Archaeologists in Egypt have started work on a sprawling restoration of one of Giza’s pyramids. But their plan, which involves rebuilding the granite that once encased parts of the structure, has provoked outrage, with some comparing the project to “straightening the Tower of Pisa.”
The Pyramid of Menkaure is the smallest of Giza’s three pyramids. Built around 2500 B.C.E., the 200-foot-tall structure was dedicated to the pharaoh of the same name who ruled during ancient Egypt’s fourth dynasty. Unlike most other pyramids in Egypt, part of Menkaure’s exterior was once covered in layers of granite blocks. The pyramid has been “gradually whittled away by erosion and vandalism” in the 4,500 years since its construction, as the Telegraph’s Magdy Samaan writes.
In late January, Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced that a team of Egyptian and Japanese archaeologists would study, document and finally rebuild the pyramid’s granite exterior. Videos posted to Facebook on the same day show Mostafa Waziry, the secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, standing in front of the pyramid and speaking about the project.
Waziry explained that the structure is currently encased by “five or six layers” of granite blocks, though it once had at least 16, per a translation from the Washington Post’s Kelsey Ables and Ellen Francis. Rebuilding the granite cladding—which he calls the “project of the century”—will take about three years.
Many onlookers, however, do not share the secretary general’s enthusiasm.
Monica Hanna, an archaeologist and Egyptologist at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, shared a statement on behalf of a group of archaeologists who call the project “entirely unscientific.” They argue the work has moved much too quickly, skipping the vital research and documentation phases that should come before physical construction.
Archaeologists also don’t fully understand the details of the government’s plan, as Hanna tells Stephen Snyder of the public radio program “The World.”
“It was just announced as a media stunt, without a clear publication or a clear understanding,” she says. “Any intervention that would happen would actually tamper with the authenticity of the pyramid, because we cannot finish the work the ancient Egyptians have left us. It has to remain unfinished.”
But Hanna says these blocks were never actually placed on the structure. Instead, they had been brought in from the city of Aswan and left at the base of Menkaure’s pyramid, awaiting placement, when construction halted, probably due to the pharaoh’s death.
“None of the stones are actually original,” she tells “The World.” “Most of the objects that are left off below the pyramids are crude. They were not finished. They have not fallen from the pyramid.”
The Pyramid of Menkaure is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. The agency hadn’t been informed of the project, telling the Washington Post that it had “written to the Egyptian authorities to ask them for more information.”
Kathlyn Cooney, an Egyptologist and archaeologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, also thinks the structure should be conserved, not restored. The Menkaure pyramid’s unfinished granite facade “teaches us about his kingship [and] the political affairs of the time,” she tells the Washington Post. “By putting blocks back, we will destroy all that data.”
As Hanna writes in the archaeologists’ statement, any attempt to use the blocks at the pyramid’s base is a “blatant interference with the work of the ancient Egyptians, who still needed to complete this pyramid, and would affect the integrity and authenticity of the monument.”
She adds that Egypt’s people have a right to their country’s history—and that the pyramids don’t belong exclusively to archaeologists or Egypt’s government agencies.
“Egyptian antiquities belong to all Egyptians,” she writes. “We all have the right to know in detail through societal and scientific dialogue about what is happening to our heritage.”