First Published: 2007-11-22

 
Desert art in danger at Egypt's new tourism frontier
 

Elegant paintings of prehistoric man threatened by actions of travelers in Egypt, Libya, Sudan.

 

Middle East Online

By Charles Onians - CAIRO

Contemporary photo (background) compared to one from 50 years ago

A rising tide of travellers seeking out the new frontier of Egyptian tourism is threatening priceless rock art preserved for millennia in one of the most-isolated reaches of the Sahara.

In Egypt's southwest corner, straddling the borders of Sudan and Libya, the elegant paintings of prehistoric man and beast in the mountains of Gilf Kabir and Jebel Ouenat are as stunning in their simplicity as anything by Picasso.

But lying 500 kilometres (330 miles) from the nearest habitation, the desert offers little sanctuary for these masterpieces and any effective protected designation first requires a deal between the three sometimes quarrelsome nations.

Not only the rock art is at stake, but the region's entire cultural and natural heritage.

"You can't estimate the amount of damage done," says Dr Rudolph Kuper, a German archaeologist involved in trying to protect the art, mostly dating from when the desert was a receding prairie 5,000-7,000 years ago.

"People put water or oil on the paintings to make the faded colours look brighter, causing irreparable damage," he says.

The story is even more tragic just across the border in Libya, where the delicate brush strokes of human figures at Ain Dua appear to have been shot at by bored soldiers.

Nearby, a painted cave is filled with rubbish while outside a giant portrait of Bob Marley shimmers garishly in the white of the desert.

Paying up to 10,000 dollars for a two-week expedition, travellers drive through the desert to reach Gilf Kabir, site of the Cave of the Swimmers made famous by the 1996 film "The English Patient."

While only a handful came here in the 1980s, the numbers have been rising steadily through the 1990s as some of the millions of tourists visiting Egypt seek out something more exotic than the sandy beach of a Red Sea resort.

"By 2006 there were probably 800 people coming and this year we expect more than 1,000," says Kuper.

Rock art specialist Tilman Lenssen-Erz says that in prehistoric times the sites would have been known for thousands of square kilometres (miles).

"This was a place so highly charged with symbolism and with the world views that were fixed there in the rock art that it would have been like a huge cathedral in a European context," says Lenssen-Erz.

"People from far away would know about the significance of the religious power that is collected in this place ... where the supernatural powers of the world were fixed on rocks making the whole area a sacred landscape."

Even more recent artefacts like the world's westernmost example of ancient hieroglyphics known as Meri's rock, to the northeast of Gilf Kabir, have not gone unscathed by the passage of modern man.

The hieroglyphs are evidence that, contrary to the idea that pharaonic trade with sub-Saharan Africa only went via the Nile Valley, the ancients had a major trading route cutting straight through the desert.

Last year, someone embellished the ancient writings with a giant engraving of a topless woman.

"You can't put barbed wire around it so we developed the idea of mental fences," Kuper says of the importance of educating guides and tourists alike.

Saad Ali, a young tour operator based in the oasis of Farafra who also runs the Farafra Development Institution NGO, also realised that the only long-term solution was through education.

"We always arranged trips to clean up the desert and every year we found more rubbish so we found the solution is to train the guides," he says.

"Now it's changed a lot. Last year we went to clean up and we collected only 4.5 tonnes of rubbish while the year before it was 11 tonnes."

His next target is tour operators working out of Cairo, still largely unaware of the damage they wreak.

Kuper says that such programmes help to manage "70-80 percent of people" but that others -- tourists still living with a colonial mentality and Cairo-based expats who take away artefacts in their 4x4s -- are difficult to control.

With untold damage already wrought, getting Egypt, Libya and Sudan to agree on policing the militarily sensitive area is a conservation conundrum.

The hope is to have the area designated as a trans-boundary cultural landscape UNESCO World Heritage site, but that requires the three nations to all first declare individual national parks.

So far, only Egypt has designated a park, but officials from all three countries are due to meet in Cairo in December in the hope of hammering out a deal, despite their occasionally fraught diplomatic relations.

With the support of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Kuper and Prof Mustafa Fouda from the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency want to build a museum-cum-educational centre in the oasis of Dakhla, the jumping off point for most trips to Gilf Kabir.

"Hopefully we can make our dreams come true, with a museum to explain the relationship between man and the desert, to explain how man can make use of the resources in a sustainable way," says Fouda.

Pending the politicians' decision, Kuper says that recently some tourists have returned to the Cave of the Swimmers to try to erase their names. For the desert's desecraters, it seems the writing is on the wall.

 

Erdogan urges world to recognise Jerusalem as Palestinian capital

Gulf pours funds into West Africa anti-jihadist force

US skeptical about Putin's declaration of military victory in Syria

US-led air strikes kill 23 civilians in Syria

Saudi Arabia lifts decades-long ban on cinemas

Lebanon approves bid for oil, gas exploration

US to present 'irrefutable evidence' of Iran violations

Istanbul 'to remove Gulen links' from street names

Iraq hangs 38 jihadists

Pence to visit Middle East despite controversy

Hamas chief calls for continued Jerusalem protests

EU to repatriate 15,000 migrants from Libya in two months

Syria Kurds fear US ally will desert them after IS defeat

Israeli drugmaker Teva to cut 14,000 jobs over two years

Turkey rescues 51 migrants stranded on rocks

Saudi, UAE hold talks with Yemen Islamists

18 killed after bomber strikes Mogadishu police academy

Israeli air strikes target Hamas military facilities

Israel union calls nationwide strike over pharmaceutical giant job cuts

UN envoy urges Putin to press Assad for elections

Yemen's Huthi rebels release pro-Saleh media staff

Israel intelligence minister invites Saudi prince to visit

Saudi-led strikes kill 30 in rebel-run Yemen prison

Saudi king says Palestinians have 'right' to Jerusalem

Saudi King says determined to confront corruption

South Sudan needs $1.7 billion humanitarian aid in 2018

UAE oil giant floats 10 percent of retail arm to strong interest

Growing concern about rise of far-right in Austria

Saudi, UAE seeks to help West Africa fight terrorism

Somali journalist dies after Mogadishu bombing

Israeli sentenced to four years for arson attack on church

Erdogan risks sabotaging fragile relations with Israel

6.2-magnitude earthquake strikes Iran

Two Gazans killed by Israeli ‘strike’, Israel denies claim

French FM accuses Iran of carving out ‘axis’ of influence

Over 170 dead after South Sudan rival cattle herders clash

Russia begins partial withdrawal from Syria

Russia weary of returning IS jihadists before World Cup, election

EU accused of complicity in Libya migrant rights violations

Pentagon skeptical about Russia's Syria pullout claims

EU says Syria war ‘ongoing’ despite Russia pullout

Istanbul nightclub gunman refuses to testify

Integrating Syrians in Turkey carries implications

US opinion views Muslims and Arabs more favourably but political affiliation makes a difference

Iranian conservative protesters say Trump hastening end of Israel