Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 April 2008
Issue No. 891
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Dammed, but not drowning

Fixing and developing the Nazlet Al-Semman drainage system is the main solution to the problem of the rising water table in front of the Sphinx

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Following three months of comprehensive ecological and geophysical studies carried out by experts of the Archaeological Engineering Centre of Cairo and Ain Shams universities, the Sphinx and its bedrock have been pronounced safe, reports Nevine El-Aref. However, the poor drainage system in the suburb of Nazlet Al-Semman and the area surrounding it is the main cause of the rising water table and the accumulation of salt on the surface of the ground facing the Sphinx's Valley Temple. The area known as Abu Al-Holl Club, located outside the archaeological site, is also affected.

Culture Minister Farouk Hosni told a press conference held this week at the Ministry of Culture premises in Zamalek that the scientific team had found that filling up a section of the Al-Mansouriya canal was another cause of the raised water level. "The irrigation technique used in cultivating neighbouring areas, such as the public gardens and greeneries in the Hadaaq Al-Ahram residential area and the golf courses of the Mena House Hotel has led to the leakage of water into the Giza Plateau, especially the Valley Temple as it is located on a lower level," Hosni said.

The minister insisted there was no threat to the Sphinx or the bedrock on which it rests, since the studies revealed that the level of water was 4.6 metres below ground level, the same as the water level in the ancient Egyptian period. Hosni described such a level as a natural phenomenon, since one of the Nile branches had once reached the plateau and at the time a harbour was dug to shelter the boats transporting the pyramid blocks from the quarries in Aswan and Tura.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), told Al-Ahram Weekly that the bedrock supporting the Sphinx was safe and had no cracks or damage, but that the real threat came from mixing the drainage water with the subterranean water which on its turn interacted with the calcite bedrock of the Sphinx, causing damage and deterioration. "We must face the problem and combine all our efforts to stop it," Hawass said. He said that the level had risen at the Valley Temple as a result of the irrigation methods recently used to cultivate neighbouring areas and the blocking of Al-Mansouriya canal. "The accumulation of the dump inside the canal has led to the leakage of water into the plateau," Hawass said, adding that the Mena House was now implementing a new irrigation system to channel waste water away from the plateau.

The scientific team has drawn up a master plan of a comprehensive project to reduce the level of the water table on the plateau and the area surrounding it, as well as preventing its appearance in the future. The project will be put out to tender in April and a company would be selected to carry out the work.

Hawass said that 15 years ago, before the SCA began its 10-year-long restoration of the Sphinx, scientific studies on the level of the water table carried out by the National Research Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics showed that the water level was seven metres high below the base of the Sphinx.

Sabri Abdel-Aziz, head of the Ancient Egyptian Department at the SCA, told the Weekly there were three reasons for the rise of the water table: the increase in the cultivated area around the Giza Plateau; the lack of proper drainage in the shanty housing area near it; and the heightened level of the Nile in July and August.

Indeed, some archeologists point directly to the Aswan Dam. Although Hawass does not deny the role of the High Dam in damaging, or threatening to damage, historic monuments, he defends the policy which led to its being built. "We have noticed that the water table has risen since the High Dam was built," he told the Weekly, "the most serious damage occurs during the Nile's former flood season, since the river continues to adhere to its natural cycle despite being regulated by the dam. But even if the dam is the reason, we had to have it. While antiquities are important, we would have had the worst famine Egypt ever witnessed if we had not built the High Dam."

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