The Newest Curse of the Mummy: Bad Drainage
Tourists visiting the temple of Kom Ombo, near Aswan, Egypt, in June.CreditCreditLaura Boushnak for
The New York Times
By Declan Walsh <http://www.nytimes.com/by/declan-walsh>
* Sept. 25, 2018
KOM OMBO, Egypt — Since Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamen's tomb in the Valley of the Kings
nearly a century ago, pop culture and folklore have invoked the fabled curse of the mummy
to plague those who unearth the hidden treasures of ancient Egypt with bad luck, disease or death.
But at the ancient temple of Kom Ombo, 400 miles south of Cairo, where archaeologists recently
unearthed a stack of decaying mummies, peril takes a more prosaic form: waterlogged foundations.
Decades of flood irrigation in the surrounding fields, which were once desert, have soaked the soil
beneath the temple. Water has penetrated the sandstone foundations, combining with salt and heat to
scrub some hieroglyphs from the temple walls. The symbols and figures, effectively the lines of an
ancient story, are fading to dust.
The solution, according to engineers on a $9 million American-financed project
<https://www.usaid.gov/egypt/economic-growth-and-tourism>, is some modern drainage. Since October
2017, dozens of laborers have been digging a 30-foot-deep trench around the temple walls in an
effort to drain the groundwater and divert it back into the Nile.
"Expanding into the desert is a nice dream," said the project engineer, Tom Nichols, standing on a
hill behind the temple. He pointed to the fields of lush sugar cane, dotted with farmhouses, that
pushed up against the temple walls. "But you need to look at the other consequences, too," he said.
This diminutive sphinx was discovered at the temple by a team of archaeologists and engineers
working to save it from water damage.CreditThe Ministry of Antiquities
Unusually, a team of archaeologists is working alongside the laborers, hoping to save any treasures
that are uncovered in the dig. It has found significant objects, including a bust of Marcus
Aurelius, an Old Kingdom pottery workshop and a relief of Sobek, the crocodile god of the temple. On
a searing July afternoon, one archaeologist held forth an ancient lunch: a fistful of charred,
4,000-year-old grains of wheat, discovered in an excavated urn.
"This project allows us to rewrite the history of the temple," said the director of Kom Ombo, Ahmed
The most exciting discovery may have been in recent weeks, when archaeologists pulled a
sand-encrusted sphinx from a damp hole. It has been dated to the Ptolemaic era, which ran from 305
B.C. to 30 B.C.
At less than two feet tall, the sphinx is a dwarf compared with the famed Great Sphinx of Giza,
which rises to 65 feet and stretches 240 feet from head to tail. It also had a broken paw and no
But unlike the Giza sphinx, whose features are badly eroded by time and the elements, the Kom Ombo
sphinx is finely preserved — as is the sense of its mythic power: a man's head on a lion's body, its
wide eyes once again staring out after 2,000 years in the dark.
Even a diminutive sphinx symbolized a fierce devotion to the temple gods, said Matthew Douglas
Adams, a research scholar at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. "It signified that the
king was guarding the temple and keeping out the forces of chaos," he said.
Workers prepared to photograph a newly uncovered piece at Kom Ombo.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New
Keeping the water out is another matter.
The water troubles at Kom Ombo, and at many other Pharaonic sites along the Nile, are a product of
one of Egypt's proudest successes.
The massive Aswan High Dam
miles upstream from Kom Ombo, transformed Egyptian agriculture when it was completed in 1971. Having
tamed the ancient cycle of flood and drought, Egyptians could cultivate up to the river's edge,
helping make their land some of the most productive on earth.
Construction of the dam also set off one of the world's most spectacular archaeological rescue
missions. Through the 1960s, Egyptian and Swedish officials rushed to save a pair of temples at Abu
that faced inundation from the rising water of Lake Nasser, which lies behind the dam. Engineers cut
the temples into 1,035 blocks, each weighing between 20 and 30 ton, and in 1968 reassembled them on
higher ground, exactly as they were.
In the decades since, though, the unwanted side effects of the Aswan Dam have become gradually more
apparent. In some parts of the fertile Nile Delta, the dam has caused increased salinity, forcing
farmers to switch crops or abandon fields entirely. And the Pharaonic temples lining the river have
Many of the temples were built at a time when the surrounding area was desert, and down through the
centuries became cocooned in layers of sand — near ideal conditions for preservation. But today the
temples are hemmed in by lush fields, farmhouses and a country of nearly 100 million people.
Climate change has brought harsher, more variable weather, and it has accelerated the decay caused
by rising groundwater. Untreated sewage and leaking water from informal houses have also contributed
to the problem.
Inside a Roman Nilometer, which measured the Nile's water level during the annual flood season, at
Kom Ombo.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times
The first sign of water damage is often faded hieroglyphs, said Mr. Adams, the scholar. "Even if it
just concerns a few areas of inscription, what remains of ancient Egypt is a very finite resource,"
he said. "When any piece of it is gone, it is gone forever."
The work at Kom Ombo is one of six major groundwater-lowering projects financed by the United States
in Egypt, at a cost of $100 million, since the 1990s. Previous efforts have focused on the Pyramids
of Giza, <https://eg.usembassy.gov/u-s-helps-preserve-base-sphinx-lowering-groundwater/> the
catacombs of Alexandria and Cairo's old city.
The money has been particularly welcome by the financially struggling government of Egypt, where
tourism has slumped since the Arab Spring in 2011. But American funding is now less assured: The
Trump administration has signaled its intention to slash billions from the United States Agency for
International Development's budget, as part of its "America first" agenda.
In some ways, the temple trouble is the opposite of what concerns most Egyptians, whose worry is not
too much water, but too little. Their country faces chronic water shortages because of pollution,
waste and the demands of a soaring population. A massive hydroelectric dam under construction in
Ethiopia, on the Blue Nile, has heightened public anxiety.
The legend of the mummy's curse was fueled by the sudden death of Lord Carnarvon, not long after
Tutankhamen's tomb was opened
<https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0216.html> in 1922.
Experts later concluded
<https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2803%2913576-3/fulltext> that it
had nothing to do with the discovery.
The story may come to a conclusion next year when the Grand Egyptian Museum, under construction near
the Pyramids of Giza, is scheduled to open its doors. The $1 billion museum will store over 100,000
artifacts, making it the largest museum in the world dedicated to a single civilization — including
all 5,000 pieces from Tutankhamen's tomb, on display for the first time since their discovery.
/Follow Declan Walsh on Instagram //@declanjwalsh/ <https://www.instagram.com/declanjwalsh/>/and on
Twitter: //@declanwalsh/ <https://twitter.com/declanwalsh>/./
Christine Hauser contributed reporting from New York.
A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 25, 2018, on Page A4 of the New York edition
with the headline: Mummy's New Curse: Poor Drainage. Order Reprints <http://www.nytreprints.com/> |
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