Infringements against the archaeological site of Dahshur raise some thorny questions on the conflict between conserving heritage and making life easier for modern-day individuals
“The living are more worthy than the dead”. The quote is a common Egyptian saying, meant to denote that more effort should be made to make life easier than to pay respects for the dead. On the face of it, the logic defies dispute. Yet it stands to face a dire test today as the archaeological site Dahshur, a UNESCO World Heritage site, suffers encroachment from nearby villages.
Dahshur, which lies some 40km south of Cairo and 11km south of Saqqara, is located at the southern edge of the ancient necropolis of Memphis. The royal necropolis is home to five pyramid complexes which date back to the Old (2686 – 2181BC) and Middle (2055 – 1650BC) Kingdoms of ancient Egypt, and is as yet largely unexplored.
“Where do we bury our dead?”
Kamal Waheed, Director of antiquities of Saqqara and Dahshur, told Watani that, despite the ban to build on archaeological sites, the locals have encroached on the Dahshur site with the purpose of building a cemetrey. The rows of modern tombs are threatening to reach up to the bases of the ancient pyramids. The archaeological site, Mr Waheed explains, is close to the area’s old cemetrey which has become overcrowded, so the new cemetrey would—for all practical purposes—act as an expansion to the old one.
Negotiations with the offenders are going on non-stop to dissuade them from pursuing their illegal building activity. Unfortunately, according to Mr Waheed, just as State officials manage to persuade some to leave, others directly come in their stead.
The Antiquities Authority even offered to build for the villagers a cemetrey in a nearby location, as it had done before in the case of the archaeological site of Abu-Sir, also near Saqqara. Before allocating the new plot of land, however, the Antiquities Authority has to do a number of archaeological digs to ensure that the new site contains no antiquities, and ask Dahshur residents to be patient until the digs are done. But the people of Dahshur say: “Who can trust State officials? And where are we supposed to bury our dead?” They have not been able to get official permit for a new cemetrey. They cannot trust the Antiquities officials, refuse to wait for their alleged digs, and insist on going ahead with the illegal construction. This is easy enough when the police and local authorities have scarce power in Egypt’s post-revolution times.
The Antiquities Authority files legal proceedings against the encroachments on a daily basis, but this neither solves the problem nor stops the building activity. The radical solution, Mr Waheed says, would be to put an end to construction altogether. The Antiquities Authority has not given up on attempting to reach a compromise with the locals but, unfortunately, people in Egypt have become rebellious against authority after the 2011 Revolution and the lawlessness that ensued. When neither the police nor the city council could put an end to the encroachments, the Minister of State for Antiquities sent an official memorandum to the army asking them to interfere. It is expected that by next week the trespassers will be forced out either by agreement or by force of law. But Mr Waheed infinitely prefers to end the crisis through agreement; last week, he says, some EGP50,000 were allocated by the government to speed up that end.
Professor of Archaeology at Cairo University, Abdullah Kamel, says that, since infringements against archaeological sites occur on a daily basis, a crisis management unit must be created to take proper action to protect our heritage, in coordination with the Tourism Police and the antiquities inspectors and guards. The various archaeological sites must be ranked by order of significance, and security must be tightened at the sites of archaeological digs and storage. These sites must be equipped with the same security systems used in museums and surveillance cameras must be installed to protect the antiquities, in cooperation with the Ministries of Interior and Defence.
Raze the encroachments
Mohamed Ibrahim, Minister of State for Antiquities, has said that as far as Dahshur is concerned, legal action is being taken to raze the encroachments. Most of these encroachments, he said, were made by force of arms. Proceedings have been filed against violators, and the public prosecutor has accordingly ordered the razing of the constructions. In addition, an emergency request will be sent to the permanent antiquities committee to proceed with tearing down the illegal construction and handing the area over to National Security in accordance with the existing maps.
Mr Ibrahim confirmed that a new plot of land from the property of the Ministry of Antiquities would be allocated for the erection of a cemetrey for the benefit of the people of Dahshur. However, he said, this would require a deal of legal and administrative groundwork. Permits must first be issued from the permanent committee to perform probes and digs in the new plot to ensure that it does not contain any antiquities. Once this is ensured, the land must be handed over to the State Public Utilities, after which it may be allocated for building the cemetrey. Mr Ibrahim deplores the fact that, despite all the official efforts to reach a compromise with the locals, they still insist on building their cemetrey on the archaeological site. “The only way, then,” he says, “is for the National Security Forces to raze the illegal construction by force.”
If immediate action is not taken to rescue Dahshur, what does Egypt, and the entire world community, stand to risk?
The region was used as a necropolis since the 4th Dynasty—the 4th Dynasty lasted from 2613 to 2494BC—and is home to five pyramids and tombs of royal family members. The best preserved pyramids in Dahshur are the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid, both built by King Snefru, ca. 2613–2589, with the latter being considered the first true pyramid in Egypt. The three other pyramids were built by kings of the Middle Kingdom’s 12th Dynasty (1991-1786 BC). The tombs built around the pyramids belonged to many queens and princesses and contained important gold artefacts and jewellery.
The Bent Pyramid is of great architectural importance as it is an example of the last phase of pyramid development in the Old Kingdom and represents a transitional form between step-sided and smooth-sided pyramids. Adjacent to the pyramid stands the Valley Temple, decorated with scenes depicting the different regions of Ancient Egypt and statues of King Snefru. Archaeologists attribute the exceptional shape of the Bent Pyramid to one of two theories. With an original angle of inclination of 54 degrees at the base of the pyramid, the pyramid would have reached an elevated height that would have affected its structure. The angle of inclination was therefore altered to 43 degrees to prevent the pyramid from collapsing, thus causing a bent appearance. The second, less credible and much disputed theory, argues that the king might have asked the builders to hasten with the construction of the pyramids as he sensed that his end was approaching and wished to be buried in it. The height of the pyramid reaches almost 101 metres and is the only pyramid to still keep its outer smooth layer.
The third highest
The second important pyramid from the Old Kingdom in the Dahshur necropolis is the North Pyramid, also known as the Red Pyramid, for the characteristic reddish hue of its stones extracted from the Red Mountain in Abbasiya, east of Cairo. The Red Pyramid is considered the first to take the true, smooth-sided pyramidal shape. At a height of almost 105 metres it is the third highest pyramid in Egypt after the Khufu and Khafra pyramids in Giza which were built many years later.
The three other pyramids in Dahshur were built during the Middle Kingdom, a few hundred years after the Bent and Red Pyramids. King Amenemhat II of the 12th Dynasty built his pyramid to the South-East of the North (Red) Pyramid. Built using mud brick, it is nowadays very much destroyed along with its surrounding pyramid complex. To the West of the pyramid, the tombs of a queen and three princesses were found containing a rare collection of jewellery now exhibited in the Egyptian Museum.
The pyramid of Senusert III is located to the northeast of the pyramid of Amenemhat II, at the Northern edge of Dahshur. The pyramid’s original height was 78 metres; it was built in mud brick and covered with limestone. The burial chamber and the sarcophagus were made of granite. The pyramid complex included tombs of queens and princesses, all linked to the main pyramid by an underground gallery. Excavations of these tombs unearthed many hidden treasures such as three boats made of cedar wood and a stunning collection of jewellery, now on display at the Egyptian museum.
To the rescue
The last pyramid is the Pyramid of King Amenemhat III, also known as the black pyramid due to the dark hue of the mud stones used for its construction. Having an original height of 81 metres, the black pyramid is located between the southern Snefru pyramid and the agricultural land of the Dahshur village. The pyramid used to be encased in limestone and capped by a small basalt pyramidal tip now on display at the Egyptian museum. Amenemhat III was probably buried in his other pyramid in Hawwara, near Fayoum.
Will Egypt manage to rescue this priceless heritage? Again, a time-honoured Egyptian proverb says: “Whoever renounces his past is forever lost”.
3 February 2013