Monday, October 22, 2012

New tourist magnets

Khafre's Pyramid and several Old Kingdom tombs on the Giza Plateau are now officially open to the public, part of the effort to encourage tourists to return to Egypt, as Nevine El-Aref finds out

Six tombs in the vicinity of King Khufu's Great Pyramid, as well as the second pyramid, that of Khufu's son Khafre, have been reopened as part of the government's strategy to encourage tourists to come to Egypt in the wake of plummeting tourist numbers following the revolution in January last year.

Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim officially inaugurated the six royal and noblemen's tombs at a gala ceremony last Thursday morning at the foot of the Khafre Pyramid.

The tombs, which all date from the Old Kingdom, are located at the eastern and western cemeteries on the Giza plateau and have undergone extensive restoration.

Work on the second pyramid, which has been going on since 2009, was deemed necessary because the humidity rate inside soared to 80 per cent and salt encrustation was seen to be causing rapid deterioration.

Ali Al-Asfar, director-general of the Giza Plateau, explained that each visitor to the pyramid exhaled about 20 grammes of water vapour. The salt this contained accumulated and caused cracks in the pyramid's inner walls.

After three years of restoration, the cracks have now been repaired and the walls of the Grand Gallery cleaned of the salt residue and graffiti left by visitors. The dilapidated stairway leading from the main doorway to the king's burial chamber has been replaced, and the inner chambers have been also restored. The vents previously installed in the king's chamber beside the original air shafts have been cleaned, as have the lamps in the king's burial chamber and the corridors and passages leading to it. The new lamps do not emit heat.

"A rotation system was introduced in 1998, under which one of the three pyramids will be closed for restoration every year while the other two will remain open," Al-Asfar said. Under this scheme it is now the turn of Khufu's Great Pyramid, where the humidity had affected the walls of the Grand Gallery which are coated in up to 2cm of salt.

The Permanent Committee for Ancient Egyptian Monuments is studying the decision to close the Great Pyramid.

The six tombs inaugurated on Thursday consist of the tomb of King Khufu's granddaughter Mersankh III, which is located in the eastern cemetery, and five noblemen's tombs in the western cemetery.

These tombs were discovered in 1927 by American Egyptologist George Reisner and are rich in architectural features and inner decorations. Some have impressive façades that are more like temples than tombs, and contain large chambers with rock-hewn pillars. However, Ibrahim said, owing to deterioration the tombs were closed 10 years ago for restoration according to a site management plan drawn up for the Giza Plateau to accommodate both the importance of tourism as a source of national income and preserving the monuments.

This plan requires that a number of tombs on the plateau will be closed every now and then for restoration and maintenance, while other tombs will open and close to the public on a rotating basis.

"I am very happy today to reopen these monuments; and it is a message to the whole world that Egypt is safe and welcomes visitors by opening more sites to them," Ibrahim said at a press conference held on site. He announced that the opening was the second in a month after the inauguration of the Serapeum in Saqqara, and was one of a series of openings within the coming period. The Temple of Hibis in Al-Wadi Al-Gadid will be opened soon, as will the Jewellery Museum in Alexandria.

Waad Ibrahim, head of the engineering department at the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA), told Al-Ahram Weekly that the restoration work aimed at returning these tombs to the way they appeared on the day they were discovered. He explained that salts were removed from the tomb walls, the wall paintings were cleaned and reinforced, graffiti left by visitors removed and inscriptions and paintings conserved. The ground floors are now protected by wood to preserve the original rock of the tombs as well as facilitate the visiting tour inside. New lighting and ventilation systems were also installed. A path linking the tombs to the rest of the plateau has been built in order to facilitate visits.

At the entrance gate of the tomb of Princess Mersankh III, granddaughter of Khufu, dozens of assembled journalists, photographers and TV cameramen waited for their turn to pan their cameras round the sections of this distinguished royal tomb, which has a wall decorated with 12 limestone statues of a woman. Al-Asfar explained that the tomb was originally built for her mother, Queen Hetepheres II, but on Mersankh's sudden death the tomb was given to her.

Inscriptions on the tomb provide both the time of Mersankh's death and the date of her funeral, which followed some 272 days after her death.

"She apparently died during the first regnal year of an unnamed king, possibly King Menkawre," Asfar said, adding that this inscription recorded that the death of Meresankh III was sudden and unexpected. On the day of its discovery, he continued, the tomb had a black granite sarcophagus decorated with palace façades of Meresankh III's burial, a set of Canopic jars, and a limestone statue depicting Queen Hetepheres II embracing her daughter. The sarcophagus is now on display at the Egyptian Museum while the statue is exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

The second tomb, which is located in the western cemetery to the south of the Great Pyramid, belonged to Seshem-Nefer, the overseer of the two seats of the House of Life and keeper of the king's secrets during the Sixth Dynasty.

"This is one of the largest tombs on the Giza Plateau," Al-Asfar said. The tomb is decorated with very fine decorations and paintings depicting funerary, hunting and offering scenes, as well as a depiction of Seshem-Nefer's daily life with his family and before the deities. Some of the most beautiful scenes are of offering bearers, the deceased and his wife hunting in a marsh and a harvest scene composed of three wall segments. The bottom register shows large sacks of barley being transported to the threshing floor, while to their right two labourers are piling up the goods; the central segment has scenes of flax and barley being harvested with sickles, with an overseer inspecting their progress; the top register continued the agricultural theme, but it has now disappeared. The entrance to the tomb is flanked by two statues of the deceased.

The third tomb belonged to Senefru-Kha-Ef, the king's treasurer and priest of the god Apis. It dates from the end of the Fourth Dynasty and the beginning of the Fifth. Inside the tomb was a beautiful limestone sarcophagus that has since been removed and placed in the Egyptian Museum. Al-Asfar said that the tomb's inner walls revealed typical scenes of the dead official and his children.

The fourth tomb was constructed for Nefer-Maat, the overseer of the soul priests. Its walls are decorated with scenes showing the daily life of Nefer-Maat with his family and his pet dog. Its walls are decorated with scenes of the deceased and his wife in front of scribes and offering bearers. Another unique scene shows the deceased seated in front of an offering table, with his favourite dog under his chair.

The fifth tomb belonged to Yassen, the overseer of the king's farms, and the sixth was built for Ka-Em-Ankh, overseer of the royal treasury. These tombs have very distinguished false doors showing the various titles of the deceased and their portraits.

"These new tourist attractions have now been opened and added to the Giza Plateau with the idea of attracting more visitors," Al-Asfar said.

He continued that the MSA was still searching for more solutions to the financial problems that the Giza Plateau Developing Project is currently facing. Ever since last year's January Revolution, the project has been on hold as it waits for improvements in the security and financial situations.

The Giza Plateau Development Project was launched almost six years ago with the aim of developing the plateau so as to improve standards and update the site to be more tourist friendly and put a stop to encroachment by horse and camel owners, who disfigure the plateau's panoramic view.

The project aims at opening a new entrance gate to the plateau on the Fayoum desert road, where tiftaf (electric wagons) transfer visitors to and from the plateau. Meanwhile, an empty area nearby would be dedicated to horses and camel riders. A visitor centre would be provided that would show the plateau's history through documentary videos and photographs.

Al-Asfar said the first phase of the project was the only part to have been completed. Opened three years ago, it involved the construction of an external wall around the plateau, electronic gates and the installation of security cameras.
The Giza Plateau inspectorate has begun operating a state-of-the-art pumping system to reduce the high rate of subterranean water that has accumulated under the Sphinx and the underlying bedrock.

Waad says that under the new system 18 water pump machines distributed across the plateau are pumping out 26,000 cubic metres of water daily at a rate of 1,100 cubic metres of water an hour, based on studies previously carried out by Egyptian-American water specialists. He explained that the pumping machines began operating when the subterranean water level exceeded 15.5 metres above sea level and stopped automatically when this level was reached.

The LE24-million project was initiated to reduce the high level of subterranean water under the Sphinx, which had increased because of the new drainage system installed in the neighbouring village of Nazlet Al-Semman and the irrigation technique used to cultivate public gardens and green areas in the neighbouring residential area of Hadaaq Al-Ahram and the golf course at the Mena House Hotel.

"All these have led to the leakage of water into the plateau, affecting especially the Valley Temple and the Sphinx which are located on a lower level," Waad says.
He told the Weekly that the Sphinx, the Pyramids and the Valley Temple on the plateau were completely safe because the water level beneath them was determined at a depth of 4.6 metres below ground level, which was similar to the water level present in ancient Egyptian times.

"Such a level is a natural phenomenon," Ibrahim said. He pointed out that the River Nile had once reached the plateau, and at the time a harbour was dug to shelter the boats transporting the pyramid blocks from the quarries in Aswan and Tura.

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