What's going on in Luxor?
Geotechnical studies and mapping, restoration, conservation and site management, that's what's going on -- and a great deal more, says Jill Kamil
We all know that the "mansions of millions of years", the tombs and temples built by the ancient Egyptians that were meant to last forever, are seriously threatened -- and have been for a long time now. Among the many causes are subsoil water seepage, infrastructure development, unrestricted housing, and that greatest menace of all -- tourism. Fifty years ago fewer than a hundred visitors a day visited Luxor's magnificent monuments. Now there are as many as 9,000, and they are largely responsible for rapid changes in temperature and humidity levels in the tombs.
It's a never-ending struggle.
Take Nefertari's tomb in the Valley of the Queens as an instance. The tomb was discovered in 1856 by Ernesto Schiaparelli, and was closed to visitors in the 1950s because of the marked deterioration of the marvellous wall paintings of Ramses II's most beloved of wives. It remained closed until 1986 when the Getty Conservation Institute, in collaboration with the then Egyptian Antiquities Organisation (EAO), undertook a major conservation programme. The tomb was reopened in 1995, theoretically to a limited number of visitors per day. Unfortunately, however, this was difficult to control -- or perhaps there was not enough incentive to do so. Anyway, the newly restored paintings deteriorated at such a rate that the condition of the tomb caused renewed concern to the authorities and was closed in 2003; this time to all but small groups willing to pay a substantial entrance fee. This somewhat reduced humidity in the tomb but it did not solve the problem because the paintings are on plaster which tends, because of its weight, to separate from the bedrock. Further efforts were made by the Getty Institute to slow the rate of buckling, and the number of tourists is now "strictly controlled" -- according to Zahi Hawass of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) -- but the process of destruction continues. Even re-closing the tomb will not save it. All that can be done is to monitor its inevitable deterioration.
Tourism is expected to increase in the next decade, and is essential for the Egyptian economy. Not everyone is pessimistic, however. "Large numbers of tourists do not necessarily spell the death of an ancient site provided their numbers are carefully regulated and environmental controls are put in place to counter their negative effects, and long-term management plans are implemented", Kent Weeks, director of the Theban Mapping Project (TMP) since 1979, says. Weeks points out that he recognised early on the urgent need for archaeological conservation on the necropolis, the west bank of the Nile, and in collaboration with the SCA he launched the first step to establish a survey grid across the necropolis to make it possible for the accurate location of monuments. His next step was a detailed survey of the Valley of the Kings that included topographical maps and meticulous plans of all accessible tombs. Using this information, Weeks has devoted the last four years to preparing a management plan for the royal valley as the first part of what he hopes will ultimately be a plan for the entire west bank.
"Six years ago the concept of site management was in its infancy," says Hawass, who took over the post of secretary-general of the SCA in 2002. "Tombs and temples were excavated, conservation programmes carried out, and decisions made, but seldom, if ever, with an overall vision for the understanding of the increasing dangers facing Luxor or for its protection as a whole," he said. "Over decades important restoration projects were carried out, but with no comprehensive strategy to protect the sites for the future. This is no longer the case. The future is upon us, and site management is one of the SCA's most important goals. We don't want work to be directed towards just one tomb or wall, but to the sites as a whole, both on the east bank of the Nile at Luxor and the west."
Providing training to archaeologists, architects, conservators and administrators is an integral part of the SCA's current programmes because, again in the words of Hawass, "unless we improve the professional capacities of our employees, it will be impossible to develop and implement long-term plans to maintain sites." To this end, and in response to the SCA, the site management training project of the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE), funded by USAID, was initiated in 2006. Its objective is to help promote "effective" and "integrated" site management in Egypt, and more specifically, "to increase the expertise of the SCA to formulate, implement, and administer the plan... and provide the means to handle risks at sites."
Howard Carter's house on the west bank, built in 1902, has been renovated to serve as the site management headquarters, and there inspectors selected by the SCA participate in site management and training programmes, some of which are already being implemented. Drains, for example, are being laid out along the semi-circle of mortuary temples from Medinet Habu to that of Seti I so that excess irrigation water that threatens antiquities at the edge of the desert can be pumped into a drainage canal that carries it to the Nile. This project is funded by the World Monuments Fund.
Dewatering programmes around Luxor and Karnak temples, funded by SWECO of Sweden, have been launched on the east bank of the Nile. They include large-scale engineering works to install a city-wide sewage system around these most frequently visited and important monuments. Interestingly, the operations have revealed the presence of unknown or previously lost monuments around the temple complexes -- for example the eastern limits of the destroyed temple built by Akhenaten was uncovered; outside the Karnak Temple complex the colonnade of an unknown temple dating from the 25th Dynasty was found; and work around Luxor Temple has revealed the enclosure wall of a Roman camp as well as decorated blocks re-used as house foundations for the mediaeval city that grew up to the east. Needless to say, whenever antiquities are chanced up, engineering work is held up for an indefinite period.
"The extraordinary monuments of Luxor survived for 5,000 years in large part because of the dry conditions and low population," says Ray Johnson, director of Chicago House, the Oriental Institute of Chicago's headquarters in Luxor which has been involved in restoration, conservation, recording and documentation projects throughout Thebes since 1924. "Today we have to adjust to changes in environmental and demographic conditions." He was referring particularly to increased damage to monuments, such as the great mud-brick palace of Amenhotep III at Malkata, the enclosure walls of the temple of Medinet Habu, and Deir Al-Medina, in addition to the tomb chapels and settlement remains scattered throughout the west bank as a result of "wetter weather conditions, unregulated groundwater and wastewater, increased population pressure, expanding agriculture, urban development, and tourism." Johnson's words in a recent article written in collaboration with Mansour Boraik, the SCA's director in Luxor, are woeful indeed. All these monuments, they claim, "have suffered the decay of centuries during just the last 15 years."
Working on the Ramasseum, the mortuary temple of Ramses II, one of the most important sites from antiquity, admired since ancient times and celebrated in Percy Shelley's famous poem "Ozymandias, King of Kings", is Christian Leblanc, director of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). Working in collaboration with the SCA, Leblanc made reference to encroaching agricultural fields, uncontrolled rural development in proximity to archaeological sites, and the fact that "the widened asphalt road cuts the temple off from its panoramic cultural and natural setting." Within the precincts of the temple itself, and in tandem with archaeological investigations, work on presentation, restoration, and protection is progressing systematically. Indeed, protection of the monument's first pylon is now being studied by the California-based Institute for Study and Implementation of Graphical Heritage Techniques (INSIGHT), and, in order to encourage the respect of young people for their heritage, an illustrated, French/Arabic educational pamphlet (funded by a Franco-Egyptian Bank, NSGB), is being distributed free of charge at the site entrance.
So, is there some hope for some optimism? Can we look on the bright side of things despite the fact that Egypt's weather is getting wetter, its population is increasing, and that expanding agriculture is threatening the ancient sites? Lake Nasser creates tremendous amounts of airborne moisture through evaporation and condensation; humidity fluctuations in the air cause damage to monuments; groundwater salts trapped in temple walls migrate to the surface, crystallise, and shatter the stone; and runoff water from over-irrigated fields results in abnormally long periods of high groundwater. Can we be optimistic in the face of all this?
The answer must surely been a somewhat guarded, "Yes", because although concerted efforts are being made to protect the monuments on both sides of the Nile, and remarkable progress is being made, the overall plan -- the Master Plan one could call it -- is to bring in tourists. That is government policy. And despite site management and facilities for visitors with the dual aim of enhancing their experience, and reducing their impact on the monuments, is being implemented, it is clearly a losing battle.
Today some 40 foreign archaeological missions are working in Luxor. Apart from those mentioned above they include Australia, Belgium, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. As they excavate, restore, conserve, document, and abide by the rules of the SCA, the Ministry of Tourism proudly announces its anticipated further increase of tourism in the coming year. In fact, it has already expanded so rapidly that conditions on the ground -- and I refer to the daily influx of tour buses from the Red Sea -- is already so great that a decision had to be taken to convert the Nile Corniche road on the east bank of the Nile in Luxor into to a dual highway of four lanes each way. The original plan to open up the ancient sphinx-lined avenue between Karnak and Luxor temples to accommodate the traffic is still years from completion. On the west bank, the declared intention -- when the bridge across the Nile was constructed seven kilometres south of Luxor -- that there would be no infringement on archaeological sites, is not being adhered to. And while visitor centres are planned to facilitate services to tourists including information and transport, and are consequently attracting ever- increasing numbers to the monuments, the problem of crowd control has not been solved.
Why? Because it is no easy matter. Weeks said that different methods of ticketing at other World Heritage Sites were less effective when applied in the Valley of the Kings (KV), and he explained why. Currently one ticket allows admission to any three of KV's 12 open tombs (except those of Tutankhamun, Ay and Ramses VI, for which an extra charge is levied). They are good for the date of purchase only, and can be bought only at the KV entrance. "Switching to a system of timed tickets would help reduce crowding in KV by ensuring that optimum carrying capacities were observed," Weeks said, adding that timed ticketing would also help maintain appropriate levels of temperature and humidity. "But the time when most visitors arrive at KV is largely determined by factors beyond the control of the SCA or local tour guides," he said.
This is in part due to the fact that charter flights usually arrive from Europe on Fridays or Mondays, so large numbers of tourists come to the royal valley on Saturdays or Tuesdays. Nile cruise boats arrive on Mondays, and also contribute to the Tuesday rush. "Recently, travel agencies have begun offering day trips from Red Sea resorts to Thebes, and every day several thousand tourists come to spend eight hours visiting Thebes," Weeks said. "They invariably arrive in KV at eight in the morning, creating huge crowds and long lines, then move on to Deir Al-Bahari and Karnak (where crowding is repeated) before returning to the Red Sea in time for dinner."
There is no simple solution. Extend visiting hours? Good idea, but late evening or night-time operation would involve major investment in lighting systems (which anyway are not reliable), overtime cost for security police, and an inevitable a clash with today's inflexible hotel meal schedules, shopping trips and museum visits. In fact unless, and until, the SCA is established as a separate government ministry -- in other words, until an institute of Egyptian archaeology is founded that is separate from the ministries of culture and tourism -- there is no way that Egypt's cultural heritage in this once most powerful metropolis of the ancient world, or its necropolis, can be saved.