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Capstone Cops

Never mind the Masons and Zionists, the millennium capstone raises serious archeological questions

Daoud Hassan

The planned millennium party at the Pyramids isn't a party any more--it's become a litany of accusations, a security issue, and a case of last-minute re-thinking. In early to mid-December, with the end of the year approaching, arguments about the New Year's Eve millennium celebration focused intensively on the Ministry of Culture's plan to mark the stroke of midnight with the placing of a golden pyramidion (or mini-pyramid) capstone atop Khufu's pyramid. Among the main concerned parties in that aspect debate--which centered largely, though not exclusively, on fears of potential damage to the monument--was the archaeological community. In a surprise 17 December statement, the Ministry of Culture announced that it had cancelled the capstone-lowering scheme, despite "rigorous artistic, scientific and archeological studies [which] assured us that there would be no damage or chance of damage of any kind to the Great Pyramid. The ministry did not explain its decision. It emphasized that the event would take up only four minutes out of a 12-hour show. In a later interview with the Cairo Times, culture minister Farouk Hosni claimed that "since there was fear for the Pyramids, we decided to exclude this part from the celebration to satisfy everybody." Picture

The pyramid powerbrokers: Hawas (left), Gaballa (center), and Hosni (right) inspect the plateau

Qualified opponents of the plan had met on 7 December, in conference called by the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), to air their respective views. Structural damage to Khufu's pyramid was not the only worry. From a conservation viewpoint, a monument's integrity can be violated by additions as much as by subtractions, particularly when the additions change the monument's essential character or are not grounded in historical evidence about the structure's original composition.

"The idea of placing a golden capstone has no historical precedent. No gold or silver were used in building the pyramids," said Cairo University professor Abdel Hamid Zayed, sometimes referred to as "the Sheikh of Archaeologists." Khufu's, of course, is no exception. "From the outside, the pyramid was always white," continued Zayed. "We have no historical evidence of any golden capstones being there before."

"Furthermore, he added, "the monuments law doesn't allow any addition to a monument, even to complete it. If we have that much money available [in the culture ministry], let's direct the funds to monument restoration."

According to archaeologist Ali Al Khouli, gilded capstones did exist in the repertoire of Pharaonic architecture, but were only used in obelisks. Thus, he said, there was no scientific rationale for capping a pyramid with one. "Doing this will not add any archaeological value, or media value, to the pyramid," Khouli said. And besides, he reminded his colleagues, "the pyramidion is also a Masonic symbol." The Masons are assumed in the popular imagination to have Zionist connections, and certain sectors of the press have often claimed that Israel wants to assert its sovereignty over the Pyramids.

Ali Radwan, former head of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, joined the attack against the culture ministry's plan. "Even if all the pyramids used to have golden capstones, does this mean that we should put these capstones there again now?" he wondered. And he, too, opined that there almost certainly had not been golden capstones on the pyramids anyway. A capstone had been discovered by the Red Pyramid of Snefru in Dahshour, he said, but there was no evidence of gold or silver.

Radwan read a statement to the same effect on behalf of Cairo University's Department of Egyptian Monuments. This statement also added a warning about "strange religious or Masonic rituals that might be practiced on the occasion of the millennium." The document was signed by nine archaeologists, headed by departmnet head Abdel Halim Nureddin, formerly the chairman of the SCA.

Radwan did, however, allude to one historical scrap of evidence that might seem to favor the capstone idea--a text attributed to the Sixth Dynasty pharaoh Neferkare Pepi II that reads: "I will make you a pyramid and a temple...."

"The controversial phrase," said Radwan, "is 'bim bint gaa,' literally meaning 'small pyramid of gold.' But another text, found by Dr. Zahi Hawass, reads 'gaa bim bint,' which means 'goldly shining like a small pyramid.' This second text means that the high-quality white stone was shining in the sunlight like gold. This is metaphorical--it does not literally mean that gold or silver was used."

Texts must be interpreted with some leeway, to allow for artistic license originally taken by the writer, Radwan insisted. "On the pillars of Ramses II's temple, there's an inscription that has Amun Re, the master of the gods, saying: 'I fashioned your organs, O Ramses, from gold and silver.' Well there he is, this Ramses, lying in the Egyptian Museum--and there are no gold or silver bits on his body."

The non-academics also got their chance to throw in their two cents. Artist Mohammed Abla was particularly concerned about the shine that might be emitted by a golden capstone. "This is a dangerous symbol," said Abla. "The Jews think of the mini-pyramid as the beacon that will lead returnees back to the promised land."

Journalist Ali Al Qammash asserted that the Zionists had long been hatching plans for the millennium party. Qamash also refered to occultist Edgar Cayce's theories about caches of documents hidden inside Khufu's pyramid and destined to be uncovered in the year 2000. Exactly how this was connected to the millennium party wasn't quite clear, but presumably Qammash was alluding to the event's drawing power for the western, New Age lunatic fringe.

Qammash complained that the posters advertising the celebration featured symbols alien to Egyptain culture. "They contain no reference to Arab or Islamic civilization," he said.

The government's response was presented by Gaballa Ali Gaballa, chairman of the SCA, and Mohamed Ghoneim, undersecretary to the culture minister. "I agree with all that was said by my colleagues," Gaballa said, "but I assert that small-pyramids really existed and maybe the controversy raised about material the capstone was made of. We've found some of these capstones with holes made intentionally, leading us to suspect that there were things fixed to them. Here we ask, what was fixed to them? In this matter we have a small text saying "ben ben en rigah" which means the capstone is made of electrum [electrum] a mix of 80 percent gold and 20 percent silver."

The ministry has also played the financial card--it claims that 2.5 billion people will watch the ceremony via satellite, thereby promoting tourism. "We now have an application from the international television broadcasters union, which has 70 country-members who signed an accord to broadcast clips of our celebration [intermittently] over the 24 hours. How can we throw away such an opportunity?" asked ministry undersecretary Mohammed Ghoneim.

In the end, the committee agreed to a compromise--the capstone would consist of an iron skeleton weighing no more than two tons--only a third of the weight of one of the stones that make up the pyramid. It would be removed right after the ceremony, and it would be painted with copper, not gold, to keep the cost down to LE50,000.

Ten days later, Hosni withdrew the idea entirely. Of his critics, he says, "We know all of them by name, and they're opposed to everything [the ministry does]."

French composer Jean-Michel Jarre, who is directing the program of the millennial celebration, did not object to the cancellation of the capstone. "The idea of the capstone was already planned before I was invited to do my show," he told the Cairo Times. "Let me just say that it's not a problem that it's gone."