Expert races against time to save Egypt’s 4,600-year-old Bent Pyramid

Delays have hampered work to prevent one of the best-preserved Egyptian pyramids from crumbling to dust

Powered by automated translation

On first appearances, few structures could seem more a permanent part of the landscape than the Bent Pyramid, which rises 100 metres into the sky from the desert 40 kilometres south of Cairo.

The monument was built in 2,600BC during the reign of the Fourth Dynasty pharaoh, Sneferu.

Older than the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Bent Pyramid, because of its shape, is also better preserved than the last surviving wonder of the ancient world.

But a closer inspection would reveal that the uniquely wonky pyramid is crumbling into the sands that surround the royal necropolis at Dahshur.

Again, if appearances were to be judged, Peter James, a stocky engineer from south Wales, might not be the most likely saviour of the magnificent edifice.

But the managing director of the structural engineering company Cintech, who rattles off details of elaborate restoration solutions in quickfire bursts, is a man on a mission.

Bent Pyramid is an ancient Egyptian pyramid, the first, located at the royal necropolis of Dahshur outside of Cairo, Egypt. (Photo by: Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The Bent Pyramid of Dahshur is even older than the Great Pyramid of Giza - the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the World. AFP  

"The situation does need something put in and fairly rapidly," Mr James, 76, told The National.

“Not only is it broken up at all the points that you can see, which is all the way around the outside, but it's also broken in some of the sections in the middle.”

In the 10 years that the Newport engineer has been monitoring the Bent Pyramid, which is the only remaining pyramid to retain most of its outer limestone casing, it has deteriorated significantly.

In 50 years, something altogether more drastic could happen, he said. Thermal expansion is slowly turning the Bent Pyramid to dust.

Debunking received archaeological wisdom

In 2014, Structure  magazine published Mr James's findings on the damage to Egypt's pyramids through thermal expansion.

But archaeologists had previously blamed the damage on compromised foundations or thieves stealing pieces of the pyramids' outer casings.

The Welsh engineer’s contribution to the thinking on how the pyramids have worn down over time is now widely accepted in Egypt and around the world.

“It was then I realised that I've done something that was really notable,” he said. “I really think that it was something that was ground-breaking.”

Mr James says that he feels those early engineers who first planned and built the pyramids reaching out to him across the vast expanse of history through the legacy they left in stone.

He hopes that the work he has done on their pyramids might be his own shot at immortality.

Peter James has reframed the narrative around pyramid restorations. Courtesy Peter James
Peter James has reframed the narrative around pyramid restorations. Courtesy Peter James

The Welsh expert began the process of restoration on the Bent Pyramid about two years ago.

Cintech has carried out preliminary surveys, infrared scans of the edifice and, finally, inserted test anchors to track the movement of the building.

Restoration techniques honed over 35 years

Mr James wants to install dozens of anchors on the inside and outside of the pyramid, but serious delays to the project, not least of which was the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, have stopped work from continuing for the moment.

“The elasticity of the steel will be enough to let the outer wall move but then bring it back at night, so it's almost like a very slow moving spring,” he said.

The restoration techniques Mr James plans to use on the Bent Pyramid have been perfected at Cintech for the past 35 years.

While some of the work that Mr James has presided over is perhaps more prosaic – he has inserted a million wall ties and reinforced about 400 bridges – other aspects of his portfolio grab more attention.

He has worked on palaces and national landmarks around the world, including Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the White House, is now in talks about restoration work on Big Ben in London, and wants to take a look at the warping of stones in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

These are just the jobs for which he has not had to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Cintech has been engaged on top-secret government and military installations, including the Pentagon and Britain’s secretive medical testing facility at Porton Down.

Recently, Mr James and his team have been using huge water cushions to protect the German bomb squad as they defuse unexploded weapons and IEDs.

Above all things, the engineer considers himself a man with solutions.

“We have a reputation for solving problems,” Mr James said. “It's like a car. If you went to a garage and the mechanic said there’s something wrong with your wheel.

"Well, is it your tyres, your brakes, what is it? You’ve got to ask what it is before you can repair it. And that's what we do."

Egyptian restorations the pinnacle

Of the many problems that Mr James has tackled, he says the restoration of buildings in Egypt are the most challenging, with the pinnacle of that work being the pyramids.

He began restoring the 500-year-old Al Ghuri Mosque in Cairo’s old city following the earthquake in Egypt in 1992.

Since then, he has been involved in projects working on 22 mosques and the Temple of Hibis in the Kharga Oasis.

But in spite of the many historical structures he has worked on, the structural engineer said he felt he had "arrived" when he embarked on his first pyramid, Egypt's oldest, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.

As with his work on the Bent Pyramid, the restoration was plagued by impediments and setbacks.

Over three years, the stabilisation of the 62-metre pyramid had to be put on hold after the 2011 uprisings in Egypt.

A tourist takes a picture of a relief depicting a pharaoh inside the step pyramid of Djoser in Egypt's Saqqara necropolis, south of the capital Cairo, on March 5, 2020. - Egyptian authorities inaugurated the famed step pyramid of Djoser,one of the earliest built in the country's ancient history, after years of renovation. The 4,700-year-old structure is nestled south of Cairo in the ancient capital of Memphis, a UNESCO World Heritage site, home to some of Egypt's most fascinating monuments. Renovation works started in 2006 but was interrupted in 2011 and 2012 for "security reasons" due to turmoil caused by a popular uprising that toppled late president Hosni Mubarak. (Photo by Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP)
Egypt’s Pyramid of Djoser or Step Pyramid – the country’s oldest – reopened in March 2020 after a 14-year restoration..AFP

The project, which involved using self-filling bags of water – the same kind as those used as protection for bomb disposal teams – to prop up the structure, was also treacherous.

Tonnes of stones, the Cintec team found, were being held up only with the trunks of palm trees that were thousands of years old.

As the engineers drilled their first hole in the pyramid, an ambulance crew was placed on standby outside.

“It was extremely dangerous. It really was,” Mr James said. “Extremely bloody dangerous.”

The Welsh engineer does not claim to be an archaeologist.

“Don't, don't ask me what pot goes where and when and all the rest,” he said. “I don't know.”

He does, though, feel a kinship with the original builders and masons who worked on the ancient pyramids.

His knowledge of construction has given him special insight into how these intriguing monuments were created

In Percy Bysshe Shelley's 1818 poem Ozymandias, the Pharaoh Ramses II calls out from beyond the grave for great men to: "Look upon my works, ye mighty and despair!"

The enduring sonnet by the Romantic poet, who would himself die four years later, was inspired by the discovery among the ruins of Luxor of a broken statue depicting the ancient pharaoh.

Ramses II might have wished that Peter James had come on the scene a little earlier than the 20th century.