The Destruction of Luxor's Heritage
by Jane Akshar
As a regular visitor to the sites in Luxor, the amount of destruction is becoming more and more obvious. Seeing a stone lintel at Medinet Habu the other day, literally crumbling away before my eyes, I wondered how much is going to be left for my grandchildren to see.
The problem is caused by rising ground water which is eating away at the monuments. This is not a new story. It has been happening for some time and has been widely reported in the news, but perhaps many see these ancient monuments, having survived for so many thousands of years, as indestructible. They are not, and many could disappear in our lifetime, with increased irrigation and the impact of the Aswan (high) Dam together with Lake Nassar increasing humidity in the region. The water table is rising annually and the porous limestone and sandstone soak it up. This not only dissolves the rock but also leaves salt deposits. As the ground water rises it dissolves mineral salts from the soil and bedrock. This salty water is absorbed by the stones of the monuments and it then evaporates leaving behind the salts. These crystallize into destructive white lesions, which in turn, cause paint and layers of rock to separate. The result is that these monuments to mankind's greatest, earliest civilization are flaking away.
The amount of salts in the soil has changed since the building of the Aswan Dam. Farmland was once fertilized by the flooding of the Nile which brought with it rich silt which was deposited on the land. This silt no longer reaches the fields nor does the flood, which once literally washed many of the monuments, removing the salts every year.
Other damage is caused by tourists. Visitors to tombs can contribute up to one half pint of humidity per person. Coaches that park up close to monuments with their engines running, keeping the A/C going and the engines vibrating also cause damage to the monuments they are parked next to. One solution to this is to have off-site parking lots and electric trains taking visitors to the sites. Actually, using donkeys to go between sites is a very monument friendly way of transport.
This damage is being addressed by a number of professors and institutes but as yet the efforts appear to lack co-ordination with some temples getting more attention than others. Perhaps this is as it must be, as certainly some monuments are deemed more important than others. Resources are scarce but to lose this heritage seems criminal.
UNESCO is of course the most famous international organization working to fix these problems, but they are obviously joined by the likes of the Getty Conservation Institute, and Chicago House has been working for decades in Luxor trying to record all the monuments. Their work at Luxor temple has been going on for some twenty years. The Franco-Egyptian Institute is also working at Karnak and they have recently done a complete photographic survey of the Hypostyle Hall. I listened to a lecture about this and you would think that taking a load of photos would be simple and easy. One of the problems they described was the use of scaffolding which goes up straight while the monument walls are at an angle. They must photograph everything at the same distance away so simple scaffolding is not the answer. There are many other technical difficulties which have to be overcome. Also a photograph does not show everything. Without the sun at a proper angle creating shadows on the reliefs, one cannot see the depth of some of the carvings. To properly record the walls these have to be gone over with transparencies and pen and ink, sometimes with the artist literally feeling the wall underneath them.
It is very important to make these records but it is equally important to make sure that the monument itself is conserved. Though this is indeed being done, in my opinion it is being done on far too small of a scale. One can go around Karnak and there will be a man knocking on walls and pillars and when he hears a hollow ring he will inject silicon to stabilize that particular structure. But that is hardly enough and there are far too many monuments for the limited effort that is now taking place. What can a few men with syringes do? There needs to be a major effort and quickly, because as my photos show, Luxor is crumbling before our eyes.
As for long term substantial conservation, authorities initially recommended that farmers change their irrigation methods to spare the two temples but the measures did little to help. The current operation is expected to last 18 months and calls for the construction of several drainage trenches next to the main temples to redirect the flow of excess water and then pump it into a canal, but this is mostly directed at fixing problems with the Luxor and Karnak temples only. There are hundreds of other monuments in what was once ancient Thebes. And it is not only Luxor, for even as far north as Cairo, ground water is creating problems.
Mohamed Abdul Fatah, head of the Central Administration for Egyptian Antiquities, said that the tomb of Osireion in Abydos near Sohag, had witnessed high subterranean water levels owing to large plantations in the vicinity of the archaeological site. The lack of a sewage project for the surrounding housing agglomeration has made the situation worse. Fatah went on to say that the water has adversely affected reliefs on the walls of the tomb.
The Ashmunein area in Minya is another site being treated from subterranean water. Despite the significance of the site throughout the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman ages, it has been allowed to suffer much in modern times from underground water.