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Egypt’s Oldest Pyramid Reopens to Public After 14-Year Hiatus

Built nearly 4,700 years ago as a tomb for the pharaoh Djoser, the structure underwent more than a decade of on-and-off restorations

A general view shows the step pyramid of Djoser in Egypt's Saqqara necropolis, south of the capital Cairo, on March 5. (Photo by Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP via Getty Images)
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Some 4,700 years ago, a man named Imhotep decided to chase after an especially lofty goal. Tasked with designing the elaborate tomb that would house his pharaoh, Djoser, the architect decided to construct a vast, space-swallowing structure unlike anything ever seen before—a shape that would extend not just out, but up.

The result—a staggering edifice composed of six stepwise layers that stand more than 200 feet tall—became Egypt’s first known colossal stone building and remains the oldest pyramid still standing today. Now, after the completion of a 14-year, nearly $6.6 million restoration project, Djoser’s final resting place has reopened to the public.

“We are in awe as to how [Imhotep] was able to create this structure, which has remained standing for 4,700 years,” Khaled al-Anany, Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities and Tourism, said at a press conference last week, as quoted by Reuters.

Assembled between 2630 and 2611 B.C. in Saqqara, Egypt, the pyramid, where Djoser and 11 of his daughters were buried upon their deaths, contains roughly 11.6 million cubic feet of stone and clay. Looping through and around the burial chambers is a winding, maze-like network of tunnels that was likely designed to prevent theft but apparently weakened the building’s structural integrity, according to Atlas Obscura. By the time the 21st century rolled around, officials feared that the pyramid—battered by millennia of winds and natural disasters, including a 1992 earthquake—was on the verge of collapse.

Workers began renovating the pyramid in 2006, pausing briefly from 2011 to 2013 after an uprising ousted former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Work within the ancient structure proved difficult: To prevent the stone walls from crumbling inward, engineers inflated airbags that propped up the roofs of its six stacked terraces. Controversial claims that restoration work was exacerbating, rather than undoing, damage to the pyramid also threatened the project, reports James Pasley for Business Insider.

But as officials unveiled the pyramid last Thursday, all appeared to be well. Though not entirely restored to its former glory, the structure once again boasts stable ceilings and walkable corridors. The restoration also added a handful of modern perks, including a new lighting system and an entry accessible to people with disabilities. Visitors have already eagerly reentered the monument to explore its three miles of labyrinthine passages.

“We are working hard to build a new Egypt, … and the restoration of our heritage is at the top of our priorities,” Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli said at a press conference last week, as reported by Business Insider.

He added, “Although of course we are very proud that this is an Egyptian legacy, we also know very well it is world and global heritage that we are very keen to maintain.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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