Will Egypt’s illustrious heritage fall into oblivion under the toll of urban and agricultural encroachment? Nevine El-Aref finds that serious problems are facing some of the nation’s famous archaeological sites, while others may be storms in so many teacups
More than two years after the January 2011 Revolution, urban and agricultural encroachment continues to threaten Egypt’s archaeological sites.
The lack of security that overwhelmed the country during and after the revolution has certainly taken its toll. The sanctity of spiritual and archaeological environments have been desecrated, with plundering and destruction by vandals, thieves and neighbouring residents being carried out virtually unchecked.
Well-organised and well-armed gangs of thieves are reportedly plundering archaeological sites, while illegal construction encroaches on and sometimes even covers them.
The rich Islamic site of Istabl Antar in Egypt’s first Islamic capital has been isolated, as have Al-Muizz Street in historic Cairo; the ancient Egyptian necropolis of Dahshour; the Giza Plateau; the New Kingdom site of Matariya; the area of Al-Bordan on the Alexandria-Marsa Matrouh highway and the Hagg Kandil site at Amarna in Minya in Upper Egypt, to mention just a few.
Some building encroachments were removed safely and without damage, but for others help came too late and some areas of historical importance, where genuine objects and important remains are still hidden in the sand, were ruined or looted.
CAPITAL OF THE FIRST MONOTHEISTIC RELIGION: The most recent encroachment was at Amarna, where residents of the neighbouring village of the Hagg Kandil began cultivating the area adjacent to an 18th-Dynasty noblemen’s cemetery. Minya’s archaeological inspectorate sent a report to both the local police and the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA), which ordered a halt to the encroachment and stepped up security in the area, while tourism and antiquities police were deployed nearby.
The former chairman of the MSA’s ancient Egyptian antiquities sector, Mohamed Al-Biali, points out that the Hagg Kandil site was an important part of the capital during the reign of Akhenaten. It contains the tomb of the nobleman Iay, one of Akhenaten’s high priests, who was also the godfather of the Boy King Tutankhamun and who seized the throne after Tutankhamun’s death. Also at the Hagg Kandil is the tomb of Mahou, Akhenaten’s chief of police, along with remains of the Aten Temple and the celebrated “borders relief” which depicts ancient Egypt’s geographical borders with neighbouring empires.
Fortunately police have succeeded in stopping the agricultural encroachment at Tel Al-Amarna at an early stage without any loss to antiquity.
THE GRAECO-ROMAN SITE ON THE NORTHERN COAST: Events took a contrary course at Al-Bordan, where encroachment has destroyed a clustre of authentic structures dating from the Graeco-Roman era.
Residents of the neighbouring town of Al-Hamman invaded the site in a large truck guarded by an armed gang of two-dozen vandals and began to bulldoze the land in order to construct a number of summer houses for themselves.
The archaeological site includes the remains of Graeco-Roman fortresses, roads, temples and cemeteries.
The director of Marina Alamein Antiquities, Khaled Abul-Magd, accused the owner of a contractor company, Yasser Khalil, and truck driver Mohamed Abdel-Sattar of violating and damaging the archaeological site. Tourism and Antiquities Police arrested the accused, but they denied all the charges. Both are in custody until the completion of investigations.
DAHSHOUR NECROPOLIS: A similar event occurred at the ancient Egyptian necropolis of Dahshour, where an armed gang accompanied by residents of Ezbet Dahshour have been ravaging the area in front of King Amenemhat III’s Black Pyramid and digging in the sand in order to install a modern private cemetery.
This area was a necropolis for ancient Egyptian nobles and officials, and a German archaeological mission currently excavating there is discovering more to add to Dahshour’s history.
The invaders dug more than 30 new tombs on the site, building an ugly construction using white cement blocks. “Not only do they distort the scenery and the panoramic view of the site, but they are destroying the ancient artefacts buried in the sand underneath,” says Nasser Ramadan, director-general of the Dahshour archaeological site. “Our hands are tied and our heritage is in danger, and nobody is coming to the rescue.”
Although all campaigns launched by archaeologists and the authorities concerned to rescue Dahshour from encroachment, and UNESCO visited to inspect the current situation to intervene to stop the intrusion and help save one of its world heritage sites, all attempts to solve the problem in an amicable manner have so far failed. The Ezbet Dahshour residents on the site have refused to move to another plot away from the archaeological area where they could easily build a modern cemetery.
The MSA has taken legal steps, but since the intruders still refuse to move the ministry is now collaborating with the Tourism and Antiquities Police to expel them by force. They have been allocated a new plot for their cemetery, and now the ministry is carrying out an archaeological inspection of the new site before handing it over to the intruders so they can commence building.
In the meantime, the intruders, in total disregard of the legal processes, are insisting on staying where they are and continuing construction. They have now raised the building to the second floor.
Meanwhile, a photograph taken early this week shows King Senefru’s Bent Pyramid at Dahshour with a part of its soft casing and some of its blocks missing. The photograph, posted on author Youssef Zeidan’s Facebook wall, has triggered much anger among Egyptians, who see that their ancient heritage is under a real threat that could lead to its disappearance. Rumours abound, and while some people are commenting about the illegal construction in Dahshour, others are demanding that the authorities give an immediate explanation of the photograph.
Hanan Ezzat, a housewife from Cairo, described the situation as a “futility”.
“We are surrounded by people who don’t care about our heritage because they see the monuments as a sort of polytheism which must be demolished,” she told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The Pyramid was King Senefru’s second attempt to build a complete pyramid. The first was at Meidum in Fayoum, which rose at a steeper angles and appears to have imploded. The Bent Pyramid is a unique example of early pyramid development in Egypt.
On Monday, dozens of Egyptian youths and Manshiyet Dahshour residents protested at the footstep of the Senefru Bent Pyramid demanding that the authorities put an end to the looting and construction that threaten one of the nation’s oldest pyramids and burial grounds. They held up signs that read: “God does not bless a nation that ruins its heritage,” and: “Heritage is our past, present and future. Let’s protect it with love and respect.”
Ramadan Mohamed, a 20-year-old student and a resident of Manshiyet Dahshour, said he came to protest against the government’s slackness in protecting Egypt’s heritage. He also wanted to show that the Dahshour residents were not responsible for the encroachment and should not be blamed.
Antiquities experts warn that the construction of the new cemetery endangers the ancient complex. Villagers say their cemeteries are full, but that the authorities did not give permits or land for new ones, so they grabbed what they insisted was empty desert to erect family tombs.
IBN TULUN MOSQUE: Cairo’s historic Mosque of Ibn Tulun has lost much of its elegance recently, with waste water and garbage lining its walls.
Although the building stands much as it was when first constructed in 876 on top of the hill of Gabal Yashkur, its appearance has much faded.” The mosque is in a real mess,” Mohamed Hassan, a resident of Al-Sayeda Zeinab who lives in the buildings beside the mosque, told the Weekly. He said that for long time now the mosque’s lighting system had not been working, leaving the mosque in darkness and prohibiting the Maghrib and Al-Esha prayers. He went on to say that when extensive restoration was carried out in 2004, the lighting system installed was not up to standard.
Ali Kutb, who owns a workshop in the area, said local residents had pitched in funds to light the mosque, buying and installing new lamps. It proved a failure, however, as the poor quality of the mosque’s electrical system blew the lamps and plunged the compound into darkness again.
“Several times we have appealed to the authorities at the MSA and the Ministry of Religious Endowments, but they have done nothing. They said the problem was vast and there was no budget available to repair the electricity,” Kutb said.
Montasser Abdel-Azim, another resident, says that last Ramadan the MSA found a solution to light the mosque for Tarawih prayer, but darkness returned after Ramadan. Recently, he continued, drainage water leaked onto the external wall of Imara House behind the main qibla of the mosque. Imara House is a very important archaeological area, as it is the only one remaining out of four that once surrounded the mosque. The house has wooden halls with ceilings decorated in geometrical ivory ornamentation.
“Water is now spread over the mosque’s external wall and the swamp gets bigger and bigger,” says plumber Sayed Abdel-Metaal, adding that he knows the source of the problem and is willing to repair it but his hands are tied until he gains permission from the government or district office to do so.
People who are unaware of the importance and historical value of the mosque throw their garbage at the foot of the mosque’s wall, beside the swamp. The area is now a source of disease.
Mohamed Abdel-Rehim, head of the Islamic and Coptic section at the MSA, told the Weekly that the MSA was doing everything it could to protect the mosque from negligence and encroachment.
Whenever leaking water or garbage accumulates, the MSA contacts the Tourism and Antiquities Police, as well as the district office, and the water is pumped out. Days later, however, the water leaks again and the residents start throwing their garbage there.
“The lack of security and budget is behind the mess,” said Abdel-Rehim, adding that to repair the source of the leak and the mosque’s electrical system needed money not available due to the collapse of tourism.
The lack of security and absence of police presence in the area led to residents throwing their garbage against the mosque wall.
“The MSA will continue its role to protect the mosque as well as Egypt’s heritage, but the MSA alone cannot do the whole work: it needs the help of the residents themselves, the Ministry of Endowments and the Tourism and Antiquities Police.”
The Ibn Tulun Mosque is the largest mosque ever built in Egypt. It was the focal point of Al-Qatai city, which was also the capital city of the Tulunids. This city was founded in 868 after the Abbasids gained control over the Islamic Empire under the Abbasid governor Ahmed Ibn Tulun, and replaced Egypt’s earlier capital of Al-Fustat.
The Arab historian Al-Maqrizi noted that construction of the mosque began in 876, while the mosque’s original inscription slab identifies the date of completion as 265 AH, or 879 AD.
The high and solid bedrock on which it was built has protected the structure from natural catastrophes such as floods, earthquakes and the more insidious threat of rising ground water, as well as from encroachment inflicted by human activity. The bricks that make up its walls are fire-resistant, and the mortar that gives them coherence has proved flexible enough to absorb the shocks dealt by earthquakes and military bombardments, and even the tremours caused by heavy vehicles passing through neighbouring streets.
The mosque originally backed on to Ibn Tulun’s palace, and a door adjacent to the minbar (pulpit) allowed the governor direct entry. The mosque was built in the Samarran architectural style. It is a vast and imposing structure built around a courtyard; arcades, supported by piers with engaged columns at their corners, run round its four walls.
The mosque has a Samarran-style spiral minaret with an outside staircase. Because of its vast area and the absence of microphones at that time, the mosque has three places for the mobalegh (those who repeat the imam’s words during prayers).
The original mosque has its madiaa (ablution water fountain) in the area between the inner and outer walls, but a distinctive fountain with a high drum dome was added by the Mamluk sultan Al-Malik Al-Mansour Hossameddin Lajin Al-Mansouri at the end of the 13th century. The distinguished architectural style of the madiaa was copied by an international Chinese architect for the design of the Doha Islamic Museum.
Sultan Lajin also added a clock in the shape of a dome with 24 small windows representing the hours of the day.
This week and for the first time since its restoration in 2004, the MSA opened the Ibn Tulun Mosque at night for worshippers to say their Tarawih prayers in Ramadan.
Mohsen Sayed Ali, former secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) told the Weekly that the mosque was opened this Ramadan because of frequent demands by residents of Sayeda Zeinab to open it at night for prayers. Opponents of the opening cited the spacious area of the mosque, as well as the technical problems of lighting such a vast area. Following several attempts, Ali said, an appropriate solution was reached and the mosque courtyard and prayer hall were lit to allow worshipers to perform the Tarawih.
The Ibn Tulun Mosque is the second oldest in Egypt and one of the most important of those built during the Islamic era, and the first great mosque to be built after that of Amr Ibn Al-Aas.
“It is the only mosque, not only in Egypt but in the whole world, to have kept his original architectural features and decorative structure through the span of history,” Ali said, adding that: “No additions or expansions have been made to the mosque since its construction.”
The mosque has been restored several times through the centuries. The first restoration was carried out in 117 Hijra under the order of the Fatimid vizier Badreddin Al-Jamali, who left a second inscription slab on the mosque. In 1290 Sultan Lajin added several improvements. The most recent renovations were carried out by the SCA in 2002 and lasted for two years.
Several houses were built against the mosque’s external wall during the mediaeval period, but these were all demolished in 1928 by the Committee for the Conservation of Arab Monuments with the exception of the Beit Al-Kritliya and Beit Amna bint Salim, which are connected to each other by a bridge. In the 1930s these houses became the home of Major R. G. Gayer-Anderson Pasha, and now form the Gayer-Anderson Museum.
As for the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, it is and always will be one of the gems of Cairo’s Islamic architecture.
THE SPHINX AND THE AIR-CONDITIONING OF KHUFU’S SOLAR BOAT: On the Giza Plateau the situation is somewhat different. A tiny, twisted channel of water appeared on the sandy area in front of the Sphinx, and visitors to the area concluded that the newly operated, state-of-the-art pumping system to reduce the high rate of subterranean water that has accumulated beneath the Sphinx and the underlying bedrock had been damaged.
“This absolutely is not the case,” said Ali Al-Asfar, head of Upper Egypt monuments and the Giza Plateau. He told the Weekly that the pumping machines were safe and sound and automatically start operating when the subterranean water level exceeds 5.2 metres above sea level and stop when this level is reached.
“Such a level is a natural phenomenon,” Al-Asfar said, adding 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 Tora.
The water leaking in front of the Sphinx, he said, was caused by the incompetent drainage in the air conditioning system of King Khufu’s Solar Boat Museum on the plateau. The tunnels connecting the air conditioning system to the drains in neighbouring Nazlet Al-Semman were blocked and needed to be cleaned and repaired.
“The quantity of water that is leaking is nothing,” Al-Asfar said, adding that the MSA would replace these weak tunnels to prevent water leakage in the future. He told the Weekly that efforts were now being made to preserve the site and return it to its former serene state. To his end a private company is now cleaning the plateau, removing accumulated garbage and sprucing up its image.
The lack of security and the absence of police on the plateau, as with other archaeological sites, mean it has been subjected to encroachment. Horse and camel owners have violated the antiquities law by entering the archaeological safe zone in an attempt to find clients. The number of tourists to Egypt decreased after the revolution, leading to greater competition in the Egyptian tourism trade. Animal dung has become a serious problem and is being cleared from the site. The private company is using avant garde machines to collect the dung and is recycling other garbage. Garbage bins made of stone similar to the plateau’s bedrock have been installed in various locations on the site.
THE ANCIENT CITY OF IWN (OUN): In the district of Mattariya in eastern Cairo, once the capital of part of ancient Egypt and a major religious centre throughout its history, the situation is much worse. Thugs and vandals have invaded the empty archaeological area known as “The land of the Lawyers Syndicate” at Arab Al-Hesn. They broke through the archaeological wall, built small huts and converted the whole plot into a parking and car wash area. Anyone who tries to approach in order to remove severe encroachment, or even photograph what is going on, can expect to be frozen to the spot by the threat of machine guns.
A large bulldozer ploughed up the surface of Souq Al-Khamis, throwing aside some archaeological elements that had lain for thousands of years in the sand. The bulldozer, as Mahmoud Afifi, head of the Central Administration for Cairo and Giza Antiquities, told the Weekly, was preparing the ground in compliance with an order from the Ministry of Endowments for the foundations of a large wall to surround the Souq Al-Khamis, despite the fact that such disturbance of the ground was in flagrant defiance of the antiquities law.
He went on to explain that although the area was on property owned by the Ministry of Endowments, it still fell under the supervision of the MSA since it bordered the neighbouring Matariya archaeological site, where the granite obelisk of the Middle Kingdom King Senusert I stands along with a number of ancient Egyptian tombs and statues.
Adel Hussein, head of the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities sector at the MSA, said that residents of Matariya had abused the situation and built a number of residential houses in Souq Al-Khamis and on ancient Egyptian noblemen’s tombs at Fayqa land at Arab Al-Hesn area in Matariya.
Despite all the complaints reported to the area police station and demands for a halt to the destruction, no action has been taken and the encroachment extended.
At that point all construction work stopped, Hussein said, but unfortunately the bulldozer had damaged a large number of artefacts, among them part of a New Kingdom stela showing a list of offerings extended by the ancient Egyptians in their religious rituals.
Afifi insisted that the Ministry of Endowments had broken the law because it should not have attempted any construction work on the property without the approval of the MSA and under its supervision. In addition, he continued, any digging to lay foundations had to be carried out manually and not with a bulldozer.
To make matters worse, the area behind the obelisk of the 12th-Dynasty king Senusert I turned into a garbage dump picked over by sheep and goats. A nearby spot where remains of a Middle Dynasty temple have been uncovered now appears to be used as a swimming pool for dogs. Subterranean water has leaked into the archaeological pit where the remains lie, filling it with water, and dogs are taking a plunge to escape the summer heat.
Tarek Tawfik, a lecturer in the archaeology department at Cairo University, says the Matariya site retains under the sand many secrets from the Middle Kingdom, a very important time in ancient Egyptian history about which we know relatively little.
“I am really disappointed because the area is a bit neglected and deserves more care,” Tawfik says. Matariya was the site of ancient Heliopolis, the capital city of the 13th nome of Upper Egypt and one of the main religious centres for the worship of the sun god Re throughout the span of the ancient Egyptian civilisation.
The ancient city expanded over a vast area that included the whole of modern Matariya; Athar Al-Nabi, south of Old Cairo; and Gabal Al-Ahmar, a quarry for dark red quartzite, a type of stone associated with the sun god.
“The exact boundaries of the city in the various historical periods are not yet clear and still require a lot of excavation,” Tawfik said.
The importance of the city as a religious centre starts as early as the Old Kingdom, and remains have been discovered of a shrine dating from the reign of King Djoser of the Third Dynasty as well as a part of an obelisk from the time of King Teti of the Fifth Dynasty. During the Middle Kingdom, the sun temples of the city saw much building activity and were embellished with huge granite statues, some of which have appeared in recent excavations in the area of Souq Al-Khamis.
One of the landmarks of Matariya is the obelisk of the 12th-Dynasty king Senusert I, which means that the area could still provide valuable information about the Middle Kingdom, a rich era of ancient Egyptian history, which still needs much research. So far comparatively few monuments from this period have been excavated.
Tawfik claims that obelisks that were transported to Italy in Roman times and now stand in famous squares in Rome probably came from the sun temples of Matariya.
The well-preserved temples of Karnak in Luxor in the south of Egypt were called the “southern Heliopolis”, which hints to the fact that the temples of Heliopolis must have once surpassed the temples of Karnak in size and splendour.
There are several remains in Matariya from the New Kingdom, Tawfik says. Recently a column of the 19th-Dynasty Pharaoh Merenptah was discovered and has now been transported to the storerooms at the Ministry of Antiquities. Sadly the base of the column inscribed with the name of the king was covered by a newly built house.
Several architectural elements from temples, parts of statues and whole tombs dating from the Late Period have been excavated. Many of the statues were transported from Heliopolis to be re-erected in Alexandria in the Ptolemaic era, when the slow decay of ancient Heliopolis set in to bring to a sorry end nearly 3,000 years of glorious history.
AKHMIM: The area where a huge limestone head of Pharaoh Ramses II was uncovered six years ago in the Upper Egyptian town of Akhmim, near Sohag, is now a garbage dump. According to studies, this area may house a huge temple of Ramses II, and more life-size statues of the pharaoh could be unearthed. However, because the head was uncovered within a modern cemetery of the town, the residents were ordered to put their work on hold for a few months until the cemetery could be relocated. The area was then proclaimed as an archaeological site under the jurisdiction of Egypt’s antiquities law. Some of the modern tombs were relocated to another remote area as a first phase, and as the relocation of the cemetery continues alongside the archaeological excavation more items belonging to the temple are being uncovered.
Since the revolution, however, all work there has stopped and the area has been neglected.
The residents of Akhmim did not respect the serenity and divinity of the site and the importance of the monuments discovered there, and they transformed the area into a garbage dump. It is also frequented by drug addicts. Scraps of paper fly over the beautiful face of Ramses II, and children play football over the remains of the temple.
“This situation is no longer the case,” Hussein says. He says the head of Ramses II and all the objects found there have now been moved to the storage facility at the Sohag inspectorate so as to protect them. MSA guards are also stationed on the site to protect it from further illegal excavation or other actions.
Akhmim was the hub of Egypt’s ancient weaving industry and the capital of the ninth nome of Upper Egypt, as well as being the religious centre of the fertility god Min. The town yields remains dating from prehistoric times and all through the pharaonic period, including the Old Kingdom cemetery of Al-Hawawish, which contains 848 rock-hewn tombs.
There is little data in Akhmim about the Middle Kingdom, but rather more material remains from later periods of history. It is known that a great temple dedicated to the god Min was built during the ninth century BC, and that the structure so impressed Arab historians who passed through Akhmim that they mentioned a gigantic temple larger than the Karnak complex. One even reported that the sun had time to rise and then set again before he had finished exploring the ruins.
Akhmim was also a centre of Christianity in Upper Egypt. During the Christian era temples were destroyed and the modern town was erected over the ancient ruins. Akhmim now perches on a high mound, with an archaeological wealth beneath its foundations. This is about to be further explored with potentially significant results.
“The lack of security in the aftermath of the revolution was the main reason for the residents’ decision to encroach on the archaeological land, and the MSA’s budget was feeling the pinch because of the withdrawal of tourism to Egypt,” says Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim. “This presents an obstacle to providing private security at every archaeological site to prevent further encroachment.” Ibrahim says the ministry has to depend on the Ministry of Interior and the Tourism and Antiquities Police.
“The situation could be solved by applying a new mechanism to prohibit residents from encroaching on any archaeological site in Egypt,” Ibrahim adds.
So what of the new antiquities law and its amendment? Why is it not being implemented? Among the articles in the new law is one that prohibits any encroachment on archeological sites and a prison term for offenders.
Up to the time the Weekly went to print, this question had not been answered by any officials apart from Mokhtar Al-Kasabani, the former MSA consultant for the Islamic period, who said that the current government did not care enough about Egypt’s history and its culture. He added that a couple of months ago a contractor damaged the Ottoman house of Matsh-Merza in Boulaq, and that when he was caught red-handed he was set at large with a fine of only LE500. This contractor, the official said, returned to the house and resumed the demolition, and nobody moved on to save this great Ottoman house, not even the MSA.