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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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A Season of Classic Films: European classics screened at cultural heritage venues across Europe

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This summer, European film classics will be screened in some of Europe’s most iconic cultural heritage venues. From tomorrow until the end of September, classic films from across the EU will be screened free of charge in a wide variety of venues in 13 EU countries – from small towns to capital cities – highlighting Europe’s rich and diverse cultural heritage. As part of the wider restoration and digitisation of heritage films, the event series “A Season of Classic Films” is supported by Creative Europe MEDIA programme.

Commissioner Tibor Navracsics, in charge of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, said: “European cultural heritage, including our great film classics, should be accessible to everyone. I am pleased to see that the Season of Classic Films makes it possible for everyone interested to be part of an experience shared across Europe, even when attending a local event.”

Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, in charge of Digital Economy and Society, added: “Cinema is an essential part of our rich and diverse European culture and is contributing to reinforce bonds between people feeling the same passion and emotion for films. Digital transformation has a decisive potential to strengthen the positive effects of culture, both economically and socially. This is the challenge of our strategy Digital4Culture, to take advantage of this successful connection between digital technologies and culture.”

The classic films season starts tomorrow at the Bologna Film Festival with a presentation of some of the restored films shot using Gaumont’s Chronochrome colour system, one of the earliest colour filming techniques. Among the classic films to be screened throughout the season are some of the best-known titles in world cinema, including Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927), Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 blows” (1959), and “Cinema Paradiso” (1988) by Giuseppe Tornatore. The iconic venues hosting the screenings include Aristotelous Square in Thessaloniki, Greece, Kilkenny Castle in Ireland, and the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, Italy. The full programme of the season is available here.

Background

Since 1991, the European Commission has been supporting Europe’s audiovisual sector, contributing to is competitiveness and to cultural diversity in Europe, through the MEDIA Programme. One of its most substantial actions is providing financial support to the distribution of European films outside their country of production. Every year, on average over 400 films are made available to audiences in another European country with MEDIA’s help. In May 2018, the Commission proposed to increase the budget of the programme by almost 30% for the next EU long-term budget for 2021-2027.

Within this project, Creative Europe MEDIA will also fund the restoration and digitisation of heritage films in order to ensure that the European culture is passed down to future generations. The event series for this summer was planned as part of the 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage and reinforced by the Digital4Culture strategy.

“A Season of Classic Films” follows a first initiative, the “European Cinema Night”’, which programmed 50 free screenings of 20 MEDIA-supported films from 3 to 7 December 2018 across the EU and reached almost 7,200 people. The classic films season is expected to attract 15,000 Europeans to the free screenings.

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The Sounds of the Islands: Junkanoo Cultural Festival

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It starts with a deep drumbeat, a baritone sensation that vibrates within your chest. An instant tingle of rhythm journeys up your spine in anticipation of the cadence to come. What follows is nothing short of remarkable; a symphony of unconventional sounds blend together to create the most infectious melodies. This is Junkanoo: a long-standing semi-annual Bahamian tradition birthed from the islands’ early ancestors. Whistles, cowbells and even conch shells are used in this charismatic exhibition of island culture that is now revered around the world.  

History of the Tradition

The earliest rumoured origin stories for the bi-annual festival stems from an African Chief by the name of John Canoe. After being kidnapped and enslaved in the West Indies, John Canoe appealed for the right of his people to partake in their celebratory traditions. The most notable time for the festival to be orchestrated is around the Christmas holiday. The most illustrious part of the festival takes place on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day at the capital island of New Providence. On these days, what was once regarded as an expression of freedom and cultural identity has now transformed into one of the fiercest national competitions. On-lookers crowd the parade routes, cheering on their favourite groups and chanting competitive mantras from the bleachers. The four most famous Junkanoo groups face off at the parades every year in hopes to win prizes and highly coveted national bragging rights.

How to Experience Junkanoo Year Round

Due to the increased popularity of the Bahamian tradition, Junkanoo can now be experienced year-round. The splashy display of costumed dancers and musicians highlight many destination-weddings. Hosts desiring to offer guests an authentic and lively environment can contract a Junkanoo band to create a unique entertainment experience. If you are in attendance at any of the local seasonal festivals, you are sure to close out the day with a Junkanoo rush out.  In recent years, a junior edition of the Junkanoo competition has been added to the winter line up of events. The littlest natives of the island adorn painted faces and tiny drums in hand, skipping and twirling to the rhythmic music.

Whether you are a first-time visitor of the islands or one who calls The Bahamas home, once experienced, the rush of Junkanoo will never leave you.  

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Turning air pollution into art

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Photo by Studio Roosegaarde

Artists are known to take inspiration from the world around them. So it’s no surprise that some have begun shining light on one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time—air pollution.

According to the World Health Organization, every year around 7 million premature deaths are caused by air pollution, with 9 out of 10 people breathing toxic air. Air pollution is also known to contribute to climate change and so efforts to tackle it can also help address the climate crisis.

The time to act is now, and artists, like so many others are looking at ways to raise awareness about air pollution, find solutions to reduce it and even use it as a resource.

Pollution Pods

Michael Pinsky got inspired by the differences between the various types of air pollution, when he set out to make Pollution Pods. The project consists of five domes, each imitating air in five different areas of the world: Northern Norway, London, New Delhi, Beijing and São Paulo. As you move through the domes you experience varied levels and sources of air pollution.

“I wanted to have very different sensations from one dome to another,” Pinsky told UN Environment. “It’s not just a question of how strong the pollution is but that they have very different characteristics as well.”

For London, Pinsky recreates the smell of diesel. For Beijing, he mixes the smells of industrial fumes, coal or wood-based heating, and transportation emissions. While New Delhi whiffs of burnt plastic and grass, as citizens still burn a lot of their rubbish.

Luckily, the pollution is only in smell and visibility, without the actual harmful gases. But Pinsky says the experience still isn’t very pleasant. That’s the whole point: air pollution isn’t pleasant.

Pinsky hopes Pollution Pods will lead to a more “radical approach” when dealing with air pollution, particularly with transportation. “It’s not so easy to apply the same advocacy or philosophy towards different cities in the world,” he said. “But in some cases, you could turn the problem around in two years with the right policies.”

Smog-free towers

Daan Roosegaarde was motivated by living in Beijing and witnessing the city’s strive for economic development and citizen wellbeing, when he created the Smog-free Tower. The “largest smog vacuum cleaner in the world”, as Roosegaarde calls it, sucks up polluted air, cleans it and releases it back into the atmosphere.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m not a minister, I cannot give 20 billion euros to green energy today. But I’m an engineer and an artist, I can create a clean-air park, like an oasis.’”

The premise is that the smog-free tower sits in a city park, making the air 20–70 per cent cleaner than the rest of the city. It uses positive ionisation technology, which Roosegaarde says is the only way to clean large volumes of ultra-fine particles while using little energy.

Towers are now found around the world in China, Poland, the Netherlands, and soon, South Korea and Mexico. It’s also led to a global campaign, with local partners in each country replicating the towers. Roosegaarde has now introduced the smog-free ring—made of compressed smog particles—and the smog-free bicycle as well.

“This is not utopia. It’s a pro-topia where we, step-by-step, try to improve our cities,” he said. “The grand goal is to have them not needed anymore, but until then, you do what you can to remain healthy.”

Air pollution-based ink

Anirudh Sharma was visiting his family in Mumbai, India, when he began to notice that in the evening his white shirts would gradually turn speckled with something that resembled dirt.

“I realized this was air pollution, or sooty particulate matter, made of black particles released from exhaust of vehicles,” Sharma told his alma matter Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. “This is a major health issue.”

When he returned to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sharma decided to do something about the air pollution back home. So he set up Graviky Labs—a start-up that has developed a technology to attach to diesel exhaust systems to capture particulate matter. The team at Graviky treat the soot to turn it into ink, called Air-Ink, for use by artists around the world.

So far, the start-up has captured 1.6 billion micrograms of particulate matter, or the equivalent of collecting 1.6 trillion litres of outdoor air.

“Less pollution, more art. That’s what we’re going for,” Sharma said.

UN Environment

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