Protecting Egypt’s Heritage and the Dilemma of Relocation

A recent survey of UNESCO World Heritage Sites rated the Giza Pyramids as one of the 25 most poorly maintained. There are extensive plans to greatly improve the Giza Plateau, but they are unlikely to be popular with local inhabitants who make their living there, since a key part is removing them from the site. The issue of protecting and developing archaeological sites while balancing the needs of Egyptians, archaeologists, and tourists has been much in the news lately, so I thought I’d offer some of my thoughts about the negative impact of local activity at archaeological sites and the subsequent relocation of local populations, like at Gurna, Luxor, and Giza.

Gurna
The story about bulldozers being brought into the village of Gurna near the Valley of the Kings back at the beginning of December to forcibly remove roughly 3,200 households reluctant to leave was quite widely reported. These people were living directly amongst the Theban Tombs of the Nobles, mostly dating to the 18th Dynasty.

The tombs in question contain some of the most exquisite artwork in the world. While the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings may be grander, the decoration in the tombs of the nobles is still incredibly skilled with the added charm of the subject matter of everyday life. Rather than taking my word for it, take a look at these photos from the tombs of Sennefer, Ramose, and Menna.

However, the situation in the village of Gurna has made it extremely difficult to visit them. When I visited last year in December, it was practically deserted compared to the throngs of tourists overflowing the nearby Valley of the Kings. Likely this is partially because the site is far from accessible. Just trying to find particular tombs hidden amongst the minefield of houses, souvenir shops, goats, dogs, children, rubbish, and would-be tour guides, was challenging.

While removing the buildings and people from on top of these tombs is unquestionably the best measure to preserve and protect them, it raises many issues about the rights of the local people who have lived there all their lives. Many of them descendents of the 19th century tomb-robbers of Gurna, they owe their livelihoods and their own unique culture to their relationship with the tombs and tourists.

Their story was immortalised in Shadi Abdel-Salam’s epic film, Al-Mumia (Night of Counting the Years), in which a conflicted young villager struggles with the dilemma of whether to follow the tradition that feeds his family by selling the treasures of the hidden tombs or to preserve their ancient history by handing them over to the government. A captivating article by Fatemah Farag in the Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram further describes the desire of both locals and outsiders to preserve the unique history and heritage of the people of the mountain.

In the end, the eviction of the Gurnawis boils down to yet another chapter in the age-old conflict between Western values and the interests of modern Egyptians. This particular struggle at Gurna has been ongoing since the government’s first unsuccessful attempt to remove the villagers in 1948. It’s a uncomfortable situation when the dead are given priority over the living, the needs of Egyptologists and foreign tourists over the lives of the local people.

I certainly have mixed feelings over the issue. But while it is easy to express pity and guilt over the sidelining of the villagers and their needs, as a tourist and an Egyptologist I can’t deny that I wouldn’t prefer to be able to visit the Tombs of the Nobles without being stalked by wizened old men unnecessarily trying to read names in hieroglyphs for me, while repeatedly making the same unamusing wisecrack about Canada and demanding baksheeh (tips).

For the sake of the tombs themselves and their beautiful decorations, this is what needed to be done, and should have been done properly back in 1948 or even before, but it is unfortunate that a better compromise wasn’t made with the people who had been living there for generations. Since the development of the site will most certainly increase tourist revenue considerably, the government really should have stepped up and provided more suitable accommodation for the people they were forcibly removing. It’s not only in Gurna that this sort of thing is happening though…

Luxor
There are plans to restore the ancient, sphinx-lined processional way linking the great temples of Karnak and Luxor, the beginning of which can be seen in this photo. Stretching over three kilometers, the planned road would cut a 60- to 70-meter-wide swath right through a largely residential area of modern Luxor. The ceremonial route was the focal point of the immense Opet festival, in which the king and the sacred statues of Amun and his divine family travelled from his temple at Karnak to the temple of Luxor.

The planned road will stretch over three kilometers and cut a 60- to 70-meter-wide swath right through a largely residential area of the modern city. The people who are unfortunate enough to be living in the wrong place will be moved to apartments in a proposed new city that is to be built on the edge of Luxor.

When I was in Luxor, I met a shopkeeper who was one of the people who was going to be moved. While he was glad that he wasn’t just being turned out and would at least receive a new home in compensation, he was still unhappy about the situation in general and regretted being forced to leave.

In this case though, the eviction is not for the sake of protection of monuments or the archaeology, but purely to increase tourist profits. It seems a bit strange that this is being done when there are so many other places where urban settlement makes excavation of important archaeological sites impossible. I hope at least the end results will be spectacular enough to somewhat justify the expense of the people who lived there.

The Giza Pyramids
An eviction of a different sort is planned for the site of the famous Pyramids at the Giza Plateau. The master plan for the development of the site will prevent access to the illegal vendors and touts that overrun the site, in addition to cutting off vehicular access and removing all the inappropriate modern developments to the plateau. And perhaps just in time too. In a recent review of 94 major UNESCO World Heritage sites by George Washington University in cooperation with National Geographic, Egyptian sites are all among the bottom-25 of the list, the Pyramids ranked as the lowest, receiving only 50 out of a possible 100 points.

Comments made by the panelists document the same dissatisfaction that most visitors to the Pyramids express:

‘Of all the major sites in the world, this is the one where the most people seem to come away disappointed. The slums march right up to the base of the pyramids, the smog gets worse every year, and the touts are relentless. Not a pleasant experience for visitors.’

‘Poor signage and interpretation. Lots of hassling of tourists—difficult to look at the structures for a minute without being offered something.’

My own impressions were the same when I visited the Pyramids. I was appalled by the way tourists were constantly hounded by trinket-sellers and camel ride operators, with not a moment’s peace to spend in quiet contemplation of the world’s most magnificent monumental structures. Everywhere we went we trailed an entourage of Egyptians pressing everything from bookmarks to postcards on us as we kept up a constant chorus of ‘La, la, la!’ (‘No, no, no!). I saw one girl who was being harassed actually break down in despairing, outraged tears and fling her water bottle at her unwanted pursuers. Men soliciting tips in exchange for unofficial tours outright lied to my friends and I about the opening times of the Great Pyramid in an attempt to lure us away from it. They told us all sorts of incorrect information about the queens’ pyramids and claimed that they would show us mummies in them. There most certainly aren’t any mummies in the pyramids anymore. It was incredibly disappointing that an experience that I had dreamed of all my life was so horribly marred by the situation there.

I think that change is desperately needed at the Pyramids and the master plan for the Giza Plateau is good overall, it is notable that it is the international community that benefits yet again rather than the local population. Hopefully though, while the plan will adversely affect some of the illegal workers on the site, overall the local community will community will benefit from increases in tourism. My friend Dr. Paul Gardener commented on the imbalance in the Giza plan in his thesis on heritage management strategies:

‘While the plan doesn’t seem to be very balanced,…given that this site is of such special archaeological and historic significance, we might decide that, in this case, the principle of sustainability is more important because of the very strong argument in favour of conserving this unique set of ancient monuments for as long as possible.’

But ‘the site’s high economic and social value for the local community will be severely crushed when their free access and use of the site is restricted… Instead, this master plan will promote the exclusive use of the plateau as a well ordered, Western space. This may sharpen the divide and prevent interaction between the visiting tourists and the host community…

The politicians, tour operators, international tourists and academics gain. They would inherit a site that is purposefully managed for their professional and leisure interests. The local entrepreneurs and unofficial tourist service providers and residents of Cairo would lose since their access to and use of the site would be restricted and controlled. This lack of equity of benefits for the stakeholders raises the question of to whom does the ancient site of Giza principally belong: the rich and well educated international community or the poor local community?’

Biased as I am, I certainly don’t have the answer, but I believe that Giza belongs to posterity and that while the Egyptians should certainly benefit from the Pyramids, it is the responsibility of us all to preserve their heritage.

Reference:
Gardener, P. (2006). Reusing Roman Monuments in Arles and Nimes: An Evaluation of Heritage Management Strategies in Local Government. Oxford, University of Oxford.


A lack of concrete evidence

A recent story has resurrected a previously rejected theory that part of the pyramids were in fact made of concrete rather than carved limestone blocks. Scholars have debated amongst themselves for decades over how the pyramids were built, but this latest proposal seems to have the majority of them up in arms with Zahi Hawass stating that the theory was ‘plain stupid…To suggest otherwise is idiotic and insulting.’ American pyramid expert Mark Lehner said: ‘All studies of the stone have shown they are made mostly from limestone but also from basalt and granite mined in the region.’ Certainly there is clear evidence that at least some real limestone blocks were used to build the pyramids are there numerous quarries nearby with stumps of removed blocks still visible (Arnold 1990, 31).

Findings published in the December issue of the Journal of the American Ceramic Society state that electron microscopy performed on samples from the pyramids showed that their composition was different from limestone samples taken from around the area and suggested that the elements had been together in a solution.
Apparently, the Egyptian government is unaware of how the samples were obtained and certainly did not give permission for their removal from the monument. I’d like to point out that not only does this call their methods into question, but it also raises several serious concerns with the nature of the samples. If they were removed secretly without permission, the samples are unlikely to be very large and might even represent traces of the mortar used to hold the blocks together rather than the building material itself. Nor are the samples likely to be representative of the entire pyramid; since climbing the pyramid is illegal, they must have been taken from the base.

Eugene Cruz-Uribe, Egyptology professor at Northern Arizona University, commented on Mark Morgan’s blog: ‘I reviewed an article a number of years ago on the pyramids as cement issue. Seems the authors of that proposed article a) illegally extracted samples and b) did poor science. Article was rejected for publication.’ It seems that this has happened yet again.

Not knowing enough about material science, chemistry, engineering, or any of those things, I’m not really in a position to give a serious critique of the article. I’m not so sure about the scientific qualifications of the Egyptologists who are so violently condemning the research either though. While the scientists’ methods are certainly questionable, I’d like to hear more before I make my final judgment. It seems like most scholars have been very quick to dismiss the theory entirely rather than pursue further investigation. I think occasionally Egyptologists associate themselves too closely with the ancient Egyptians and might take the suggestion that the pyramids were not as difficult to build as previously thought as an insult to their engineering prowess. However, I think that if it turned out to be true it would simply be further testament to the Egyptians’ ingenuity and innovation. They pioneered a great many inventions that are still used today, from paper to scissors! So why not concrete too? They certainly used plaster and other similar materials. And there were definitely an awful lot of blocks- Lehner estimates that 9 million tonnes of stone were quarried for the pyramids built between the reigns of Snefru and Menkaure! (Lehner 1985, 109). And however the pyramids were built, they’re still the most enduringly impressive buildings in the world.

Further reading:
Arnold, D. 1990. Building in Egypt: Pharaonic Stone Masonry. Oxford, Oxford                 University Press.
Aston, B., etc. 2000. ‘Stone’ in Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, eds.             Shaw and Nicholson. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Lehner, M. 1985. ‘The Development of the Giza Necropolis: The Khufu Project’.                 MDAIK 41, 109-143.
Lehner, M. 1997. The Complete Pyramids. London, Thames and Hudson, Ltd.

Defining Delta Sites

While many people I meet labour under the misconception that there is very little left in Egypt to discover (though not for long, after I’ve gotten hold of them!), the reality of the situation is clear to anyone who has travelled in Egypt itself. The landscape is littered with monuments and the debris of millennia of civilization. While much of this is not quite as obvious as the Great Pyramid, remaining hidden in the desert sands or beneath modern city streets, everywhere the ruins of ancient Egypt are inescapable. At many sites, like Saqqara, the location of the first step pyramid, you cannot take a step without standing on crushed pottery sherds or broken limestone building blocks thousands of years old. In fact, the map of archaeological sites that I will discuss below lists, for example, approximately 125 sites within the Ash-Sharqiyyah governate alone!

The problem with Egyptian archaeology is not trying to find anything left, but rather trying to deal with the overwhelming amount of material out there. In reality, there is simply more ancient Egypt than modern Egypt can really handle. Not to disparage Egypt’s efforts, since caring for such a rich cultural legacy would present a daunting prospect for any country, but their political and economic situation undoubtedly make it much more of a challenge.

I recently had the pleasure to hear an excellent talk related to this subject given by Penelope Wilson of Durham University discussing some of the issues raised by the way sites are dealt with by the Egyptians, under the auspices of the SCA (Supreme Council of Antiquities). It was given in Oxford as one of a number of research seminars offered by the departments of Egyptology and the Ancient Near East and held at the Oriental Institute. These seminars allow academics and doctorate students to present and discuss their latest research with their peers and also offer the delightful prospect of tea afterwards. Penny Wilson of Sais excavation fame presented one of the recent sessions, entitled ‘Defining Delta Sites’. I have had many opportunities to hear countless Egyptologists’ speak about the archaeological process in their own work, but it was fascinating to instead hear an Egyptologist’s take on the current general situation and her greater philosophy on how we approach identifying, investigating, and preserving archaeological sites.

Her thoughts were presented partially as a reaction to the ‘Historical Sites of Egypt’ being produced by the Egyptian Antiquities Information System, the GIS department of the SCA (strangely enough in conjunction with the Finnish Government for some reason). The map and catalogue of information as it stands so far is fairly impressive considering the monumentality of the task. The identification and assessment of the sites though is focused around land ownership and sites are variously categorized as either property of the SCA, under SCA supervision, under registration request (some as far back as the 90s), or site under research. One of the problematic aspects of this system is that it doesn’t distinguish between more or less substantial sites, or between different eras, lumping together a Ramesside temple in with a site with a vague scattering of Roman pottery.

Another negative aspect of a site identification system based on land ownership is that land that has been sold off and no longer belongs to the SCA is not included. Theoretically, this shouldn’t be a problem since the SCA is only supposed to sell off land that has been deemed unfruitful in preliminary excavation. However, the reality that Professor Wilson accidentally discovered when surveying at one of these sites was that SCA had done a trench survey there and had declared the site devoid of interest despite having turned up very obvious evidence of ancient settlement! Wilson then turned her attention to the famous site of Merimde Beni Salame, which lent its name to a phase of Neolitic Egyptian culture, and managed to elicit gasps from the audience by her announcement that the site has been reduced to a small desert strip, the rest having been sold off for agriculture.

Wilson commented that although the SCA will send out representatives if any archaeological remains turn up during construction work, it is unfortunate that there are not SCA officers on the ground who could do assessments as foundations were being dug. In fact, during the much-publicized building of the reconstructed Sphinx Avenue in Luxor that is ongoing now, several sphinx statues have been uncovered, but only when bulldozers have plowed through the site rather than through proper excavation before the construction work. Having worked on an excavation in the Delta myself, I can attest that while the intentions of the SCA employees that we worked with were good, their training and knowledge was lacking and impaired their performance.

Even with sites wrongly left off of the map, there is still an immense number that have been identified, which raises the question how much of it do we bother with? Archaeology has to believe in its own paramount importance to justify its work, but the fact is that when there is just so much of it all, one can’t hold everything sacred. Some sites can be seen as representative of general cultural trends. It is always best to have a number of examples, but there is little need for evidence to be duplicated again and again. One priority that archaeologists need to focus on just as much as excavating new sites, is preserving what we already have.

Although she catalogued numerous concerns with the SCA’s handling of Delta sites, Wilson pragmatically recognized that with an excess of more sites than there are excavators or resources that could handle them, or would even want to, it is perhaps better to resign oneself to letting some of them go for now. While it goes against archaeological principles, I fully agree that practicality must be considered alongside idealism. If the sites have waited for thousands of years, they can probably wait a few more.