So Long, Sphinx? : Many of Egypt’s Crumbling Treasures May Be Beyond Repair


When Egyptologist Howard Carter chipped a small hole into the wall guarding the inner chamber of the tomb of the young Pharaoh Tutankhamen, he poked his head in for a first look. Could he see anything? his sponsor, standing behind him, wanted to know.

“Yes,” Carter replied. “Wonderful things.”

“As my eyes grew accustomed to the light,” he wrote later, “details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold--everywhere the glint of gold.”

Working painstakingly amid the riches of the first intact royal tomb discovered in Luxor’s fabled Valley of the Kings, Carter said he became aware of “strange rustling, murmuring, whispering sounds which rose and fell and sometimes wholly died away.”


Opened to the fresh desert air after lying sealed in a mountain for more than 3,000 years, the treasures were undergoing chemical reactions to the intrusion. King Tut’s tomb began to be lost the day the modern world found it in 1922.

Today, Egypt’s ancient tombs are suffering a different kind of assault, the effects of up to 3,000 huffing, sweating, flash-popping tourists who tramp through their corridors each day for a brief link with a lost civilization.

A strange brown bacterial growth has appeared on the Tut tomb’s walls, probably caused in part by the 1,500 cubic inches of sweat that condenses there daily during tourist season.

At the tomb of Ramses II’s favorite wife, Queen Nefertari, delicate paintings began chipping off the walls years ago, even though the tomb had been closed to the public for more than four decades.


Salt crystals have etched away at elaborate reliefs in other burial chambers, and the nose of more than one goddess is shiny thanks to the gentle fingerings of thousands of the curious. Just a few weeks ago, a chunk of the ceiling of Seti I’s tomb clunked to the ground.

And the troubles are not confined to the royal tombs:

* Luxor Temple, first constructed under Amenhotep 3,300 years ago, is considered an endangered monument as well. University of Chicago archeologists are rushing to photograph its reliefs, erupting with salt blisters and slowly flaking away because of the dampening effects of waste water from the surrounding town, the watering of a public park nearby and the overall rise in the water table.

* In the grand gallery of the Pyramid of Cheops, humidity during peak tourist hours reaches 95%, and workers last year had to remove a half-inch-thick crust of salt from the walls. Officials destroyed rats and insects living inside the structure.

* The Sphinx inexplicably lost a 500-pound hunk of its shoulder in 1988, and workers have noticed flakes of stone sprinkling from the broad chest of the half-man, half-lion.

* The royal mummies, locked out of public view for years, have nonetheless begun to suffer from fungal growth and insect infestation in their hot museum warehouse in Cairo.

Egypt itself is an archeological wonderland. And treasures that have survived millennia have in recent decades begun to succumb to the effects of a population that is growing at the rate of 1 million every nine months.

In Cairo’s old city, precious Islamic monuments are literally crumbling from the effects of sewage, smog and overcrowding. Near the World War II battle site of El Alamein, laborers constructing a tourist village two years ago bulldozed through the remains of a Greco-Roman town.


And virtually nothing remains of a huge Neolithic trading village that recently stood in the elite Cairo suburb of Maadi. The site is covered with high-rise apartments and telephone satellite dishes.

“There are parts of almost every site in Egypt that are badly damaged,” says archeologist Kent Weeks, a specialist on the Luxor tombs with the American University of Cairo and UC Berkeley.

“There are sites that we might as well now write off; they’re too far gone. We have had to implement a form of triage to save what’s left,” Weeks says. “But I don’t think we have the luxury to sit around and talk about conservation anymore. . . . Every hieroglyphic that falls off the wall is lost. It means there’s that much less for future generations to study.”

“We know these monuments are not going to be here much longer,” says Peter Dorman, director of the University of Chicago’s Chicago House in Luxor, which has been painstakingly documenting the disappearing temple reliefs since 1913.

Dorman expresses grave doubts about Egyptologists’ ability to stop the damage. “I firmly believe they’re fighting a losing battle,” he says quietly. “The amount of resources it would take is almost unfathomable.”

Even getting a start has been difficult for the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, which for years has been a hornet’s nest of backbiting, infighting and bureaucratic intrigue.

So stymied was the government agency in coming up with a plan for conserving Egyptian monuments that the World Bank withdrew a $5-million low-interest credit in 1989. Archeologists say as much as $9 million more that was earmarked for conservation was lost when no one could agree on how to spend it.

Debate over what to do about the Sphinx was clouded when an American visitor produced a videotape in which a guard confessed he had seen two EAO officials hammering at the monument’s shoulder before the chunk fell off. Officials later concluded that it probably was an attempt by the former EAO management to fabricate a scandal to make the new management look bad.


Still, some officials are ready to take drastic steps toward conservation. Zahi Hawass, who supervises the Giza plateau for the EAO, has urged a halt to archeological excavation in Egypt for the next decade. Too many archeologists over the years, officials say, have uncovered Egypt’s treasures, taken what they could and left the rest to rot.

“What most of the people want is discovery and glory,” Hawass complains. “But we have to think of the glory of the monuments, and for the future.”

Hawass, in addition to challenging the archeologists, has taken on an even more formidable adversary, moving to expel the camel drivers and trinket hawkers from the area around the pyramids and announcing plans to move the nearby community of Nazlet al Semaan. The large village of 70,000, whose sewage has drained under the Sphinx for years, includes some of Cairo’s most politically influential merchant families--the virtual founders of the tourism industry, Egypt’s second-largest source of revenue.

Hawass also has started charging tourists about $3 to visit the pyramids, raising more than $450,000 a month for site conservation and restoration.

But by far the most controversial move to protect Egypt’s antiquities has come by way of a proposal, tentatively endorsed by the EAO, to build life-sized replicas of the most threatened tombs in the Valley of the Kings, closing many real tombs permanently to public view.

A Swiss team has proposed to reconstruct an initial group of five tombs, including the royal tombs of Tutankhamen, Nefertari and Thutmosis III, as well as those of the nobles Inherhao and Sennejem. Up to $100 million needed for the project would come from private fund-raising through UNESCO.

The Swiss team’s approach is practical: A similar replica of the prehistoric painted caves in Lascaux, France, has attracted a fourfold increase in visitors, they say, while access to the original caves is limited to academics.

The proposal has elicited a flood of controversy in Egypt, where tour companies fear visitors might not travel thousands of miles to visit tomb replicas. It has even drawn fire from archeologists, who say the $100 million should protect the tombs themselves.

Mohammed Saghayer, EAO chief in Luxor, says conservationists are preparing to reopen the tombs of Tutankhamen, Userhat, Khonsu and Benia soon, their delicate paintings protected behind glass screens. A visitors’ center opening soon in Luxor will regulate the flow of tourists and allow tombs to be closed regularly to control humidity and dust.

“But for the bigger tombs, I think the best answer is the replicas,” Saghayer says. “We shall lose nothing if we perform this project, and I don’t think the visitors will be disappointed.”

Meanwhile, the Getty Conservation Institute, based in Marina del Rey, has nearly completed a painstaking restoration of one of the most beautiful tombs, that of Queen Nefertari, after five years of work. The institute, a sister institution to the J. Paul Getty Museum, is urging that the tomb not be reopened to the public.

In the course of restoration, Getty workers found that the amount of bacteria in the tomb increased 300% after the first day’s work. When only eight people entered the tomb, relative humidity shot up past allowable levels within 40 minutes--and took 24 hours to drop again.

“Our recommendation now is that the tomb not be opened without restrictions. We’re not saying we should close the tomb, lock it and throw away the key. Scholars, art historians and a select group of specialists could be allowed on a monitored basis, and when the temperature and relative humidity reach levels unacceptable for the conservation of the wall paintings, people would then be asked to leave,” says the institute’s director, Miguel Angel Corzo.

The replica plan is a good idea, Corzo argues.

“These are unique pieces of work that go back 30, 40, 50 centuries, and there is nothing written that people have an unlimited right of access to the art,” he says. “There has to be a decision made by the people who are in charge of cultural property in order to protect those sites--not only for the present, but also for the future. These are not renewable resources.”

Moreover, a plan to replicate five or six of the most threatened tombs would still allow visitors to see other, less-vulnerable sites, he says.

The Getty institute also is working with the EAO to reopen the royal mummies to public view, designing special glass cases that encase the corpses in nitrogen gas, which prevents bacteria growth.

Other points of light are brightening the picture as well.

A new sewage system at Nazlet al Semaan will keep most of the waste water from flowing toward the Sphinx. Already, the water table has dropped several yards. Meanwhile, a weather monitoring station on the Sphinx’s rump is gathering data on possible wind, rain and humidity damage to the monument.

A tourist rest house that had been leaching sewage into a recently excavated tomb in the valley was torn down--although vibrations from the work are suspected as the cause of the chunks that fell in the nearby Seti I tomb.

And Egypt’s new antiquities director, Mohammed Ibrahim Bakr, has ordered that no archeological missions can go into the field without first submitting a plan on how to conserve whatever they find.

“It is commendable,” Weeks says of the regulation. “But there have always been laws on the books. The problem here is that you can’t stick a shovel into the ground without finding something--and given the amount of pressure on land, the need for new cities, for agricultural land, it’s very tempting to look the other way.”