Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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The Bell Tolls for Thebes Volume 61 Number 5, September/October 2008
by Angela M. H. Schuster

Will one of the world's most treasured cultural destinations fall prey to its own success?


Throngs of tourists walk along the avenue of the sphinxes at Karnak Temple. Unmanaged tourism, agriculture, and public works projects are putting the area's countless archaeological sites in jeopardy. (Steve F-E-Cameron/Creative Commons)

Often considered the world's largest open-air museum, Thebes ranks among humanity's richest and most important archaeological destinations. The area's allure comes from its extraordinary wall paintings, colossal statues of gods and once-mighty pharaohs, and the imposing edifices of the Karnak and Luxor temples. Among the sites flanking a four-mile stretch of the Nile are the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, the final resting places of Egypt's New Kingdom rulers (ca. 15401075 B.C.); the Colossi of Memnon; vestiges of the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III; the village of Deir al-Medinah, home of the artisans who created so many of the region's tombs and monuments; and thousands of lesser-known temples, tombs, and shrines.


Statue fragments from the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III once sat in destructive salty water. Today, the surviving fragments are being protected until the groundwater problem can be solved permanently. (Steve F-E-Cameron/Creative Commons)

For all their beauty, however, these monuments constitute one of the world's greatest conservation challenges. The modern town of Luxor has grown up around the east bank temples, while on the west bank, sugar-cane fields, roads, and mud-brick villages lie in and among the valley temple ruins. The environmental impact of public works projects, unmanaged tourism, and destructive agricultural policies threaten to destroy an extraordinary cultural landscape.

While the sheer number of Theban sites makes their care and management a formidable task, the burden increased dramatically in 1970 when the Aswan High Dam was completed. Since then, year-round irrigation of the flood plain for the production of sugar cane has caused a substantial rise in the local water table, inviting agricultural exploitation of fields in and around monuments such as the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III. The dam also depleted the Nile of vital nutrients—now trapped in silt at the bottom of Lake Nasser—which, in turn, has led to increased fertilizer use downstream. And with the Nile's annual flood cycle interrupted, soil salinity has risen in the lands along the riverbanks. Further complicating the situation, burning is still used to clear fields, and the heat from it has caused even massive stones to split. Collectively, these processes are exacting a tremendous toll on the archaeological sites.

Angela M. H. Schuster is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.