The Welshman tasked with saving Egypt's old pyramid

By Neil Prior
BBC News, Wales


If you had your Cardiff council house repaired in the early 80s, then the odds are that the work would have been inspected by the same man who has now been tasked with saving Egypt's oldest stone-built pyramid.

Newport-based structural engineer Peter James is a self-made millionaire, and a man accustomed to leaps of faith, yet even he describes his current mission as "the scariest thing I've ever done in my life."

The Pyramid of Djoser in the Saqqara necropolis is 4,700 years old, but suffered severe damage in a 1992 earthquake.

It is key to our understanding of ancient Egyptian architecture, but is now so unstable that no-one has accepted the challenge of securing it in the last 19 years. Except, of course, Peter James.

A former Royal Navy lieutenant-commander who served in the Falklands War, Mr James' involvement with structural engineering began when he took charge of building services for Cardiff council.

Image caption,
Peter James set up Cintec 25 years ago

Twenty-five years ago he set up his own company, graduating from housing repairs, to developing solutions to rescue poorly-designed 1960s tower blocks.

His big break came when his company, Cintec, won the contract to repair Windsor Castle following extensive damage caused by the 1993 fire.

Amongst other notable renovation work he has been involved in are the White House, Buckingham Palace, and even the Red Pyramid near Giza.

But even though Cintec already have experience of dealing with Egyptian antiquity, the combination of the historical significance and the immediate danger make this by far his most challenging commission.

"If it was just the physical danger then I wouldn't be so worried," says Mr James. "It's risky to be working 50m inside a chamber with thousands of tons of unstable stone over your head, but we have the technology to mitigate those risks.

"The most frightening aspect is that we're dealing with a structure of such historical significance. It can't be allowed to go wrong because it's unique, and a vital part of the ancient world. To that extent it is definitely the scariest thing I've ever done in my life."

Mr James says the strangest thing about dealing with such an ancient structure is having to learn an entirely new way of thinking.

"Everything you've learned about building techniques and architectural principals goes out of the window," he explains. "You have to think like an ancient Egyptian, and come up with solutions appropriate to the original design."

Although the solutions which Mr James is proposing for the Pyramid of Djoser are far from ancient, and are protected by over 50 patents.

Image caption,
The firm has worked on historic buildings such as the White House and Windsor Castle

The first stage of the renovation will involve propping up the damaged ceiling in the central chamber of the pyramid, with self-inflating Waterwall technology; fluid-filled airbags which Mr James first developed to absorb explosions while defusing road-side bombs in Afghanistan.

The more permanent phase of the repairs requires Cintec to thread the latest in thermo-dynamic steel rods diagonally through the steps of the pyramid, in such a way that the six levels will be knitted together without being visible.

Mr James says that as challenging as the Djoser project undoubtedly is, it is a welcome diversion from what is rapidly becoming his stock-in-trade, anti-terrorism measures.

"More and more of our work now involves devising ways in which we can protect buildings and people from explosions," he says.

"The steel rods we're using in the Pyramid of Djoser are more commonly used these days for threading into the structure of public buildings and major infrastructure like bridges, to improve their resistance to bomb blasts.

"It's a sad reflection of the world we're living in."

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