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How climate change and population growth threaten Egypt’s ancient treasures

MD Staff

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Climate change and environmental degradation are threatening a major pillar of Egypt's tourism industry. (Roger Anis for UN Environment)

In his 40-something years as an archaeological excavator on Luxor’s West Bank, Mustafa Al-Nubi has witnessed a flurry of changes.

Tourist numbers have surged, fallen, and then slowly grown again. Local villages have exploded in size. Even the landscape has undergone a radical transformation, as Egyptologists slowly pick their way through the vast Theban Necropolis. “It’s like one big museum now,” Nubi says. “My grandfather would not recognize his own house.”

Yet none of this, he insists, compares to the unusual weather that’s gripped southern Egypt in recent years. Where once he could work much of the dig season – usually from October to April – without breaking a sweat, now his traditional galabeya robe is often stained dark by 10am. Winter can be chilly one day, and stifling the next. Amid periodic downpours at unusual times of the year, Nubi and his colleagues have almost got used to dashing for cover. “I don’t know what’s happening,” he said. “But it was not like this before.”

The millennia-old treasures tell a similar tale. For much of history, conditions around Luxor were almost calculated to preserve its trove of pharaonic riches. With little rain, low humidity, and piles of swirling desert sand that cocooned the ancient temples in a protective bubble, there were few climatic concerns. And with a comparatively small local population, here on a previously isolated stretch of the Nile, there was little reason to suspect that the likes of the Ramesseum might go the way of their crumbling counterparts in densely populated northern Egypt. The pharaohs called their massive mortuary temples the temples of a million years; they were meant to last forever.

All that, however, is slowly beginning to change. Increasingly erratic weather that many largely attribute to climate change is eating away at the ancient stones. At the same time, booming population growth is complicating preservation efforts. After surviving thousands of years of war, invasion, and cannibalization for building materials, the splendours of ancient Egypt might have finally met their match. “We have a fear,” said Mostafa Ghaddafi Abdel Rehim, a senior antiquities official in Luxor. “Like all the world, we have a fear of climate change.”

Changing conditions

It starts with the temperature. The temple-heavy expanses of Egypt have always been sizzling during the summer, but it was never this hot – or for this long, both locals and archaeologists say. Some excavation days have had to be cut short, as overheating workers wilt in the exposed digging trenches. In other instances, changing conditions have even forced archaeologists to alter the way in which they document the hieroglyph-dotted walls. “We used to make blueprints using natural sunlight, but starting about 20 years ago, we found it harder and harder to burn the image onto the paper,” said Ray Johnson, director of the University of Chicago’s Epigraphic Survey, which has been working at Madinat Habu temple for almost 100 years. “It was then that we realized that it was getting hazier and hazier.” At Karnak, the gargantuan New and Middle Kingdom complex that dominates the northern approach to Luxor, blindingly bright sunshine has already robbed most of the walls of their color, leaving tourists to crane their necks up at the sheltered ceilings.

Even more worryingly, soaring summer highs also appear to be leaving their mark on the building blocks themselves. Around Aswan, several hours train ride south of Luxor, temperatures that sometimes rise well over 40 C are slowly cracking many of the rose granite structures. The granite expands in the daytime sun, and then contracts overnight in the cooler air. “It can look like a bag of wool. It gets rounder and rounder, and then eventually breaks away,” said Johanna Sigl of Cairo’s German Archaeological Institute. On her dig site at the bottom tip of Elephantine island, mid Nile, several inscriptions, including one in which a senior official records his duties collecting stone for his pharaoh, have more or less disappeared as a consequence.

The effects of climate change will only get more intense, experts say, possibly requiring some tricky decisions about the viability of maintaining vulnerable historic sites.

“In some instances these places are the foundations of a tourism industry that brings a lot of benefits to the local people,” said Mette Wilkie, Director of the Ecosystems Division at UN Environment. “But then you have a lot of buildings that are in the middle of nowhere, and here the situation is much more difficult.”

The greatest damage, however, is seemingly done during winter. Though still rare, increasingly frequent downpours are savaging ancient mud brick buildings, most of which have only lasted so long because of limited rain. “Every year, we notice this is more of a problem,” said Christian Leblanc, head of the French Archaeological Mission at West Thebes, who’s directed conservation efforts at the Ramesseum for over 25 years. “Of course it degrades the stone.” Particularly vulnerable are the temple’s half dozen arched mud brick granaries, some of the largest remaining structures of their kind, which are periodically layered with new mud bricks to shield the originals from the elements.

In 1994, a monster storm illustrated the devastation rain can wreak. Hundreds of tombs, including many in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, were swamped, the Temple of Seti I morphed into a lake, and hundreds of traditional mud brick houses collapsed. At Deir al-Bakhit, an early Christian monastery, the rain fell so furiously that it punched drop-shaped imprints into the mud brick. Wary of a repeat and fed up with frequent water-related repairs, most locals have since rebuilt in concrete.

Human impact

And then there’s the direct environmental impact of human activity. Until the late 1960s, the Nile burst its banks every August, inundating the valley for miles on either side. These were the conditions that the ancient architects knew, and they factored them into their designs accordingly. But after the completion of the Aswan High Dam, the annual flood ended, and with it came a glut of new problems for the temples. Without the regular “cleanse”, there’s no longer anything to clear the salt from the topsoil.

“It eats away at the stone like an acid,” Ray Johnson said. And with more humidity, in large part because of the enormous quantities of water evaporating off the dam’s reservoir, there’s more crystallization, as the salt particles in the temples’ sandstone blocks expand. “So the lower walls of almost all temples are missing and filled instead with a kind of breathable mortar,” Johnson added. From the toes of the Colossi of Memnon, the 700-ton statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III, to the periphery of Karnak’s Sacred Lake, faint white saline traces betray the danger at hand.

Population growth, too, has levied a heavy toll. More people means more agriculture, and so instead of the fields around the temples lying dry and fallow for part of the year as they once did, they’re now under constant cultivation. It’s raised the water table throughout the East and West Banks (hydrologists suspect that the dam has also played a part), and swamped the foundations with far more water than they were designed to handle.

“Just look, there are people and water everywhere,” Christian Leblanc said. Many of the central pylons of Luxor Temple, the most centrally located of the great sites, have had to be patched up with cement after the fast-expanding city’s sewage percolated upwards. As Egypt’s numbers surge, already leaping from about 66 million in 2000 to over 95 million now, the pharaonic treasures are having to share their space with ever more houses and sugar cane crops.

“This is a phenomenon across the world, and there will be some areas where we will simply have to give up using land for our livelihood,” Mette Wilkie said. UN Environment is working to tackle climate change and environmental degradation by helping countries embrace low-emissions growth; supporting the sustainable management of forests and other ecosystems; and finding innovative new ways to fund climate action. UN Environment also helps countries adapt to the changing climate, and build their resilience to future challenges.

In Egypt, there is some cause for optimism. In fact, officials have more or less resolved the groundwater issue for the time being. With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Ministry of Antiquities has installed an extensive drainage network around the key sites, which has seemingly lowered their water levels by up to four meters.

“It has been a big success. The problem is fixed,” said Mohammed Abdelaziz, the ministry’s top official in Upper Egypt. Authorities have ringed many of the antiquities’ zones with walls to prevent further urban or agricultural encroachment, and established four field schools in the Luxor area to teach inspectors how to better treat the treasures and identify potential threats. All this coming at a time of new technological innovations has made some archaeologists quite bullish about the temples’ long-term prospects.

Just to be on the safe side, though, others have stepped up their documentation efforts. If worse comes to the worst, at least we’ll have a record of what’s been lost. “There is more urgency now,” Ray Johnson said. “That’s why we go first to what’s most threatened.”

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Strengthening Sino-Russian Ties

Olga Melnikova

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During her speech at the New Year’s celebration, hosted by the Russian Cultural Center in Beijing, in late December 2017, Olga Melnikova, Counsellor of the Russian Embassy and Director of the Russian Cultural Center in Beijing, said Russia has many cultural symbols that come from China. In her opinion, Sino- Russian bilateral relations are an example of “the most stable, healthy, mature and lasting relationship between countries in today’s world.” The Russian Cultural Center for years has organized cultural, educational and science- related activities to stimulate Chinese citizens’ interest in learning the Russian language and culture.

In her recent interview with Women of China (WOC), Melnikova said she hoped the Sino-Russian strategic partnership would be strengthened, and that cultural communications between the people of the two countries would be  enhanced.

Had you visited China prior to assuming your post as Director of the Russian Cultural Center in Beijing in September 2017? What is your impression of China and the Chinese people?

I first visited the capital of China, Beijing, in 2012. I was a tourist at that time. Beijing impressed me as a modern metropolis that also kept well its traditional Chinese flavor. I saw magnificent ancient temples and palaces coexisting with modern buildings and small cozy streets. The architectural styles of many buildings, the decorations on streets, and the designs of parks clearly showed how much Chinese people had been respecting their history and traditions.

Now, I look at Beijing through the eyes of one of the city’s residents, not as a  tourist. In modern Beijing, people are    paying great attention to physical education and sports, and to taking care of their health. I have watched, many times, the Chinese citizens who gather in the morning to exercise together. They perform qigong , a system of deep breathing exercises that Chinese use to train their bodies and properly maintain the energy flow in their  bodies.

My job has pushed me to travel around China, and to meet people from all walks of life, including government officials, diplomats, representatives of academic institutions, professions, teachers, students and schoolchildren. Based on my personal communications,   I think Chinese are friendly, polite and  kindhearted. Chinese always l isten attentively to  interlocutors’ opinions, and they know how to correctly defend their points of view.

Please tell our readers about some of the events your center has organized in China to promote Russian culture.

Under the circumstances of globalization, culture becomes an important “language,” or factor, that lays the foundation to build the whole system of international relations. Cultural exchanges include communications in tourism, the scientific and educational fields, business contacts, and cooperation in the sports, mass media, art, music and film  industries.

Russia is a country that has a great cultural heritage and centuries-old traditions. Within the framework of popularization of Russian culture in the world, our Russian Cultural Center regularly hosts events, such as concerts of Russian folk artists, music and dance groups, meetings with Russian celebrities in the cultural field, exhibitions of contemporary artists, photo exhibitions of Russian museums’ archival materials, film screenings showcasing the latest achievements of Russian cinematography and theater performances for both children and  adults.

Every year, we celebrate our victory in World War II, the day of the first space flight of cosmonaut Yuri Garagin and the launch of our first space satellite. Soon, we will celebrate the date of lifting the blockade of Leningrad and the anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad. Those events are great and memorable, not only for Russian people, but also for humanity all around the  world.

Are you interested in Chinese cultural symbols?
Developing mutual interest in our cultures helps us strengthen the “ties” between our peoples. For example, the  Chinese horoscope, which includes the tradition and meaning related to the Spring Festival, is very popular in Russia. Some symbols of good fortune, such as the dragon, fish and frog, can be found in decorations that Russian people place in their houses, offices and private shops. Although the images with auspicious hints are used as decorations, most Russians do not fully understand the meanings that those images imply. Perhaps the most popular auspicious inscription is a picture of the upside-down Chinese character of “fu,” which means “happiness.”

What roles are women playing to enhance bilateral communications between Russia and China?
It is a global trend that women play more active roles in different spheres of life — business, politics and diplomacy … In some countries, women occupy the highest positions in government. There are women ministers, prime ministers and even heads of state. Women and men should complement each other while they are dealing with political issues.

Actually, the Russian- Chinese Commission on Humanitarian Cooperation is chaired by Olga Golodets, Vice-Premier of the Russian Government, and Liu Yandong, Vice-Premier of the State Council of China.
The Russian Cultural Center is the representative office of Rossotrudnichestvo — the State Agency, which is headed by Eleonora Mitrofanova, a Russian diplomat of high level with significant experience in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and in international organizations. Our center will continue to make contributions to strengthen the ties between Russia and China, advance the promotion of the Russian language and culture in China, and stimulate the development of mutual exchanges.

Women of China

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Reviving the Spirit of Mosul

Audrey Azoulay

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Last week, the world made a great commitment to rebuild Iraq following the recent defeat of ISIS. Recognizing the immense courage of the Iraqi people and the depth of their suffering, the Kuwait International Conference for the Reconstruction of Iraq pledged to rebuild infrastructure so that the country can once again prosper.

Mosul is the living symbol of Iraqi’s pluralistic identity. For centuries, it was at the crossroad of culture in the Middle East. From the Sumerian cities to Babylon, from the walls of Nineveh to the Silk Road, the region has been a melting pot of people and ideas. For the last three years, this story of peace – the true spirit of Mosul – has been overshadowed by another story of hatred and violence.

The conference stressed the importance of putting the human dimension at the heart of our efforts for sustainable reconstruction. So we launched “Revive the Spirit of Mosul”, an initiative for the reconstruction of the Old City, both its physical infrastructure and restoring the dignity of its people. When war is waged against culture and education, response must be culture and education. This is the only long-term solution against extremism.

The destruction of the University of Mosul Library, the dynamiting of the Al-Hadba minaret and the pillaging of the Nabi Yunus Shrine, emblem of the religious coexistence of the three religions of the Book – shocked the world. Public libraries were burnt, music was silenced, artists attacked and cafes closed.

Thousands of children have learned war and been indoctrinated with an intellectually corrupt ideology. They have not received an education – the essential tool for building the future. To avoid raising a lost generation, we must teach peace but also reinfuse these communities with the culture of peace, steeped in Iraq’s rich history and cultural life.

The revival of the Old City of Mosul is the cornerstone of our initiative, supported by both UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider Al-Abadi. This initiative means restoring architectural symbols that bring the Iraqi people together, in all its diversity. Many key actors like the European Union, neighboring countries and international organizations expressed great interest in participating in this effort that UNESCO will coordinate.

UNESCO will bring its expertise in damage assessment to restore and reconstruct the emblematic sites of the historic center. We will work hand-in-hand with the local population and the government to restore bookshops, cultural centers and museums – including the Museum of Mosul, which was tragically ransacked.

We will provide opportunities for technical and vocational training, particularly in traditional building techniques, so that Iraqis will have the skills to actively contribute to this reconstruction.

The great civilizations of this region defined the course of humanity, through a thousand-year dialogue, which gave birth to the wheel, writing, mathematics and law. We will work with our Iraqi counterparts to ensure future generations will learn of their proud heritage, through the school materials that we are developing, including a new school curriculum, which puts humanities at its core along creativity, critical thinking and values of respect. This is the only way to ensure that fanaticism does not prevail once more.

This “Revive the Spirit of Mosul” initiative will be UNESCO’s main contribution to the United Nations’ Response and Resilience program designed to help Iraq’s government fast-track the social dimensions of reconstruction.

Later this year, we will organize an international conference at UNESCO Headquarters, with the Iraqi government and all our partners, to design a blueprint for this reconstruction.

Through culture and education, we can restore trust and create the conditions for a common future. This reconstruction will take time but, brick-by-brick, lesson-by-lesson, together we can revive the true spirit of Mosul.

First published in Asharq Al-Awsat

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Music and art from the country of peaks and legends: Day of Afghan Culture

MD Staff

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On 8 February 2018, the SCO Secretariat hosted the Day of Afghan Culture. Addressing the guests and participants of the event, the SCO Secretary-General thanked top leadership and the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan for all-around support in organising the Day of Culture.

“Afghanistan is populated by wonderful and courageous people, descendants of ancient ethnicities who cherish their sacred traditions, lifestyle, unique culture and art,” Rashid Alimov said. “The entire SCO family strongly and unanimously supports the Afghan government and people’s efforts towards a peaceful, stable and prosperous state. We believe this day is near and wish the brotherly nation of Afghanistan peace, happiness and prosperity.”

In his remarks, Afghan Ambassador to China Janan Mosazai expressed his deep appreciation to the SCO Secretariat for organising the Day of Afghan Culture. “Events like this strengthen the Shanghai spirit in the growing SCO family,” he noted.

The main event of the programme, a concert of traditional Afghan music, delighted the guests with charming melodies from the ‘country of peaks and legends.’ The programme was presented by ten talented musicians from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music led by its founder and director Ahmad Naser Sarmast.

The guests also enjoyed a display of amazing colourful masterpieces of Afghan carpet weaving art, which goes back more than 2,000 years. A special photo exhibit showcasing the uniquely beautiful nature of Afghanistan and the rich legacy and contemporary life of its people was also very popular. The guests had a taste of the traditional Afghan cuisine.

The event was attended by extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassadors of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Turkmenistan, Syria, Bahrain and Singapore, as well as representatives of diplomatic missions, EU ambassadors, Chinese and foreign media.

The Day of Afghan Culture took place as part of the SCO Is Our Common Home programme.

Some 40 types of carpets were displayed at the Mosaic of Afghan Carpets exhibition. Afghan carpet weaving is known for distinct colours and traditional geometrical ornaments.

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