Egypt reopens ancient step pyramid after renovations

World’s oldest pyramid in Egypt opens to the public for the first time in 90 years after British engineers save the 4,700-year-old structure from collapse.

A 4,700-year-old Egyptian pyramid has been saved from collapse by a British engineering firm and opened to the public for the first time in almost 90 years.  

The step pyramid of Djoser measures 200ft high (60m) and is believed to be the first pyramid in Egypt and the oldest building in the world. 

It was built entirely out of stone by the ancient Egyptian architect Imhotep in the vast Saqqara necropolis south of Cairo, and was believed to be the final resting place of King Djoser, founder of the Old Kingdom.

But the stone beams and block supporting the structure have weakened over the ensuing millennia.

Peter James, an engineer from Newport, Wales, began fixing the crumbling tomb in 2011 and the structure is finally sound enough to be opened again to tourists.

Visitors are now able to explore King Djoser’s burial chamber for the first time since the 1930s, when it was shut over safety concerns.

The Djoser pyramid dominates the vast Saqqara necropolis south of Cairo. The step pyramid is made up of six mastabas (rectangular structures) stacked on top of each other

As the tomb was opened to members of the press yesterday, Mr James, Managing Director of Cintec, the Welsh company that repaired the pyramid, told The Times the construction work was fraught with risk. 

‘It really was extremely, extremely, dangerous,’ he said. 

Dosjer’s pyramid was a revolutionary concept, the pyramid prototype providing the blueprint for all future Egyptian developments, including the three that stand beside the Sphinx at Giza 12 miles to the northwest.

The step pyramid is made up of six mastabas (rectangular structures) stacked on top of each other. 

Dating to 2,680 BC, the Djoser pyramid was designed and built under the direction of Imhotep, described by some as the world’s first architect and Djoser’s vizier. 

‘We are in awe as to how he was able to create this structure, which has remained standing for 4,700 years,’ said Egypt’s tourism and antiquities minister Khaled al-Anani.

A chamber around 100ft underground in the heart of the pyramid holds the sarcophagus of the pharaoh, but no mummy or content have ever been discovered. 

There are also hieroglyphs from the Book of the Dead inscribed on one of the chamber’s walls.

Engineers used diamond drills to bore holes into the walls and insert stainless steel rods inside fabric socks filled with mortar that expands to fill the cracks to add stability and strength
A tourist poses for photos in front of the King Djoser’s step pyramid, also known as the Saqqara pyramid in Saqqara area, Giza. A restoration project initially began in 200, before it was halted in 2011 and resumed in 2013
Tourists take pictures at the burial chamber and sarcophagus of King Djoser inside the standing step pyramid of Saqqara, south of Cairo, Egypt. Visitors are now able to explore King Djoser’s burial chamber for the first time since the 1930s
Pictured, Djoser statue is pictured inside the step pyramid of Djoser. Rubble had dropped onto the sarcophagus from the roof and many supporting stone beams had broken. Mr James developed innovative methods to strengthen the ancient structure.

Rubble had dropped onto the sarcophagus from the roof and many supporting internal stone beams had broken.  

Cintec won a lucrative contract to help save the oldest pyramid in Egypt in 2011 following damage caused by an earthquake in 1992. 

The firm was recommended for the job in 1992 when it was working on shoring up Windsor Castle after the fire that same year. 

The firm was also called upon by the Indian government to strengthen a major Delhi bridge ahead of last year’s Commonwealth Games.   

Mr James developed innovative methods based on his previous experience to strengthen the ancient structure. 

One such method includes boring holes into the walls, which are littered with voids, surrounded in a fabric sock. 

This rod can be several yards long and passes through cracks in the walls of the pyramid’s interior. 

Mortar is then poured between the fabric and the metal rod and, as it hardens, expands and fills the voids, adding a significant amount of structural integrity. 

The main risk to the engineers toiling away within was triggering the collapse of the pyramid. 

An innovative airbag-like system was used to support the walls as steel anchors were inserted. 

Due to the instability of the ceiling, deep lime mortar pointing was carried out to ensure it was structurally sound.

Engineers were then able to carefully use diamond drills and bore holes for the stainless steel anchors.  

Tourists visit the Burial and Sarcophagus Chamber inside King Djoser’s step pyramid on 05 March 2020. The King Djoser’s step pyramid is the main attraction at the Saqqara necropolis that includes tombs, royal pyramids and noblemen tombs
An innovative airbag-like system was used to support the walls as steel anchors were inserted. Due to the instability of the ceiling, deep lime mortar pointing was carried out to ensure it was structurally sound before engineers were able to carefully use diamond drills and bore holes for the stainless steel anchors
A photographer leaves the Burial and Sarcophagus Chamber. Cintec won a lucrative contract to help save the oldest pyramid in Egypt in 2011 following damage caused by an earthquake in 1992
Pictured, a worker stands inside the entrance to the Burial Chamber. Renovations started in 2006 but were interrupted in 2011 and 2012 for ‘security reasons’ following social unrest and revolution. It was not resumed until 2013

Mr James said at the time: ‘We recognise the importance of both historical and religious structures to their cultures and hope to continue to develop advanced reinforcement systems that will preserve archaeological structures for future generations.

‘The Step Pyramid project is of particular importance to us as the entire structure could be destroyed at any point due to the damage on the ceiling and roof caused by the earthquake.

‘We aim to work as efficiently as possible on this project without comprising the design or strength of the structure.’ 

Mr James has gone on to become a global authority on the restoration of ancient buildings and has penned a book specifically about his work in Egypt, called ‘Saving Pyramids’. 

‘We completed the restoration … of the first and oldest pyramid in Egypt, that of King Djoser, the founder of the Old Kingdom,’ Antiquities and Tourism Minister Khaled el-Enany said at the site’s grand opening.

Renovations started in 2006 but were interrupted in 2011 and 2012 for ‘security reasons’ following social unrest and revolution. It was not resumed until 2013.  

The popular uprising in Egypt in 2011 toppled longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, with tourism one of the sectors that took a hit in the turmoil that followed.

Egypt’s prime minister said the renovation cost more than 104 million Egyptian pounds ($6.66 million).

‘We are working hard to build a new Egypt … and the restoration of our heritage is at the top of our priorities’, Mostafa Madbouli said.

The step pyramid is made up of six mastabas (rectangular structures) stacked on top of each other. ‘We are in awe as to how he was able to create this structure, which has remained standing for 4,700 years,’ said Egypt’s tourism and antiquities minister Khaled al-Anani
Egypt’s premier said the renovation cost more than 104 million Egyptian pounds ($6.66 million). ‘We are working hard to build a new Egypt … and the restoration of our heritage is at the top of our priorities’, Mostafa Madbouli said
Dosjer’s pyramid was a revolutionary concept, the pyramid prototype providing the blueprint for all future Egyptian developments, including the three that stand beside the Sphinx at Giza 12 miles to the northwest

The gigantic Grand Egyptian Museum, overlooking the Giza pyramids, is set to open at the end of this year, five years later than originally planned.

Controversy erupted in 2014 when Egyptian media reported that the Djoser pyramid had been damaged during restoration work, with several Egyptian NGOs saying the monument’s original facade had been altered.

Enany said on Thursday that after criticism from UNESCO experts, works were undertaken in conformity with the UN body’s norms and ‘in 2018, UNESCO gave us positive reports’.

Egypt has touted a flurry of archaeological finds in recent years, in the hope of boosting its vital tourism sector, which has suffered multiple shocks since the 2011 uprising.

Last year, authorities unveiled a 4,500-year-old burial ground near the Giza pyramids replete with colourful wooden coffins and limestone statues.

In November 2018, the ministry announced the discovery of seven sarcophagi, some dating back more than 6,000 years, at a site on the edge of the pyramid complex in Saqqara. Dozens of mummified cats were also found.

Egypt’s tourist arrivals reached 11.3 million in 2018, up from 5.3 million in 2016.

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