Restoring Djoser's Step Pyramid
The Step Pyramid at Saqqara is under intensive care. Nevine El-Aref
reports on a restoration scheme to save Egypt's oldest royal stone complex
A panoramic view of the Djoser Pyramid complex; cracks on the walls of the underground tunnels, and a bird-eye view of the Saqqara necropolis
When the architect Imhotep set out to design the funerary complex to hold the mummy of the Third- Dynasty King Djoser (2667-2648 BC) and preserve it for eternity, he initially envisioned a traditional flat-roofed mastaba. By the end of the Djoser's 19-year reign, however, his tomb in the Saqqara necropolis had risen to a six-layered structure 62 metres high. At the time of its completion, Djoser's Step Pyramid was the largest building ever constructed, demonstrating a sophisticated and dramatic leap in architectural size and style.
The Step Pyramid complex was enclosed by a limestone wall 10.5 metres high and 1.645 metres long. It covered an area of 15 hectares, the size of a large town in the third millennium BC. Within the walls was a vast complex of functional and mock buildings, including the north and south pavilions, large underground passages and terraces, finely carved façades, ribbed and fluted columns, stairways, platforms, shrines, chapels and life- sized statues. There was even a replica of the sub-structure, the south tomb. At the centre was the Step Pyramid containing 330,400 cubic metres of clay, stone, reeds and wood, which made the pyramid more durable than its mud- brick forebears.
The elements of Djoser's pyramid complex that are above ground level are only one part. An underground structure almost six- kilometres long, a maze of tunnels, shafts, chambers, galleries and storerooms, was also created to hide the king's burial chamber and discourage grave robbers. Nevertheless, the burial chamber was plundered in antiquity and re-used for other burials in the Late Period. Now all that remains of Djoser is his mummified left foot.
One of the most striking parts is the eastern chamber, thought to be the king's palace in the afterlife. Here craftsmen of advanced skill produced an exquisite decoration of faience and limestone. Rows of blue faience tiles with raised bands of limestone simulate a reed-mat structure. Blue also evokes the watery associations of the Egyptian Netherworld. The decoration was arranged into six panels, the three on the north side topped with an arch supported by simulated djed pillar. One contained the real doorway with the limestone frame bearing the name and title of Djoser. The three southern panels framed false-door stelae showing Djoser performing a ritual run and visits to shrines. This chamber was never completed as the builders left the east wall roughly hacked from the rock, and the decorators seem to have finished in a hurry. All four walls of two further chambers were covered with the blue tile inlay and the doorways were framed with the name of Djoser-ti, Djoser's successor. These must represent the inner private rooms of the palace.
To the north of the pyramid stands the mortuary temple, now totally in ruins, although its southern wall still bears a carved cobra-head frieze. The south wall is connected from outside to the southern tomb by a stairway with a large hole on its left side. At the bottom of this hole is an entrance leading to an amazing set of chambers lined with blue tiles similar to those in the Step Pyramid's burial chamber. The inscriptions in these chambers are remarkable, being perfectly executed and exactly in line.
The Step Pyramid complex stood untouched until the 17th century, when European travellers attempted to enter and explore its underground chambers. At the turn of the 19th century, shortly after the Napoleon expedition to Egypt which attracted the world's attention to Egypt's various monuments and archaeological sites, research inside the pyramid began. In 1821 the Prussian General Johann Heinrich Freiherr von Minutoli discovered the access tunnel that leads under the pyramid from the north. In 1837 the British pyramid researcher John Perring found the underground galleries beneath the main structure. Soon after that, a Prussian expedition led by Karl Lepsius carried out more excavations on the pyramid side. Systematic archaeological research on the Djoser complex was first conducted only in the 1920s by the British archaeologist Cecil Firth. He was soon joined by the young French architect Jean-Philippe Lauer, who made the excavation of this complex his lifelong mission. Later, others would work at the site, but most of our current knowledge about this complicated structure can be attributed to Lauer.
Regretfully, however, the sands of time have taken their toll of the Step Pyramid. Most of its outer casing has gone, the core of the masonry has disappeared in some places, deep cracks have spread all over the walls and ceilings of the pyramid's underground corridors and its southern tomb, while several parts of the queen's tunnels, found beneath the pyramid's main shaft, have collapsed. For safety reasons the pyramid is closed to visitors.
Several solutions have been proposed to save this unique monument. Now, following three years of archaeological and scientific studies, a comprehensive restoration project to save and preserve this great pyramid from further destruction has been outlined.
THE IMMEDIATE AIMS: The restoration project is the first complete plan to rescue the Step Pyramid of Djoser and the southern tomb. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), described it as a pioneer project comparable to the salvage operation of the Abu Simbel temples. Hawass added that the project would be carried out by Egyptian engineers and archaeologists in three phases with a budget of LE25 million. Plans include consolidating the underground tunnels, monitoring the cracks, restoring the wall decorations and inspecting the natural ventilation inside the pyramid and the southern tomb.
The first phase, which started early this month, requires the cleansing of the pyramid from inside and outside as well as removing all accumulated dust and sand of the past decades in an attempt to reduce the load on the pyramid's structure.
Fallen blocks scattered on the ground and around the pyramid will be collected, restored and returned to their original location. Blocks which are damaged beyond repair will be replaced with replicas after being subjected to accurate scientific analysis in order that they do not dismantle the pyramid's structure. Empty spaces between blocks will be refilled with small fallen blocks.
The second phase will begin immediately after the completion of the first, and will include the consolidation of all tunnels, corridors and ceilings of the pyramid's underground galleries as well as the main burial shaft located on top of the pyramid's bed rock.
The head of the Central Projects Administration Department at the SCA, Abdel-Hamid Qutub, said that to guarantee perfect consolidation the executive company was using a high-tech engineering system suitably adapted to the authentic features of the pyramid in order to protect it from further deterioration. The system would also supplement loads during the restoration without affecting the original bed rock. The system is also designed to be easily dismantled after the completion of the restoration. Cracks will be restored and a controlling system will be installed in order to monitor minute by minute the movement of cracks and give an alarm if any further cracks appeared on the walls or ceilings.
The last phase will entail removing salt that has accumulated on the pyramid's internal decorations and fixing fallen faience ceramic shreds back in their original place.
Ayman Mahmoud, the engineer in charge of the project, said that studies conducted over the past three years had focussed on photographic and architecture documentation of the pyramid's outer surface and subsurface elements. Geological surveys and laboratory tests of the ground materials were implemented, and analysis of structure ability at critical cavities has been also executed. Previous studies carried out on the pyramid's structure have also been taken into consideration.
Restorers and engineers have been on site since early April. They chose to start on the pyramid's southern façade, removing dust and sand which had accumulated inside the main burial shaft of the southern tomb and on the pyramid's first mastaba. They also dismantled the northern wall in the corridor leading to the southern tomb, and filled empty spaces between the pyramid's blocks with masonry similar to that used in the construction of this great pyramid.