpetuated a sacred funerary landscape over the course of 2500 years. Adjacent to the important administrative city of Memphis, kings, royal family members, and the highest functionaries of the state built monumental tombs to serve as the center of their funerary cult. Saqqara’s use and importance spans the entire duration of the Pharaonic state, with intensive burials beginning at the point of state formation and continuing to be occupied in the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, as well as the Late Period (although with periods of inactivity between). Its chronological range thus provides the chance to compare and contrast strategies across time, and parallel to important religious and political developments of the wider culture. The site, although functioning primarily as a human cemetery, also encompassed diverse types of activities and structures such as temples, chapels, settlement, animal catacombs, and (when including the neighboring site of Abusir) solar temples (outlined in detail in Section 2). The long history and variety of uses of the site therefore present the potential for investigation and comparison of a landscape across great spans of time and action.

In this work, I maintain that royal and elite Egyptians used a number of common strategies to construct sacred landscapes at Saqqara and other important funerary sites across Egypt. These practices included associating sites or entire regions with cosmic concepts and symbolic alignments, overlaying religious metaphor onto natural features, incorporating networks of divine movement into cemetery spaces, and intentionally crafting monument visibility and invisibility in order to inscribe royal and elite power into the built landscape. While these strategies are further discussed in Section 5, I focus in this section exclusively on the use of visibility at Saqqara. Certainly, Egypt is known worldwide for its impressive monuments, and the erection of monumental architecture is well documented as one technique developed for articulating and perpetuating hierarchy in burgeoning states across the globe.3 But the relationship between monumentality, visibility, and monument prominence is more complex, and I argue that distinct forms of visibility were intentionally enacted or enhanced at Saqqara to create a culturally specific type of elite funerary landscape. By turning a critical eye to the individual and group choices made by those able to construct monumental features at the Saqqara site, I identify and hypothesize the specific visual strategies used by these groups to create a sense of sacred funerary space at this site. Looking closely at how the landscape was altered at distinct moments in time, primarily through standing architecture, it is clear that ideational space, the intangible and interpretive aspects, could differ in meaningful ways across time and between active groups. Indeed, at various moments in Egyptian history, the site was the locus of different forms of landscape expression and interpretation, as funerary and religious concepts changed along with the consolidation and development of the state. Yet, while sacred landscape meaning was dynamic and changing, I identify strategies connected to visibility at the site that operated across time periods. Such strategies of intervention included intervisibility between Saqqara and other sites; the use of perspective, monument shape, and building siting to craft specific visual connections between monuments; intentional invisibility; and the aesthetic design of monuments in the use of the visual aspects of color, texture, and contrast. I argue that such strategies correlated with contemporary concepts focused on the power of ritualized sight. I also tie monumentality and networks of visibility to the maintenance of social order and elite identity,4 originating in the mythology of the king and state power, which privileged the access and knowledge of the ruler and his supporting elites.

This section uses the 3DGIS model to look closely at sacred place-making at Saqqara, isolating individual time-slices in an attempt to identify how royal and elite communities actively created a sacred landscape at distinct moments. Visibility, of all the strategies of sacred landscape production mentioned above, is the least theorized in Egyptology, and I suggest that it played a more important role than previously acknowledged. The deflation, disassembling, and reuse of monuments in the thousands of years since their construction has obscured many aspects of their original visual effect, and thus impacted our modern ability to recognize its strategic use. Using analysis tools in the 3DGIS model, I reimagine and reassess visual networks at the site, and suggest new ways of interpreting landscape meaning in the past.

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