Work on Djoser’s Step Pyramid in Saqqara is continuing despite a contracting controversy, writes Nevine El-Aref
When Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty announced the resumption of work at Djoser’s Step Pyramid in Saqqara this week, after some four years’ delay, the decision was generally applauded. But some archeologists are raising concerns about the company chosen to do the restoration.
They accused the ministry of negligence in awarding the work to the Al-Shorbagi Company, which, they say, was responsible for the earlier collapse of a block of the 4,600-year-old Step Pyramid.
Amir Gamal, representative of the Non-Stop Robberies pressure group, accused the company and the ministry of not following international restoration standards because they built a new wall around the pyramid. International rules prevent such new additions being made, he said.
Gamal added that the company, hired in 2006, had not finished the work by 2008, as specified in the contract. “Meanwhile, the condition of the pyramid has been going from bad to worse,” he said.
“The company does not specialise in restoration, and it has never carried out restoration work in Egypt,” Gamal said, adding that the Al-Shorbagy Company had previously only built cafeterias and other modern buildings at archaeological sites.
“If the ministry is confident in the restoration work that is being carried out, it should release a technical report for all to see,” he added.
Ahmed Shehab, an official of the Preserving Egypt Antiquities Organisation, an NGO, said that he was concerned because a 2011 UNESCO report had said that the pyramid was at risk and there was no proper restoration plan.
“These accusations are unfounded,” said Kamal Wahid, director-general of Giza Antiquities. He added that the restoration work was being carried out according to plans approved by UNESCO, the Ministry of Antiquities and the relevant consultancy bureau.
“The Al-Shorbagy Company, in charge of the restoration, is registered with the government as an ‘A’ category company, like Arab Contractors and Orascom, which means that it is qualified for the work,” Wahid said.
The company is following a plan drawn up by specialists in the field and its work is under the supervision of the ministry’s consultancy bureau, led by the well-known architect Hassan Fahmy, he added. An architectural committee, including professors of architecture from Cairo and Ain Shams universities and led by Mustafa Al-Ghamrawi, is also reviewing the restoration.
Wahid said that it is not true that a wall has been built around the pyramid, or that a block of the pyramid has fallen. “All the blocks scattered around the pyramid fell away over centuries as a result of environmental stresses,” he said, adding that these blocks had been collected, cleaned, and returned to their original positions as part of the first phase of the work.
Blocks damaged beyond repair have been replaced with replicas to fill the gaps in the pyramid’s structure, he said, and the whole structure has been subjected to careful tests.
“A delegation from UNESCO and ICOM [International Council of Monuments] is now visiting several sites and museums in Egypt and it will soon issue its report,” Wahid said, adding that the report will adjudicate between the claims of the ministry and its critics.
Youssef Khalifa, head of ancient Egyptian antiquities at the ministry, accused the critics of creating a false controversy that would have a negative impact on the economy and efforts to stimulate tourism.
The restoration of Djoser’s Step Pyramid started in 2002, Wahid said, when he had warned the then minister of antiquities, Zahi Hawass, of the threats to the structure. Hawass appointed a team of Egyptian and foreign archaeologists who began a study of the structure with a view to comprehensive restoration, he added.
Geological surveys and laboratory tests of the ground material has been done, and an analysis of the structure carried out. In 2006, the Al-Shorbagy Company was selected, through a bidding process, to carry out the restoration work recommended in the report.
The restoration work continued until 2010, when it was suspended for budgetary reasons. Meanwhile, a British team used giant air bags in the pyramid’s inner chamber to support the ceiling, which was in danger of collapse.
Following the 25 January Revolution, work was again suspended because of money problems. Last week, during Eldamaty’s visit to the site, he announced that a new budget would see the work resumed for completion by 2015.
The ancient Egyptian architect Imhotep, the pyramid’s builder, initially envisioned a traditional flat-roofed mastaba for the funerary complex holding the mummy of the Third Dynasty Pharaoh Djoser (2667-2648 BCE). But by the end of Djoser’s 19-year reign, his tomb in the Saqqara necropolis had grown to a 62-metre-high, six-layered structure, which is essentially what can be seen at the site today.
At the time of its completion, the pyramid was the largest building ever constructed, demonstrating a sophisticated and dramatic leap in architectural size and style.
The Step Pyramid complex was originally enclosed by a limestone wall that was 10.5 metres high and 1.64 metres thick. It covered an area of 15 hectares, the size of a large town in the third millennium BCE. Inside the walls was a huge complex of ceremonial and administrative buildings, including north and south pavilions, underground passages and terraces, finely carved façades, ribbed and fluted columns, stairways, platforms, shrines, and life-sized statues.
At the centre was the Step Pyramid, built out of 330,400 cubic metres of clay, stone, reeds and wood, making the structure more durable than earlier pyramids that were built using mud bricks.
The elements of the complex at ground level are only a small part of the whole since a large part of the building works are underground, created to hide the burial chamber and discourage grave robbers. The massive underground space is almost six-km long and includes a maze of tunnels, shafts, chambers, galleries and storerooms.
Nevertheless, the burial chamber was plundered in antiquity and re-used for other burials in the Late Period. All that now remains of Djoser is his mummified left foot.
One of the most striking parts of the complex is the eastern chamber, thought to be the pharaoh’s palace in the afterlife. Here craftsmen produced exquisite decorations using faience and limestone, with rows of blue faience tiles with raised bands of limestone simulating a reed-mat structure.
The decoration was originally arranged into six panels, the three on the north side topped with an arch supported by a simulated pillar. One of the panels contained the real doorway with a limestone frame bearing the name and title of Djoser. The three southern panels framed false-door stelae showing Djoser performing ritual visits to various shrines. This chamber was never completed, however. The builders left the east wall unfinished, roughly hacked out of the rock, and the decorators seem to have left in a hurry.
All four walls of two further chambers were originally covered with the same inlay of blue tile and the doorways framed with the name of Djoser-ti, Djoser’s successor. These would have represented the inner private rooms of the palace.
To the north of the pyramid stands the mortuary temple, now in ruins, though its southern wall still bears a carved cobra-head frieze. The south wall is connected from the outside to the southern tomb by a stairway with a large hole on the left side. At the bottom of this hole is an entrance leading to a set of chambers lined with blue tiles similar to those in the pyramid’s burial chamber. The inscriptions in these chambers are perfectly executed and exactly in line.
The Step Pyramid complex stood untouched until the 17th century when European travellers attempted to explore the underground chambers. At the turn of the 19th century, research inside the pyramid began when the Prussian explorer Johann Heinrich Freiherr von Minutoli discovered the access tunnel that runs under the pyramid from the north.
In 1837 the British researcher John Perring found the underground galleries beneath the main structure. Soon afterwards a Prussian expedition led by Karl Lepsius carried out more excavations on the pyramid’s side.
However, systematic research on the Djoser complex was first conducted only in the 1920s by the British archaeologist Cecil Firth. He was soon joined by the French architect Jean-Philippe Lauer, who made the excavation of the complex his life’s work.
Regretfully, the sands of time have taken their toll on the Step Pyramid. Most of the outer casing is gone, the core of the masonry has disappeared in some places, and deep cracks have spread over the walls and ceilings of the pyramid’s underground corridors, while several parts of the queen’s tunnels, found beneath the pyramid’s main shaft, have collapsed. For safety reasons, the pyramid is closed to visitors.
Various projects were proposed to save the monument, but it was only in 2003 that the then Supreme Council of Antiquities gave the go-ahead for the restoration work. The aim today is for work at the site to be completed by 2015 and for the area to be developed for tourism.