Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 May 2006
Issue No. 793
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Smoothing the gaps

A number of remarkable archaeological sites on Luxor's east and west banks are undergoing a facelift, says Sherine Nasr

Click to view caption
The US ambassador during his tour around Luxor

Over the past few years, Luxor has seen elaborate conservation projects led and financed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The first 10 sites are now restored and open to the public.

"USAID is financing conservation of Egyptian antiquities through four grants, two of which have been completed while the other two are still ongoing, in addition to two endowments," Francis Ricciardone, US ambassador to Egypt, said during a two-day visit to Luxor early this month.

One of the most significant projects has been the reconstruction of the sarcophagus of Ramses VI, which is displayed in the burial chamber of the tomb where Ramses was originally buried in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank. The project reflects the successful partnership between the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE), which received a grant from the USAID to conclude the project.

The tomb of Ramses VI (1145- 1137 BC) is one of the largest in the Valley of the Kings. "It has some of the finest and best preserved mural decorations of all royal tombs," Ted Brock, the archaeologist who led the conservation team, said. He added that the murals depicted texts and images believed by ancient Egyptians to be necessary for the perpetual rebirth of the Pharaoh. The vaulted ceiling of the burial chamber is decorated with a magnificent astronomical scene.

The sarcophagus is carved in the shape of a mummy from a single block of green conglomerate, one of the hardest stones worked by the ancient Egyptians. "It was originally placed within a massive outer sarcophagus of red granite of which two huge fragments still remain in the tomb," Brock says.

Both the inner and outer sarcophagi were broken up in ancient times by people intending to re-use the hard stones for other purposes. However, most of the pieces had remained in the tomb while others were found scattered elsewhere in the Valley of the Kings. The face of the sarcophagus was removed and sold to the British Museum, where it has been on display since 1823.

It took the conservation team two years to collect, clean and reassemble the 250 fragments of the sarcophagus and its lid. "The cleaned fragments were then joined and glued. Clustres of glued-together fragments were brought to the re-assembly site on a specially made limestone platform and added to the growing sarcophagus box," Brock said. Because many pieces were missing, groups of fragments had to be supported with stainless steel rods spanning the gaps in the sides. The face used in the reconstruction is a fiberglass replica of the original kept in the British Museum.

On Luxor's East Bank, a joint project for the salvation of Karnak and Luxor temples has been completed. Contributions from the government of Sweden, Egypt and USAID were directed to solve a ground water salination problem in Luxor Temple and to install the necessary drainage system in Karnak Temple.

According to Noha El-Maraghi of USAID, the columns of Karnak and Luxor temples are peeling owing to ground water absorption and associated effervescent salts. "If the present situation is not mitigated, these monuments will be in severe danger of total collapse in a few years," El-Maraghi says.

Since 1999, extensive sub-soil surveys and ground water detection have been conducted to help develop a technical solution for ground water mitigation by using drilling, pumping and computer simulation, and an implementation plan has been suggested. USAID is contributing LE40 million to cover construction costs and the local costs for the construction supervision.

Brock says that the ultimate aim of the project is to lower ground water level by two to three metres. Twenty drain shafts, 30 to 40 metres deep, will be drilled round the two temple areas, with drain pipes and collector pipes five kilometres in length round Karnak and one kilometre round Luxor Temple are being installed.

"The actual implementation process of lowering ground water began in 2005 and is expected to be completed in September 2006," El-Maraghi said.

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