Egypt’s Cultural Heritage under Threat of Destruction
This October (2005) concern is again being raised about the damage being done by the encroachment of agricultural land on Egyptian monuments. Egyptian reliefs and even whole monuments dating back thousands of years could disappear within a decade if action is not taken soon. To try and combat the rise in the water table that traditional methods of framing creates the government is trying to persuade farmers to use drip irrigation, a method that uses relatively little water. However, it has had little success because farmers prefer the traditional method of flooding farmland with Nile water. Draining the area around archaeological sites is also an effective solution but is expensive, and donations from the international community are not always forthcoming. Although a Spanish Mission working at the Temple of Horus at Edfu, are trying to find solutions to this problem by using the latest technology to combat the rise in the water table that is threatening to undermine the temple. One solution may be to dig a trench around the temple and fill it with gravel to drain the area and then use hydrological sensors to monitor the level of water.

As Egypt's population grows (if the annual 1.78% growth rate is maintained the population will double to 120 m by 2050), agricultural land moves closer and closer to ancient temples and funeral monuments. Water for irrigation is weakening temple foundations and eroding the carvings. The limestone temples absorb groundwater, which is wicked up by capillary action into the permeable foundations. Through the actions of heat this water evaporates, depositing salt crystals and oils that degrade the surface of the stone of the buildings. The crystallisation of these salts in the pores of the stone, combined with the changing day and night time temperatures cause it to expand and eventually the reliefs and paintings on the surface crack and flakes off. Stagnant water around the columns also fosters the growth of bacteria and fungi, compounding the problem. The extension of farming practices into the desert is affecting sites and monuments the length and breadth of Egypt. Nigel Hetherington from the Theban Mapping Project commented that “when the towering rock face statues of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt were under threat from flooding during the construction of the Aswan dam in the 1960s, an international rescue effort led by UNESCO relocated the statues block by block. The gradual erosion of monuments over a number of years, however, is not dramatic enough to capture international attention. The problem is that it's not a sexy enough topic. When Abu Simbel was going to be flooded, it made a real impact. People could see the size of the lake and that the temples were going to disappear, but this is such a slow process."

In part, the ground water salinisation problem is explained by the fact that seasonal fluctuations in the level of the River Nile have been regulated since the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s. The Nile's flow now has a lower amplitude, which means that artificial irrigation is necessary. Before the dam, the annual flood supplied water and nutrient-rich silt to farmland in the Valley and Nile Delta. Today this land is watered by artificial irrigation channels to which chemical fertilizers are added, causing increased salinity in the ground water.

In his role as Conservation Manager of the Theban Mapping Project Nigel Hetherington has studied past photographs of the Theban monuments. He notes that photographs taken 10 years ago show beautiful reliefs, today when we return to the same reliefs to further document them, they are simply not there. This is not an isolated case of water destruction and many other instances can be cited. At the site of Hierakonpolis (Kom el-Ahmar), one of Egypt’s most important Predynastic sites and earliest capitals in Egypt’s history dating back to 3,600 BC, Dr Renée Friedman and her team are fighting a constant battle with the local farmers. Each year when they return to the site for their winter season they find the farmers have encroached even further on the antiquities land. Therefore, rather than following their research design they continually have to conduct rescue archaeology of the most threatened parts of the site. The part of the site where one of Egypt’s most famous early monuments, the Narmer Palette, was found is now in serious danger of being totally destroyed due to the action of farmers. The wadis behind the site are being prepared for a land reclamation programme, which involves flooding vast areas of land. The effect of this will be to raise the water table and will seriously undermine the excellent state of preservation that the site now enjoys. At the Predynastic Nile Delta site of Kafr Hassan Dawood, when excavations were first initiated in the early 1990s the water table was well below the bottom of most of the graves being excavated. Today an industrial farmer, not the local villages, has placed fields around three sides of the antiquities land; the local village occupies the one remaining side. The fragile human remains and grave goods are soaking up the moisture from this increased water table, destroying valuable information about the rise of state in Egypt. This damage from the rising water table is not confined to Pharaonic remains but is also affecting more recent sites, such as the World Heritage Site of Abu Mina, the Coptic monastery located in the West Delta near Alexandria.

Aerial view of the Ramesseum on the West Bank of Luxor showing the encroachment of agricultural land on the monuments

Egyptian laws are at present too weak or sporadically imposed to deter farmers from grabbing land, and the erosion caused by these farmers could also damage Egypt's tourism industry, the country's main source of foreign exchange. Millions of tourists a year are drawn to archaeological sites such as the mortuary temple of Ramesses II, known as the Ramesseum, or the massive temple complex of Karnak. Both are under threat from farming and the damage can already been seen on many parts of these monuments as well as others, particularly the Luxor Temple (see the 2002 entry below entitled Egyptian Cultural Heritage News Briefs.

Dr Zahi Hawass is hoping that his proposed new heritage law will protect what remains of one of the world's greatest civilizations. This new law imposes stricter buffer zones around archaeological sites and monuments; protecting the land around ancient sites from farmers trying to take it without permission. Hawass stated that “The present antiquities laws do not punish anyone who takes land; this is why I'm asking for a change in the law now; so that taking antiquities land is a crime. That is the only way to stop those people from taking more land for agriculture.” Hawass expects this new heritage law to be presented to parliament in January. ( and (

However, help is also on its way in the form of a Swedish consulting company called SWECO, who in 2004 received an order to supervise a U.S.-led project aimed at rescuing the ancient World Heritage Listed temples of Luxor and Karnak from rising groundwater. The bases of the temples are eroding as a result of rising groundwater, which causes water with a high salt content to be absorbed by the foundations. As the water evaporates, the salt in it crystallises and disintegrates the porous sandstone used to build the temples.

The SWECO team have previously found solutions that can save the temples and lower the groundwater. Now they will supervise activities of the US-led team including conservators from the SCA to ensure that mitigation measures are implemented correctly when work is started. SWECO's contributions are being funded by a grant from SIDA, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, to the figure of around €1.1 million. The remaining funding, approximately €4.4 million, has been provided by USAID.

Consultants from SWECO have developed a technical solution for ground water mitigation in which the water level will be lowered with the help of pumps, some 20 wells and nearly six kilometres of underground drainage pipes laid at a depth of around 7 metres will surrounded the two temples. The wells have to be drilled by hand, down to 30-40 metres, since the vibrations would otherwise cause structural damage, explains Anna-Jeanette Larnelius Löw, SWECO's project manager. In all aspects of the project, SWECO's goal has been to find a solution that is sustainable for the long term. In order to ensure that the system will continue working in the future, those responsible for operating the equipment must be provided with the necessary knowledge and information. The project is scheduled to start in January 2006 and has a tight schedule, with the planned completion of the project in 18 months time.

This is not the first time that SWECO has also participated in saving Egypt’s cultural heritage. For example, 40 years ago SWECO took part in relocation of the Abu Simbel Temple, which would have otherwise been submerged after construction of the Aswan High Dam. (

Continuing on the theme of threats to Luxor’s cultural heritage, Bonnie Burnham, President of the World Monuments Fund, quotes the West Bank as an example of a project under investigation ( She said, “One of the sites that we've had on several watch lists is the ancient Egyptian monuments at Luxor. First, the Valley of Kings was listed and now the entire West Bank of the Nile, at the place of Ancient Thebes. It's a very complex situation involving too much tourism, too much development, a rise in the water table as a result of the building of the Aswan Dam, more agriculture encroaching on the monumental sites as a result. And there are archaeologists throughout the area who are working against the clock to try to excavate ancient monuments and sculpture that are in the ground that are deteriorating very, very rapidly as a result of all of this. And what the watch listing is calling for is a plan for the whole area that will protect the sites and use these economic generators to support the preservation rather than to undermine the very thing that people go there for".

The Minister of Culture, Farouq Hosni agreed to carry out a joint project with the Higher Council of Luxor City with the aim of reviving the history and culture of the City, presenting it in the form of an integrated panorama and turning it into an open-museum with total costs of LE250 Billion, the brunt of which is being born by the Ministry of International Co-operation. He said the project, which started this autumn, will be carried out in stages. There will be a number of projects that have the intention of putting Luxor in a new position on the tourism map. There are more than 25 of these projects and they cover tourism, social development, cultural works and economic development. The planning process for these projects has been finished and the money has been allocated.

This November a conference, attended by all the leaders in the public and security sectors, was held to discuss the masterplan for Luxor. Some of the main projects are: installing lighting on the West Bank and reopening the Ramesses Road (El Kebas Road) that connects Luxor Temple to Karnak Temple; relocation of the people of Qurna who currently live amongst the tombs of the Nobles on the West Bank of Luxor to a new city - Tarif - specially built for them; development of Luxor railway station; development of Karnak Temple Square; building new anchorages and landing places along the Nile; and the building of four new schools in various places in the city of Luxor. There is also a transport training program that will enable the youth of Luxor to find new job opportunities.

The tomb of Nefertari is currently closed to tourists and hopefully will remain so identifiably. However, private groups can gain access by paying $5000 for a group of 20 for a maximum visit time of 20 minutes. The ethics of this is debatable, however if the money was to be re-directed to conservation work than it would be worth considering making this a larger-scale venture. Currently this money goes to the treasury like all SCA ticket revenue and the SCA receive a grant for their work each year. This is not an unusual state of affairs and happens in many other countries. In September 2005, 107,450 tourists from different nationalities visited the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, compared to only 3,797 Egyptians. The revenues from these foreign tourists hit LE 5.832 million compared to LE 7,594 from Egyptians. This raises two major points:

    1. How can the Egyptian tourist agencies attract more Egyptian nationals, and

    2. How can the damage done to the tombs in Luxor be limited, while still maintaining the same level of revenue?

A crowd management programme has been introduced on the West Bank of Luxor to control the flow of tourists into the tombs by a rotation, with limited numbers allowed in each morning, afternoon, and evening. A site that lists which tombs and temples are open in the Luxor area, and what the entrance fee is:

A thought provoking article has just appeared on the Tour Egypt website by Jane Akshar ( This article titled Destruction of Luxor’s Heritage highlights the damage caused by water and tourism to Luxor’s monuments. As Akshar states, this is not a new story and many people over the last twenty years have raised concern at the deterioration of the monuments. Many tourists and local people may see these ancient monuments, having survived for so many thousands of years, as indestructible. They are not, and many could disappear in our lifetime, with increased irrigation and the impact of the Aswan (high) Dam together with Lake Nasser increasing humidity in the region. The water table is rising annually and the porous limestone and sandstone soak it up. This not only dissolves the rock but also leaves salt deposits. This article goes on to say that it is not only in Luxor that monuments are under threat, but sites up and down the Nile Valley are being affected.

Another disturbing article highlighting the disregard for Egypt’s monuments, entitled Ancient Capital Laid to Waste by Jill Kamil appeared in Al Ahram Weekly. This article details how the ancient city of Bubastis (Tell Basta) has systematically been destroyed. This site was one of the Delta’s major cities, and has remains dating back all the way back to the Predynastic Period, through the Old and New kingdoms and reached the height of its importance in the Third Intermediate and Late Period. The glory and magnificent beauty of the city was commented upon by Herodotus when he visited the site. Tel Basta subsequently suffered the fate of so many ancient Delta cities; during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries its great monuments were used as convenient quarries, stripped of limestone for the construction of modern buildings and, as attested by the number of chips that dotted the landscape, for millstones. It was plundered by robbers in the pay of antiquities dealers, by sebakhin in their search for fertiliser, and by local traders who openly sold antiquities at Zagazig railway station. British chemist Alfred Lucas, who worked for the Antiquities Service from the mid-1920s to the 1940s, wrote that dealers in antiquities were always present to meet passengers at the railway station and show them objects for sale from Tell Basta.

The decision in 1904 by the colonial government to establish a railway link between Cairo, Mansoura and Belbeis meant a large section to the west of Tell Basta was to be cut-off. The site could have been avoided, but indifference to Egypt’s cultural heritage and a preference for the pyramids and temples in the south meant that the bureaucrats took the easy route. Two years after work began, workmen engaged by the Egyptian State Railways found two hoards of gold and silver about 160 metres west of the main temple. The workmen hid the treasure until nightfall when they were able to divide it among themselves. By the time news reached them, the Antiquities Service was able to recover only part of the horde, including a silver jug with a gold goat handle which is now in the Egyptian Museum (No. 53262). A month later a second hoard was discovered some metres from the first. This time the authorities were ready, and these coins are now in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, Cairo. As the railway work continued, with extensions continuing up until the 1920s, further gold and silver objects continued to be found, most dating from Dynasty XVI although some were from the earlier reign of Ramesses II.

During the Second World War, when Egypt was on the frontline of the war against the Nazis and under British military control, even greater destruction was wrought on the site. In 1943, news reached Prof. Etienne Drioton, the then Director-General of the Antiquities Service, that workmen were actively engaged in levelling the land to build a military road across the tell. Drioton sent the then antiquities inspector Labib Habachi to check the report. Habachi described the site as "as disaster". He found that a military road to connect Port Said with Alexandria via Mit Ghamr was well underway and already traversed about three feddans of the site. He described the once beautiful temple as a mass of broken papyrus bud columns, pillars and lintels. Blocks of stone with inscribed texts, he wrote in his report, were impacted into the earth, and he confirmed that the tell was still being systematically depleted both for raw material to make bricks for houses in the ever-expanding urban area surrounding it, and by the sebakhin. Antiquities, he wrote, were totally disregarded, "unless they were gold and silver". It seems incredible to us today that such an important archaeological site should have been so neglected for so long. At present an SCA/DAIK archaeological mission are engaged in excavating and recording what is left of the site.

A letter on the Reader's Page of the Cairo Magazine by Raoul Chomka, titled Comments on Qatameya, focused on the building of a new shopping centre on the site of the city of On at Heliopolis. Chomka detailed how after the German Archaeological Institute has finished excavating at Heliopolis (Matariyya), builders moved in. The ancient city of On was one of the most important religious sites in Egyptian history, the remains of the temple area being older and larger than that of Karnak. Now, once the archaeologists have left the building of a huge shopping mall has started right on top of the temple! This construction work will cut right through the temple’s main axis and its causeway. The Supreme Council of Antiquities doesn’t want to get involved so as not to cross the authorities in Heliopolis. The German Institute is frightened and don’t want to say anything, as they might lose their permit to excavate. How is this allowed to happen? Would they build a shopping mall over Karnak? Chomka states that On deserves at least one article before its centre is destroyed. The DAIK will in due course publish the results of their excavations, but this ancient city deserves to be saved for posterity. Do we really need more KFC and MacDonald’s? Cairo can do without another shopping centre, but the unique remains of On should stand as a monument to the ingenuity of the Egyptian people ( The 1983 Law 117 placed Heliopolis under SCA supervision, it now oversees (and has the right to reject) any construction proposals. Where monuments are found and can be harmlessly removed, Hawass explained earlier this year, the area is cleared of archaeological objects and handed over to its owner. But where irremovable monuments are found, the land is declared an archaeological protectorate and the SCA compensates the owner with either a fair price or another piece of land. This law has facilitated some wonderful discoveries, not least the finding of Panehsy's tomb, which was dismantled and is now on display in an open-air museum at the site along with a four metre-high quartzite colossus of Ramesses II and a royal granite sarcophagi. The question must then be asked, why has the great temple at On not been dismantled and moved or left in situ? ( and (

Another report on this summer’s German excavations reports that statues and artefacts dating back to the time of Ramesses II were unearthed. In ancient times Matariyya was an important political and cultural centre; probably the location of one of the world's first universities, as well as a religious centre. An excavation team in Suq el-Khamis (Thursday Market) also found the remains of a large temple and unearthed several statues. (
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