Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Fayoum's ancient quarry under threat

An ancient quarry rich in natural and cultural heritage is a potential site for nomination to the UNESCO's World Heritage List, says Nadja Tomoum

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These two masterpieces of the Egyptian Museum are made of schist and diorite, two of the hardest stones in Egypt. The head of Userkhaf (above) is from the Pharaoh's solar temple at Abu Sir and may have been extracted from the unique quarry in the northern Fayoum, shortly to become a protected area. Khafre's seated monolith (right) was found in his valley temple at Giza, and may have been extracted from the quarry southwest of Abu Simbel

Wadi Al-Hitan, the Whales Valley, known for its rich palaeontological history (especially for its skeletons of primitive whales and other vertebrate fossils), is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List as an area of outstanding natural history. It lies within the boundaries of the Lake Qarun nature reserve and forms part of the Wadi Al-Rayan Protected Area in the Fayoum governorate. In this area lies Widan Al-Faras, which may soon be the only ancient quarry left in Egypt that still bears traces of one of Egypt's oldest industries -- stone cutting.

The Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), in response to a request to draw up a management plan for the protection and preservation of the quarries in the northern Fayoum, is now looking into the possibility of asking UNESCO to incorporate Widan Al-Faras within the Wadi Al-Rayan Protected Area. This spring, a survey of the ancient quarries at Widan Al-Faras carried out as part of the Quarry Scapes Project will be continued with the aim of assessing the risks to the site and developing practical and methodological guidelines for its conservation. This project is a joint initiative coordinated by the Norwegian Geological Survey and funded through the EU Commission to draw together academic and other institutions in Europe with partners in Egypt, Turkey and Jordan. The project has been established for the conservation of ancient stone quarry landscapes, mainly focussing on their documentation, conservation and heritage management.

In the course of more than 3,000 years the ancient Egyptians created countless monuments to express their religious faith. This was the driving force behind their artistic and architectural achievements. They worked untiringly to give their religious concepts a material form that was meant to last for eternity. To meet this claim for everlasting life, they turned to durable stone of which there was an abundance in Egypt both in quantity and variety, from soft limestone and alabaster through harder sandstone to granite and basalt. From the Third Dynasty (about 2700 BC), stone was used extensively in construction. The Step Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara is the oldest large-scale monument in the history of stone architecture. The Pharaoh's ingenious architect, Imhotep, used hewn stone blocks for the first time, and with them constructed the royal resting place and a funerary complex. His achievement was the starting point of huge building projects which continued all over Egypt for the next three millennia.

Today we are hardly aware of the tremendous labour force and logistics that lay behind this construction activity. Quarries were in operation all over the country and yielded vast quantities of stone blocks to be used for building. The extraction and transportation of stone must have been managed by a highly developed infrastructure, technical know-how, and large teams of human resources. The River Nile was the main means of transport of the heavy stone blocks over great distances from the remote areas where they were quarried to their final destinations.

The ancient basalt quarries of Widan Al-Faras (Ears of the Horse), so named after two hills which stand as a prominent geological feature at Gabal Qatrani, lie in the north of Fayoum about 80km southwest of Cairo. Not only do they form the best preserved ancient geological landscape from ancient Egypt, but this is also the oldest and most extensively-used basalt outcrop. There are no known archaeologically preserved equivalents anywhere else in the world. Widan Al-Faras offers invaluable information about the totality of ancient stone technology and the living conditions of those who worked in the stone industry at a very early stage in the history of human civilisation, about 4,500 years ago. Basalt was deliberately chosen for building construction because its black colour symbolised the dark alluvium of the fertile Nile Valley, on which the development of the Egyptian civilisation depended. This site is also exceptional because it is located in so remote an area, a considerable distance away from where the stone was needed.

The site also bears evidence of one of the oldest infrastructures of road planning in ancient Egypt. A 2.5m-wide and 11km-long road stretching across the area is the oldest and most pristine example of a paved road in the world. It was constructed from flagstones and built to gain easy access to the quarries of Widan Al-Faras and to facilitate the exploitation of its geological resources and the transportation of the basalt blocks. A total of eight quarries are connected by side roads to this long main road, which leads southwards to a quay on the shoreline of Lake Moeris (today's Lake Qarun), the huge body of water at the heart of the Fayoum oasis.

When the stone blocks had been extracted from the quarries they were dragged by wooden sledges along the paved road. Once they reached the lake shore, the heavy blocks from the Widan Al-Faras quarries were loaded onto boats which carried them across the lake on a course set for the Bahr Youssef Canal, which ran through a gap in the hills between Hawara and Lahun. Once they reached the Nile they headed down river to the pyramid fields of Giza, Abusir and Saqqara. There the stone was used in the construction of flooring in the mortuary temples, walls and causeways.

Apart from traces of the extraction, cutting and transport of the heavy stone pieces, the ancient infrastructure of Widan Al-Faras bears other archaeological and historical features. There are clear remains of quarrymen's camps and storage areas for stone blocks. About 160 circular and oval architectural structures with diameters between of between two and seven metres are located 500m northwest of the basalt block area, to the entrance of Widan Al-Faras. It was recently suggested that the "camps" may have been workshops where the blocks of basalt were dressed. The area shows minimal disturbance. Pottery shards from storage vessels and cooking bowls dating to the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties (about 2600-2300 BC) are scattered throughout the area. A hearth and plentiful amounts of charcoal have been detected in one of the circled structures, which leads to the assumption that the area was used as temporary habitation for the workers. The great accumulation of basalt suggests that this site might also have been used as a temporary storage area for extracted stone blocks. Pounders (workmen's tools) found here are made of Chephren gneiss, extracted from Chephren's quarries in Lower Nubia, 1,000km away from Fayoum -- clear confirmation that mobile human labour between a network of quarry sites was in operation in the third millennium BC.

It is not clear why the basalt quarries of Widan Al-Faras were abandoned after the Old Kingdom and only reused more than 2,000 years later in the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, as evidenced by pottery shards and special techniques of stone extraction.

It is interesting that during the time that massive exploitation of basalt was continuing at Gabal Qatrani, Lake Moeris was at the same level as the Nile River during its annual summer flood, thus enormously facilitating the transport of stone blocks. The rapidly diminishing water levels of Lake Moeris in the Old Kingdom from the end of the Fifth Dynasty was most probably responsible for the abandonment of the basalt quarries at Widan Al-Faras, making the transport of the stone blocks from this remote area extremely difficult.

It can be assumed that other basalt outcrops at Abu Roash, some 10km north of the pyramids of Giza, at Bahnasa, about 15km from Beni Mazar near Al-Minya, at Abu Zabal to the northeast of Cairo, and at Gabal Teir in Kharga Oasis, were used in later times. There is no doubt, however, that the basalt quarries at Widan Al-Faras was exploited more than any other basalt quarry, making it an exceptional source in ancient Egypt.

It is alarming that the infrastructure of this unique site at Gabal Qatrani is seriously in danger of destruction because of irresponsible quarrying for basalt road building and housing, and that the ancient site is being obscured by debris. Industrial and agricultural development, rapid population growth, and urban expansion adds to the current threat and risks even further damage to the site, not to mention uncontrolled visits by locals and foreign visitors in their four-wheel drives. Tracks of their vehicles can be seen throughout the site, causing damage to the ancient road to the quarry, the workmen's encampment, workshops and the storage area. Sections of the valuable archaeological and historical characteristics of the area are being lost daily. The greatest problem seems to be the total lack of appreciation of the value of this ancient landscape. Local and international specialists have initiated measures for the protection and conservation of this unique area, but there are still many unanswered questions about its original function in antiquity.

Since the early 1990s Widan Al-Faras at Gabal Qatrani has been undergoing an archaeological and geological survey under the aegis of the SCA and the Egyptian Geological Survey and Mining Authorities. The result of their work makes it clear that the site needs protection and further study in order that more can be learnt about the procurement of hard-stone and the general organisation of stone extraction in pharaonic times. This data needs to be carefully recorded to draw a comprehensive picture of the kind of techniques and tools applied for the extraction of the basalt blocks, and how exactly the they were transported along the road. This month the SCA took steps to prohibit the issuance of permits by the Giza authorities for the exploitation of basalt at Gabal Qatrani in order to prevent modern quarrying companies from further destroying the site.

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