Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2007
Issue No. 867
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Subterranean threats

Less than a decade after the completion of the Sphinx restoration project and one of the world's most iconic structures is once again threatened by rising levels of underground water, reports Nevine El-Aref

Concern over the potential effects on the Sphinx of rising water tables on the Giza Plateau became public earlier this month when salt deposits began to appear on the surface of the ground facing the Sphinx valley temple, in an area known as Abul Holl club, located on the margins of the archaeological site.

"The accumulation of salts suggests that the ecology of the area is changing, and in a manner that could require quick intervention," said Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).

Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly that environmental and geophysical studies were currently underway, directed by experts from the Archaeological Engineering Centre of Cairo and Ain Shams universities, in an attempt to determine the causes behind this latest rise in the water table of the plateau and surrounding area. The studies are expected to be completed early next month, after which tenders will be issued for the necessary remedial work.

General Director of the Giza plateau Kamal Wahid suggests that the resulting plan of action will include not just the surrounding area but extend to the governorate of Fayoum. Filling in a section of the Al-Mansouriya waterway, and changing agricultural irrigation patterns in Al-Mansouriya, are both likely to have contributed to the deteriorating situation, says Wahid.

Five years before the SCA embarked on its 10-year restoration of the Sphinx studies on the level of the water table conducted by the National Research Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics showed that water levels had sunk to seven metres below the base of the Sphinx, says Hawass. This, he points out, was five metres less than the levels that had prevailed for at least 50 years and was largely due to the construction of a new sewage system in the village of Nazlet Al-Samman.

Sabri Abdel-Aziz, head of the Ancient Egyptian Department in the SCA, told the Weekly that increased areas of cultivated land around the Giza plateau, the continued absence of adequate drainage systems in shanty areas near the monument, and the heightened level of the Nile in July and August, had combined to create the problem. Some archaeologists, though, point the finger directly at the impact of the construction of the High Dam on Egypt's overall water table.

"We have noticed that the water table has risen since the High Dam was built," says Hawass. "Indeed, the most serious damage occurs during the Nile's former flood season, since the river continues to echo its natural cycle despite being regulated by the dam. But it's not as if Egypt could have done without the dam. Antiquities are important, yes, but without the High Dam Egypt would have faced the most appalling famine."

It is not just the Sphinx that is facing problems due to rising water levels. The SCA is currently assessing ways to combat threats posed by the rising water table at a number of archaeological sites, including the Temple of Karnak, the Catacombs in Alexandria and sites in Fayoum as well as across the Giza Plateau.

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