Heated discussions in the world of archaeologists: the Egyptians have started a renovation that will restore one of the world-famous pyramids of Giza to its ‘old state’, but is that actually possible? “This is a puzzle that cannot be solved.”
It is one of the Giza pyramids located just outside the Egyptian capital Cairo. The smallest of the three, the tomb of Pharaoh Menkaura, was clad on the outside with large blocks of red granite. An Egyptian-Japanese team of archaeologists now wants to replace those blocks.
What did the pyramids look like?
The Pyramids of Giza were built almost 5,000 years ago with unprecedented precision, and scientists are still puzzled over how the Egyptians could build so advanced so long ago. Over the millennia the pyramids have crumbled. Most of the granite blocks are now scattered around the buildings.
We actually don’t know what the pyramids looked like exactly after construction. For example, the limestone layer on the outside was removed in ancient times to be reused in other buildings. And two centuries ago, the British researcher Howard Vyse blew up parts of the pyramids during his explorations.
‘Impossible to fully recover’
Egyptologist Huub Pragt therefore questions the operation to restore one of the pyramids to its ‘old state’. He explains that it is a puzzle that cannot actually be solved: “Specialists say that even with the most advanced computer techniques it is impossible to determine exactly where those blocks should be.”
In addition, the pyramids are extremely weathered after all these years, just like some of the crumbled blocks that lie on the ground. “It is actually impossible to completely restore the outer layer and the bottom layer of the pyramid as it looked in ancient times,” Pragt hears from colleagues. And then there’s the fact that some blocks have been lost over time.
Different appearance in the future
Early images of the restoration show workers at the pyramid busy digging blocks out of the sand. Blocks are also lifted and moved using cranes. Yet the Egyptologist is not very afraid of damage: “This is very hard material.”
Pragt is more concerned about another form of damage, namely that once a restoration has been carried out, ‘it is actually irreversible’. If things continue like this, the Menkaura pyramid will in the future have an appearance that does not match what it looked like in the past, he warns. “That is – I almost don’t want to use the word – a form of falsification of history.”
On UNESCO World Heritage List
Can the Egyptians just do this, after all, the pyramids of Giza are on the UNESCO World Heritage List? According to the Egyptologist, these types of operations may be performed, but there are specific regulations for the restoration. “They are mainly intended to, let’s say, prevent aging.”
At the same time, it is also permitted to restore buildings or parts thereof to their original state, he explains. “You may reinsert that block where you are sure that a certain block was in a certain place.” And that is where the problem lies, because how can you be sure that a certain granite block was in a certain place?
‘Gift from Egypt to the world’
Pragt often visits Egypt for his work and emphasizes that archaeologists there carry out ‘very good projects’ at monuments. But why are they now starting a job that many colleagues believe is completely impossible? To understand this, according to the Egyptologist, you have to look at Mostafa Waziri, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.
“I know him as a driven person who mainly takes on, let’s say, large projects.” Waziri has already called the restoration of the Menkaura pyramid ‘a gift from Egypt to the world’. And that is an important driving force for the entire operation, Pragt thinks: attracting more tourists to Egypt.
Want to spend money elsewhere?
In the meantime, scientists in archaeology are wondering whether all this money would not be better spent on more research, for example to create better 3D models of what the pyramids may have looked like. “Or other beautiful projects where we can say with much more certainty how something should be restored,” says Pragt.
Although he does not think that the Egyptians will change their minds quickly, given the amount of attention that is already being paid to the project. “We are now also talking about it. And that attention will also have consequences for tourism,” the Egyptologist concludes. “The pyramids naturally appeal to the imagination, especially there on the Giza plateau.”
Archaeologists in turmoil over restoration of world-famous pyramid in Egypt
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