Friday, October 3, 2014

Story of Step Pyramid (6): Clearing the controversy behind the restoration project at Djoser’s Step Pyramid in Saqqara

As the sun took its position in the middle of the sky, thousands of journalists, photographers and TV anchors with their cameramen flocked into Saqqara’s necropolis. They were in attendance by way of invitation from the Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh El-Damaty to inspect the restoration work being carried out on Djoser’s Step Pyramid.

After the announcement that Djoser’s Step Pyramid would be restored, a brouhaha erupted in the archaeological sphere with some experts raising concerns that the company chosen to carry out the restoration project was unqualified.

Nour Abdel Samad, Head of Archaeological Documentation Section, claimed the restoration work carried out on Djoser’s Step Pyramid was false and incorrect, and had damaged the pyramid’s structure, possibly leading to its collapse. He continued to explain that most of the pyramid’s blocks are crumbling due to the sub-standard restoration work, and some ceilings of the pyramid’s inner corridors had already fallen down. This led to the ministry assigning a foreign company that used giant air bags in the pyramid’s inner chamber to support the ceiling, which was in danger of collapse.

“What has been done had its negative impact on the pyramid’s original structure and contradict with UNESCO’s 1972 convention signed by Egypt which determine the protection and the preservation of the monuments,” asserted Abdel Samad.

He added that the company in charge of restoration is unqualified and has not executed any previous restoration work at an archaeological site. The ministry of antiquities issued a statement denouncing all accusations raised and described it as “unfounded.” However, not all media channels were convinced.

Upon the minister of antiquities’ invitation, a press conference was held at the foot-step of the Djoser’s Step Pyramid in Saqqara to show to the whole world that the pyramid is safe and sound, and the restoration is being carried out correctly, in accordance with international standards.

On the site, Al-Damaty detailed the condition of Djoser’s Step Pyramid. He completely denounced all accusations spread in media and social networks, describing the deterioration of the Step Pyramid as “rumours.” He continued to say that the pyramid’s restoration project is still in progress, and that it did not confront any technical problems. He asserted that the whole site was subjected to investigation, and that it had been proved that none of the pyramid’s stones had collapsed.

During the conference, Al-Damaty called on varying national and international news agencies to be more accurate in what they write, and investigate the information before publishing it. He also highlighted that necessary legal procedures will be made against any employee who is proved to be negligent or irresponsible.

Mohamed El-Shimi, Head of the Saqqara Necropolis, pointed out that the company in charge of the restoration project was 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 well-known architects and consultants from Cairo and Ain Shams universities.

He went on to deny claims that a wall had been built around the pyramid or that a block of the pyramid had fallen. He pointed out that the blocks scattered around the pyramid fell away over centuries as a result of environmental stresses, adding that these blocks had been collected, cleaned, and returned to their original positions as part of the first phase of the restoration project. He added that blocks damaged beyond repair had been replaced with replicas to fill in the gaps in the pyramid, and that the whole structure had been subject to careful tests.

The restoration of Djoser’s Step Pyramid started in 2002, when a comprehensive study of the pyramid’s structure took place. Geological surveys and laboratory tests of the ground material had also been carried out then. In 2006, the actual work of restoration started and continued until 2010, when it was suspended for budgetary reasons. Following the 2011 revolution, work was halted due to lack of funds until two weeks ago, when Al-Damaty announced the resumption of the work with a new allocated budget. Djoser’s Step Pyramid is planned to be officially inaugurated in 2015.

Djoser’s Step Pyramid was discovered by French architect Jean-Phillipe Lauer who reconstructed key portions of the complex. The pyramid is the first Egyptian pyramid ever built and considered the earliest large-scale cut stone construction. It consists of six decreasing size mastabas built one on top of the other. 

The pyramid originally stood 62 metres tall, with a base of 109 m × 125 m and was clad in polished white limestone. It had several aspects pivotal to its function in both life and the afterlife; the pyramid was not simply a grave in ancient Egypt. Its purpose was also to facilitate a successful afterlife for the king so that he could be eternally reborn.

The Step Pyramid complex was originally enclosed by a limestone wall that covered an area of 15 hectares. Inside the walls, a huge complex of ceremonial and administrative buildings were uncovered, including north and south pavilions, underground passages and terraces, finely carved façades, ribbed and fluted columns, stairways, platforms, shrines, and life-size statues. At the centre was the Step Pyramid. The elements of the complex at ground level are only a small part of the whole structure, since a large part of the building is underground, created to hide the burial chamber and to discourage grave robbers. The massive underground space is almost six km long and includes a maze of tunnels, shafts, chambers, galleries and storerooms.

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