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6-08-2015, 17:01


72 million people. Most are jam-packed into the same 550-mile-long narrow
canyon that supported no more that 3 to 4 million people at the
height of Egypt’s ancient empire. More than 45 percent of Egyptians live
in a few huge cities, such as Cairo (10 million) and Alexandria (4 million).
Agriculture employs 29 percent of Egyptians. Another 22 percent
work in industry; 49 percent staff service industries.
Modern Egypt’s boundaries have not changed much since ancient
times. Egypt is bordered by Libya on the west, Sudan in the south, and Israel
on the northeast. Most of Egypt’s land area is barren, desolate desert.
Only 2 percent (less than 8,000 square miles) of Egypt’s 385,000-squaremile
area can be farmed. Almost all of it is intensively cultivated.
Modern Egypt shows little trace of ancient Egyptian culture. It is culturally
and religiously an Arab, Islamic nation. More than 90 percent of
Egyptians profess the Moslem (mostly Sunni) faith. A small community
(perhaps 10 percent of the population) of Coptic Christians thrives, and
areas of southern and middle Egypt are heavily Coptic.
Egypt is a democracy and a secular country, and most Egyptians
practice a moderate, progressive form of Islam. However, Egypt is facing
pressure from more traditional, conservative groups who would like
to see Islam have more influence over day-to-day affairs. Conservative
Muslims worry that Western influences will weaken and eventually erase
the traditions that have persisted in Islamic countries for centuries. Moderate
Muslims worry that Egypt will become a theocracy (a nation ruled
by religious officials). The conflict is ongoing and has, at times, turned

Both Christians and Muslims speak Arabic, in a variety of regional
dialects. Many educated Egyptians are fluent in French and English.
Only 51 percent of the population can read and write—a big jump over ancient
figures (2 to 5 percent) but still well below most of the developed
Like literacy, life expectancy has increased since ancient times.
Men can expect to live to 60, women to 66.2 (ancients did well hoping for
age 30). But it still lags far behind the developed world. Infant mortality
is almost 60 per 1,000 live births—61st highest in the world. With fewer
than 2 million motor vehicles in the country, it is clear that many Egyptians
still get around the way their ancestors did—on foot and donkeys.
Egypt’s major industries are textiles, food production, and tourism.
A $3.9 billion dollar per year industry, tourism is dependent mainly upon
ancient ruins and monuments, many of which are now threatened by rising
water tables and salt retention—not to mention looting. Egypt’s location
at the crossroads of the troubled Middle East, and some
well-publicized violent incidents, have also threatened the vital flow of
tourists. So far, worldwide fascination with ancient Egyptian culture has
overcome tourists’ nervousness.

The Aswan High Dam

The completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1965 was a turning point for
Egypt. The dam brought total control over the Nile’s famously unpredictable
inundation, turning the river into a long irrigation canal. But just
like the river in its natural state, the dam has been both a blessing and a
curse for Egypt.
The dam enables Egyptians to store two to three years of Nile flow
for controlled release for irrigation. This has been a great benefit to agriculture
and health, protecting Egypt from massive droughts in 1972–1973
and 1983–1984. The dam also saved Egypt from catastrophic floods in
1964 and 1973. Crops can now be grown year-round. The dam immediately
provided irrigation for more than 1 million acres of new farmland.
Egypt now has many more options for siting towns and factories—a great
benefit to industry. The dam also generates 2,500 megawatts of electricity
without using fossil fuels.
On the other hand, the loss of the more than 100 million tons of
sediment per year that the Nile used to carry has caused severe coastal erosion.
The Nile bloom—a rich soup of nutrients that used to flow into the
Mediterranean Sea and feed marine
life—is now only a memory. Egypt’s
formerly productive coastal sardine,
anchovy, and shrimp fisheries have
collapsed. The eastern Mediterranean
basin is all but lifeless.
Coastal land is vanishing, and without
new deposits of sediment, parts
of the Nile Delta are sinking. The
amount of water that reaches the
sea from the Nile is now less than
5 percent of the natural flow.
One effect seen immediately
upon the dam’s completion was the
loss of raw materials (Nile mud) for
making mud-brick—a major local
industry. Farmers started selling
their topsoil to brick makers, gaining
short-term profit at the expense
of the long-term productivity of
their land.
Without the yearly deposit of
natural fertilizer from the inundation,
Egyptian farmers turned to
expensive artificial inorganic fertilizers,
which they need to apply in
ever-increasing quantities. More
than 30 percent of the dam’s
electricity generating capacity runs
factories that produce artificial
Meanwhile, sediment is building up in Lake Nasser at an alarming
rate: 100 million tons per year. Projections say that within 600 years, half
the lake’s capacity to store irrigation water will be lost. Within 1,000
years, the lake will be useless for water storage. (In the context of Egypt’s
history, 1,000 years is not a long time.) There is no known, realistic way
to remove the sediments already trapped behind the dam.
Because of the constant supply of irrigation water to croplands,
Egypt’s water table has risen dramatically, threatening many ancient
tombs, monuments, archaeological digs, and popular tourist destinations.
Because the river no longer washes away excess salts, the land is in danger
of becoming too salty, further threatening both agriculture and ancient
To counter this threat, the dam’s distribution system includes a
complex network of channels and drainage canals to remove excess salts
and water. Huge electric pumps empty these into the Mediterranean Sea.
These pumps use another 5 to 10 percent of the electricity generated by
the dam.

A Looming Food Crisis

Egypt’s chief export crop is cotton (not grown in ancient times). Rice,
beans, fruits, wheat, vegetables, and corn are also grown. Modern Egyptian
agriculture is spectacularly efficient. Food production per acre is almost
the highest in the world. Since
the dam was built, nearly all available
water is used to irrigate crops.
All potential cropland is already intensively
cultivated. But Egyptian
food production is still not sufficient
to meet the needs of its ever-growing
population. In fact, Egypt imports
three-quarters of the wheat it
Egypt’s population has tripled
since the end of World War II, and
is projected to double again by the
end of the 21st century. In the early
days after the dam was built, Egypt
could buy enough wheat with revenues
from exported cotton. But by
the 1980s, Egypt had one of the
highest rates of wheat import per
person of any country in the world.
Egypt can no longer grow enough
cotton to buy the wheat it needs, so
it sells oil. But Egypt has a growing
domestic demand for its own,
already-depleted, oil reserves.
Egypt’s rapid population
growth has also overwhelmed delivery
of basic services: water supply,
waste disposal, electricity, and
transportation. By the early 1980s,
demand for electricity already exceeded

Salvage Archaeology

During the planning of the Aswan
High Dam in the 1950s, it occurred
to some observant persons that the
dam was going to flood more than
300 miles of Nubia, including
dozens of important ancient monuments
and sites. Many had never
been excavated or even documented.
Additional sites doubtless awaited
discovery. Even more troubling,
the dam would drown the Great
Temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel,
the smaller temple Ramesses
built for his favorite wife nearby,
and the monuments and temples on
the island of Philae.
The dam could not wait.
UNESCO, a branch of the United
Nations, appealed for international
help. The two major missions were
to move Ramesses’s Great Temple
and the Philae monuments to higher
ground. Many other sites and monuments
needed to be excavated, documented,
and possibly moved.
The vastness of this task cannot be overestimated. A heroic effort by
thousands of archaeologists from all over the world poured their combined
talents, creativity, and labor into getting the impossible job done. Ancient
forts were excavated and documented with astounding swiftness
and thoroughness. Several monuments were moved and rebuilt at an
open-air museum near Aswan. Temples and monuments that would have
otherwise drowned beneath Lake Nasser were donated by grateful Egypt
to countries participating in the rescue effort. Most of these have been
rebuilt as parts of museums in Europe and the United States.
Because of the international, science-based, technologically sophisticated,
well-planned, and perfectly-executed rescue effort, Ramesses’s
glorious Abu Simbel temples now stand eternal watch on higher
ground near the lake, but safe from its waters. Moving the four 60-foot tall
statues of the Pharaoh was a supreme technical challenge. Several plans
were considered and discarded. In the end, the huge statues were cut
apart, hauled off in pieces, and reassembled at their new home. Ramesses
the Great, mighty ruler of the world’s first superpower, would have
expected nothing less.
No individual, no single nation, could have rescued those monuments.
The era when a Howard Carter or a Giovanni Belzoni could go to
the Valley of the Kings and just start digging is long gone. Twenty-first
century archaeology is a scientific discipline, not a treasure hunt.
With its water table rising and economically vital tourism threatened,
Egypt may need to organize another massive program of international
cooperation and salvage archaeology to help solve the looming food crisis
and to deal with the numerous ecological problems caused by the
Aswan High Dam.
Egyptian antiquities authorities face new archaeological crises every
day. Each time a highway, parking lot, or office building is built, ancient
sites and artifacts emerge. Like the dam, these construction projects cannot
wait. Salvage archaeologists rush to excavate and document, with
practiced speed and precision. With water tables rising and resources
thin, preservation of known sites now takes precedence over new digs. And
yet, Egyptologists agree, many “wonderful things” still lie sleeping beneath
the sands.