The oldest pyramid in Egypt, the Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, is being destroyed by the very company the Egyptian government has hired to restore it. The roughly 4,600-year-old structure has been in trouble since an earthquake hit the region in 1992, but in a difficult political and economic climate for the country, those now tasked with preserving the pyramid are doing more harm than good. Egyptian activists claim the company, Shurbagy, doesn’t even have the necessary experience to be undertaking the work in the first place, and they have launched a campaign against the Minister of Antiquities, Mamdouh al-Damaty, claiming a “full-fledged crime” has been committed.
The crime in question is the breach of building regulations related to the restoration of ancient structures. Amir Gamal, a representative of the ‘Non-stop Robberies’ movement, states: “Technically, the company and officials of the Supreme Council of Antiquities committed a full-fledged crime. New walls were built outside the pyramid as if the pyramid were a modern construction, which is opposite to international standards of restoration, which prevents adding more than 5 percent of construction to antiquities if necessary.” Furthermore, the additions are putting pressure on the structure, putting it at risk of collapse.
The limestone step pyramid was originally 62 meters high. Inside is a network of corridors, as well as a granite and marble burial chamber. When the earthquake struck in 1992, large quantities of stone rained down into the center of the pyramid, creating a void at the top and the pyramid was in danger of total collapse. At that time, archaeologist Peter James’s company installed an internally supported PVC balloon-like structure, which was inflated and filled with water to support the pyramid from within. In time it was hoped that the stone would be reinforced with steel rods to restore the building to its previous profile. But funding ran out, then political instability set in.
In October 2012, the Ministry of Antiquities announced work had stopped on the site because they were unable to pay contractors. Work has since resumed under the responsibility of Shurbagy, but the company has already been responsible for the “major deterioration and collapse” of a whole section of the pyramid. The company has also not completed any one of the six previous construction contracts they have committed to in the last nine years. Adds Gamal, “The company has never restored any archaeological site. All projects it had were to create modern construction at archaeological sites.” The pyramid and the Saqqara complex were designed by the engineer-architect Imhotep, and are believed to be the world’s oldest cut stone monuments. With the stepped Pyramid of Djoser marking the turning point from flat-roofed construction to the age of the pyramids in Egypt, it is a tragedy that such an important archaeological legacy could be destroyed by incompetence and lack of adequate funding.