Desert art in danger at Egypt’s new tourism frontier

Charles Onians is to be congratulated for this piece on the Middle East Online website.   It really horrifies, and that’s the way it should be.  The deserts are incredibly vulnerable.  No-one lives there, no-one is interested in policing the desert (even if the logistics of doing so were remotely imaginable) and within Egyptian heritage management organizations there seems to be precious little concern for the remarkable archaeology that is slowly being eroded from desert floors and desert walls.  Charles Onians addresses some of those issues in this article, looking in particular at the damage that tourism is inflicting on the stunning rock art of Egypt and Libya.  Tourism in the Western Desert is on the up – perhaps 800 people visited in 2006, but Rudolf Kuper, one of the top desert archaeologists working in Egypt, says that over a 1000 are now visiting annually.

Kuper  highlights some of the harm inflicted on paintings.  Tourists “paint” them in oil or water so that the colours stand out better for photographs.  At Ain Dua bored soldiers shot at some.  One painted cave has been used as a rubbish tip.  Others have had graffiti scrawled on them.  He says that many tourists, and in particular he mentions Cairo-based ex-pats, still have a colonial mentality.  There’s no respect.

So what’s the solution?  Kuper and others, including a Farafra tour operator, believe that education is at the heart of the matter.  A museum in Dakhleh might help, and the declaration of the area under discussion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site would enable measures to be put in place.  But that would require the agreement of Egypt, Libya and Sudan because the area under discussion crosses the borders of all three,  and that seems like a large leap.

I lead tours into the Egyptian desert.  But my god we do our best to make sure that our little gang of tour members not only understand the risks (to the landscape and the past) but why the archaeology matters.  Most of my tours are composed mainly of mature people (in all senses of the word) who love the desert and want to learn more about it.  They listen to my Health and Safety chat (the health and safety of the archaeology and the rock art) and they ask questions, but it’s all common sense and they know that.  And even when I trust my tour members completely, I stay with them at the most sensitive venues in case of harm committed in innocent error.  It’s a responsibility.  What astonishes me is that there are people who pay a lot of money to travel into these areas and then desecrate what they find when they get there.

I am not sure what the value of designating the area as a UNESCO World Heritate Site would really be.  Many countries have celebrated the designation of their sites by UNESCO only to find that that the very designation that sought to protect those sites attracts more attention and a higher volume of tourists.  Protection then becomes even more complicated.

The protection of the archaeology of the desert borders has a long way to come.

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