By Kent R. Weeks

Four or five thousand years ago, the village of Thebes was a small, undistinguished hamlet, little different from its Upper Egyptian neighbors. But by the Eighteenth Dynasty (1550 BC), Thebes had become a city of fifty thousand people, and for the remainder of Egypt’s New Kingdom (until 1069 BC), it was the wealthiest and most powerful metropolis in the ancient world, the capital city of Egypt, and home to its most powerful god, Amon-Re. It was at Thebes that New Kingdom ruling families, high priests, and senior bureaucrats lived and were buried.

The cemeteries of Thebes, collectively known as the Theban Necropolis, lay in the desert along the western edge of the Nile floodplain. From a small collection of rock-cut tombs in the Old Kingdom (2575–2134 BC), it had grown by the New Kingdom into one of the largest and most elaborate necropoleis in the country, covering an area of about three square kilometers. It had several parts: the Valley of the Kings (KV), where at least sixty-three tombs were dug for royalty and royal aides; the Valley of the Queens (QV), where over ninety tombs were dug for royal wives and children; and the Theban Tombs of the Nobles (TT), a thousand small, elegantly decorated tombs dug for Theban bureaucrats and priests. Near the tombs, dozens of huge memorial temples, some covering many acres, were built to support the well-being of pharaohs in the afterlife. With pride and confidence, the Egyptians boasted that their temples and tombs were "mansions of millions of years" that would last forever. They were wrong.

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After centuries of neglect, the fragile monuments of Thebes are threatened with destruction by rising groundwater and flash floods, geological instability, environmental changes, pollution, and, most seriously of all, heavy and inadequately controlled tourism. For some tombs and temples, conservation and protection came too late—many have already crumbled to dust. For the rest, urgent action is needed if these ancient treasures are to survive for even another generation. It is ironic that we now find ourselves obeying Percy Shelley’s Theban king Ozymandias (Ramses II), who commanded us to "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair."

The Theban Mapping Project

The need for archaeological conservation at Thebes has been recognized for years, but it was only after the establishment of the Theban Mapping Project (TMP) in 1979 that a systematic, necropolis-wide approach to its protection began. The project started with the establishment of a survey grid laid across the West Bank, making it possible for the first time to locate archaeological monuments accurately. The next step was a detailed survey of the Valley of the Kings, which included topographical maps and meticulous architectural plans of all accessible KV tombs. Comprehensive photographic coverage of KV included historical images as well as contemporary digital images taken by the TMP of all decorated tomb walls. Existing condition surveys were made, historical data were assembled, and extensive descriptions of each KV tomb were prepared. All of this information appears in hard copy and on the TMP's Web site, which is visited by thousands of students and scholars every day.

Using these data as a foundation, the TMP has devoted the last four years to preparing a management plan for KV. It is the first part of what ultimately will be a plan for the entire Theban West Bank.

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Work on the management plan began with a review of management plans at other archaeological sites and with a survey of stakeholder groups with an interest in KV. The TMP commissioned the Social Research Center of the American University in Cairo to interview several hundred tourists of various nationalities, as well as tour guides, antiquities inspectors, conservators, bus drivers, and curio sellers—indeed, anyone involved with KV—and ask their opinion of KV's strengths and weaknesses, the problems they perceived, and ways that they thought these problems might be resolved. Management plans for other heavily visited archaeological sites (such as Stonehenge, Petra, Angkor Wat, Chaco Canyon, and Hadrian's Wall) were studied to identify methods of conservation, traffic management, and administration that might be adapted to Thebes.

Fifty years ago, fewer than a hundred visitors came to KV each day; now there are as many as nine thousand, and that number is likely to double in the next decade. Increasing and uncontrolled tourism is the most serious problem facing KV. Tourists are responsible for rapid changes in temperature and humidity levels in the tombs—changes that damage plaster and pigment—and they inadvertently rub against decorated walls. But for Egypt’s economy, it is essential that tourism be encouraged—and that it grow. The TMP therefore has devoted considerable time to developing proposals for visitor management. KV visitor numbers were monitored at several times during the last few years, and an optimum carrying capacity for each tomb was calculated (carrying capacity is the maximum number of visitors that can be allowed in a tomb at any one time before significant changes in temperature and humidity occur or before crowding diminishes visitor experience and threatens the tomb's well-being). Large numbers of tourists do not necessarily spell the death of an ancient site—if their numbers are carefully regulated, environmental controls are put in place to counter their negative effects, and long-term management plans are implemented.

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This is no easy matter. For example, different methods of ticketing were studied to determine if they could help control visitor numbers in KV tombs, as has been done at other World Heritage sites. Currently one KV ticket gives admission to any three of KV's twelve open tombs (except those of Tutankhamen, Ay, and Ramses VI, for which an extra charge is levied). Tickets are good for the date of purchase only and can be bought only at the KV entrance. The TMP suggested that switching to a system of timed tickets would help reduce crowding in KV by ensuring that optimum carrying capacities were observed; timed ticketing would also help maintain appropriate levels of temperature and humidity. However, the time when most visitors arrive at KV is largely determined by factors beyond the control of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) or local tour guides or imposed limits on visitors.

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For example, charter flights usually arrive from Europe on Fridays or Mondays, so large numbers of tourists come to KV on Saturday and Tuesday. Most Nile cruise boats arrive on Monday, and they also contribute to the Tuesday crush. Recently, travel agencies have begun offering day trips from Red Sea resorts to Thebes, and every day several thousand tourists come to spend eight hours visiting Thebes. They invariably arrive in KV at eight in the morning, creating huge crowds and long lines, then move on to Deir el-Bahari and Karnak (where the crowding is repeated) before returning to the Red Sea in time for dinner. To further complicate planning, most guides prefer to bring groups to KV early in the morning, when it is cool, and visit three of the four easily accessible tombs nearest the entrance to KV instead of walking to tombs farther in. Large tombs take precedence over small ones; level tombs are preferred to those with steep steps. Timed tickets also require advance purchase, at least one day before a visit, and should be available at multiple sales outlets. (Ideally, one should be able to book online even before arriving in Egypt.) But these are things the SCA cannot yet do, given its long-standing procedures for handling cash and tickets without the aid of computers.

Extending visiting hours in KV is another way to reduce congestion, by distributing visitors over a longer period of time and thereby maintaining optimum carrying capacity. The site is currently open from 6:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., eleven hours a day; it could be open from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., for fifteen hours a day. But nighttime operation would necessitate a major investment in lighting systems, as well as the cooperation of security police who patrol the area and supervise tourist visits. It would also require that tour companies change tight and inflexible hotel meal schedules, tour itineraries, sound-and-light show and museum visits, shopping trips, and staff working hours.

Management Challenges

There are no simple solutions when developing suitable management plans for Thebes, and even small changes can have unintended consequences. Of the many planning problems highlighted by the work of the TMP, the following four examples illustrate this point. First, any management plan for KV, which is one portion of the much larger archaeological complex at Thebes, must be a part of a broad, Thebes-wide planning process. Changes in KV will affect other West Bank sites and impact Karnak and Luxor temples across the Nile as well. Any system that only shifts crowds from KV to another Theban site merely passes the problems of crowding on to other equally threatened monuments.

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Second, the KV environment is unsuitable for high-tech equipment. Heat, changing humidity, and dust quickly damage instruments, and maintenance is a serious problem because of the lack of trained personnel. Environmental monitoring and control equipment, devices to count tourists entering or leaving tombs, ticketing machines, and tomb lighting systems must be as simple and as low-tech as possible, and even then, the need for the frequent replacement of units can upset budget planning. KV does not yet have a reliable source of electricity, and power failures occur two or three times each day. A new electrical system, with surge protectors and emergency backup, must be installed before new devices are considered.

Third, solutions to the problems faced by Theban sites can only succeed when there is a high level of Egyptian interministerial cooperation. Egypt's bureaucracies are well organized vertically, within a single ministry, but there are inadequate horizontal contacts between ministries. Yet tourist management policies invariably have impact across ministerial boundaries. A change in the rules of any one agency can affect the SCA, security procedures, the goals of the Ministry of Tourism, the operations of tourist companies, plans of the Luxor City Council, decisions of the ministries of irrigation and agriculture, the military, and a host of other agencies. Here is an example: the Egyptian government's insistence that foreigners travel between Upper Egyptian cities only in police convoys, which move only two or three times a day, makes it nearly impossible for travel agencies to vary their tour schedules. The convoys mean that large numbers of tourists—often a thousand or more at a time—arrive en masse at archaeological sites, putting intense pressure on the monuments. Without more discussion, cooperation, and communication among all concerned parties, even the best management plans will prove inoperable and be ignored.

Fourth, without a declaration by the SCA that it is fully committed to exploring possible changes in current KV site management, and without a willingness to allocate funds for the implementation of those changes, there is simply no chance that Theban monuments will survive intact for more than a few decades. All recent studies of the monuments agree that time is running out.

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Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can and do provide advice and funding for many aspects of site management. The TMP and its donors, for example, paid for the development of a KV management plan and for the installation of interpretive signs and display panels in a Japanese-built KV visitor center. It is working to raise funds to pay for new LED lighting systems and environmental controls in KV tombs, and it has already undertaken tests of those systems. But no NGO can raise funds to buy new rubbish bins or build toilet facilities or pay the salaries of maintenance personnel or cover the costs of basic infrastructure—and should not be expected to do so. Those expenses must be covered by the SCA (which each day collects nearly a million Egyptian pounds—roughly US$190,000—from ticket sales at Thebes alone). A much larger part of the SCA’s annual budget must be allocated to conservation and site management, and to the training of personnel who will take responsibility for such matters. The SCA is well aware of this need, of course, but it is hampered by other agencies that demand a share of its income and access to the lands under its control, and by an enormous monthly budget for staff salaries and benefits (the SCA employs nearly forty thousand people).

Frankly, this is a difficult administrative environment in which to develop and implement site management plans, but such plans are desperately needed nonetheless. Perhaps one day the SCA will be a separate government ministry, similar to archaeological ministries in Europe, with the authority and fiscal control that such separation implies. In the meantime, the SCA, government ministries, major travel companies, and NGOs must work more closely together to create a workable, long-term, Thebes-wide management plan. And they must all work to provide the necessary funding and trained personnel for its implementation. Only in this way can the future protection of humankind's Egyptian patrimony be assured.

Kent R. Weeks is the director of the Theban Mapping Project.