The serenity of the Saqqara Necropolis near Cairo was disturbed this week as the archaeological site buzzed with people who had flocked to witness the grand opening of the Djoser Step Pyramid, the first stone building in history and the oldest pyramid in the world.
Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli and Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Enany along with Assem Al-Gazzar, the minister of housing, were in attendance.
“It is a great pleasure to be in front of this magnificent monument, the oldest stone construction in the world,” Madbouli said during a press conference marking the inauguration of the pyramid. “This project as well as other projects in the field of archaeology are among the country’s mega-projects. Egypt is keen to preserve its unique heritage and make this one of its main priorities,” Madbouli said.
He described his personal passion for the project as he had witnessed several phases in the conservation work, following up the progress of the work as a trained architect himself and an Egyptian citizen who loved his country and its heritage.
“We are working hard to build a new Egypt... and the restoration of our heritage is at the top of the list of our priorities,” Madbouli said. Among the projects Madbouli mentioned was the gigantic Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) overlooking the Giza Pyramids that is set to open at the end of this year, five years later than originally planned.
“It is a piece of very accurate medical surgery,” El-Enany told Al-Ahram Weekly, explaining that the restoration work that had taken 14 years had been carried out by skillful and efficient Egyptian conservators with a budget of around LE104 million.
“The Djoser Step Pyramid is the highlight of the Saqqara monuments,” El-Enany said, adding that it was the oldest truly monumental stone building in history and Egypt’s oldest pyramid. The 60-metre pyramid dominates the vast Saqqara Necropolis south of Cairo and is part of the ancient capital of Memphis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It was commissioned by the pharaoh Djoser (c 2667-2648 BCE), and the architect was Imhotep. He designed a layout in which the Step Pyramid was at the centre of a larger funerary complex, and the pyramid itself consists of six stacked terraces to a height of around 63 metres.
The dimensions of the base are 121 x 109 metres. The pyramid has two entrances, one on its northern side, which is the original entrance, and another on the southern, which dates to the 26th Dynasty. The complex also includes a colonnade entrance, the South Tomb, the Sed Festival Court, the Pavilions of the North and South, and a funerary temple to the north of the pyramid.
El-Enany explained that the restoration work at the Pyramid had aimed to consolidate the structure and repair damage. Accumulated dust, sand and stone containing damaging salts were removed from the surfaces of the terraces. Stone blocks that had loosened were restored, and gaps between the façade blocks were filled with the same archaeological material that had been used in the construction of the pyramid.
Immediate treatment of degraded stone blocks was undertaken upon the removal of the soil covering them. The walls of the deteriorated underground passages were treated with injections and reinforcing materials or with careful restoration methods. The southern entrance was prepared to serve as the main entrance into the pyramid for visitors to the site.
The stones in the collapsed area above the central shaft were unstable and in a critical state of equilibrium. Loss of mortar between the blocks had occurred, causing them to detach from each other and thus causing gaps to form.
The primary objective of the structural work was to stabilise the ceiling blocks (the area of initial collapse) in three stages. Loose ceiling blocks were reconnected by filling the gaps between them with lime mortar, a material similar in composition to the original mortar, to a depth of no less than 25 cm. Air stents were distributed in hazardous locations to render the area safe for workers.
The burial chamber and the corridors leading into it were restored. Rubble was completely removed and taken outside the pyramid, revealing the entirety of the granite sarcophagus and guaranteeing its structural stability. After the rubble resulting from collapses was removed, the sarcophagus was found to consist of 32 granite blocks, with sides measuring 3.47 × 5.35 m and a height of 4.73 m.
Its total weight is estimated at around 176 tons. The coffin was found resting on 18 limestone bases, all of which had collapsed, filling the burial chamber with rubble.
Dalia Khattab, director of the management of archaeological sites at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, said that the area around the pyramid had been developed. New signage with information about the pyramid and its restoration work was installed. A visitor path was created and a slope made for the disabled. A new lighting system was also installed.
The pyramid had previously been open to visitors, but in the early 1990s it was badly damaged due to an earthquake, with fears that it could collapse.
Restoration efforts began in 2006, which included the main burial chamber and a series of passages within the pyramid. Stone blocks were used as reinforcements for the main structure. Other restored areas include the outer facades, the stone sarcophagus and some of the stairs in the entrance.
Mohamed Youssef, director of the Saqqara area, said that visitors would now be able to enter the pyramid for the first time via its southern entrance.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly