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

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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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Arts & Culture

Experiencing Chinese Society and Culture

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Today Chinese Culture and society is a combination of ancient traditions, customs, and modernized developed and also westernized lifestyle. The Chinese culture and traditions are ancient, its history has huge diversity and variety. Historically, Chinese society is rich in arts, science, and literature. The culture of china has maintained its unique identity till the beginning of western culture in the 19th century. The historical influence of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism is the reflection in Chinese society and culture. Confucianism spread the love and rituals to give respect for society and social hierarchy. The characteristics of Chinese culture unchanged over the period despite the influences and several invasions from the outside. The philosophy of Confucianism stressed that people could be good if they follow the moral principles and made the rituals that respected the gods. In the hard times and war times, Confucianists emphasized carefully follow the traditions that could maintain unity within the society. historically, several Chinese rulers have adopted the core principles of Confucianism. During the Hans dynasty, Emperor Wu had encouraged the hierarchical social structures, the Emperor believed these principles would bring and also maintain the social harmony within the Chinese society throughout history. The Confucius philosophy was dominant during the Hans dynasty in ancient China. during this period the core principles were flourished and reached within the societal structures. The state ideology was based on Confucius’s philosophy, it has improved the societal values and norms. During 500BC the teachings of Confucius have played an important role in shaping the character of Chinese society, shaping behavior, and the way of life of Chinese people. The main objective was to achieve societal harmony and social norms and values. Another core principle and value of Confucianism is forgiveness, compassion, and tolerance.  Even today, Chinese society and academicians give immense respect and also promote the core principles of Confucius’s philosophy.

Modern Chinese society and culture are rapidly influenced by western cultural values and traditions. It’s quickly changing nowadays with popular American culture and other cultures of the world. The youth in urban areas are more influenced by popular western culture. Their lifestyle although reflects their wish to adopt the world’s popular culture. This is the 21st century and era of globalization, no society in the world is pure now. The free flow of information through different sources of media has been influenced by the societal existing order. So the modern Chinese society especially in urban areas, developed cities are more likely to become modern, acceptance of new cultural values, lifestyles and easily adopt it.

Personally, it is my observation so far, I interact with general people in the market, train stations, shops, many other public places. The people more like to open to the world now. The youth want to interact with other cultures, curious to know about other people thinking, ideas. But in rural areas and the countrysides there still traditional societal norms and values exist. The people have strong connections with their family backgrounds and also the Confucianism. The strong family system, the hierarchy with the society, and obedience exist.

Here I want to share an example of Chinese modesty when I was doing volunteering in Wuhan railway station, the general people came to me and tried to speak, I just can speak, hello, thank you, bye-bye in Chinese, but still, they are complimenting on my excellent Chinese by saying that (your Chinese is very good). The Chinese people are excellent compliment givers and encouraging other people to learn. They never discourage, although they complement that, you are handsome, wow your nose is so big it’s beautiful. Indeed the traditional Chinese traditional food, delicious and also healthy. The hotpot, although its too much spicy but its interesting to eat in the winter season.

In the winter season, when chilly temperatures and frigid winds prevail over the land, people like to eat food that instantly warms their bodies and lifts their spirits. For that, the hot pot is a delicious and hearty choice. Families or groups of friends sit around a table and eat from a steaming pot in the middle, cooking and drinking and chatting. The hot pot is not only a cooking method; it also provides a way of eating, it is also a cultural mode.However China has opened its doors to the world now, it means that society is more sophisticated and also the acceptance of new ideas and thinkings. The youth want to interact with the world and also want to contribute to the peace and development of the world’s underdeveloped societies. The philosophy of Confucianism works here, dominance in every sector of society.

I would like to conclude by one sentence that yes there should be accepted for new ideas and values but also should promote their societal rich traditions and values to the world.

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Rising Pak-Turk Cultural Diplomacy: “Dirilis Ertugrul”- The Prime Catalyst

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Amid massive success of famous Turkish drama series Dirilis Ertugrul, also titled as Resurrection Ertugrul in English for Netflix, is both a fictional and historic story based on the life of father of Osman I; Ertugrul Ghazi- set in 13th Century made records across Pakistan in terms of its views and popularity. It gained massive fan-following among all age groups inspiring them to value integrity, steadfastness and have faith. The current Prime Minister of Pakistan Mr. Imran Khan urged people to watch this series to increase their knowledge about the glorious history of Muslims and true essence of Islam and learn from it. The high-budget drama got dubbed in Pakistan’s national language; Urdu, therefore reaching mass audience.

The viewership of the series shoot up primarily during the month of  Ramadan. As a result not only did the people of Pakistan get enlightened and entertained but also the state television earned huge profits. Most importantly it boosted cultural, media and public diplomacy between two Muslim countries; Turkey and Pakistan. The drama serial promoted people-to-people contact, join forces for mutual media and cultural ventures and promote Pak-Turk Tourism, and last but not the least – strengthen relationship between the Muslim countries purely based on love and mutual respect. Therefore, establishing a strong mutual alliance is raison d’être for these potential efforts by the both ends. Pakistan having a strong support-system in Europe and for Turkey to have in South Asia is a prerequisite for both to counter the future challenges – as it has become the need of times keeping the geopolitical dynamics in perspective. Speaking of challenges – Saudi Arab; with whom Pakistan’s relations are already struggling – expressed their reservations regarding the broadcasting of Turkishdizi (dramas) in Pakistan. Irked by the success of Dirilis Ertugrul – Saudi Arab has come up with their own counter narrative version of historical series titled, “Kingdom of Fires”, with an aim to combat Turkish cultural invasion and growing global influence. Fatima Bhutto, in her article for Foreign Policy, ‘How Turkey’s Soft Power Conquered Pakistan’, says that in contemporary times – Turkish dramas has come second only to American ones, otherwise it has toppled the previously most viewed languages in the world, such as, French, Spanish, and Mandarin. Turkish has now become the most watched language worldwide.

Acknowledging the blockbuster success, the lead actors visited Pakistan receiving a warm welcome, immense praise and love from people. The actors too expressed  their gratitude and happiness. Several lead actors of the super-hit series namely Engin Altan Duzyatan aka Ertugrul, Cavit Çetin Güner aka Dugan Bey, Nurettin aka Bamsı and Ayberk Pekcan aka Artuk Bey etc.on their short visits met selected Pakistan’s media personnel henceforth expressed their willingness to strengthen the cultural bond by collaborating with each other in future media-based projects and bring together the people of the two nation. Rumor has it – both the Muslim countries are already in talks to come forth with a Pak-Turk TV series; a Pakistan-original with joint efforts for the project by Ansari Films and TRT Films named, “Lala Turki”, commemorating the Khilafat Movement – with an ultimate aim to aware the unaware about the legacy of Islam.

It must be mentioned here that it is not the first time that any Turkish drama series had been aired in Pakistan. The trend was set few years back by URDU 1 channel which ran mostly Turkish dubbed dramas in Urdu so that people of Pakistan would also get a taste of Turkish flavor of serials. It gained massive popularity. Thereon, the trend to air Turkish productions became a new normal. Another series that gained massive popularity was “the Magnificent Century” locally known as “Mera Sultan”. This was run by the channel Geo Kahani. The trend of Turkish dramas never seized till date. However, what “Dirilis Ertugrul”managed to do in this past year can’t be matched. This is the only drama that started involving the two nations on diplomatic level and opened up new ways for collaboration among the brother countries. It helped people realize that not only the flags but the hearts of the two nations are also very similar united by a shared magnificent past and a hope for an incredible future.

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New European Bauhaus: Commission launches design phase

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Commission launched the design phase of the New European Bauhaus initiative, announced by President von der Leyen in her 2020 State of the Union address. The New European Bauhaus is an environmental, economic and cultural project, aiming to combine design, sustainability, accessibility, affordability and investment in order to help deliver the European Green Deal. The core values of the New European Bauhaus are thus sustainability, aesthetics and inclusiveness. The goal of the design phase is to use a co-creation process to shape the concept by exploring ideas, identifying the most urgent needs and challenges, and to connect interested parties. As one element of the design phase, this spring, the Commission will launch, the first edition of the New European Bauhaus prize.

This design phase will lead to the opening of calls for proposals in autumn this year to bring to life New European Bauhaus ideas in at least five places in EU Member States, through the use of EU funds at national and regional level.

European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, said: “The New European Bauhaus is a project of hope to explore how we live better together after the pandemic. It is about matching sustainability with style, to bring the European Green Deal closer to people’s minds and homes. We need all creative minds: designers, artists, scientists, architects and citizens, to make the New European Bauhaus a success.”

Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth said: “With the New European Bauhaus our ambition is to develop an innovative framework to support, facilitate and accelerate the green transformation by combining sustainability and aesthetics. By being a bridge between the world of art and culture on one side and the world of science and technology on the other, we will make sure to involve society as a whole: our artists, our students, our architects, our engineers, our academia, our innovators. It will kick-off a systemic change.”

Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, Elisa Ferreira commented: “The New European Bauhaus is about how we live together, our values, our common spaces of work and leisure, our collective and private experiences. This is a project for all regions and territories in Europe. In promoting affordable solutions, it should contribute to social cohesion and to solving housing problems. If we want to bring real change around us – for a more beautiful, sustainable life together, we need to think about how the New European Bauhaus can bridge the generation of new ideas with implementation in physical places. We are therefore exploring across the Commission how our tools could be mobilised to launch a first set of concrete New European Bauhaus actions.”

Background

The New European Bauhaus is a creative initiative, breaking down boundaries between science and technology, art, culture and social inclusion, to allow design to find solutions for everyday problems. 

On the dedicated website launched today, artists, designers, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, architects, students, and all interested people can share examples of inspiring achievements for the New European Bauhaus, their ideas about how it should be shaped and how it should evolve, as well as their concerns and challenges.

This is the beginning of an innovative co-design process. Organisations that want to put more effort into their engagement in this process can become ‘Partners of the New European Bauhaus,’ by responding to the call on the website.

In the coming months, the Commission will award prizes to existing examples that represent the integration of the key values of the initiative, and that may inspire the discussions about, and the transformation of, the places where we live.

In the next phase of the initiative – the ‘delivery’ phase, five pilot projects will be set up to co-design new sustainable and inclusive solutions with style. The objective of the third phase – ‘dissemination’, is to spread the ideas and concepts defining the New European Bauhaus via new projects, networking and sharing of knowledge, in Europe and beyond.

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