Friday, November 23, 2007

Desert art in danger at Egypt's new tourism frontier

Middle East Online (Charles Onians)

I have been nagging recently about the impact of irresponsible tourists on the Egyptian deserts. I am delighted to say that this has been excellently highlighted by the article on the above page, which points explicitly to the problems being experienced in Egypt, Libya and the Sudan. I have quoted from it more than I would usually, but there is a lot more to read on the above page.

A rising tide of travellers seeking out the new frontier of Egyptian tourism is threatening priceless rock art preserved for millennia in one of the most-isolated reaches of the Sahara.

In Egypt's southwest corner, straddling the borders of Sudan and Libya, the elegant paintings of prehistoric man and beast in the mountains of Gilf Kabir and Jebel Ouenat are as stunning in their simplicity as anything by Picasso.

But lying 500 kilometres (330 miles) from the nearest habitation, the desert offers little sanctuary for these masterpieces and any effective protected designation first requires a deal between the three sometimes quarrelsome nations.

Not only the rock art is at stake, but the region's entire cultural and natural heritage.

"You can't estimate the amount of damage done," says Dr Rudolph Kuper, a German archaeologist involved in trying to protect the art, mostly dating from when the desert was a receding prairie 5,000-7,000 years ago.

"People put water or oil on the paintings to make the faded colours look brighter, causing irreparable damage," he says.

The story is even more tragic just across the border in Libya, where the delicate brush strokes of human figures at Ain Dua appear to have been shot at by bored soldiers. . . .

With untold damage already wrought, getting Egypt, Libya and Sudan to agree on policing the militarily sensitive area is a conservation conundrum.

The hope is to have the area designated as a trans-boundary cultural landscape UNESCO World Heritage site, but that requires the three nations to all first declare individual national parks.

So far, only Egypt has designated a park, but officials from all three countries are due to meet in Cairo in December in the hope of hammering out a deal, despite their occasionally fraught diplomatic relations.

With the support of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Kuper and Prof Mustafa Fouda from the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency want to build a museum-cum-educational centre in the oasis of Dakhla, the jumping off point for most trips to Gilf Kabir.

"Hopefully we can make our dreams come true, with a museum to explain the relationship between man and the desert, to explain how man can make use of the resources in a sustainable way," says Fouda.

Pending the politicians' decision, Kuper says that recently some tourists have returned to the Cave of the Swimmers to try to erase their names. For the desert's desecraters, it seems the writing is on the wall.

See the above page for more details, including two photographs, one recent and one fifty years old, juxtopositioned to show how the art has changed.

I was at a conference about Saharan prehistory in Poland earlier this year, where I was privileged to be present when two experts on the Gilf Kebir area of Egypt (where the Cave of Swimmers is located) had a discussion about how to manage this type of tourism in these remote areas. Although the difficulties are considerable there were some very good ideas emerging. Dr Rudolph Kuper was one of those experts, and it is very good to see that he is having an active role in attempting to resolve some of these issues in the Western Desert of Egypt at least. Problems are by no means restricted to the Western Desert - vandalism has also been recorded in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, where quarrying also poses a potential threat to the archaeology.

For those interested in the Gilf Kebir area, there is an article on the Al Ahram Weekly website by Mohamed El-Hebeishy, who toured with Colonel el-Mestekawi (one of those who discovered the Mestekawi-Foggini Cave). He also highlights some of the problems:

I lost track of time as I stood in complete amazement in El-Mestekawi Cave, seeing priceless pieces of art as old as rock art. Indeed, this constituted an unmatched experience that left my soul indulged in mystical harmony.

Most unfortunately, some irresponsible tourists spray water on rock art in order to secure a more vibrant photograph. Although it works, there is also a hefty price to pay in the form an accelerated deterioration of the art itself. Having been dry for thousands of years, the sandstone on which most of the rock art is painted reacts negatively with water. Soon enough, the colours start to fade and the paint starts to peel. Water spraying and camera flashes are lethal when it comes to rock art, so please be very careful whenever present in such a crucially important site.

No comments: