Onslaught of tourism, pollution threatens to destroy Egypt's ancient treasures

December 29, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

LUXOR, Egypt -- When Egyptologist Howard Carter chipped a small hole into the wall guarding the inner chamber of the tomb of the young Pharaoh Tutankhamen, he poked his head in for a first look. Could he see anything, his sponsor, standing behind him, wanted to know.

"Yes," Carter replied. "Wonderful things."

"As my eyes grew accustomed to the light," he wrote later, "details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold -- everywhere the glint of gold."

Working painstakingly amid the riches of the first intact royal tomb discovered in Luxor's fabled Valley of the Kings, Carter said he became aware of "strange rustling, murmuring, whispering sounds which rose and fell and sometimes wholly died away."

Opened to the fresh desert air after lying sealed in a mountain for more than 3,000 years, the treasures were undergoing chemical reactions to the intrusion. King Tut's tomb began to be lost the day the modern world found it in 1922.

Today, Egypt's ancient tombs are suffering a different kind of assault, the effects of up to 3,000 sweating, flash-popping tourists who tramp through their corridors each day for a brief link with a lost civilization.

A strange brown bacterial growth has appeared on the Tut tomb's walls, probably caused in part by the 1,500 cubic inches of sweat that condenses there daily during tourist season.

At the tomb of Ramses II's favorite wife, Queen Nefertari, delicate paintings began chipping off the walls years ago, even though the tomb had been closed to the public for more than four decades.

Salt crystals have eaten away at elaborate reliefs in other burial chambers, and the nose of more than one goddess is shiny, thanks to the gentle fingerings of thousands of the curious. Just a few weeks ago, a chunk of the ceiling of Seti I's tomb fell to the ground.

Threatened sites

And the troubles are not confined to the royal tombs:

* Luxor Temple, constructed under Amenhotep 3,300 years ago, is considered an endangered monument. University of Chicago archaeologists are rushing to photograph its reliefs, erupting with salt blisters and slowly flaking away because of the dampening effects of waste water from the surrounding town, the watering of a public park nearby and the overall rise in the water table.

* In the grand gallery of the Pyramid of Cheops, humidity during peak tourist hours reaches 95 percent, and workers last year had to remove a half-inch-thick crust of salt from the walls. Officials destroyed rats and insects living inside the structure.

* The Sphinx inexplicably lost a 500-pound hunk of its shoulder in 1988, and workers have noticed flakes of stone sprinkling from the broad chest of the half-man, half-lion.

* The royal mummies, locked out of public view for years, have nonetheless begun to suffer from fungal growth and insect infestation in their hot museum warehouse in Cairo.

Egypt is an archaeological wonderland. But treasures that have survived millenniums have in recent decades begun to succumb to the effects of a population that is growing at the rate of 1 million every nine months.

In Cairo's old city, precious Islamic monuments are literally crumbling from the effects of sewage, smog and overcrowding. Near the World War II battle site of El Alamein, laborers constructing a tourist village two years ago bulldozed the remains of a Greco-Roman town.

And virtually nothing remains of a huge Neolithic trading village that recently stood in the elite Cairo suburb of Maadi. The site is covered with high-rise apartments and telephone satellite dishes.

"Fighting a losing battle"

"There are parts of almost every site in Egypt that are badly damaged," says archaeologist Kent Weeks, a specialist on the Luxor tombs with the American University of Cairo and the University of California, Berkeley.

"There are sites that we might as well now write off; they're too far gone. We have had to implement a form of triage to save what's left," Mr. Weeks said. "But I don't think we have the luxury to sit around and talk about conservation anymore. . . . Every hieroglyphic that falls off the wall is lost. It means there's that much less for future generations to study."

Peter Dorman, director of the University of Chicago's Chicago House in Luxor, which has been painstakingly documenting the disappearing temple reliefs since 1913, said, "We know these monuments are not going to be here much longer."

He expressed grave doubts about Egyptologists' ability to stop the damage. "I firmly believe they're fighting a losing battle," he .. said. "The amount of resources it would take is almost unfathomable."

Even getting a start has been difficult for the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, which for years has been a hornet's nest of backbiting, infighting and bureaucratic intrigue.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.