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Sunday, January 31, 2016

In the Valley of the Whales - Al-Ahram Weekly
Issue No.1280, 28 January, 2016      26-01-2016 07:55PM ET

In the Valley of the Whales

The world's largest skeleton of an extinct whale has found a new home in the Wadi Al-Hitan Museum in Fayoum, reports Mahmoud Bakr

A new fossil and climate change museum was opened in mid-January in Wadi Al-Hitan in Fayoum, two hours southwest of Cairo. The area, in Egypt's in Western Desert, has been of interest to scholars since the early 20th century and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the UN's cultural arm, in 2005.

Environment Minister Khaled Fahmi inaugurated the Wadi Al-Hitan Museum, which is the first of its kind in the region. The museum is the outcome of cooperation between Egypt, Italy and the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Attending the ceremony were Local Development Minister Ahmed Zaki Badr, Fayoum Governor Wael Makram, Italian Ambassador Maurizio Massari, and UNDP representative Anita Nirody.

The design of the dome-shaped museum is intended to resemble the shape of a sand dune and to blend in with the surrounding desert. The museum is home to two ancient whale fossils, including one of the famed basilosaurus isis, a massive ancient limbed whale.

The geological depression of Wadi Al-Hitan (Valley of the Whales), was part of the Tethys Ocean, which covered the area in the Mesozoic Era about 200 million years ago.

The ancient fossils found in the now-protected area have allowed scientists to gain rare insight into the evolution of the world's sea creatures, especially whales.

Among the fossils found in the area are skeletons of creatures that have been extinct for 40 million years, said Mohamed Sameh, geology and fossils chief at the Ministry of the Environment. The new museum, he said, gives scientists an opportunity to understand better the process of climate change on the planet.

Officials also hope the new museum will encourage ecotourism in Egypt. According to Fahmi, it ushers in a new phase in helping to protect nature through economic options that are compatible with the environment, among them the development of ecotourism. Such projects aim to help Egypt's protected environmental areas finance their operations in a sustainable manner, he added.

The project will also help to decentralise the management of such protected areas, which today cover 15 per cent of the country. If successful, the model of Wadi Al-Hitan can be replicated in other areas set aside for ecotourism in the country, Fahmi said.

The Ministry of Tourism is planning to set up a special committee to manage the surrounding area of Wadi Al-Rayyan, Fahmi said, including ministry officials, local government representatives, parliamentarians and local residents. Praising Egyptian scientists for their work in unearthing the giant fossils, the minister noted that the museum contains the largest extinct whale skeleton in the world.

The minister said that the striking design of the museum, which matches its natural surroundings, will be an inspiration for future construction in other ecotourism areas, such as Wadi Al-Gemal and the White Desert. Egypt and Italy are also cooperating on several other projects in protected areas, including in Siwa, St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai, Wadi Al-Rayyan and Wadi Al-Gemal.

Wadi Al-Hitan director Mohamed Sameh said the museum's displays include unique fossils, such as that of the basilosaurus isis, an extinct whale that walked on legs and is viewed as being a crucial stage in the development of mammals and sea creatures.

Italian Ambassador Maurizio Massari said the project cost, financed by a cooperation programme between Egypt and Italy, totalled LE11 million. UNDP resident coordinator Anita Nirody said the museum enhances prospects for ecotourism in Egypt, as well as providing job opportunities for the local community.

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