Climate change and human activity Erode Egypt’s treasured antiquities

When Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s glittering tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings 100 years ago, he was living in a mud-brick house surrounded by desert so dry it had preserved the tombs, mummies and towering temples for over 3,000 years.

In the century that followed, Carter’s house was turned into a museum with a green, palmy garden, thanks to water brought in from the Nile. The river’s annual floods were stilled by the construction in 1970 of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, upstream and to the south of Luxor, allowing more frequent planting. More and more, farmers used the Nile’s water to inundate the expanding fields of alfalfa, sugar cane and vegetables.

All of that water seeped into the stone foundations of Luxor’s epic temples and the mud brick of Carter House, mixing with salt in the soil and on the stones as they drew the water up like straws. Sandstone turned to sand and limestone cracked.

Carter House reopened this month, protected from its own water-hungry garden by a new circle of desert, after a two-year restoration that stabilized the foundations and supplied the interior with Carter-era furniture and artwork. The famed temples of Karnak and Medinet Habu are now guarded by giant pumps that suck groundwater away.

But the danger is coming from above as well as below: Local residents and archaeologists say rainstorms have arrived with increasing frequency as the climate changes, corroding the stones and washing ancient color from the carvings.

In Luxor, the changing weather is amplifying the destructive impacts of human developments around the monuments over the centuries. Archaeologists say some of Egypt’s monuments are already visibly damaged, and others, like the 15th-century Citadel of Qaitbay in Alexandria, are under threat from rising seas.

“Water and salt are the enemy for these monuments,” said Brett McClain, a senior epigrapher at the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. “These monuments survived because they were dry.”

The most obvious human impact on Luxor’s monuments is the number of people who visit them. Before the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, thousands of tourists passed through King Tut’s tomb daily.

Trying to balance tourism with preservation, the government commissioned the Getty Conservation Institute to install a ventilation system to mitigate humidity bred by human sweat and breathing, among other fixes. The project opened in 2019.

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