Tourists punch in to save tombs

When archaeologist Kent Weeks crawled through the dank entrance of a Pharaonic tomb 10 years ago, he had no idea his discovery would change the way visitors experience Egypt's most famous sites.

In fact, tourism helped spur Dr. Weeks's find. When a road near the Valley of the Kings in Upper Egypt was to be widened, Weeks stymied the project, believing an important tomb was buried nearby. What he found rattled the foundations of Egyptology and made leading experts reconsider long-held hypotheses about Egyptian kingship. It also jump-started an award-winning preservation and conservation effort that is changing the way tourism is conducted.

His site is the first to make use of hot-air balloons to take aerial photographs, an event that spawned commercial hot-air balloon businesses that offer tourists rides over the valley.

Weeks and his team started mapping the area around Thebes in 1979. But it wasn't until 1995 that they sifted and removed enough debris to access a doorway in the back of the tomb's entrance.

"Getting in there we saw a long corridor, doorways off the sides of it, and as we moved back, we realized we were in a tomb of almost labyrinthine design and gargantuan proportions. Everywhere we looked there were more doors and more chambers.... Down the line was the statue of the god Osiris cut into the wall," Weeks says, on a visit to Boston's Museum of Science. "Clearly, this was something very special."

The magnitude of the find was staggering. The tomb is where Ramses II buried some or all of his more than 100 sons. "We don't know of any other family mausoleum like this," Weeks says. "We're now up to 110 corridors and chambers."

But tourist activities and gritty pollution have been nibbling away at major tombs in Egypt for years. Weeks says in the last six to nine months, as many as 5,000 hot, sweaty tourists wedged into various tombs every day. As Egypt's second-highest foreign-exchange earner, tourism is an archaeological problem that has to be dealt with.

It's not just happening in the Valley of the Kings, Weeks says, but at every archaeological site from the pyramids in the north to Abu Simbel in the south.

Cement factories up and down the country are belching out loads of particulate matter, he says. When it comes in contact with limestone monuments, "it utterly destroys them." Burning tires and burning sugar cane fields add to the pollution. And rising groundwater from irrigation weakens temple foundations and floods tombs.

Catharine Roehrig, a specialist in Old Kingdom Egyptian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, agrees. The tombs in the Valley of the Kings are carved out of limestone that contains a large quantity of salt, she says. When tourists crowd into tombs, the humidity increases and "the salt in the limestone migrates to the surface and pushes off the decorative layer."

The Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities is taking measures to protect the tombs, Ms. Roehrig says, providing better ventilation and Plexiglas to separate tourists from the art work.

In addition, a $5.35 million fund was established in 1994 under a US-Egyptian partnership. And the United States Agency for International Development has been working with the Egyptian government to introduce sustainable development programs.

The Theban Mapping Project was recently selected by the World Monuments Fund as one of the 100 most critical projects in archaeology and conservation for 2000. The mapping project is working with the antiquities organization to develop a master plan for tourists in the Valley of Kings, including a system of timed tickets and stoplights, so that if one tomb is filled, tour guides can take people to another.

"We are laying the foundation for developing the kinds of overall plans for tourism that will ensure that people can go there ... but do the absolute minimal amount of damage," Weeks says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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