Recommendations for the Menkaure Pyramid

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 27 Feb 2024

The committee appointed to review work at the Menkaure Pyramid on the Giza Plateau has issued its recommendations after the controversy over “recladding” the pyramid, writes Zahi Hawass

The Menkaure Pyramid

 

 

The Menkaure Pyramid was in the news in recent weeks after Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), stood before it to announce the beginning of a 21st-century project in collaboration with Waseda University in Japan.

He said that the project would search for the boats of Menkaure, which have never been uncovered, unlike those of the neighbouring Pyramids of kings Khufu and Khafre. He also spoke of the casing blocks around the pyramid.

One young lady then tweeted that “it is not possible… the restoration of the archaeological site by cladding the third Pyramid of Menkaure. Will the meddling with Egypt’s antiquities never end? All international agreements on restoration reject this intervention in all its forms. I hope all archaeology and restoration professors will stand against this project immediately.”

However, the word cladding was not correct, and it led some Egyptians and foreigners to believe that the SCA intended to clad the pyramid.

I then appeared on many TV shows and said that no one wanted to clad the pyramid. The reason that Waziri wanted to carry out this project was to search for the missing boats of Menkaure.

But the media got involved, and people began to criticise the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Ahmed Issa issued a ministerial decree to form a scientific committee to review projects at the pyramid headed by me with members including former minister of antiquities Mamdouh Al-Damati, former minister of higher education and professor of soil mechanics at Cairo University Hani Hilal, Director of the Civil Engineering Department at the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University Mustafa Al-Ghamrawi, Egyptologist Mark Lehner, Director of the German Institute of Archaeology in Cairo Dietrich Raue, and Director of the Czech Republic Expedition in Egypt and professor at Prague University Miroslav Bárta.

The ministerial decree said the committee should review the project announced by the SCA and the Japanese team for the restoration of the Pyramid of Menkaure and prepare a scientific report on it. It should draft a report and present it to the minister of tourism and antiquities before the beginning of any work at the pyramid or its surroundings.

The report should include all the steps that should be followed on the project with the assistance of UNESCO.

We went to the site on 7 February and met Waziri, who said that he had never said that he wanted to reclad the pyramid. He added that the idea was to study the blocks followed by excavations to look for the boats of Menkaure.

I think the best thing that I can do here is to describe the contents of our report in order to show that our decision is intended to promote the preservation and restoration of the Third Giza Pyramid.

But before I do so, it might be useful to introduce the Pyramid of Menkaure.

There are three pyramids on the Giza Plateau, one for king Khufu which was originally cased with fine white limestone from Turah. The second pyramid was built by his son king Khafre and was cased with limestone except for two courses at the base that were cased with granite. The third pyramid of Menkaure was cased in 16 courses with granite, but nine courses have since fallen, and only seven remain.

Menkaure was the son of Khafre and the grandson of Khufu. It seems to me that Menkaure wanted to case his pyramid with granite in order to show a new trend in building at Giza, but he died before he finished its construction and accompanying complex.

Above the entrance to the pyramid, there is a gap made in 1196 CE by the son of the first Ayoubid Sultan of Egypt Saladin. British soldier Howard Vyse dug a tunnel into the pyramid in 1837. Shepseskaf completed the pyramid complex in mud brick after the death of his father.

RECOMMENDATIONS: The committee was unanimous in its view that no granite casing blocks around the base of the Pyramid should be put back onto it.

It would be impossible to be certain of the exact original place of any of the casing blocks, so it would not be possible to return any of blocks to their original places on the pyramid. As a result, any replacement of the casing blocks would change the original fabric and appearance of the pyramid. Furthermore, modern mortar or other such material to provide stability and adhesion would have to be used. This would introduce modern material onto the ancient surface.

The fallen casing blocks constitute important evidence of how the ancient-Egyptian builders designed the sloping facing of the pyramid as they put the blocks into place. We can see this evidence in the exposed sides and tops of the casing blocks that remain in place on the pyramid. Putting the fallen blocks back into place on the pyramid would damage and cover this important evidence of how the ancient Egyptians built the Pyramids.

One reason for excavating the base of the pyramid, which would require the removal of the toppled granite casing blocks from their present position, is to uncover the boat pits familiar from next to the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre. On this point, the committee said that the search for the boat pits should not be a high priority nor a reason for excavating the base of the pyramid.

The project should state broader reasons for undertaking such excavation in a proposal to be presented to the committee.

Menkaure did not complete his pyramid complex before he died, and the work stopped. Menkaure’s successor, probably Shepseskaf, finished Menkaure’s Valley Temple, causeway, Upper Temple, pyramid enclosure wall and chapels for the three subsidiary pyramids in mud brick. Menkaure had only begun to lay out the Valley Temple walls with large limestone blocks when he died.  

He did not finish levelling the bedrock floor around the base of his pyramid. When work stopped, he left a grid of quarry blocks in the northwest corner of his pyramid court, as shown by previous excavations. At the same time, the builders raised the floor level at the southeast corner by setting in large limestone blocks, as shown by excavations I carried out in the 1990s.

Because Menkaure left major parts of his pyramid complex unfinished, it is unlikely that he finished building ceremonial boat pits like those of Khufu and Khafre.

It is possible that pits exist for boats that brought Menkaure’s body to the pyramid for burial. This is one suggestion for the boats in the pits south of the Khufu Pyramid — because they are too short for the boats they contained, and the pits themselves are not shaped like boats, while Khufu’s eastern boat pits are shaped like them.

If Menkaure did finish the boat pits, it is unlikely he would have located them on the west side of his pyramid. Khufu’s boat pits lie on the east and south sides of his pyramid. Khafre’s boat pits are sunk into the east side of his pyramid, north and south of Khafre’s Upper Temple. Only the monument of Khentkawes I shows a boat on the west, extending from the southwest corner of her monument.

Overall, because Menkaure left his pyramid incomplete, it conveys some of the most important information available to scholars about how the Old Kingdom Egyptians built their most gigantic and iconic pyramids. Trying to “restore” the pyramid by replacing fallen casing blocks would severely damage or remove this evidence.

The committee favoured a general project to organise the fallen granite casing blocks around the pyramid, to excavate the sloped debris around the pyramid, and to clean and organise the overall site for visits. But, before approving the project, it wanted the director to provide a proposal with a research design that would address points including financial security, team structure, and others.

The proposal should state sources of funding adequate to fulfilling the project requirements and the time period of implementation, the committee said. As with all projects proposed to the ministry’s permanent committee for approval, the proposal should also include a list of team members and résumés for each. The team should include a project director employed full-time on the Menkaure project. He or she should not be otherwise employed or assigned other duties.

The project must employ an engineer experienced in cultural heritage and restoration and an architect or architectural historian with experience in ancient Egyptian architecture and restoration. Given the size of the site and the large scale and historical importance of the debris and other deposits surrounding the Menkaure Pyramid, the project should employ a full team of archaeologists experienced in the best practices of stratigraphic excavation and recording.

 

OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS: The project proposal should state the size of the adjacent or surrounding space needed to accommodate workers and machinery — cranes, winches, transport vehicles, and other devices — to implement the project, the committee said.

For example, how much space beside or around the pyramid would be required to move blocks of granite weighing many tons? How would the project protect the ancient walls of broken stone west of the pyramid? How would it protect and conserve the queen’s Pyramids and their chapels to the south and the Pyramid Temple to the east?

How would the project coordinate with tourist access to the Menkaure Pyramid, which is now from the northwest and north? How would cranes, trucks, and other equipment access the site and how would this accommodate tourist access to the wider Giza Plateau?

These aspects of the risk assessment and environmental impact of the project should be stated in writing and illustrated on a topographical map of the area around the Menkaure Pyramid and the Giza Plateau, the committee said.

Before starting, the project must also gather a bibliography and consider the information from all prior publications and reports and make this information available to the scholarly community and public. Because the Menkaure Pyramid is so important for the world’s heritage, those who propose the project should take the strictest care in their research design and proposal.

In regard to documentation and recording the Pyramid and associated ancient objects, the proposal must include answers to the following questions: How will the project survey and map, as is, the existing pyramid and surrounding site? How will the project document the casing blocks and other evidence?

In regard to moving the fallen granite casing blocks and treating ancient objects and features associated with the Menkaure Pyramid, the proposal must include answers to these questions.

How will the project extract heavy granite blocks from their present location on the slope of debris around the pyramid and in the yards to the north of the pyramid? How will the project excavate stratigraphically (layer by layer) when the layers contain such large and weighty casing blocks and enormous quantities of debris?

Excavations in 2009 by the Giza Inspectorate have already shown than the lowest layers are ancient, prior to the time when the casing blocks were removed. Some layers date to Menkaure’s time when the pyramid was being worked on, and some layers date to the finished work in mudbrick by Shepseskaf.

How will the project take care of, and treat, the fragile remains of mudbrick chapels attached to the three subsidiary pyramids and whatever remains of the mudbrick elements in Menkaure’s Upper Pyramid Temple? Archaeologist George Reisner excavated the mudbrick additions of Shepseskaf between 1906 and 1908 and then left them exposed. The ancient mudbrick components include the remains of an enclosure wall that prior excavations by Ali Hassan (in 1979) and the Giza Inspectorate (in 2009) exposed on the north side.

The project proposal must state a plan for regular reports and publications to update the professional community and public.

It must state a vision for organising and presenting the site at the conclusion of each phase of the project. For example, this presentation could include signage to inform visitors about important features of the casing blocks and the evidence they convey for how the ancient Egyptians built the Pyramids.

The project could also include a walking trail around the Pyramid and through Menkaure’s Upper Pyramid Temple, with more signage indicating important features. The proposed presentation should be stated in writing and illustrated with maps and designs for signage.

CONCLUSIONS: The committee made the following decisions: no granite casing blocks that lie out of their original places around the base of the pyramid should be put back onto the Menkaure Pyramid; and any project at the pyramid must deliver a scientific proposal and project design meeting the requirements stated above before beginning any work on the Menkaure Pyramid.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 29 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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