By Zahi Hawass

The Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) is responsible for the conservation and restoration of monuments from all eras of Egyptian history. Along with the development and construction of museums, the care of prehistoric, pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Jewish, Coptic, and Islamic sites is at the heart of the SCA's mission. In a country as rich in historical culture as Egypt, fulfilling these responsibilities is an enormous task.

When I became secretary general of the SCA in 2002, one of my first initiatives was a five-point strategy for the protection of Egypt's monuments. The first of this program's interrelated goals is to transform Egypt's museums from outdated storage facilities into world-class cultural and educational institutions; landmarks like the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo are under renovation, and a number of new museums are under construction across the country. The second goal is to raise awareness among Egyptians of their cultural heritage and history by implementing educational programs for both children and adults.

The third goal is the protection of Egypt's antiquities from looting and destruction. We are improving the way monuments are guarded and building more secure storage facilities. We are simultaneously in the process of strengthening the laws that govern the theft, illegal export, and destruction of artifacts and monuments. The changes being made to our laws also support our fourth goal, the repatriation of stolen antiquities. We are actively pursuing the return of a number of important stolen artifacts.

Our fifth goal, the development of comprehensive site management programs for all monuments under our care, is one of the most ambitious and challenging undertakings in the history of the SCA. Six years ago, the concept of site management was in its infancy in Egypt. Tombs and temples were excavated, conservation programs were carried out, personnel were trained, and visitor facilities were constructed—but seldom, if ever, with an overarching vision for the understanding and protection of the site as a whole. The situation changed little over many decades, and no one seemed concerned with developing comprehensive strategies to protect our sites for the future. I knew that it was important to introduce these ideas to Egypt.

In 1995 I attended a conference arranged by the Getty Conservation Institute to discuss site management.1 Through this conference I visited a number of major Mediterranean sites, to study the ideas behind site management and to bring attention to the dangers facing Egypt's monuments. At this conference I first announced that without intervention, we would lose all of Egypt's great historical sites within one hundred years.

What are the challenges in protecting our monuments?

  • Tourism. This is, perhaps, the most visible threat to Egypt's ancient sites. UNESCO recognized this problem years ago, and in 1996—in cooperation with the European Union and the World Tourism Organization—it addressed the issue at conferences in Milan and Paris. Tourism is increasing rapidly in Egypt, and because it is so important to the national economy, we must accommodate the needs of visitors. Our challenge is to do this while finding ways to minimize the impact of tourist traffic on our fragile monuments.
  • Urban growth. This growth and the increasing vehicular traffic around archaeological sites are constant and growing concerns.
  • The rising water table. This is a countrywide threat to our ancient monuments and perhaps the single most significant challenge we face today.
  • Inadequate restoration. At many sites, we face damage done in the past by inadequate conservation. For example, restorations to the Great Sphinx at Giza carried out between 1980 and 1987 were done with cement and unsuitable stone, and we have sought to correct the problems caused by this work.
  • Neglect in excavations. Excavations are multiplying all over the country, but mapping, publication, and conservation are often sadly neglected.
  • Blind reliance on technology. Although there have been many positive technological advances over the past decade, we must also address the problem of a blind reliance on whatever technology is fashionable at the moment. Many ignore the fundamentals of excavation and conservation, and they waste time and money on flashy but insubstantial results derived from such technology.2
conservation image

In 2000, at the Eighth International Congress of Egyptologists in Cairo, we held a debate about site management and conservation.3 Many important ideas came out of this discussion, including ways to end inadequate restoration and to save areas like Karnak, Esna, Mit Rahina, Alexandria, and the Faiyûm from rising groundwater. At the conference, we also made the first international announcement of the site management program for the Giza Plateau. This project, currently under way, has already made great progress.4 When I took my present position with the SCA in 2002, the time was right to expand this concept to sites all over Egypt. The site management concept that we have developed includes safe zoning, the use of both natural and man-made barriers to isolate antiquities areas, the development of facilities to improve the experience of visitors while minimizing their impact, and comprehensive conservation and restoration programs. One of the problems we faced at Giza was the presence of homes only fifteen meters from the Sphinx. The people living in these homes were not taking proper care of the area, and it was very difficult to educate them about the importance of preserving the site. Similar situations caused problems at many other sites, including Edfu and Esna. We now construct walls to protect sites if no natural boundaries exist, to prevent homes and businesses from encroaching upon antiquities areas. (The wall around the pyramids area at Giza is about seventeen kilometers in length.) Another important component of our site management strategy is the construction of visitor centers, designed to explain the importance of the monuments and educate visitors about the history of the sites. We are also building new roads and pathways in appropriate areas to direct visitor traffic.

One of our most important goals is to make sure that conservation and restoration are carried out with the entire site in mind. We do not want work to be directed toward just one tomb or wall but, rather, at the site as a whole. The temple of Dendara is a good example of this kind of comprehensive plan. We are in the process of cleaning the entire temple and have added a visitor center, cafeteria, and bazaar outside the site.

Providing training to archaeologists, architects, conservators, and administrators is also integral to our programs. Unless we improve the professional capacities of our employees, it will be impossible to develop and implement long-term plans to maintain sites into the future.

We have thus far completed the implementation of management programs at many sites, including Abu Simbel, Kalabsha, Edfu, and Esna. We are also close to finishing programs at a number of sites in the Delta, including one in the vicinity of Alexandria; these sites have been given priority based on the urgency of their conservation needs and the amount of tourist traffic to which they are subjected. The monuments of Luxor, in particular the Karnak and Luxor temples, have undergone important conservation work. On the West Bank, the SCA is currently working in cooperation with the Getty Conservation Institute on a site management program for the Valley of the Queens. In the Valley of the Kings, the SCA is making important interim changes while we examine the best approach to an overall site management program. A visitor center has already been erected, complete with an introductory short film. A bazaar and parking lot have been constructed, and electric vehicles bring passengers from the parking area up to the tombs. We are currently examining comprehensive conservation strategies for the individual tombs. Our plan is to combine conservation work with the addition of facilities, such as improved lighting, that will enhance the experience of visitors. An important part of our conservation strategy will be to open only selected tombs, on a rotating schedule, in order to minimize visitor impact.

We have made significant progress in our efforts to care for monuments in a systematic and effective way. A new village, completely funded by the government, has been constructed for the residents of Qurna, a village that grew over the last few centuries directly atop the Tombs of the Nobles on the West Bank. Many of the villagers' daily activities were carried out in or above the tombs, filling them with water and trash and threatening the survival of the necropolis. We demolished many of the village houses that were beyond repair but left approximately twenty-five standing to preserve the history and culture of the village.

We are now working to create a truly comprehensive plan for the West Bank. Although we have already taken some steps, what is needed is a plan that fully incorporates all aspects of site management—facilities for visitors, both to enhance their experience and to reduce their impact on the tombs; conservation and restoration; and training for personnel. Luxor's West Bank is possibly the most important archaeological site in the world, and it urgently needs a master plan to preserve all its precious monuments.

Zahi Hawass is secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

  1. The Conservation of Archaeological Sites in the Mediterranean Region. An International Conference Organized by the Getty Conservation Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 6–12 May 1995 (Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 1997).
  2. See Zahi Hawass, "The Egyptian Monuments: Problems and Solutions," International Journal of Cultural Property 1, no. 4 (1995): 105–17.
  3. See Hawass, "Site Management and Conservation," in Egyptology at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century: Proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of Egyptologists, Cairo, 2000, vol. 3 (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2003), 48–61. See also Christian Leblanc, "Response to Z. Hawass" (ibid., 62–68), Wolfgang Mayer, "Response to Z. Hawass" (ibid., 69–70), and Kent Weeks, "Response to Z. Hawass" (ibid., 71–72).
  4. See Hawass, "Site Management at Giza Plateau: Master Plan for the Conservation of the Site," International Journal of Cultural Property 9, no. 11 (2000): 1–22.