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March 29, 2018

Oriental Institute Survey Director Talks Climate Threats to Egypt

W. Raymond Johnson, director of the Oriental Institute’s Epigraphic Survey, was featured in a U.N. Environment Programme article on climate threats to ancient structures in Egypt. In correspondence with The Maroon, Johnson provided more insight on the issues facing archaeologists and the Epigraphic Survey.

The article delves into the damage that changing climate is causing to Egypt’s temples and tombs. Johnson’s comments focused on how the changes in climate, particularly the increase in haze, have hindered archaeological studies. The article also touches on several other problems such as unstable temperatures, increased rainfall, and human impact currently plaguing sites in Egypt.

“We used to make blueprints [of the hieroglyphic inscription drawings] using natural sunlight, but starting about 20 years ago, we found it harder and harder to burn the image onto the paper,” Johnson said. “It was then that we realized that it was getting hazier and hazier.” The temperatures have never been as warm for as long as they have in the last few years, with excavation days being cut short due to the heat. Increases in rainfall during winter months have had a damaging effect as well. “Like all the world, we have a fear of climate change,” says Mostafa Ghaddafi Abdel Rehim, a senior antiquities official, in a quote for the article.

Human activity has also negatively affected the sites. The Aswan High Dam’s prevention of the annual flood has allowed salt to build up and destroy the stones, while the increase in agriculture to support the increased population has driven up the water table in the East and West banks.

The article elaborated on the joint effort between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities working to resolve the groundwater issue, and other efforts like surrounding archaeological zones with walls to prevent agricultural or urban expansion from invading these areas, and founding field schools to teach inspectors about threats and treasures. Despite the progress, archaeologists have increased their documentation initiatives. “There is more urgency now,” Johnson said. “That’s why we go first to what’s most threatened.”

In a message to The Maroon, Johnson elaborated on the complexities of the situation as Egypt contends with unchecked development and population expansion. “The amount of land formerly desert and now under cultivation is absolutely staggering, and while it is a testament to the ingenuity of modern Egyptian agricultural engineers, drainage water from these new fields, and waste water from the new settlements represents a direct threat to nearby antiquities sites that have survived solely due to dry conditions and lack of development.”

Another problem that Johnson brought up is the increasing rate of reclamation of desert land as a result of these factors. Johnson referred to Google Earth images that show this change over time, and to a list of lost monuments. “During the revolution in 2011 the northern half of the only surviving hippodrome in Egypt was destroyed by cemetery expansion. The list is endless, and tragic,” Johnson wrote.

On the Oriental Institute’s work in the Near East, Johnson commented on their responsibility as Luxor residents over the last 94 years to preserve the structures, as well as the high costs of upgrading technology and growing their mission. “Our main challenge is to expand our work in response to the changing conditions here at a time when funds for such work are increasingly scarce.” Johnson also commented on issues in funding from the University, writing that “New University-wide budgetary constraints are not helping the Oriental Institute in its tasks.”

“The bottom line is that what nature preserved for us in the past, is now our collective responsibility, to insure its survival for future generations to study, learn from, and enjoy,” Johnson wrote, sharing his concerns for the future. “While there is a sizeable Egyptian and foreign scientific community working in Luxor, there are not enough Egyptologists in the world to properly care for the wealth of monuments that miraculously survive here.”

The University of Chicago’s Epigraphic Survey, which Johnson has directed since 1997, has been producing precise drawings and photographs of scenes and reliefs since its founding in 1924. The Survey’s most recent season's work includes a digital documentation initiative in the blockyards at Luxor Temple; film and digital documentation of a private tomb in western Thebes; and continued documentation, conservation, site development, and restoration at Medinet Habu with a grant from USAID Egypt. While the precise, scientific documentation and publication of Egypt's cultural heritage sites continues to be its primary work in Luxor, the Survey expanded its mission in the mid-1990s to include restoration, conservation, and site management in response to rapidly changing conditions in Egypt that are accelerating decay of the ancient monuments.

The Survey is based out of Chicago House, the Oriental Institute headquarters in Luxor, Egypt, and maintains the Chicago House Library, which has the largest collection of volumes on Egyptology in southern Egypt. In 2019, the Oriental Institute will celebrate a century of dedication to the preservation of ancient heritage sites all over the Near East.

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