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

Widening the View

The previous sections have argued that kings and powerful elites engaged in a persistent process of creating and maintaining a sense of sacred space at Saqqara, a process that included a stress on the visibility of their monuments at the site. While specific meanings and forms of this space shifted over time, this process was sustained by the continued elite interest in the site across many centuries, due initially to the importance of the neighboring city of Memphis, and later to the establishment of other Delta capitals. A key question for understanding the larger role played by Saqqara in the region centers on its use and interpretation by those unable to afford the construction of monumental tombs. Did the necropolis hold sacred meaning to those outside the small elite connected to the court and state administration? Osborne argued that public monuments are susceptible to “active and deliberate interventions” that reveal contested memories or later challenge to the ideals and intent of the monument sponsors.1 In this section, I will try to move beyond the question of construction and explore the interaction of individuals and groups with the constructed landscape in an attempt to understand how a wider group of ancient people formulated meaning within the ritual space. To investigate these questions, I will look at textual and figural graffiti, as well as reuse of elite burials at the necropolis by sub-elite and non-elite communities. These subsequent interactions with the landscape of Saqqara offer a different type of evidence than the monumental constructions at the site. They provide brief, tantalizing glimpses into the beliefs and actions of ancient individuals, or the priorities of the non-elite, non-literate2 groups that remain mostly silent in historical texts. The evidence suggests that royals and elites were highly effective in creating unique zones that were comprehensible to the larger public as important ritual spaces, although these other groups interpreted the Saqqara necropolis in ways that differed from their contemporaries. Those outside the high elite understood and used the cemetery in ways parallel to, but not identical with, their economically and socially advantaged peers.

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