Egyptian Temples Endangered by Rising Water

Scientists are scrambling to figure out a way to protect ancient temples in Luxor, Egypt — among the world's most valuable archeological finds. The 4,000-year-old sandstone marvels are crumbling because of a rising water table. Local farmers say they need the water for irrigation.

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Some of the greatest archeological sites in the world are in danger, according to scientists. In Luxor, along the Nile River in Upper Egypt, rising groundwater levels are causing serious damage to temples and monuments. The water carries salts which erode the ancient symbols and colors on the stone surfaces. Experts say the problem is being made worse by traditional farming methods, which include flooding the fields next to the monuments.

NPR's Peter Kenyon went to Luxor and sent this report.

PETER KENYON reporting:

They're some of the oldest and grandest stone structures in the world, Karnack, Luxor Temple, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. For thousands of years, they've survived the elements, thieves and now a yearly onslaught of tourists. But veteran Egyptologists, such as Ted Brock, say unless something is done, these treasures will face severe damage.

Mr. TED BROCK (Archeologist): I would say it's very urgent in some places, such as in Luxor Temple, the foundations for some of the column poles are very critically damaged. If this isn't addressed within the next ten years, they say that major disasters could happen there.

KENYON: The monuments, palaces and burial chambers of the Pharaohs are highly popular tourist destinations. The city of Luxor is deeply dependent on the visitors for its economic survival.

But other than tourism, the business of Luxor is raising sugarcane. Until the Aswan Dam was built, the fields here would flood each year. Now farmers recreate that flood with canals and pumps.

Standing next a flooded farm field on the Nile's west bank, as the wind sighs through long grasses normally seen around wetlands, Gary Robbins, with the U.S. Agency for International Development, points to a pair of massive stone statues, some 75 feet high, just a few hundred yards away.

The Colossi of Memnon, which once guarded an ancient mortuary temple of Amenhotep III.

Mr. GARY ROBBINS (United States Agency for International Development): They've irrigated the land here to grow the crops. The land gets flooded here, it's going to seep into the ground water, and it's going to get sucked right towards the monuments over there. And this is happening all through this whole belt along the west bank here.

KENYON: Across the river, on the east bank, water gushes from an outlet pipe into the Nile. This huge volume of water is just what's been diverted from underneath the Luxor Temple since a temporary pipe was laid in, to allow workers to dig a deeper drainage trench around the Temple. A series of such trenches are being dug on both sides of the river to channel groundwater away from the endangered monuments.

At Luxor Temple, field director Ray Johnson of the University of Chicago points to a white rime covering a number of stones at the temple, salt that has forced its way through the porous sandstone, removing details and dulling the fine relief carvings that have lasted through the centuries. Johnson says the groundwater reduction projects will help, but that's not the end of the story.

Dr. RAY JOHNSON (University of Chicago): It's like a Band-Aid. And the real problem is the irrigation of the fields. By simply changing the crops to vegetables or flowers, something that's very profitable, maybe even more profitable, but which would require far less water, would actually have an immediate beneficial effect on the adjacent antiquities.

KENYON: Not coincidentally, that's precisely what some agencies are now trying to promote among the region's conservative farm population.

On a quiet morning along a canal filled with Nile water, farmers wait for U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone to arrive for a meeting. In the background, the clank of a distant pump can be heard, lifting water that will slosh over the fields, contributing to the groundwater problem.

Ambassador Ricciardone impresses these farmers with his excellent Arabic and his interest in their efforts to deal with water use issues. But farmer Jhalio Rabaud (ph) says these are not the kind of men to rush into change, and proposals for new irrigation techniques are meeting resistance.

Mr. JHALIO RABAUD (Egyptian farmer): (Speaking foreign language)

KENYON: The farmers here are used to pumping the water and flooding their fields, he says, and because everyone uses the same system, they're familiar with it. And they're afraid that if someone changes the way of doing things, it might cause problems.

But a few farmers are willing to change. They've converted from sugarcane to raising beans and other crops that demand less water. Farmer Ali Fadlala Hasunain (ph) says at first he was afraid to change, but now he's a believer.

Mr. ALI FADLALA HASUNAIN (Egyptian farmer): (Speaking foreign language)

KENYON: We saw with the sugarcane, he says, it stays in the land for twelve months. And the return for one acre is around $200 to $400 dollars, while with the green beans, in just three months, we can make over $600 dollars.

Such conversions are signs of hope for those interested in preserving the great archeological sites of Luxor, but the vast majority of farmers here still use the old flooding methods, and Luxor residents say many won't change unless they're forced to.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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