The perils facing ancient monuments.

Last month a group of Russians hung about the Great Pyramid at Giza before illegally scaling its summit and taking a series of stunning images.  By hiding from the guards for five hours on the top of the pyramid, the Russian trio managed to avoid detection and prosecution. Since news of their ascension went viral there have been mixed reactions as to their feat – was it a defiant and courageous act to share views and photographs that no ordinary tourist has been able to capture for more than 60 years, or a violation of rules put in place to protect those monuments?

Cairo’s encroachment on the pyramid plateau

Many of the world’s ancient monuments are under threat, or have been damaged or destroyed due to the effects of climate, pollution, tourism, vandalism and war, or a combination thereof. Just some of those monuments under threat are the Pyramids of Giza, Pompeii and numerous parts of Syria. Climbing the exterior of the pyramids has been forbidden since 1951 due to their fragile state, and the Great Pyramid of Giza and other tombs on the plateau were only re-opened in October 2012 following a programme of extensive restoration works. In an e-mail to CNN one of the Russian trio, Vadim Makhorov, said that “What we saw from up there was the seventh wonder of the world. We tried to capture the beauty of the scenery in the photos so that others could also see this magnificent panorama.” It is indeed a series of fantastic shots across the plateau, taking in the lime-capped Pyramid of Khafre and the lights of Cairo, lights that appeared far closer than I had imagined. Tens of thousands of tourists every year scrambling up the sides of each pyramid would cause damage on such a scale to these fragile buildings that prevention is by far the most appropriate action to take, but the footsteps of three men compared to the pollution from the sprawling conurbation of Cairo and exposure to the elements has to be negligible.

A mere 30 metres from the pyramids is the suburb of Nazlet as-Saman; once a hamlet it now has a population of 200,000. Along with the other 9 million inhabitants of Cairo they help to create levels of pollution that puts Cairo in the top 10 of the world’s most polluted cities. In recent years a black cloud has appeared over the city during the autumn months and air quality measurements show high levels of lead, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide causing respiratory problems and eye irritation. Though rainfall is scarce (on average 24.7mm per annum), when it does fall it is often acid rain due to the large amounts of sulphides and nitrogen oxides in the air. Vibrations from tourist buses and cars, which for many years were allowed to pass just a few feet from the pyramids have produced cracks in the monuments. Around 80% of Cairo's incoming water supply leaks into the ground as does much of its waste water.  Minerals are dissolved from the soil and bedrock as the groundwater rises. The limestone pyramids are porous and they absorb the salty water from the ground. The white lesions which can be seen on the pyramids are the crystallized salts that are left behind when the water evaporates, and these destroy the limestone.
Egypt has signed up to various and numerous international agreements on climate change including Ozone Layer Protection and Environmental Modification but the pollution problem persists. Acid rain falling on fragile, limestone structures is not a desirous state of affairs but the fragility of the structures owes a lot to their exposure to the other elements following archaeological excavations that saw the removal of the sands which had protected them for centuries.

The pyramids and other ancient monuments throughout Egypt (along with Red Sea resorts) have meant that tourism is a major contribution to the Egyptian economy – US$12.5billion in 2010, falling to US$10billion in 2012 following the Arab Spring of 2011. Steps are being taken to restore and protect these monuments, but are they enough or will Cairo grow just too much for the pyramids to survive?

Pompeii’s perilous beauty

The World Heritage Site of ancient Pompeii has been subject of debate regarding the level of preservation and conservation that has been undertaken. In 1996 and 1998 the World Monument Fund added Ancient Pompeii to its Watch List and assistance was provided in terms of funding and expertise to manage the site. Sadly this was not enough to prevent the collapse of the House of Gladiators in 2010 and the roof falling in on the Villa of Mysteries in 2012. On my last visit to the site in 2008 my guide around the city’s ruins, Salvatore, voiced his concerns.
“I hope there is no more excavation,” he said as we stood before the cordoned off House of Julia Felix in Regio II. “It is more damaging than conserving.”
“Why is it cordoned off?”
“Structural issues.” Our friendly guide now wore a mask of cold sobriety.  “I want them to cover up Regio III, IV and V and limit the number of tourists allowed in, to prevent further damage.” This was from a man whose livelihood depends on the tourist trade but whose fondness for the ancient city of Pompeii overrode it all.

Buried as a result of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD, Pompeii was not completely destroyed. Clouds of ash and pumice hit both Pompeii and Herculaneum followed by pyroclastic flows and surges; it was the latter that sealed the cities and the fate of its citizens. A pyroclastic flow is an avalanche of volcanic matter – pumice, ash, rock and gas – that at speeds of up to 100 km per hour hurtles down the side of the volcano. Asphyxiation would have been the cause of death for many fleeing the area, living in the countryside, in boats on the sea, or taking refuge by the shoreline; which according to Pliny the Younger’s description above was the likely cause of the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. Others would have been buried below collapsing buildings or drowned as boats capsized in the turbulent sea. The devastation was so complete, and must have had such an impact on the survivors, that neither Pompeii or Herculaneum were reoccupied as had been the normal practice after earthquakes in the region.

For nearly 1500 years the cities remained hidden, until a partial discovery of Pompeii was made when digging an underground channel in order to divert the river Sarno. Walls covered with paintings and inscriptions were uncovered though whether the architect, Domenico Fontana, who found them was aware of their significance is not known; he covered them back up again. In 1738 Herculaneum was rediscovered when the foundations for a summer palace for Charles of Bourbon, the King of Naples were being dug. Ten years later and deliberate excavations at the site of Pompeii were underway led by Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre, a Spanish military engineer. Excavations have continued from the mid-1700s until the present day with varying degrees of care and successful preservation and renovation. The Second World War took its toll on the site with a number of buildings damaged by bombing campaigns whilst exposure to the elements, pollution, erosion, poor methods of excavation and reconstruction and the literal touch of tourism have increased the chance of further collapses and the risk will not go away.

Tourism is a double-edged sword; it provides a large source of income for conservation and supports the modern town of Pompei whilst contributing to the ancient town’s downfall. Pompeii became a stop-over on the ‘Grand Tour’ undertaken by the European aristocrats during the 18th and 19th centuries, part of Thomas Cook’s original ‘Cook’s Tour’ paving the way for the tourist onslaught of later years.  In 2008 nearly 2.6 million visitors passed through the city’s gates. Whilst less than a third of the site is open to visitors now than was in the case in the 1960s, the site is still of a considerable size and to take it all in, a couple of days are needed. The governing body of Pompeii, Soprintendenza Archaeological di Pompei, is trying to encourage tourists to visit the neighbouring cities of Herculaneum and Stabiae in order to reduce the pressure on Pompeii, but to my mind that is merely shifting the problem elsewhere rather than dealing with the issue of conservation and preservation.

But there is another risk that could negate the tourism threat and it looms over Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Bay of Naples – Vesuvius. Pliny the Younger related his eye witness account of the eruption of 79CE that removed Pompeii and Herculaneum from the sight of history for centuries to the historian Tacitus in a series of letters. Watching from the other side of the Bay of Naples at Misenum, Pliny the Younger saw the eruption and related how his uncle, Pliny the Elder, died from asphyxiation whilst visiting the city to decide on an appropriate evacuation. “He raised himself up with the assistance of two of his servants, and instantly fell down dead; suffocated, as I conjecture, by some gross and noxious vapour…” Even in Misenum Pliny the Younger and the inhabitants of that side of the bay were far from safe, ash rained down on them, threatening to cover them entirely, “darkness and ashes came again, a great weight of them. We stood up and shook the ash off again and again, otherwise we would have been covered with it and crushed by the weight. I might boast that no groan escaped me in such perils, no cowardly word, but that I believed that I was perishing with the world, and the world with me, which was a great consolation for death”.

File:Vesuvio landscape.jpg

Some scientists believe that Pliny the Younger would not get off so lightly should Vesuvius erupt again. Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo at the Vesuvius Volcano Observatory in Naples calls it the “most dangerous volcano in the world” due to the proximity of Naple’s 3 million inhabitants and the fact that he and colleagues construe that the next eruption of Vesuvius could knock the one of 79CE into a cocked hat. Seismic imaging has detected an unusual 8-10 kms deep under the mountain’s surface which they have interpreted as an active magma reservoir. Mastrolorenzo and his colleagues have recommended to the Neapolitan Authorities that their emergency plan should allow for an eruption at least the size of the plinian eruption, if not for one on an even greater scale, based on evidence they have found of a mega explosion in the Bronze Age. Other scientists have a more positive view on Vesuvius’ potential for eruption believing the volcano to be less, not more active. Bruno Scaillet of the University of Orleans, France says that the eruptive style has changed as the magma chambers migrated upwards. The last eruption in 1944, a small affair as eruptions go, came from a chamber 3km down. The evidence suggests that the magma is less viscous and therefore less prone to causing large explosions. Scaillet also suggests that the unusual layer discovered, whilst it could be magma, may also be another liquid such as water or brine.

The disaster plan for Naples and its surrounding areas is constantly updated to take into account new scientific evidence but Mastrolorenzo does not feel it is robust enough. The arguments arise around the need for ‘worst case’ (as Mastrolorenzo advocates) or ‘most likely’ scenarios for the disaster plan but whichever is decided upon the truth is that no-one truly knows how a volcano works and how, when and to what extent it erupt.  

Civil unrest in Syria

An issue that is far from obsolete is the on-going series of human conflicts around the Middle East. The World Heritage Sites in Syria are suffering during the current civil conflict. On 30th March 2012, Irena Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO made an appeal for the protection of Syria’s cultural heritage and expressed “grave concern about possible damage to precious sites”. Six months later and Bokova was issuing a statement of regret over the damage and fire that has all but destroyed the ancient souq in Aleppo.

File:Citadel entr Alp 2011 a.JPG

Aleppo is described by UNESCO as a “crossroads of cultures since the 2nd millennium BC” and has been ruled by, amongst others, Hittites, Assyrians, Romans and Ottomans. The citadel rises above the souqs and mosques of the walled city, a testament to Arab military might. The citadel is feeling the force of Arab military might as it is used in the current conflict as strategic military location. As such it is the target for gunfire; it’s iron doors are showing fresh scars. The 12th century Mosque and the ancient souq have been set alight, mortared and fired on by tanks, and all that remains is a burned out shell. Reports were received of the mosque’s library burning with the loss of thousands of books and manuscripts.

It is not just Aleppo that has seen damage, Palmyra and Bosra also World Heritage Sites, have been damaged due to war-fare and tan occupation. UNESCO has called on all parties involved in the conflict to comply with the Hague Convention of 1954 on the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict. Bokova has also promised to send a team to assess the situation in order to protect Aleppo’s heritage but with reports of car bombings and air strikes within the last 24 hours in Aleppo and Damascus there seems little hope of the conflict ending soon or preservation of the country’s heritage being high on the government’s or rebel’s agendas.

What does the future hold?

Little can be done to prevent natural disasters in the form of earthquakes or volcanic eruptions from damaging ancient monuments, but efforts should be made to try and limit the damage that exposure to the elements can cause to them. Uncovering Pompeii and the pyramids has left them exposed to erosion and has destabilised their fragile structures; money needs to be put into ensuring that the damage is limited. The funds will come primarily from the tourist trade and a careful balancing of the books is required between increasing our knowledge of ancient history and culture, tourism and preservation and conservation. By working hard to reduce pollution and limiting the impact of continual human expansion the last remaining of the Seven Wonders of the World and a rediscovered Roman city may be given a lifeline.

As tourists we need to be considerate of the fragility of the places we visit and the need for the local infrastructure of the modern towns and cities to be bolstered to ensure the continuation of access to these cultural sites. Following the World Monument Fund’s Guide to Sustainable Tourism is just one way in which we can help. For sites and monuments caught in the crossfire of human conflict, all we can do is hope that conflicts are short and inflict as little damage as possible on the people and their cultural treasures.

©Deborah Cater April 2013


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