Controversy over Egypt's Menkaure Pyramid

Al-Ahram Weekly , Wednesday 31 Jan 2024

The reconstruction of the casing of the Menkaure Pyramid on the Pyramids Plateau has sparked a lively debate

Menkaure Pyramid
Menkaure Pyramid


In the heart of Egypt, where history echoes through the country’s timeless monuments, a debate has recently erupted that has stirred discussion among archaeologists, historians, and the public alike. 

The focal point is the restoration of the granite casing of the Menkaure Pyramid, the smallest of the three Great Pyramids on the Pyramids Plateau outside Cairo, which has led to both enthusiasm and scepticism.

The unveiling of the restoration project, seen by its supporters as the “project of the century” and its opponents as an “absurdity”, ignited a debate throughout Egypt. In a video released last Friday, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Mustafa Waziri showed workers meticulously aligning granite blocks at the base of the Pyramid structure. 

Originally covered with granite after its construction, the Pyramid lost its casing over time. The current project is an effort to restore this granite layer, aiming to return the Pyramid to its original appearance. 

According to Waziri, who leads the Egyptian-Japanese mission overseeing the project, the renovation is expected to span three years and is being hailed as “a gift from Egypt to the world in the 21st century”.

Waziri said that it “will allow us to see, for the first time, the Pyramid of Menkaure as it was built by the ancient Egyptians.”

The initiative has reignited debate over the preservation of Egyptian heritage, prompting discussion about the delicate balance between restoration and maintaining the historical integrity of ancient structures.

In response to the video circulating on social media, various commentators voiced their indignation at the project. Egyptologist Monica Hanna used the word “impossible”. She strongly opposes the project, describing it as like “tiling” the Pyramid of Menkaure.

“When will we stop the absurdity in managing Egyptian heritage,” Hanna asked. “All international principles on renovation prohibit such interventions; all archaeologists must mobilise immediately” against it, she said.

Other commentators responded sarcastically, with one asking, “when will the plan to straighten the Tower of Pisa in Italy be scheduled?” Another Internet user suggested the idea of using wallpaper on the Pyramid.

Egyptologist Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, believes that documenting the blocks of the Menkaure Pyramid that have become detached and the Pyramid itself is a good idea. 

“Should anastylosis [restored using the original materials] be carried out,” she asked. “This is a question that has vexed conservators, scholars, and the public. Perhaps yes to anastylosis, but no to any additional new blocks.”

She remarked on her Facebook page that “ideas about restoration and conservation change a great deal, and what was thought to be great when it was done is often criticised 10 years later. It is a fine line to walk. It is worth remembering that many ancient Egyptian monuments were restored even in antiquity.” 

Associate professor of restoration and conservation at the Faculty of Archaeology at MUST University Ibrahim Badr said in a tweet that international conventions for restoring and dealing with antiquities should be observed. 

Professor Mohamed Hamza of the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University said that any project related to antiquities is only permissible if it follows meticulous and comprehensive studies in accordance with international recommendations. 

These include guidelines such as the Venice Charter of 1964, the Nairobi Conference of 1976, the Lahore Charter of 1980, the Bora Charter of 1981, the Washington Charter of 1987, the Lausanne Charter of 1990, and the Nara Document on Authenticity of 1994, among others.

There must be a profound comprehension and awareness of the values of archaeological sites, their categorisations, conservation methodologies, classifications, and the appropriate level of any interventions based on their condition and purpose, he said.

This also encompasses considerations related to maintenance, restoration, removal, integration, completion, protection, dismantling, transport, installation, reconstruction, or construction. 

“Distinguishing between the old and the new or any additions is crucial, among various other aspects that necessitate detailed elaboration and explanation,” he said.

“What is the necessity or expected feasibility of carrying out such a project, particularly given that even if the scattered blocks are proven to be part of the Pyramid casing, they may not be adequate to complete the project,” Hamza asked. 

Will additional blocks be brought in and added to the Pyramid and, if so, using what criteria, he asked. How will one be able to differentiate between the original and the non-original? What will be the ultimate look of the Pyramid, which is documented in its present state in existing images and on the UNESCO World Heritage List? 

“Let the Pyramid remain as it has been recognised globally,” Hamza pleaded. “The Pyramid is not a structure where one can act as one pleases. It is part of the Egyptian heritage, conserved in its original condition and acknowledged and documented as such. It should be safeguarded without altering its appearance and familiar characteristics.

“There is no immediate need for this project, and its execution will not necessarily add value,” he added.

Egyptologist Mansour Breik, who worked for years for the Giza Plateau Inspectorate, explained that King Menkaure died before the completion of his Pyramid complex, and his son Shebseskaf completed it using lighter structures that were more economic at the time. 

“The proposal to reapply the granite casing to the Pyramid, particularly when taking into account the blocks surrounding it on the western and northern sides, demands in-depth and meticulous study and poses considerable challenges for its implementation,” Breik said.

The external casing of the Pyramid, with the stones still intact on the northern face, remains unfinished. “The ancient Egyptians deliberately left many of these stones unpolished and unsmoothed, a departure from those around the Pyramid’s entrance,” he pointed out.

Furthermore, a significant portion of the granite blocks encircling the Pyramid remain in their original state, brought by the ancient Egyptians from the quarries at Aswan. They are large, uneven, and untrimmed blocks, though shaped to match the Pyramid’s angle. 

“This strongly indicates that they originated from the external casing of the Pyramid, resembling the blocks uncovered by late Professor of Egyptology Abdel-Aziz Saleh in the alabaster workshop near the road to the Menkaure Pyramid,” Breik concluded. 

“It is crucial to assess the current condition of the Pyramid and the various weathering factors they have affected it for more than 4,500 years.”

Renowned Egyptologist and former minister of antiquities Zahi Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly that documenting the fallen blocks of the Menkaure Pyramid, as well as the Pyramid itself, was a good idea that should be done by a scientific committee including specialists on the matter.

“But I recommend not removing any of the Pyramid’s fallen casing blocks from their present location and preserving the character of the Pyramid as it has been for centuries,” Hawass said.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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