Saturday, January 19, 2019

New heritage committee set up - Al Ahram Weekly

New heritage committee set up

A new supreme committee has been set up to oversee the country's World Heritage Sites and to draw up strategic plans for their management, protection and development, reports Nevine El-Aref


Ruins of Abu Mena City

To manage and follow up Egypt's World Heritage Sites, the government has established the first ever supreme committee to oversee the sites.

Led by assistant to the president for national and strategic projects Sherif Ismail, the committee was formed according to a presidential decree and consists of 19 members, including the ministers of antiquities, tourism, national development, and environment, the president's advisors for national security and urban planning, a representative from the General Intelligence Authority and the ministries of defence, housing, foreign affairs, interior, investment and international cooperation and transportation, and the head of the National Organisation for Urban Harmony.

The committee will be responsible for the development of a strategic vision for the management, protection and development of Egypt's World Heritage Sites, as well as maximising their potential and benefiting from sustainable development plans and coordinating with all local and international stakeholders inside and outside Egypt in the management, protection and preservation of these sites and their surrounding areas.

Ruins of Abu Mena City

It will also exert maximum efforts to inscribe more Egyptian sites on the World Heritage List managed by UN cultural organisation UNESCO.

Egypt has seven sites on the UNESCO List, including the Abu Mena City, ancient Thebes with its necropolis, Historic Cairo, Memphis and its necropolis extending from the Giza Pyramids to Dahshur, the Nubian monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae, the St Catherine's area in Sinai, and natural site of Wadi Al-Hitan in Fayoum.

The committee held its first meeting late last week and put the ruins of the oldest Christian sites in Egypt at Abu Mena at the top of its list of interventions. The idea is to halt the problem of the high level of ground water at the site and to take it off the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger.

Tarek Atia, spokesperson of the committee, said that Ismail had asked the ministers of irrigation and agriculture to provide a detailed report on steps to be taken at the site in 2019 to solve the problem of water.

Ruins of Abu Mena City

The report will also include work being achieved in the recent LE15 million project to replace decayed irrigation and drainage pipes and will be submitted at the second Committee meeting.

Ismail had also commissioned the Ministry of Environment to draw up a study of the risks of climate change to Egypt's heritage and had assigned the Ministry of Antiquities to communicate directly with UNESCO in collaboration with the Foreign Ministry to settle other matters in relation to the heritage sites, Atia said.

Accurate maps of the urban area around Abu Mena need to be provided to develop, protect and preserve the site from any further threats.

Abu Mena with its baptistery, basilicas, public buildings, streets, houses and workshops was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1979 and on the In Danger List in 2001 because the local soil, exclusively clay, becomes semi-liquid in the presence of excess water.

When in a dry state, the soil is hard and capable of supporting buildings. But the destruction of numerous cisterns around the city has entailed the collapse of several overlying structures. Huge underground cavities have opened in the north-western region of the site.

The risk of collapse has been so high that those responsible were forced to fill the bases of some of the most endangered buildings with sand, including the crypt of Abu Mena with the tomb of the saint, and close them to the public.

Ruins of Abu Mena City

Former supervisor of the International Organisations Department at the Ministry of Antiquities Yasmine Al-Shazli told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Supreme Council of Antiquities at that time, now the Ministry of Antiquities, had tried to counteract the phenomenon by digging trenches and had enlarged the protected area in the hope of lowering the pressure of irrigation.  

These measures, however, had proved to be insufficient, taking into account the scale of the problem and the limited resources available, she said.

UNESCO's World Heritage Committee has already approved a technical assistance grant from the World Heritage Fund to assist the Egyptian authorities in identifying ways of reducing the level of the water table and preventing further damage to the ancient structures.
"Rising groundwater levels are a problem throughout the Mediterranean region, linked to urban growth and agricultural development," Al-Shazli pointed out.

Ruins of Abu Mena City

ABU MENA CITY: The Abu Mena City was one of the great centres of pilgrimage in Egypt from the fifth to seventh centuries CE.

Thousands of people came from all over the Christian world seeking the site's reputed healing powers. Pilgrims took home sacred water in tiny pottery ampoules (shaped like two-handled jars and stamped with the figure of the saint between two camels) or oil from the lamp that burned before the tomb.

Bishop Kirollos of the monastery said that Abu Mena was a soldier-saint who had died a martyr's death in western Asia. His cult gained popularity when, according to the legend, his body was placed on a camel and borne inland to be buried. At a certain spot the camel refused to move further, a sign taken as divine revelation that he should be buried there.

Wind-blown sand eventually covered the tomb and no trace was left. Some centuries later, a shepherd observed that a sick lamb that crossed the spot immediately became well. When the remains of the saint were discovered, a church was built over his grave.

Ruins of Abu Mena City

The reputation of the place then spread far and wide. Pilgrims came in scores, and the stories of the wondrous cures that they carried home attracted more pilgrims. Soon the original church was too small to accommodate the number of visitors, and the Roman emperor Arcadius (395-408 CE) built another church, to which the saint's relics were transferred.

Subsequent emperors erected other buildings, and eventually the site's Great Basilica was built, to which thousands of pilgrims flocked from as far afield as England, France, Germany, Spain and Turkey. Cures were attributed to the therapeutic effects of the water, which came from springs in limestone rocks (they have since dried up) and baths were built flanking the church.

When the Roman emperor Constantine the Great's only daughter, who suffered from leprosy, was reputedly healed at Abu Mena, the fame of the site spread further throughout the Roman world.

Ruins of Abu Mena City

A great city grew up there, flourished, and eventually disappeared. The famed city written up by classical writers was thought to be legendary until in 1961 the German Archaeological Institute excavated the area, under the direction of archaeologist Peter Grossman, and discovered one of the largest and most ancient pilgrimage sites in the world.

The ruins cover an area 1km square where the main colonnaded pilgrimage route of the early Christians has been identified. It had shops and workshops to the left and right, leading to the Church of the Martyr, built during the Justinian era (528-565 CE). The ruins suggest that pilgrims gathered in a great square surrounded by hostels. There, monks could take care of the sick who came to the shrine to be healed. There are also the ruins of two large bathhouses and wells.

A new monastery has now been built at the site, its lofty surrounding walls and twin towers situated no more than 500m from the ancient site.

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