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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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Spiritual revival day: Reception to mark International Day of Nowruz in Beijing

MD Staff

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On 21 March, a reception organised by the SCO Secretariat took place on the occasion of International Day of Nowruz, spring festival.

Nowruz is an international holiday that has been celebrated for thousands of years by people living in various countries covering the large territory from the Balkans and South Caucasus to Central and South Asia, as well as Russia and Western China. Nowruz signifies the revival of nature, love and triumph of life together with the expectation of a good harvest. According to an ancient legend, it also announces the dominance of light over darkness and warmth over chilliness.

From the very beginning of the reception, people could plunge themselves into a festive mood typical of spring feeling fresh and experiencing an atmosphere of the awakening and dawning of nature. Guests were welcomed with bright spring flowers and had an opportunity to see an exhibition of national arts and crafts. A bowl with sprouted wheat stood in the centre of the hall. Its bright emerald green colour symbolised the rebirth of the earth.

When the impressive sounds of the karnay, a Central Asian wind instrument, announced the beginning of the official reception, SCO Secretary-General Rashid Alimov cordially greeted the guests and reminded them that leaving the Northern Hemisphere and crossing the equator on the vernal point, the Sun annunciates the advent of the long-awaited spring.

“Today is International Day of Nowruz. For already three thousand years it has united millions of people on the planet by its intransient spiritual values and lofty aspirations. On this day, as on no other, people derive strength and inspiration in bonding with nature, and unite with a view to transforming their homes and world around them and asserting in it tolerance and creativity, mutual respect and mutual understanding,” Rashid Alimov said, adding: “International Day of Nowruz invites people to live in harmony with nature, strengthen goodwill, build reliable bridges of friendship and cooperation, develop and enrich dialogue of cultures and civilisations, and work together for a safe and prosperous future, which fully meets the principles of the Shanghai spirit.”

Mr Alimov noted that representatives not only from the SCO friendly family but also from many countries and continents gathered in the festive hall. “This is the best reflection of the main mission of International Day of Nowruz — to unite people for the sake of peace and preserve our planet for future generations, for the prosperity of all nations on our planet,” said Mr Alimov and invited everyone to turn over a new leaf in their relations.

Warm words spoken by the SCO Secretary-General were followed by video greetings from ambassadors extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the SCO member states, the special representative of the Chinese Government in the SCO, and the team of the SCO Secretariat.

Lively music and dances that represent nations of the “SCO family,” showcasing of fashionable clothes, various different sorts of food and culinary delicacies typical of Nowruz added to the general spring atmosphere of this event.

A large-scale photo exhibition the theme of which was the SCO International Marathon, which was held in Kunming (Yunnan Province, China) on 31 December 2017 was very much enjoyed by everyone.

More than 400 guests attended the reception marking International Day of Nowruz in Beijing, including ambassadors and representatives of diplomatic missions in China, as well as prominent public figures, scientists, journalists, business people and cultural representatives.

In September 2009, Nowruz was included into UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

On 23 February 2010, the UN General Assembly announced 21 March International Day of Nowruz.

Traditionally, the SCO Secretariat organises receptions to mark New Year according to the Gregorian calendar, Chinese New Year according to the Lunar calendar, and International Day of Nowruz.

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Building intercultural competences in Costa Rica

MD Staff

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© UNESCO Participants using “Story Circles” to develop intercultural competence

In cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and Youth of Costa Rica, Parque La Libertad, the Costa Rican National Human Rights Institution and the Spanish Cultural Centre in Costa Rica, UNESCO conducted the third pilot of the UNESCO Manual on Intercultural Competences based on Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica, from 7 to 9 March 2018.

Building on the previous pilot sessions in Bangkok, Thailand, and Harare, Zimbabwe, the Costa Rican pilot provided an additional opportunity to test the manual’s adaptability and effectiveness in different contexts, both from the perspective of facilitation, and with regard to its ability to build individual capacities for intercultural dialogue and understanding.

Over the course of three days, UNESCO led a training of trainers session with national authorities, local NGO leaders, educators and other community leaders, as well as two pilot sessions – facilitated by the newly trained local personnel – with over 70 participants from a broad cross-section of Costa Rica’s population. The pilot sessions included a particular focus on indigenous groups, and community-level work for youth-focused violence prevention.

Ms Viviana Boza, Vice-Minister of Youth from Costa Rica, opened the proceedings, highlighting “the importance of this collaboration which allows us to enhance our comprehension of the   cultural differences and challenges facing Costa Rica to advance the resolution of intercultural and intergenerational conflicts”.

Against the backdrop of growing cultural diversity and intercultural interaction within the sub-region, the methodology proposed in this manual provides an accessible activity based on story-telling to bring people together to reflect upon their differences and challenge their preconceptions. It provides a unique opportunity for participants to improve their capacity for empathy, tolerance, listening and understanding, and therefore reflect on sources of conflict and misunderstanding.

Indeed, given the serious global challenges facing humanity in the 21st century, learning how to live together is an imperative for advancing sustainable and inclusive development. To this end, learning to be intercultural competent – in other words, having the skills needed to enhance connections and understanding across difference – is essential.

The lessons learnt from this pilot session will inform final adaptions to the manual to maximize its relevance once publically released, including within the Latin American and Caribbean context. It also contributed to the building of a strong foundation of trained facilitators to help mobilize the manual’s wide dissemination and use following its expected publication before the end of 2018.

UNESCO

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Ballet and Opera Set Sail With Silversea in 2018 and 2019

MD Staff

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Ultra-luxury Silversea has announced a new collection of ballet and opera-themed sailings for 2018 and 2019. These Enriched Voyages, designed to blend culture and travel for a more immersive experience, will feature evocative opera shows performed by the world-renowned Accademia Teatro alla Scala and classic ballet performances by soloists from such legendary companies as the State Academic Bolshoi Theater of Russia. Along with lectures and Q&A sessions, guests will have the chance to mingle with the artists at a signature cocktail party.

“We are thrilled and honored to welcome such extraordinary talent from the performing arts,” said Barbara Muckermann, Silversea’s chief marketing officer. “I know our guests on these exclusive voyages will be both enriched and inspired by the exceptional onboard entertainment experience.”

Opera Voyages

Based in Milan, Italy, Accademia Teatro alla Scala (La Scala Theater Academy) is one of the world’s foremost performing arts academies. Its internationally renowned performers and instructors offer the highest level of artistic education for aspiring and gifted singers, dancers, and musicians from every corner of the world. Four soloists from its Academy of Lyric Opera and a piano accompanist will perform a selection of opera’s most beautiful librettos for the enjoyment of Silversea guests aboard:

Silver Muse departs September 28, 2018 on a 10-day voyage from Venice to Athens with calls in Rovinj, Dubrovnik, Corfu, Katakolon, Nafplion, Santorini and Rhodes. Early Booking Bonus fares start at $9,360 per guest.

Silver Spirit departs April 25, 2019 on a 7-day voyage from Barcelona to Rome with calls in Porto Mahon, Alghero, Cagliari, Trapani and Sorrento. Early Booking Bonus fares start at $3,150 per guest.

Silver Shadow departs October 22, 2019 on an 11-day, roundtrip voyage from Athens with calls in Mykonos, Crete, Kusadasi, Rhodes, Limassol, Haifa and Ashdod. Early Booking Bonus fares start at $4,230 per guest.

Silver Muse | photo courtesy of Silversea Cruises

Ballet Voyages

Daria Khokhlova and Artemy Belyakov, acclaimed ballet solo performers of the State Academic Bolshoi Theater of Russia, one of the world’s most renowned ballet companies, are returning to Silversea for an exclusive engagement aboard Silver Muse’s August 19, 2018 sailing from Venice to Monte Carlo. The 10-day voyage will visit Opatija, Dubrovnik, Valletta, Trapani, Olbia, Portofino and Livorno. Early Booking Bonus fares start at $6,480 per guest.

Silver Muse’s March 21, 2019 voyage from Singapore to Hong Kong will feature soloists from a yet-to-be-announced ballet company. The 13-day voyage will feature calls in Koh Samui, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang. Early Booking Bonus fares start at $6,300 per guest.

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