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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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Culture

100 years of history: Historic hotel celebrates worker heritage

MD Staff

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If you’re the curious sort who enjoys exploring historic sites in your free time, you’re far from alone.

Because people are fascinated with learning more about how Americans lived, thought and dreamed in the past, many seek out such cultural enclaves anytime they travel. That helps explain the $762 million in revenues logged by U.S. historic sites in 2013, according to Statista. Other research predicts the revenues realized by U.S. museums and historic sites will more than double between 2018 and 2022.

“Historic places create connections to our heritage that help us understand our past, appreciate our triumphs and learn from our mistakes,” the National Trust for Historic Preservation recently noted. “Historic places help define and distinguish our communities by building a strong sense of identity. When you visit a historic site, you learn from their stories.”

One fascinating and culturally rich historic site you may not have visited is The American Club, a Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five-Diamond resort hotel in the heartland of Kohler, Wisconsin. The iconic hotel owned by Kohler Co., global leader in plumbing, was built in 1918 as a dormitory for its immigrant workers. This year the multifaceted national attraction celebrates its centennial anniversary in grand style, with even more activities and offerings for its guests.

Year-long features of the celebration include a new history exhibit, guided tours and a new cast iron sculpture installation, “The Immigrant,” created by artist Stephen Paul Day. Day took part in the Arts/Industry program and was inspired by the company history. The four-star restaurant, The Immigrant, will offer a tasting menu featuring dishes from France, the Netherlands, Germany, Normandy, Denmark and Great Britain — the primary homelands of original Kohler employees. Group Director Lodging for Kohler Co., Christine Loose explains, “The concept of gracious living and creating a sense of belonging has always been important to the company and our heritage.”

With its trademark red brick, striking Tudor architecture and soaring roof peaks and slate tile, the landmark is recognized by both the Historic Hotels of America and the National Register of Historic Places.

Aside from the historic elements of The American Club, visitors and guests can partake of several other features offered in or near the surrounding resort known as Destination Kohler. Key attractions include the Forbes Five-Star Kohler Waters Spa; a lakeside boutique hotel known as the Inn at Woodlake; cycling and yoga studios; four championship golf courses (Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits, the latter hosting the revered 2020 Ryder Cup); 12 dining establishments, renovation inspiration at the Kohler Design Center, and daily factory tours led by retired Kohler employees spotlighting the evolution of day-to-day manufacturing operations.

Destination Kohler is an hour north of Milwaukee and 2.5 hours north of Chicago. Learn more about its many attractions at DestinationKohler.com.

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Weaving profits in Azerbaijan

MD Staff

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Carpet weaving is a traditional art in Azerbaijan. ABAD/Elkhan Ganiyev

Artisans in Azerbaijan who practice the traditional art of carpet making are being provided with new business opportunities thanks to a project supported by the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

Weaving carpets is a skill that has been passed down through the generations and in the central Asian country is largely the work of women.

Although Azerbaijan is located on the ancient trading route known as the Silk Road, many artisans, especially those living in mountainous areas, are finding it increasingly difficult to get their carpets to market.

Small and Medium sized enterprises, like the carpet weavers of Azerbaijan, account for 60-70 per cent of global employment, according to the UN.

As the International Micro-, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises Day is marked across the world on June 27, the Azerbaijani authorities, with the support of UNDP, are boosting efforts to help artisans sell their goods.

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New interactive Story Maps make Europe’s cultural heritage more accessible

MD Staff

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On the occasion of the first ever European Cultural Heritage Summit, the European Commission has released a set of interactive maps which will help to raise awareness of cultural heritage in Europe.

Speaking at the European Cultural Heritage Summit in Berlin today, Tibor Navracsics, Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, responsible for the Joint Research Centre, said: “Making cultural heritage more accessible to everyone is one of my main goals for the European Year. The Story Maps will play an important role in this, offering valuable information in a user-friendly way. The Joint Research Centre has already developed a number of tools that help us preserve cultural heritage, such as 3D scanning technologies that can be used to map heritage sites as well as smart materials for their reconstruction. Now the interactive Story Maps will help open up opportunities for Europeans to explore our shared heritage and get involved in safeguarding it for the future.

The Story Maps, developed by the Joint Research Centre, the Commission’s science and knowledge service, inform in an easily accessible way about several initiatives across Europe linked to cultural heritage. These include actions like the European Heritage Days, the EU Prize for Cultural Heritage or the European Heritage Label, funded by Creative Europe, the EU programme that supports the cultural and creative sectors. The website also contains links to the digital collections of Europeana – the EU digital platform for cultural heritage. This platform allows users to explore more than 50 million artworks, artefacts, books, videos and sounds from more than 3500 museums, galleries, libraries and archives across Europe. These maps will be updated and developed, for example taking into account tips from young people exploring Europe’s cultural heritage through the new DiscoverEU initiative.

The online tool was launched by Commissioner Tibor Navracsics at the European Cultural Heritage Summit in Berlin today. This Summit is one of the main events of the 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage and is attended by high-level representatives of EU Institutions, civil society organisations and Member States, including German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. to protect, promote and raise awareness of cultural heritage in Europe. to protect, promote and raise awareness of cultural heritage in Europe. to protect, promote and raise awareness of cultural heritage in Europe.

Background

The Story Maps were presented to a wider audience at the European Cultural Heritage Summit, co-hosted by Europa Nostra, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the German Cultural Heritage Committee. The Summit is one of the key events of the European Year of Cultural Heritage taking place in Berlin from 18 to 24 June. It will see the adoption of the “Berlin Call to Action – cultural heritage for the future of Europe”, which supports the idea of a European Action Plan on Cultural Heritage, announced by the Commission in the New Agenda for Culture proposed in May. The Call to Action asks citizens, institutions and organisations to build on the momentum of the European Year, to recognise the positive and cohesive power of shared cultural heritage and values to connect Europe’s citizens and communities and to give a deeper meaning to the entire European project.

The purpose of the European Year of Cultural Heritage is to raise awareness of the social and economic importance of cultural heritage. Thousands of initiatives and events across Europe will give citizens from all backgrounds opportunities to discover and engage with cultural heritage. The aim is to reach out to the widest possible audience, in particular children and young people, local communities and people who are rarely in touch with culture, to promote a common sense of ownership.

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