Threats to Egypt's heritage
Egypt's ancient monuments are facing problems that must be solved if they are to remain intact for future generations to learn from and enjoy, writes Zahi Hawass
Egypt's ancient wealth bedazzled the world. Truly a land of plenty, her vast resources during her glorious years as the kingdom of the pharaohs gave men a kind of permanent record of the greatness of her people. The remnants of that civilisation can still be seen today, showing a people that delighted in life and wanted to take that joy into the unknown world.
About 450 BCE, a restless Greek traveller sailed from his home in Halicarnassus on the Anatolian coastline to see a land he had heard so much about throughout his boyhood. This inquisitive traveller, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, stayed in Egypt until he had seen the fascinating treasures that were a daily feast for his eyes.
For a period of over a thousand years, the temples and tombs, even the pyramids of the pharaohs, were completely covered with sand, offering them a kind of natural protection. Herodotus, who wrote about the monuments on the Giza Plateau, never mentioned the Sphinx because it was completely covered with sand when he visited the area.
This is important evidence showing that the ancient Egyptian monuments were covered with sand in 500 BCE. Two hundred years ago, scholars and adventurers began uncovering the monuments from their protective sand, and since then various elements have contributed to their deterioration.
One problem is people living in, around, or on the monuments. The problem of urbanisation can be seen in many places. The Temple of Esna in Upper Egypt, for example, is completely surrounded by the modern town of Esna. The temple is located on lower ground, and the town has grown up around it. None of the houses has a sewage system, and as a result sewage is leaking from the houses into the temple. Salt has also started to appear on the lower part of the structure.
The same situation has occurred at the Edfu, Akhmiem and Ashmonien temples in Middle Egypt. Cracks have begun to appear in their walls, and these have caused a huge block to fall from the top of the first pylon of the Temple of Edfu. The same thing recently happened to the Temple of Kom Ombo. Many inscriptions and pharaonic scenes have been destroyed.
Similar problems have been occurring for some time in Qurna on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor. Many houses were also recently built near the tombs of the nobles and around the tombs of the IV and XI dynasties at Al-Taref.
The village of Nazlet Al-Semman is located just at the foot of the Pyramids of Giza and has about 200,000 people living in it. The houses have been built above the monuments, and during work on the sewage system of this village a large settlement of about three kilometres square was discovered. Also found were the bones of sheep, cattle and pigs showing the marks of butcher's knives. Thousands of domestic pottery shards, some originating from Upper Egypt, give evidence of trade between Upper and Lower Egypt. Pollen was found that is being analysed to shed light on the climate of ancient Egypt.
In addition, the causeway and the valley temple of Khufu were discovered while putting in the village's sewage system. All these treasures are now being damaged by urbanisation.
In short, the problems that come from the building of village houses exacerbate pollution, including pollution linked to smoke from cooking.
The rising water table is a problem resulting from the lack of proper sewage systems, or of leaking systems, as can be seen in Islamic Cairo where water sometimes floods the streets. This water is full of salt, and when it comes into contact with limestone monuments a chemical reaction occurs, damaging the limestone of the buildings.
Salt crystallisation is a problem that can be observed in monuments all over Upper and Lower Egypt. Some believe that the rising of the water table in Upper Egypt came after the building of the High Dam at Aswan, but it has been proven that the High Dam does not cause the rising water table under the monuments in the Nile Valley.
The Sphinx is a good example of this problem. The level of the water table under the Sphinx has been about two metres for long time. It was measured last year and found to be at seven metres under the Sphinx, suggesting that the sewage system of the village has increased the level of the water table.
Fluctuations in humidity and temperature are another problem and can cause damage, including biological degradation, salt crystallisation, rock swelling, flash floods, wind erosion and damage as a result of temperature variation. The variation in temperatures, especially in Upper Egypt, is severe and can be seen best in the area of Abu Simbel where during an eight-hour period the temperature can change from 15 to 41 degrees C. There is no doubt that these vast changes can affect the stone surfaces of monuments.
Wind is another powerful factor, recognised by the ancient Egyptians. The pharaoh Tuthmose IV built three protective walls on the north side of the Sphinx to protect it from wind, for example.
But human actions have also had important impacts. The building of industrial centres near the monuments and the resulting pollution are major problems, with the factories in Helwan affecting the monuments at Saqqara and Giza. There are limestone quarries near the monuments where dynamite is used, and the vibration has affected the body of the Sphinx. A programme at the quarries has now reduced this impact.
Other sorts of human action, such as conflict, the absence of cultural awareness, voluntary destruction (for example the use of the Pyramids as stone quarries), and neglect have had enormous negative impacts. Modern agriculture has also expanded and is surrounding the monuments. Land belonging to the Ministry of Antiquities has been converted for agriculture. There are many examples of this in Upper and Lower Egypt.
PROBLEMS OF TOURISM: Today, there is no system to integrate the income generated by tourism to fund the preservation of the monuments.
Tourism is very important for the economy, but it is also very dangerous for the preservation of the monuments. It is a fact that each tourist who enters a tomb or a pyramid brings around 20 grams of water into the monument. The Great Pyramid of Khufu is a good example of this, where humidity has risen to 95 per cent inside it. A one-centimetre-thick layer of salt has accumulated over the surfaces of the so-called queen's chamber and the grand gallery of the pyramid.
In about 500 different places within the pyramid the stone has become weak and detached. Some restoration has been done. Black spots have been removed from the ascending passage that leads to the second burial chamber, or the queen's chamber, by a solution composed of alcohol and water.
Some areas have been cleaned using acetone. In addition, salts covering the walls and roof of this passage were cleaned by mechanical methods. Weak parts were consolidated to protect the walls by using special mortar derived from sand and araldite.
Other deteriorating parts of the walls were restored by applying a suitable mortar composed of three parts sand, two parts lime powder, and one part kaolin. All the blocks were registered in the grand gallery and recorded by drawing and photographing the condition of each block before restoration. Where possible, the loosened blocks were grouted and reattached. In the grand gallery, a total of 239 blocks were examined and repaired on the left wall.
A television monitoring system has been introduced in order to control the circulation of visitors inside the Great Pyramid. Five highly sensitive television cameras have been placed inside the grand gallery, the second burial chamber and the third burial chamber.
Working with the German Archaeological Institute, the so-called airshafts inside Khufu's Pyramid have been cleaned to stop the increase in humidity. Officials have installed electric lights and a security system with instruments measuring the temperature and humidity inside the pyramid. Measurements have shown that the humidity had increased to a dangerous level of 85-95 per cent.
After studying the humidity and air-circulation problems inside the pyramid, the German Institute proposed cleaning the airshafts to facilitate air circulation. The pyramid was closed for five days last May. After cleaning, there was a remarkable improvement in air quality inside the pyramid.
Two electrical ventilation units with an airflow of approximately 400 cubic metres were installed to ensure air exchange inside the pyramid. After careful study, two electrical fans were installed inside already existing openings in the southern air channel and in the so-called Caviglia Tunnel behind the exit of the northern channel. After the installation, the air is completely exchanged every one and a half hours, meaning that the interior temperature and humidity now match that on the outside.
Over 3,000 tourists a day visit the tomb of Tutankhamun of the XVIII Dynasty and Seti I of the XIX Dynasty in the Valley of the Kings. There has been deterioration in the tomb of Seti I, with cracks forming in the tomb interior. The inscription in the second half of the tomb of Ramses III is now gone. The tomb of Mentomhat is in very bad condition.
The sound and light systems at the temples of Karnak and Philae are not properly designed for the safety of the temples, and they are now being improved. Mechanical shocks, such as occur from tourist buses and cars near the antiquities, are also dangerous as excessive vibration and air pollution are generated.
Inadequate and improper restoration is one of the greatest dangers threatening Egyptian monuments. The Sphinx is a good example. Large stones were put on this in 1982 and 1987 and cement was used to hold them in place. In order to do so, the ancient stones that were added to the Sphinx in the pharaonic and Roman periods were removed. The results can be seen by the damage done to the statue's claws, and salt has started to appear on the new stone.
Poorly designed restoration work is widespread and can be seen at the temples of Edfu, Esna, Luxor, Karnak and Madinet Habu in Upper Egypt. No appropriate system of conservation is used, and cement is still being used in restoration. The restoration of the Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir Al-Bahari was based on imagination and not on knowledge.
Other factors affecting Egyptian monuments include natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, biodegradation, the action of gravity and the growth of habitation. Many monuments are now in critical condition due to such problems.
There is a list, which I call an endangered list, which includes temples or monuments that need immediate attention. Examples of these are the temples of Edfu, Esna, Deir Al-Bahari, Luxor, Madinet Habu and the Ramasseum, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, such as those of Ramses III, Seti I, Tutankhamun and the nobles' tombs, the Serapeum and the interior of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, and the tombs of Kom Al-Sheqafa in Alexandria.
THE WAY AHEAD: Solutions for protecting and conserving Egyptian monuments can be summarised as follows. The first measure is the establishment of a "safe zone" on each side of a monument, controlling tourism, industry, urbanisation and other activities.
The conservation measures at the Giza Plateau are a good example of this. The Egyptian Antiquities Organisation and UNESCO have designed a master plan for the plateau. The Centre of Engineering Archaeology at Cairo University is responsible for the design of the project, which includes a ring road around the plateau to route the traffic. Cars and buses will not be allowed to enter the plateau.
An educational centre will be built for tourists to enable them to learn about the monuments and their history, and this will include places for the horse and camel drivers that are stationed around the pyramids. A similar plan should be drawn up for the temples of Edfu, Esna, Luxor and Karnak.
Villages built around and above the monuments should be removed to other locations, including Nazlet Al-Semman, Ashmonien, Akhmiem and Qurna. A comprehensive conservation and preservation plan that provides for an appropriate balance between tourism and preservation is badly needed at Luxor.
For example, under such a plan only limited visitor access would be allowed to some tombs, such as that of Tutankhamun, and the walls of all tombs would be equipped with a protective barrier of fibreglass. The project at the Great Pyramid at Giza is a good case study that demonstrates the effectiveness of such planning.
A management plan should be designed for the tombs. For example, certain tombs should be open to tourism while others should be closed for restoration during the year. The painted tombs at Saqqara, Beni Hassan and the west bank at Luxor should be protected by fibreglass, and photography with flash and the touching of tombs should be banned. Certain tombs such as those of Tutankhamun and Nefertari and Khufu's Pyramid should be opened to visitors only with prior reservation.
The establishment of sound restoration and conservation plans for each site is sorely needed. The Sphinx conservation project serves as a further case study of the alliance of technologies geared towards conservation and restoration. The project is well managed and consists of three phases: the first is the restoration of the southern side and is already finished; the second is the restoration of the northern side and the chest; and the third is global involvement in the design of a comprehensive conservation and restoration plan that will address each of the many elements causing deterioration and generate guidelines for access to researchers and tourism.
Since the Sphinx was first uncovered it has been under siege from elements such as the rising water table, vibrations emanating from aircraft and vehicle traffic, especially buses, in the immediate vicinity, and people living around it, in particular the villagers of Nazlet Al-Semman and Kafr Al-Gabal. Wastewater from nearby villages, which lack sewage containment systems, constitutes a further threat.
In addition, the modern construction of the sound and light installations and the cutting of tunnels for cables, climatic factors, such as rain and fluctuations in humidity and temperature, modern technology, such as factories near the monument and the resulting pollution, the practice of utilising stop-gap and harmful methods of conservation and/or restoration, particularly using cement and gypsum on the Sphinx's lion body, and the limestone quarry near the Giza Plateau, which uses dynamite to pulverise lime for use in factories, have all played their part.
All the above-mentioned factors in the deterioration of the Sphinx have also caused damage to other monuments in Egypt, meaning that the management and conservation plan for the Sphinx and the Giza Plateau can be a model for the protection and restoration of other Egyptian monuments.
These monuments need an urgent plan to preserve this unique civilisation. Expertise from all over the world should co-operate in the protection, study, preservation and restoration of these ancient sites.