Egypt: Underground Water Poses Threat to the Karnak and Luxor Monuments, Egypt Antiquity News

Antiquity News for June 21st 2001

By Amargi Hillier

Underground Water Poses Threat to theKarnak and Luxor Monuments

(Luxor) Many of the temples in Karnak and Luxor seem to be in danger due to possible underground water damage. Below ground water poses a major threat to the safety of the monuments because the water can erode the lower portions of the stone structures. This erosion process is the result of an accumulation of sodium chloride (salts) eating away at the foundation stones.

Underground Water Poses Threat to theKarnak and Luxor Monuments

Karnak Temple

The source of the underground water stems mostly from the lack of a proper water disposal system in these populated areas. These temples are situated in a high plantation and farming zone, thus waste water is accumulated through nearby trenches. The water works it way below the surface and reach the monuments.

Antiquity officials warned in prior announcements that this underground water concern is a major threat to the temples, but there was little or no response to eliminate the problem. For example, more irrigation channels have been covered up resulting in an increased the amount of surface water seeping into the ground. Also, the methods of watering the farms in this area is by a flooding system. This seriously adds to the problem of the accumulation of underground water. The Ministry of Agriculture has been under fire lately for not taken into consideration that the underground water problem might cause a catastrophe to the ancient Pharaonic temples.

Underground Water Poses Threat to theKarnak and Luxor Monuments

Mr. Farouk Hosni, Egyptian Minister of Culture, said that Luxor is one of the treasures of Egypt rich with the antiquities that tell the story of one of the oldest civilizations on earth. He explains the situation, "I have been an admirer of Luxor all my life. I have studied its history in my youth and consider it one of the most artistic parts of the world. It is true though that these monuments are in danger from the rising level of underground water. This problem has been building up until it has reached a dangerous level. I thank the media for its persistence in displaying this problem to the public. We want to save all of Luxor from the danger of the underground water. In fact restorations have already started in the temples area. The problem does not circulate around the Ministry of Culture only but it also includes many other Ministry, such as the Ministry of Agriculture. We are all working hand-in-hand to solve such a problem that might cause a disaster to the area. It is important for all the Ministries involved to team up because this project is tremendous and costly and will burden the Ministry of Culture if it would take it all on its shoulders."

He continues, "There was negligence before. But as a start we already built passages and did restorations and opened formerly closed tombs to the public so as to lessen the number of visitors to the already opened tombs and thus preserve them. The problem of the Luxor temples needs an emergency plan for the time being. It is true that there is an ongoing project for the renewal of the water disposal system but it will be finished after three years time. That would then be too late and the temples might collapse. We need to stop the source of the underground water which causes the threat to the temples."

President Hosni Mubarak has now given special attention to the Luxor Bridge for that it might cause a threat to the Western Shore in Luxor. Therefor he declared it a protectorate to prevent the future encroachment of civilization on the area of antiquities. He said a recent press conference, "The head of Ministry has been appointed to travel with us to Luxor so as to see and understand the problem."

Ayamn Abd El-Moniem, head of the restoration efforts for the Ministry of Culture, added that, "We will request the re-digging of the canal surrounding the temples. This will lessen the underground water. This will solve about 30% of the problem."

Mr. Baha Abu El-Hammed, a member of Parliament told Tour Egypt that there are five main fire water hydrants near the Luxor temples and only one hydrant is needed. Thus he feels the removal of the extra four hydrants may lessen the problem. He also mentioned one problem. Public toilets have been built without the proper disposal of water; water which is then passed onto the trenches and then seeps into the ground. Thus the removal of these toilets, or properly constructing a water disposal system, will also help decrease the problem of underground water.

In a recent press conference Dr. Atef Ebade, Egypt's Prime Minister, stated that the haphazard buildings surrounding the temples will be demolished and the inhabitants will be compensated with other houses, with a proper water disposal system, and a sum of money. He stated that, "When asking the people to move, we find that the younger generations are willing to relocate from their homes which surround the temples. However their parents refuse to move, especially those who live in houses built literally on top of ancient tombs. New houses have been built for some of the people and they did responded by relocating to their new homes. So slowly some of the local residents are responding positively, but it will take time to convince others."

As for the tombs in the Kings Valley area, tests and experiments are being made to decrease the humidity within these tombs by using special methods. With regards to tourists, guides are being instructed to explain outside the tombs about whats inside the tomb - so as to decrease the time per visit inside the tomb for reasons of preservation.

The Prime Minister emphasized that any decisions concerning the project of saving the temples will not be taken except after thorough research. He also stated that there is ongoing research to join the Luxor and Karnak temples with the original path between them.

Underground Water Reservoirs & Concerns In Other Locations

The rising levels of water from underground reservoirs in locations throughout Egypt may put another selection of monuments in danger. These monuments are all made from stone which has the capillary effect thus causing a large amount of water to be taken into the main foundation of the monument.

Engineer Ahmed Allam, Manager of the Technical Office of Underground Water, suggests a plan to preserve the monuments from underground reservoir water. First he points out that there are 5 main natural underground water reservoirs throughout Egypt and on top of these reservoirs are 75% of the Egyptian monuments. These natural reservoirs are situated in the Dakhla Oasis, Kharga Oasis, Farafra, Siwa, and El-Baharia. Theres also a massive natural limestone cut reservoir and that covers 60% of the area of Egypt. One reservoir is at Elmaghra and is found west of the Alexandria/Cairo desert road and north of Fayoum. This reservoir is located below some of the Coptic monasteries found in Natrun Valley.

Underground Water Poses Threat to theKarnak and Luxor Monuments


These natural reservoirs date back to thousands and even millions of years and they do not generally harm the antiquities. But man's modern manipulation of the underground water resources (such as the Aswan Dam agriculture, human waste sewage) had disturbed the natural Earth's system and thus results in these on surface concerns with the monuments. Water also trickles down from the surface of the ground which causes the rise in the level of water in these underground reservoirs. To eliminate this problem, the water levels in the reservoirs has to be constantly measured especially at the places where monuments are located. Then the extent of the effect of water on the monuments has to be also measured and monitored. It is also important to study the old construction methods that Egyptians used to build their structures, for they were building these sites upon already ancient natural water reservoirs.

Engineer Ahmed Allam offers an insight into various components of their plan. "If there would be any attempt to decrease the level of underground water under a certain monument, it has to be done according to the type of the monument. We have to also study the water flow in each natural reservoir separately as they all do not have the same sources of water and they all do not require the same method for decreasing the water. The climatic changes have to be taken into consideration. For example the amount of seasonal rain, temperature ranges and its changes throughout the year. Also wind speed and humidity and the time of sunrise. All these factors have to be taken into consideration when it comes to studying the effect of water on the monuments."

He continues, "The levels of surface water around the monuments also has to be studied. If the structure is situated near a residential area, the water supply system and sewage disposal system has to be evaluated and checked for any leaks and we have to study these two systems and their effect on the water level of the underground reservoirs. We also have to take into consideration how the land around the monuments is used. As an example for residential purposes, or for planting or farming. If used for farming, the method of irrigation has to be carefully studied. Even population growth in the area has to be taken into consideration. A high population growth rate means more people will use water and dispose of it in the future. And if this disposal usage is incorrect, this will cause leaks and thus a rise in the reservoirs and thus the underground water will reach the monuments."

Industry and factories in areas near monuments also pose a major threat to the ancient structures. Not only do these factories cause air pollution but also then put harmful chemicals into the water that is even more harmful to the monuments than natural water. Also, industry vibrations may be a threat to the monuments.

An example of where water is misused is in Fatima Cairo where there is dense population and a large amount of monuments. In addition, there is no proper waste water disposal system in the area.

Mr. Allam adds, "To monitor the levels of the reservoirs, a system of inspection wells has to be established around all the ancient monuments. We have divided the monuments into three categories: Currently threaten monuments, for example the Zaghlol Mosque in Rasheed, Luxor and Karnak temples, and Fatima Cairo. The second category are sites which may be threatened in the future. And third, monuments that are safe and away from water dangers. Monuments of the first category have to be studied and emergency plans set out to save them.

Dr. Salah Lamy, an antiquity expert, offers more insight about monuments near residential areas. "Sewage systems causes water leakage that seeps into the ground because there are many old sewage systems throughout Cairo. There is also an increase of chemicals in the water such as sodium chloride and sulfates which combine with carbons and calciums found in stone which then converts to calcium sulfates. This will cause erosion of the building blocks of these monuments. The amounts of sulfur in the leaking water exceeds 4 6 times the permissible levels. And since there is capillary action in stone, This erosive water rises to high levels in the monuments."

Dr. Salah Lamy says that the amount of salts in water increases even more in the countryside due to irrigation systems. Water there tends to be polluted with chemicals used in farming or plantations.

Underground water reaching the ancient Egyptian monuments certainly is a cause for concern. It is a complex and difficult task to merge harmlessly a modern thriving culture upon an ancient and historical land. These problems were not often the concern in the yonder years of 19th century archaeology. But one thing remains certain, Egypt is squarely facing its challenges both to protect and preserve its ancient culture as well as provide for and develop its modern one. Perhaps a balancing act that many countries in the world rarely have to face.