While Memphis was the capital of Ancient Egypt, Saqqara served as its necropolis. Although it was eclipsed as the burial ground of royalty by Giza and, later, by the Valley of the Kings in Thebes, it remained an important complex for minor burials and cult ceremonies for more than 3,000 years, well into Ptolemaic and Roman times.
Although the earliest burials of nobles at Saqqara can be traced back to the First Dynasty, it was not until the Second Dynasty that the first kings were buried there, including Hotepsekhemwy and Nynetjer.
Saqqara is also home to an impressive number of mastaba tombs. Because the necropolis was lost beneath the sands for much of the past two millennia – even the sizable mortuary complex surrounding Djoser's pyramid was not uncovered until 1924 – many of these have been superbly preserved, with both their structures and lavish internal decorations intact.
While most of the mastabas date from the Old Kingdom, one major figure from the New Kingdom is also represented: Horemheb, the last pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, who had a tomb built here for himself before he assumed the throne in his own right, while still serving as one of Tutankhamun's generals.
Another major monument at Saqqara is the Serapeum: a gallery of tombs, cut from the rock, which served as the eternal resting place of the mummified bodies of the Apis bulls worshipped in Memphis as embodiments of the god Ptah. Rediscovered by Auguste Mariette in 1851, the tombs had been opened and plundered in antiquity – with the exception of one that lay undisturbed for some 3,700 years. The mummified bull it contained can now be seen in Cairo's agricultural museum.
On the approach to the Serapeum stands the slightly incongrous arrangement of statues known the Philosophers' Circle: a Ptolemaic recognition of the greates poets and thinkers of their Greek ancestors, originally situated in a nearby temple. Represented here are Hesiod, Homer, Pindar, Plato, and others.