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In order that the living could view the grandeur of the dead god-kings—and, in many cases, be buried alongside them—ancient Egyptians used the sites in the desert west of Memphis, one of the most enduring of ancient capitals, for their royal necropolises. These sites are filled with tombs from all periods of Egyptian history. Just beyond Cairo proper on the Nile's west bank, stand the
monuments most closely identified with Egypt: the timeless Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza. But slightly farther away lie the pyramids of Abu Sir, Saqqara, Dahshur, and the site of Memphis. Most of the visitable pharaonic sites in the environs of Cairo date from the Old Kingdom (2575–2134 BC), although these sites also contain monuments and statuary from the Middle and New Kingdoms and later.
Driving to the various Memphite cemeteries from central Cairo takes one to two hours, depending on which places you decide to visit. Part of the road to Abu Sir, Saqqara, Dahshur, and Memphis follows a canal and passes through small villages, fields, and palm orchards, which is soothing compared to the drive to Giza. Seeing Abu Sir should take a leisurely 1½ hours; Saqqara can take from four hours to an entire day. For Memphis an hour is more than enough, but allow two for Dahshur. Taking in a combination of sites in one day can be very pleasant—Giza and Saqqara; Abu Sir, Saqqara, and Memphis; Dahshur and Saqqara, and so forth. The Fayyum, Egypt's largest oasis, is farther south of Cairo, and the Wadi Natrun monasteries are northwest of Cairo; both require more travel time but can still be visited on day trips.
There are two centers of activity in the area: one is the very salty Birket Qarun, the other Medinet Fayyum, the major city. The site of old...