Travel Photos VII: Saqqara and Dahshur, Egypt

Since I just wrote something about it, I thought I’d put up a few of my pictures of the Saqqara complex and the Pyramid of Djoser. And then, since I visited both places in the same car trip and it seemed like a good idea, I thought I’d throw in a couple of pictures of nearby Dahshur. Taken together they actually tell a story about the development of Egyptian pyramid building.

Djoser was a Third Dynasty pharaoh who reigned sometime in the first half of the 27th century BCE. To the extent that anything can be known about events that far in the past, we know that Djoser pacified the Sinai Peninsula. Apart from that, we know that he commissioned the building of the pyramid that now bears his name, under the oversight of his great vizier, Imhotep. Imhotep has the distinction of being one of the few non-pharaohs in Egyptian history to be deified and worshiped as a god (though that didn’t happen until a couple of millenia after his death). In that sense his legacy actually eclipsed that of his patron, since pharaohs were worshiped as themselves after death but Imhotep seems to have been conflated with the major Egyptian god Thoth, as the god of architecture and medicine.

Prior to Djoser and Imhotep, pharaohs and other important Egyptians were buried under mastabas, flat raised rectangular structures that presumably evolved from more primitive burial mounds. Architects started experimenting with layered mastabas, but it wasn’t until Imhotep that this form reached fruition and became the pyramid. Djoser probably commissioned the site as a mastaba just like any other, but the longer his reign went on (there are two records that put his reign at 19 and 29 years respectively, but scholars think the longer figure makes more sense), he had Imhotep keep adding smaller mastabas on top of the ones that were already there, until the whole thing became the six-level “Step Pyramid” we can see today: Continue reading


What’s going on with Djoser’s Pyramid?

There were terrible reports a couple of weeks ago that the Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, the so-called “Step Pyramid” and the oldest pyramid in Egypt, was falling apart. The twin culprits are a 1992 earthquake that left the structure in danger of collapse, and a restoration company that, according to activists, has actually destroyed part of the pyramid in the process of “restoring” it. The firm in question, Shurbagy, has apparently never undertaken a historical restoration project, nor has it ever “successfully” completed a project of any kind. They’ve been building a brick wall around the base of the pyramid that seems to be exerting pressure on the pyramid itself, which would explain the damage.

This is apparently what the pyramid looks like today

This week, however Egypt’s Antiquities Minister, Mamdouh El-Damaty, held a press conference at Saqqara to declare that these reports of the pyramid’s deterioration were incorrect:

On the site, Al-Damaty detailed the condition of Djoser’s Step Pyramid. He completely denounced all accusations spread in media and social networks, describing the deterioration of the Step Pyramid as “rumours.” He continued to say that the pyramid’s restoration project is still in progress, and that it did not confront any technical problems. He asserted that the whole site was subjected to investigation, and that it had been proved that none of the pyramid’s stones had collapsed.

Mohamed El-Shimi, Head of the Saqqara Necropolis, pointed out that the company in charge of the restoration project was following a plan drawn up by specialists in the field, and its work is under the supervision of the ministry’s consultancy bureau, led by well-known architects and consultants from Cairo and Ain Shams universities.

He went on to deny claims that a wall had been built around the pyramid or that a block of the pyramid had fallen. He pointed out that the blocks scattered around the pyramid fell away over centuries as a result of environmental stresses, adding that these blocks had been collected, cleaned, and returned to their original positions as part of the first phase of the restoration project. He added that blocks damaged beyond repair had been replaced with replicas to fill in the gaps in the pyramid, and that the whole structure had been subject to careful tests.

You can imagine that this is a real sore spot for the Sisi government, which would undoubtedly like to see Egyptian tourism, a huge part of the Egyptian economy, pick up again after a couple of years of sometimes-violent political unrest have driven tourist revenues into the ground. El-Damaty blamed a group of archeologists who opposed last year’s military coup that overthrew the elected Morsi government and eventually replaced it with Sisi’s, um, also “elected” government for the “rumors” that the structure was collapsing:

During the conference, el-Damaty angrily blamed journalists for not contacting the ministry about the “rumors” of the pyramid’s structural integrity.

He singled out the website “Archaeologists Against the Coup,” run by Islamist supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, as being “behind the spread of rumors which the media helped exaggerate.”

Morsi was overthrown by the military in July 2013 amid mass demonstrations calling for his resignation after a tumultuous year in power. His supporters view the current government as illegitimate.

While it would be great if the Egyptian government were telling the truth and the pyramid was being restored to specs and was not in any danger of collapse, there’s something about military governments that take power by coup and then ratify themselves with dubious elections that makes me think they’re liable to be less than honest with the public. Just a gut feeling I guess. Unfortunately, the only way anybody is ever really going to know if they’re lying is if the pyramid collapses, so let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. As usual when it comes to antiquities, it’s not only the history and the structure itself that’s at risk, it’s the well-being of countless numbers of Egyptians who rely, directly or indirectly, on the tourist trade for their livelihoods.