By Mansour Boraik and W. Raymond Johnson

In antiquity, what is today known as Luxor was the seat of Amun-Re, sun god and king of the gods, from 2000 BC until about AD 500. Known as Thebes in Greek and Waset in Egyptian, the entire city—spanning both sides of the Nile—was essentially one huge temple complex divided into four distinct sections. Luxor Temple, Ipet Resyet—which was the site of Amun-Re's birth and creation—is located on the East Bank, the land of the rising sun. Two miles to the north on the East Bank lies the massive Karnak Temple, Ipet Swt, where Amun resided in palatial splendor for most of the year. Because the Egyptians believed that time was an endlessly repeating circle, Amun of Karnak was obliged to return to Luxor Temple annually to perform the act of creation and to be reborn during the festival of Opet, one of the great celebrations of the Egyptian religious calendar.

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Across the river in the land of the dead—the Theban West Bank—rose the royal mortuary temples, ranged along the desert edge where Amun was worshipped as the deceased king in the form of the setting sun. During the annual Beautiful Feast of the Valley, Amun of Karnak visited all mortuary complexes on the western bank and reanimated all the dead Amuns and kings. At the southern end of the mortuary-temple field, directly across the river from Luxor Temple, lies the small Amun temple of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III (1479–1425 BC), Djeser Set, considered the traditional burial place of Amun (and later seven other primeval gods) from the time of the Middle Kingdom. This temple was later enclosed within the precinct walls of the mortuary complex of Ramses III (1194–1163 BC) at Medinet Habu.

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In the desert cliffs of western Thebes, the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens protected the royal dead of the New Kingdom (Dynasties Eighteen–Twenty, 1550–1075 BC), while the desert foothills between them housed the necropoleis of the nobility, known as the Tombs of the Nobles. Among the majestic mortuary temples of the kings, that of Hatshepsut (ancient Egypt's greatest female ruler)—built against the golden Deir el-Bahri cliffs—is considered to embody the perfect fusion of constructed and natural environments. The largest of the mortuary temples was built by Amenhotep III (1391–1353 BC), who also built most of Luxor Temple (he was the father of Akhenaten [1364–1347 BC], considered a heretic for his establishment of a monotheistic cult). In the generations after Amenhotep III's death, his mortuary precinct—in its day larger than Karnak—quickly fell into ruin and was quarried away by his successors. All that remain visible today are the great quartzite Colossi of Memnon, gigantic seated statues of the king that marked the entrance to the complex and that still dominate the plain.

Recycling, Recovery, and Renaissance

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Looting of the necropoleis began at their inception. The grave goods proved too tempting, even to some contemporaries of those who were preparing the burials. State-sanctioned recycling of grave goods from the royal necropolis occurred in the Third Intermediate Period (1075–656 BC), for reuse in royal burials in the Nile Delta. When the old pharaonic religion was replaced by Christianity (fifth century) and later by Islam (seventh century), reuse of tomb contents and standing monuments became the norm in a deliberate effort to remove all vestiges of the older cults and the pagan society they represented. Ancient monuments were adapted for reuse: tombs were converted into hermitages, dwellings, and monasteries; temples into dwellings, barns, storage areas, and updated places of worship. Many standing monuments were utilized as quarries or completely dismantled for new construction. The cult centers of the north—from the Faiyûm northward through the delta—disappeared as a result of this activity and can no longer be seen. It is the good fortune of the modern world that so few people resided in Luxor after the pharaonic period (favoring instead the large population centers to the north); today the monuments of this ancient imperial religious capitol survive relatively intact. It is a gift beyond measure and one that carries a great deal of responsibility.

The Western world forgot Egypt until the late medieval period, when occasional travelers reported back about the "wonders upon Pharaoh" that had survived the ravages of time. The tide turned decisively in 1798 when Napoleon invaded Egypt; his savants produced the first systematic scientific documentation of the entire country, including its astonishing ancient monuments (not the least of which were to be found in western Thebes). This information generated tremendous public interest, and shortly thereafter, when the ancient hieroglyphic script—silent for millennia—was translated and regained its voice, the floodgates of science and tourism opened wide.

Egyptian art, with its clean lines and close relationship to nature, had an immediate appeal to westerners, who perhaps recognized in it the foundations of Western art. Among the first visitors to Egypt were collectors who found that the population at the time, for religious reasons, held little regard for the relics of its pagan past. The great assemblages of Egyptian antiquities in Europe were the result of the collection of materials that might otherwise have been destroyed by nature and man, and they are today among Egypt's best ambassadors to the world. This interest soon led to the establishment of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities (now the Supreme Council of Antiquities, headed by Zahi Hawass), laws protecting Egyptian antiquities and sites, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and scientific archaeology. Egyptians and foreigners alike awakened to the enormous gains in knowledge to be made by systematic scientific excavation of Egypt's ancient sites. The discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922 and its careful documentation and conservation— and the transport of its contents to the Cairo museum—marked a milestone in the history of Egyptian archaeology. Today dozens of foreign and Egyptian archaeological missions work in western Thebes.

Challenges of a Changing Environment

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Until recently, archaeological work in Egypt involved the systematic recovery and documentation of the preserved remains from antiquity in order to make the data accessible to scholar and layperson alike—a difficult enough task. Groups like the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago were founded solely for the purpose of recording and documenting for publication the kilometers of inscribed wall surfaces in Egypt's temples and necropoleis; the enormity of the inscribed material that survives in Luxor alone is nothing short of miraculous. A growing interest in ancient Egyptian settlement patterns now finds a whole new generation of Egyptian and foreign archaeologists focusing their expertise on Egypt's ancient cities and towns, including Luxor.

Today's Egyptian archaeological community, however, finds itself forced to adjust to surprising changes in environmental and demographic conditions. The extraordinary monuments of the West Bank—and Upper (or southern) Egypt in general—survived in large part because of dry conditions and a low population. Over the last few decades, these conditions have completely changed; Egypt's weather is getting wetter, and increasing population and expanding agriculture are threatening the ancient sites in proximity to—or in the midst of—modern settlements. Lake Nasser, the enormous reservoir created by the Aswan High Dam (constructed in the 1960s), now allows controlled, year-round irrigation throughout Egypt. But Lake Nasser also creates tremendous amounts of airborne moisture through evaporation and condensation. Humidity fluctuations in the air—impossible even twenty years ago—are now a daily occurrence; they activate groundwater salts, trapped in the temple walls, which migrate to the surface, crystallize, and shatter the stone. Runoff water from over-irrigated fields results in abnormally long periods of high groundwater, which contains dissolved salts that eat away at the foundations of the stone monuments and destabilize them. Humidity fluctuations and increased rainfall have dissolved mudbrick palace, house, and wall remains that have stood for thousands of years. The great mudbrick palace complex of Amenhotep III at Malkata, the enclosure walls of Medinet Habu and the Deir el-Medina temples, and the extensive mudbrick tomb chapel and settlement remains scattered throughout the West Bank—all have suffered the decay of centuries during just the last fifteen years.

On top of the preservation issues, an enormous tourism boom brings with it a whole different set of challenges. To accommodate the growing numbers of visitors, local authorities are faced with the need to expand visitor facilities and to consider a wholesale rethinking—and even reshaping—of the ancient landscape of Luxor.

But there is reason for some optimism. With an increased awareness of the changing environmental and demographic conditions in Egypt, the scientific community is responding. All expeditions working on sites undergoing decay are now obliged to add conservation to their programs; for more than a decade the Epigraphic Survey has sponsored expanded conservation and restoration programs (including the training of Egyptian conservators) that now supplement documentation projects on both sides of the river.

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Exciting new collaborative programs have evolved: the Getty Conservation Institute (in the Valley of the Queens) and the American Research Center in Egypt (at Medinet Habu)—in collaboration with the SCA—are both sponsoring training programs for SCA staff in site management. The United States government has generously allocated funding through the U.S. Agency for International Development (usaid) for conservation and site management of Egypt's cultural heritage sites, as well as for training of SCA archaeologists and salvage archaeology, through grants administered by the American Research Center in Egypt. usaid has also directly funded engineering projects designed to lower the groundwater of both eastern and western Thebes.

Luxor and Karnak temples are now the beneficiaries of a dewatering program—designed by SWECO of Sweden and activated in November 2007—that has lowered the groundwater in the vicinity of the temple sites more than three meters, while the World Monuments Fund has recently funded a dewatering project specifically for the Temple of Amenhotep III. With the assistance of the scientific community, another program has been designed for western Thebes; beginning in the fall of 2008, drains will be laid for three kilometers in the cultivated areas from Medinet Habu in the south to the Temple of Sety I in the north, with a pumping station midway in front of the Ramesseum. Excess irrigation water that now flows toward the antiquities sites in the desert will be pumped into a drainage canal leading to the Nile, effectively lowering the groundwater approximately three meters. This change will slow the groundwater salt decay and buy Egypt time to address the real source of the problem—the over-irrigation of crops such as sugarcane that require far too much water.

Ultimately, agricultural reform is the only long-term solution to the groundwater decay problems facing the monuments of western Thebes. The replacement of the sugarcane fields with lucrative crops that require far less irrigation—such as fruits, flowers, and vegetables—would result in an immediate lowering of the groundwater and a slowing of the decay in western Thebes. This sort of change takes time, but the local authorities in Luxor have started working toward that goal. In an effort to protect the fragile antiquities sites from the increasing numbers of visitors, new site management programs—including crowd control—are being developed and coordinated by the Egyptian government and its outside institutional partners. These programs will also take time to implement, and those of us working on the sites are assisting in every way we can.

With the SCA's dedication to the maintenance of Egypt's cultural heritage and the world's commitment to assist in these endeavors, there is great hope for the survival of these extraordinary vestiges of the past.

Mansour Boraik is director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Luxor. W. Raymond Johnson is director of the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (Chicago House, Luxor).