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Egypt's farmers could wipe smile off pharaohs

Egyptian reliefs could disappear within a decade because the demands of the living undermine the pharaohs' bid for immortality.

india Updated: Sep 27, 2005 12:36 IST

Egyptian reliefs dating back thousands of years could disappear within a decade because the demands of the living undermine the pharaohs' bid for immortality, archaeologists said on Thursday.

As Egypt's population grows, agricultural plots encroach ever closer to land reserved for ancient temples and funeral monuments, the archaeologists said. Water for irrigation is weakening temple foundations and eroding the carvings.

"We've seen it. We have photographic evidence of something we took a picture of 10 years ago and we go and take a picture of the reliefs now and they are simply not there," said Nigel Hetherington, an archaeological conservation manager.

"What's happened is that farming land, as the population increases dramatically, now stretches out into the desert and into (the Nile's west bank at) Luxor, which was once considered the realm of the dead in the pharaonic period," he told Reuters.

Egyptian laws are too weak or sporadically imposed to deter farmers from grabbing land, the archaeologists say, and the erosion could damage Egypt's tourism industry, the country's main source of foreign exchange.

Millions of tourists a year are drawn to archaeological sites such as the mortuary temple of Ramesses II, known as the Ramasseum, or the massive temple complex of Karnak. Both are under threat from farming, archaeologists said.

"Look at the two statues of Memnon in Luxor, or the Ramasseum. All the agricultural land in the Karnak area ... They are examples of how people are damaging these monuments," said Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's Supreme Council for Antiquities.

"These monuments are in ruins now. The water damages the reliefs," he added.


Water not only undermines the foundations but also wipes the details off carvings.

The limestone temples absorb ground water and, through the action of heat and cold, the salts in the water crystallise on the surface, removing reliefs and drawings until the rock eventually cracks, the archaeologists said.

The government has tried to persuade farmers to use drip irrigation, a method that uses relatively little water. But it has had little success because farmers prefer the traditional method of flooding farmland with Nile water.

Draining the area around archaeological sites is also an effective solution but is too expensive, and donations from the international community are not forthcoming archaeologists said.

When the towering rock face statues of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt were under threat from flooding during the construction of the Aswan dam in 1960, an international rescue effort led by UNESCO relocated the statues block by block.

But gradual erosion over a number of years is not dramatic enough to capture international attention, Hetherington said.

"The problem is that it's not a sexy enough topic. When Abu Simbel ... was going to be flooded, it made a real impact. People could see the size of the lake and that the temples were going to disappear. But this is such a slow process," he said.

Hawass pinned his hopes for saving what remains of one of the world's greatest civilisations on stricter legislation to enforce a ban protecting land around ancient sites from farmers trying to take it without permission.

He said he expected the new laws to be presented to parliament in January.

"Antiquities laws do not punish anyone who takes land, this is why I'm changing the law now ... so that taking antiquities land is a crime. That is the only way to stop those people from taking more land for agriculture," he said.

First Published: Sep 27, 2005 12:36 IST