Egypt's Riddle: a Beltway - Or Sphinx and Pyramids

THE last of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World is having a run-in with 20th-century civilization.

The 4,000-year-old Giza Pyramids and the Sphinx are endangered by a segment of an eight-lane highway that will bring speeding traffic only two miles from the paws of the lion-man.

The Egyptian government is scrambling to solve this problem, which erupted in November when UN cultural authorities attacked the construction of the section of the 59-mile Cairo ring road that now nearly encircles Egypt's capital.

But authorities are reluctant to make major changes to a master plan designed to relieve traffic in a city that has swelled to 15 million people. The $330-million, government-funded beltway will route traffic outside Cairo's congested center and make the country's desert communities easier to reach.

Many argue that having a highway just two miles from the Pyramids would further endanger the First Wonder, bringing modern civilization - high-rise tenements, office buildings, plus damaging vibration from 18-wheelers.

Construction of the threatening highway was stopped in November after Said Zulficar, the Egyptian-born head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), criticized the road's proximity to the Pyramids, saying it violates the international law protecting globally significant sites.

``They put the road through a world heritage site without informing us,'' he says. ``Why didn't they say something 10 years ago?''

UNESCO has given Egypt until May 1 to solve the threat posed by the ring road and other encroachments, or it will remove the site from its World Heritage List.

Tens of thousands of public housing units are under construction, military camps dot the landscape, and garbage dumps not only spoil the area's views but also the aroma.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak formed a committee the end of December to solve the problem. Officials from the reconstruction, antiquities, and tourism ministries are meeting to discuss diverting the road farther south from the Pyramids. ``We know we have the most historical area in the world ... we are very keen about its safety, whatever the cost,'' says Mohamed Ibrahim Suleiman, minister of reconstruction and new communities.

Mr. Mubarak's committee proposes a slight rerouting of the road, but UNESCO rejects this because it would still intersect the protected area. ``We are frightened the site will become an urban site, so we're hoping the road doesn't go anywhere near it,'' Mr. Zulficar says.

UN officials have suggested a 14-mile diversion, even farther south near the Dahshour Pyramids, lesser known ancient tombs dating back to 2,500 BC.

BUT the government has not agreed to this major alteration of the ring road because its current design allows vehicles easy access to 6 October City, located nine miles east. This sprawling industrial and residential desert community with nearly 1,000 factories and a population of 100,000 is inaccessible because vehicles traveling there from the north, south, or west of Cairo must crawl through the city's bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The current plan will also improve transportation from Cairo to the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road, a major trade route linking Cairo to the port city of Alexandria - Egypt's second-largest city.

But the ring road will not only transport cars. It will bring air and noise pollution and prevent excavation of hundreds of tombs that may lie beneath it. Since construction stopped the end of November, archaeologists discovered seven tombs with mummies inside, according to Zahi Hawass, an official with the Egyptian Antiquities Organization.

Ring road supporters, including government officials and business people, argue that the beltway could help by diverting traffic away from the Pyramids Road, only 600 yards from the Giza Pyramids.

While almost everyone, including Mubarak, seems to have joined the drive to reroute the ring road, the proposal driving the two-kilometer section 22 kilometers farther south would render that segment useless, some say. It would not be any faster to take this route to the road to 6 October City or the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road, says a long-time Cairo resident and urban planner.

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