Climate Change Threatens Egyptian Antiquities

New Study Calls for Proactive Measures to Save Ancient Cities, Artifacts
The coastal city of Alexandria is greatly vulnerable to risks due to climate change, according to a recent study.
Karnak Temple. Many archaeological sites in Luxor are located on the two sides of the Nile and only a few meters from the water. (AFP)
Luxor Temple. Many archaeological sites in Luxor are located on the two sides of the Nile and only a few meters from the water. (AFP)
Moezz street in historic Cairo houses dozens of Islamic monuments dating back to the Fatimid Caliphate (909–1171) until Mohamed Ali era (1805 -1952). (Photo by Salwa Samir)

Climate change has become a major concern for many governments, as scientists and civil societies keep raising alarms of its irreversible life-threatening effects every new day. While preparations are underway for the coming climate summit COP27 in Egypt later this year, one recent study warned about the impact of increasing world temperature and subsequent climate changes on Egypt’s antiquities which date back to thousands of years. 

Egyptian archaeologist Abdel Aziz Salem, professor and head of the Islamic Antiquities Department at Cairo University’s Faculty of Archaeology and international expert on heritage, warned in a new study of the dangers of climate change on the safety of Egyptian antiquities of all kinds: Pharaonic, Christian, Jewish and Islamic, whether those located in coastal cities or those overlooking the Nile River.

The study was done after observing the bad effect of climate change on antiquities in the past six months. 

“The effect of every month of the last six months equals the effect of a year. All of the antiquities built on the banks of the Nile River and the coastal cities are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change,” Professor Salem told Majalla.

Among the affected areas which need urgent solutions to save them is Historic Cairo, one of the world's oldest Islamic cities, which includes no fewer than 600 classified monuments dating from the 7th to 20th centuries. The area was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1979.

“I can say that Historic Cairo is floating on a lake of groundwater,” Professor Salem said.

“When the Cairo Metro Line 1 was constructed in the 1980s, many concrete barriers were erected in that area which caused an obstruction to sewage disposal into the Nile. So the volume of groundwater has increased and lies under the buildings of this area. Over time the water level imbalance has also been accelerated by the rain.

“This has a bad effect on antiquities in this area which were built from limestone, especially the facades, inscriptions and decorations on the structures. We observed a change in their condition in the last six months as compared to their state six years before. We noticed underground water traces on the facades of antiquities in Moezz Street,” he said. This street houses dozens of Islamic monuments dating back to the Fatimid Caliphate (909–1171) until Mohamed Ali era (1805 -1952).

Similarly, the coastal city of Alexandria is greatly vulnerable to risks due to climate change, according to his study.

He mentioned that during his participation last November in the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the same warning that when temperature rises only four degrees, “we will say goodbye to entire cities, which are Miami, Alexandria, and Shanghai, they will all sink underwater.”

Salem agreed, saying “Egypt should make proactive precautionary measures urgently.”

His study suggests erecting a huge concrete steel mesh that opens and closes like a bridge to protect Alexandria from being submerged.

“The increase in the temperatures at the North Pole leads to the melting of ice and will thereby increase the level of seawater, which will flood coastal cities,” he said.

His study also suggested establishing a strong network for draining water, the same as needed for Historic Cairo which would enable it to endure the heavy rains expected in the coming period due to climate change.

GERD AND SAFETY OF ANTIQUITIES

Moving to south of Egypt, Professor Salem said that Ethiopia's Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will have grave consequences on the UNESCO-registered cultural sites in Upper Egypt, especially Luxor.

“Many archaeological sites in Luxor are located on the two sides of the Nile and only a few meters from the water, such as Karnak Temple and Abu Simbel Temples. The GERD causes water retention and when the groundwater increases or even decreases it will cause soil disturbance and harm those antiquities,” he said.

“We need to measure the level of water in the soil regularly and to deal with any change immediately,” he suggested. 

He also called upon the government to involve UNESCO in this regard as Luxor is among UNESCO's World Heritage List.

“We need to involve UNESCO and call for adding a protocol to the 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage to identify the risks of climate change and to provide an international mechanism to protect the archaeological sites from impact of climate change,” Salem said.

BURIED ANTIQUITIES

Salem hailed the continuous excavations and discoveries made by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. He said that these artifacts were unearthed and are on display in well-equipped museums, a new environment that protects them from any danger.

However, he wondered about the case of remaining antiquities that we haven't discovered yet. 

“According to researchers, we unearthed just one third of the antiquities Egypt has, what is the fate of the remaining antiquities? Will we increase the efforts to discover more in the coming period? Will we be able to do this in a short time?

“Unfortunately, the answer is that climate change will reach it sooner or later.

“I hope that the pace of climate change will be slow enough to give concerned officials the opportunity to act and take proactive measures,” he said.

EGYPT HOSTS COP27

The Red Sea’s Sharm El Sheikh will be the venue for the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference 2022 (COP 27) in November.

Professor Salem hopes that Egypt will take this golden opportunity to protect the antiquities from climate change. 

“During the conference, Egypt will be a venue where all global climate experts gather and share together research and international experiences. We must take this opportunity to benefit from their research results and try to apply them on coastal cities and archaeological sites vulnerable to the harmful imprint of climate change,” Salem said.


Related Articles