Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 June 2006
Issue No. 799
Heritage
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A trifle over bazaars

Problems surrounding the Karnak Development Project still seem unsolved despite the reported approval of all concerned. Nevine El-Aref investigates the continuing controversy

Click to view caption
Franco-Egyptian restorers cleaning the coloured reliefs painted on the walls of Opet Temple in Karnak; Karnak Temple and the Sacred Lake; restoration and reconstruction work at the Seti II arch chapel; painted reliefs decorating the Opet Temple

The mood at this year's annual meeting in Luxor between the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and the French mission of the Centre Franco-Egyptien D'Étude des Temples de Karnak (CFEETK) was tense despite a friendly veneer. Some observers have reported that the planned Karnak Development Project drawn up by the SCA in collaboration with the Luxor City Council (LCC) was the cause of the underlying ill feeling, especially since part of the project's plan involves the demolition of the French mission's residential compound and the 19th-century-dig house of French Egyptologist George Legrain. Situated right on the doorstep of Karnak Temple, this colonial-style house carries a special symbolic meaning for the French.

According to Egyptologist Ali Radwan, co- director of the CFEETK scientific delegation with French Egyptologist Dominique Valbelle, the LE50 million project will protect the monument from progressive infringements as well as restoring the temple to its former glory. It will remove all encroachment from the forefront of the temple and allow excavation work to uncover the ancient harbour and canal that once connected it to the Nile. According to an old map, the Ancient Egyptians used this canal to gain access to the West Bank of the Nile in a position corresponding to Hatshepsut's Deir Al-Bahari Temple, which was built on the same axis.

Karnak's avenue of trees will be preserved, and a row of acacia and ficus will be planted to separate the temple from the road beside it. Bazaars beside the temple walls will be removed to what was formerly the Luxor stadium on the Nile Corniche. The vacated area will be transformed into a one-storey commercial zone with a vast parking area along with a visitor centre, built in the same colonial style as Legrain's house, to provide visitors with the information they need about Karnak. A memorabilia hall to commemorate the early French archaeologists who worked at Karnak, such as Auguste Mariette, Gaston Maspero and George Legrain will display their photographs and copies of their biographies and books.

After three consecutive meetings in Luxor the SCA and CFEETK, who have been working at Karnak for 39 years, have now agreed on the details of the project. However it has provoked strong Egyptian and foreign opposition from people in various disciplines, among them the Islamic Art specialist and promoter of Egypt's traditional art and architecture Shahira Mehrez, who has taken photographs and prepared files on the Karnak project as well as on the evacuation of the residents of the village of Gournah in the Valley of the Nobles and on the Luxor ring road. UNESCO has also stepped in to demand that the SCA explain its plans for this important World Heritage Site.

"I am in Luxor because I was alarmed by the demolition of 19th-century buildings and the eventual evacuation of the villagers of Gournah, which will undoubtedly lead to their destruction," Mehrez told Al-Ahram Weekly. She added that bulldozers were already working in front of Karnak Temple. "Even though I did not contact UNESCO personally I would like to flatter myself by believing that UNESCO, with its multiple institutions and affiliations, was waiting for me to provide it with relevant information, but fear of ridicule is holding me back," she said. "I certainly am no party to the differences between the SCA or LCC and UNESCO, even if I share the latter's point of view with respect to conservation, nor am I part of a dark plot to rob the Egyptian people of a portion of their homeland and give it to a foreign nation.

"I am not an Egyptologist but I am a concerned, cultured citizen and I do believe that Karnak Temple is not the private property of a limited few, but a legacy that belongs to the Egyptian people as well as to humanity at large. I also believe that I have not only the right, but indeed the duty, to express my dissidence," Mehrez said.

All through May rumours circulated among foreign and Egyptian archaeologists of the "catastrophic" arrangements put forward under the Karnak Development Project. The rumours alleged that the SCA and LCC were planning to lift Karnak Temple out of its visual and ancient context by implementing a bungled solution to the problem of further urban encroachment. The worst part of the plan, so the rumours went, was the erection of a two-metre-wide concrete wall around the temple, violating the archaeological layers of the temple itself, and the creation of a ring-road next to the temple and over the remains of five temples built by Akhenaten. The road would all but divide the temples into two areas.

It was also rumoured that the plans would incorporate a marina to be constructed between the front of the temple and the Nile bank. Rumours also circulated that a commercial centre which would replace the French mission complex, including its dig-house and the dig-house of Legrain, would include restaurants, a mall and a parking zone, as well as the destruction of the avenue of 50-year-old trees.

Some opponents of the plan sent a detailed photographic report to UNESCO, which led to World Heritage Centre director Francesco Bandarin threatening to remove Karnak Temple from the World Heritage List if any damage was caused. The letter triggered an angry response from SCA's secretary general Zahi Hawass, who claimed it contained false information and was based on rumour and gossip.

Hawass told the Weekly that the project would correct earlier mistakes made in Karnak's modern history. Legrain's house, shops, bazaars and mission dig-houses built at the temple forefront stood over a New Kingdom harbour and canal connecting Karnak to Hatshepsut's temple on the West Bank, Hawass said. "I think it is about time to return Karnak to its ancient glory and respect," he commented. This would be implemented through removing all encroachment and exploring more of the temple's archeological evidence. "It will decipher the secrets of its history," he said.

A committee has been set up to monitor the work being carried out within the framework of the project. Its members are SCA officials and prominent Egyptologists and engineers under the direction of Sabri Abdel-Aziz, head of the SCA's Ancient Egyptian department. Abdel-Aziz will have the power to call a halt to progress if a problem occurs and to call for an administrative investigation.

Mehrez sees the planned commercial zone to be built only 600 metres from the temple as another problem. "Shops left to creep in or against a major monument is a terrible mistake that should certainly be corrected," she says. She suggests that the SCA's legal advisers should be looking for suitable solutions. "The remedy should not be another mistake," Mehrez says. She points out that Karnak is only a few minutes from Luxor's hotels, restaurants and shopping centre. "There are plenty of tourist shops in the town and they do not need to clutter up the sites as well," she says. "We should not be depreciating the importance of our historical sites, nor divert visitors' attention -- whether locals or foreigners -- from the reverences due to these remarkable human achievements."

Mehrez also points to examples of parking lots coupled with long corridors of shops at the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir Al-Bahari and the entrance of the Valley of the Kings. Unfortunate tourists have to pass these gauntlets harassed by swarms of vendors.

Abdel-Aziz disagrees, saying that at Deir Al-Bahari the vendors are outside the temple's buffer zone and are not a threat to the monument. "Now there is a plan to relocate them to the construction under Luxor market in the city centre," he says. A similar plan is scheduled for the Valley of the Kings, where a site management project for the valley includes a visitors' centre to house all the vendors.

Hawass says that to ensure correct site management methods he is now awaiting the LCC's submission of the architectural design plan for the parking esplanade and the visitors' centre. "If it threatens to disfigure the surrounding ambiance, the whole plan will be cancelled until another suitable design is provided," he added, promising that no restaurants would be built in the area which will include only the parking zone, a few bazaars and the visitors' centre. The buildings earmarked for demolition did not only belong to the French mission but included rest houses, store rooms and workshops of the SCA. "They are approximately 60 years old and make the temple unpleasant to look at," Hawass said.

As for the removal of the Gournah villagers, Hawass says this is necessary because they have built their houses over ancient tombs. Over the last hundred years or more they have dug beneath their houses, damaging the ceilings of the tombs and looting treasures. Not only that, but water from the houses has leaked into the tombs, causing severe damage. The tomb of Huy, a vizier in Tutankhamun's royal palace, is an example of such damage in that part of the ceiling has collapsed.

According to the existing plan the Gournah residents will be moved to Al-Taref, outside Luxor. The worst of their houses will be demolished while other those in good condition will be left in place, but without inhabitants.

"Anyone who calls for keeping the Gournah residents in the village is not a national person, and he or she is against the preservation and protection of Egypt's heritage," Hawass insists.

The pros...

THE FRENCH mission in Karnak has come up with fruitful results. During routine cleaning of the modern backfill accumulated in the chapel of the 25th-Dynasty Shabataka, near the priest houses southeast of the Sacred Lake, several decorated blocks belonging to the east wall of the chapel were discovered. Thanks to early drawings by Karl Lepsius it was possible to identify most of them. Among the blocks is one found at the left doorjamb of the chapel showing on one side the face of a girl carrying offerings and on the other Shabataka himself. A complete seal imprint from a door was also unearthed perhaps one of those which was used to close or seal the chapel's entrance gate. Fulbert Dubois, who is responsible for the restoration and excavation work in the area, said further studies might be carried out during the next archaeological season and the intervention of specialists would permit a complete picture of the daily life of the Karnak priests.

Excavations in the priests' zone have also a revealed papyrus seal in the name of Psammetik-Mery-Neith as well as pre-New Kingdom installations.

The Opet Temple between the sixth and seventh pylons has been another achievement for the French. A restoration project aiming to make this temple more accessible to visitors has begun. Over the next few seasons the temple will be restored and will be a new attraction in Karnak. This year the clearance of robbers' holes has made it possible to observe the structure of the building and the way the stone filling was reused. Drawings have been made of several sections, and restorer Agnès Oboussier says the three- dimensional plan of the temple and the photographic survey have supplied exhaustive graphic documentation. Ten reused blocks dating from the reigns of Tuthmosis III and Psammatikhos II have been discovered on the platform and are now set on mastabas.

The platform niche has been restored and the five main chambers of the temple paved with new stones, there have been minor masonry repairs, the platforms walls and the pylon have been consolidated and the paintings in the north room have been cleaned. A reused block of Amenemhat III was restored.

A sandstone pavement has been installed between the pillars of the western part of the portico courtyard of Tuthmosis IV. Many new, small decorated fragments were found integrated into the pillars and the wall. A photographic survey of the 20 pillars is nearly finished.

At the calcite chapel of Amenhotep II, the installation of the coloured coating was continued on the reproduction of the obelisk. The reconstruction is almost finished, and it only remains to install the new pavement in front of the chapel.

Excavations at the south-east area of the Sacred Lake have uncovered a mud-brick fortification wall attributed to Tuthmosis III.

The cons...

TWO years ago at the request of Zahi Hawass the SCA and the CFEETK signed a protocol of understanding under which the French mission agreed to train a number of junior Egyptian archaeologists each year. Following this year's visit to the mission, however, the Egyptian authorities estimated that the agreement had not been implemented.

"I was not happy about the young Egyptian archaeologists," says Egyptologist Ali Radwan. "They told me that they do not profit from the field work, and the French give them only minimum work to do."

At a press conference held in Luxor Museum Hawass announced that the Franco-Egyptian committee had agreed to name Radwan as scientific co-director with the CFEETK's Dominique Valbelle. Radwan was to be assisted by Professor Gihan Zaki of Helwan University. "Egyptians must have a stronger presence in Karnak," insisted Hawass.

Radwan is choosing 20 junior Egyptian archaeologists working in different fields -- restoration, documentation, excavation and drawing -- to operate in Karnak each year. "I look forward to young archeologists not only wanting to learn but also having a critical sense and a strong personality. They need to express their opinions frankly and have their own point of view," he said.

Naming Radwan as scientific co-director also came about because of some inadequate restoration carried out by the French mission at two Karnak sites, the chapel of Seti II and the obelisk of Hatchepsut. The French had used a material resembling deep green granite to reconstruct the chapel, which was not the correct material to use. "We will definitely remove such material and replace it with plaster until we find the original brick of the chapel portal," Mansour Boreyak, general-director of the Luxor and Upper Egyptian monuments, said.

As for Hatshepsut's obelisk, some archaeologists voiced concern about excavations carried this year at the foot of the obelisk in the Wadja hall. Following last year's excavation, the mission stumbled upon a second life-sized Middle Kingdom royal dyad statue of Neferhotep I. This statue of the pharaoh shows him in the customary royal striding position, wearing the royal head-cloth nemes and holding a mace in one hand and his ka (spirit double) in the other. The forehead bears an emblem of a cobra, which Ancient Egyptians used as a symbol on the crown of their pharaohs. They believed that the cobra would spit fire at approaching enemies.

Although the pit where the statue was found was refilled with sand, some archaeologists have observed that the excavation is threatening the stability of the obelisk since the statue was used as a part of its foundation. The removal of sand that has been in place since the New Kingdom has also disturbed the stability of the ground beneath the obelisk. Geological and archeological studies are now being carried out to ascertain the exact position.

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