Perilous Times for the Pyramids

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Sitting impassively on the sunbaked Giza Plateau on Cairo's outskirts, the pyramids look from a distance as though they have hardly aged in the more than 4 1/2 millenniums since they were built. But up close they look anything but eternal. Rubble and rock dust crumbling from the pyramid of Chephren have accumulated in piles on its lower levels. In the pyramid of Cheops, encrustations of salt, left by the evaporation of brackish groundwater, have eaten away at the walls of the burial chamber. The Sphinx, a few hundred feet away from the pyramids, has lost a 600-lb. chunk from its right shoulder, and the neck is so weak that the statue's massive head is in danger of falling off.

Throughout Egypt, the story is much the same. The walls of the Temple of Luxor, some 400 miles upriver from Cairo, are cracking so badly that President Hosni Mubarak, visiting the site in February, called for a thorough restoration. Nearly a fifth of the wall paintings at the tomb of Nefertari, across the Nile from Luxor in the Valley of the Queens, have been destroyed by salt deposits. In fact, says Zahi Hawass, who supervises the Giza Plateau for the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, "all the monuments are endangered. If we don't do something soon, in 100 years the paintings will be gone, and in 200 years the architecture will be gone."

Such a tragedy would be felt far beyond Egypt's borders. The country boasts an estimated 10,000 antiquities sites, and, notes British Egyptologist Michael Jones, "these monuments are a non-renewable resource." The tombs, temples, paintings and inscriptions add up to an incomparable record of the lives and beliefs of people in one of humanity's most ancient civilizations, which influenced the development of modern cultures throughout the world. "We are the guardians of a unique heritage," says the EAO's Ali Hassan. Such guardianship is expensive, though, and calls for far more expertise than any one nation -- especially a developing one -- can hope to muster. Saving ancient sites that are revered around the globe requires global cooperation.

The age of the Egyptian antiquities makes their preservation difficult enough. The pyramids were ancient when the Romans invaded Egypt, and the Sphinx, made of soft, easily eroded limestone, already had a 2,000-year history of deterioration and attempted repairs. But the ravages of time pale next to the destruction wrought by man. The burgeoning Egyptian population, which today tops 53 million, has combined with the hordes of tourists arriving each year to wreak more havoc in the past few decades than the effects of thousands of years of erosion.

As the number of Egyptians increases, people have spilled out of the cities in search of housing. The Giza Plateau, once far from urban sprawl, now lies almost in the shadow of modern apartment buildings. Nearby factories and old vehicles spew forth noxious clouds of particulate-laden exhaust, which becomes corrosive when dissolved by rain. Vibrations from traffic produce cracks in the monuments. More serious still is the damage caused by water. An estimated 80% of Cairo's incoming water supply escapes from leaking pipes into the ground. And the aging sewerage system, built 75 years ago to serve a population of half a million, is choking on the wastes of 13 million. Much of the wastewater overflows into the soil.

The resulting rise in the water table gradually undermines the foundations of buildings, causing them to list and even collapse. In 1987, according to Luis Monreal, director of the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, at least one house fell down in old Cairo every day. "The damage is irretrievable," he says.

Many experts believe the ground-water problems have been exacerbated by the Aswan High Dam. Completed in 1970, it stopped the annual flooding of the Nile and made much more land available for agriculture. But the extensive irrigation used to make that land arable, along with poor drainage, has helped cause the rise in the water table's average level.

As the groundwater rises, it dissolves mineral salts from the soil and bedrock. Ancient buildings, many made of porous limestone, act like sponges, sucking this salty water from the ground. When the water evaporates, the salts are left behind; when this happens at the stone's surface, these crystallize into destructive white lesions.

Then there are the tourists. "The pyramids," laments Hawass, "are the only monuments in the world where you can drive up and park your car. Even in Disneyland you have to park a mile away." Last year alone 1,969,493 visitors came to look at -- and touch and breathe on -- Egypt's treasures. Just six people breathing inside a tomb for an hour can raise the humidity by 5 percentage points. And higher humidity provides a hospitable environment for bacteria, algae and fungi that grow on paintings. Sighs Hassan: "Three thousand people a day visit King Tut's tomb. They sweat. I can't prevent that, but it is destroying the tomb."

Egyptians are justly proud of their Pharaonic heritage, and whenever there is a report that monuments are threatened, a public outcry quickly follows. But in a country that cannot provide enough housing or food for its people, preserving and restoring antiquities is far from the top of the domestic political agenda. The budget this year for archaeological preservation is a mere $6 million, virtually all of it from the fees tourists pay to visit the monuments and museums.

Under the circumstances, the Egyptians have done remarkably well. Their largest and most visible project is a $17 million effort to clean up the pyramids' site and restore 15 tombs on the Giza Plateau. Workers have begun clearing away tons of sand and rubbish, thus eliminating one source of wind- borne erosion. They have also begun shoring up about 30 ft. of the crumbling stones at the base of the pyramid of Cheops.

Under new regulations, camel drivers and peddlers, who have hassled tourists since the time of Herodotus, are barred from the grounds around the pyramids. Cars will be banned too, as soon as outlying parking lots are completed. Visitors will ride electric buses to the monuments. The plan also calls for improving sewage drainage for the growing population of squatters living a few hundred yards from the pyramids. All told, the undertaking could take at least five years to complete.

In the meantime, the Egyptians plan to have teams of archaeologists and engineers make annual evaluations of historic sites throughout the country to learn which are most in need of attention. Several have been singled out for the first round of studies. Among them:

The Sphinx. Its limestone, fragile to begin with, erodes rapidly when it comes in contact with water. "Even the ancient Egyptians knew this rock was not in good condition," notes Sayed Tawfik, chairman of the EAO. Repairs in the early 1980s used cement, which introduced water to the limestone and trapped existing water inside. More recently, workers have used dry limestone powder, similar in composition to the original rock, to strengthen the base of the Sphinx. One proposal from the Getty Institute's Monreal: place the entire statue under a protective canopy for several months at least, while exploring alternatives. The Ministry of Tourism vetoed that idea.

The Temple of Luxor. At this 33-century-old complex, it was discovered two years ago that pillars in the courtyard of Amenhotep III were leaning ominously. They are now propped up with wooden scaffolding, while preservation experts decide what to do next. The temple's limestone walls have cracked, and the Battle of Kadesh carved on its massive pylons has faded. A report suggesting ways to stabilize the ground underneath them from leaning farther is expected soon.

The Oracle Temple of Siwa Oasis. The walls of this 4th century B.C. temple, where Alexander the Great was supposedly crowned King of Egypt, have developed cracks and are in danger of falling. Egyptian officials hope to save the monument by moving it piece by piece from its present site on shifting sand in the Western Desert to firmer ground. The big question is where to put it.

Deir al-Bahri. A 3,400-year-old tomb-and-temple complex near Luxor, it is threatened by landslides from a nearby mountain. The most likely remedy is a + chain-link fence to protect the monument from falling rocks. Meanwhile, the Polish Center of Archaeology in Cairo has been doing restoration work on parts of the temple. One project: using gypsum to patch up and refinish a statue of the god Osiris.

But even if major salvage projects could be launched immediately for all these sites, many more are in urgent need of attention. In the tomb of Seti I, dating from about 1300 B.C., paintings and reliefs are falling off the walls and ceilings. At the Greco-Roman Temple of Sobek and Horus at Kom Ombo, salt buildup has eroded reliefs and inscriptions carved into the temple's walls and pillars. Even in the Temple of Horus at Edfu (3rd century B.C. to 2nd century B.C.), one of the best-preserved temples, inscriptions are endangered by dampness.

Besides making intensive efforts to restore specific monuments, EAO officials want to develop general strategies for keeping sites from deteriorating further. Hawass suggests creating a zone of protection around each valuable monument. "Sites in Egypt are not protected at all," he says. "We need to take away all mechanical activity for at least two to three miles around them." Tawfik proposes eventually planting trees around all outdoor monuments to protect them from winds as well as to absorb moisture. Within monuments, he wants to install clear plastic shields to prevent tourists from touching paintings and inscriptions and air-cleaning systems to remove moisture and dust.

Egypt has nowhere near enough money to pay for such an ambitious restoration program by itself. But it could generate significantly more revenues with one simple move: raising the laughably low entrance fees charged tourists. Tombs, for example, are often free, and visitors to the pyramids are charged only about $1.25. There are plans to double that fee, but it could be doubled again and still remain a bargain.

There need to be governmental changes as well. The EAO, now just a department within the Ministry of Culture, should be raised to full ministerial status. The agency cannot hold its own politically against the Ministry of Tourism, which favors expanded access to ancient sites. At the same time, the standing of Egypt's poorly paid archaeologists should be elevated.

Meanwhile, the Egyptians will have to continue depending on foreign expertise as well as money. That generates suspicion in a country whose treasures for years have been spirited away by scholars and souvenir hunters. Such removals have become rare, but most visitors still have little interest in preservation. A few foreign groups, however, have made major contributions. The University of Chicago's Oriental Institute has been documenting and helping to preserve the temples and tombs at Luxor since the late 1920s. And perhaps the model project is the spectacular effort to restore Nefertari's tomb. The 32-century-old mausoleum, discovered in 1904, has been officially closed since the early 1950s because of its fragile condition. Beginning in 1986, the Getty Institute, in partnership with the EAO, started the delicate, painstaking salvage of the remaining wall paintings.

First, an international team assessed the damage to the tomb and surveyed the local geology and climate. Next, restorers pasted mulberry-bark paper and cotton gauze over the most precarious wall paintings to ensure that they would not collapse. Eventually, the covering was removed, and the paintings were fortified with acrylics and cleaned. To prevent water damage from recurring, the Getty researchers may install waterproof insulation. It has taken nearly two years to treat 60% of the tomb; the project may be completed by mid-1991.

Such efforts will not keep pace with the inexorable deterioration of the monuments unless the Egyptians can speed up their preservation drive. That is why Mubarak's visit to Luxor, the first since he took office in 1981, was so significant. He not only called for a restoration of the Luxor Temple but also a halt to urban encroachments on all archaeological sites. If Mubarak does throw his power behind preservation, he may encourage the Egyptians to take charge of their own priceless heritage and other nations to lend a hand as well. After all, if the monuments of the Pharaonic civilization are allowed to crumble, the whole world will share the loss.