Archaeology

Officially endangered

An ancient ceramic mosque and one of the first modern eco-friendly villages are falling apart.

This week the World Heritage Fund (WHF) added two Egyptian sites to its watch list of endangered places: New Gourna Village in Luxor and the Old Mosque of Shali Fortress in Siwa, bringing the total number of sites in Egypt to 14.

Sites on the WHF’s list usually can be saved by investments to refurbish them and proper upkeep, but will likely crumble without proper attention.

"It’s true, I agree with them," said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). "But they can’t say [New Gourna is] endangered. The Supreme Council in Luxor is rebuilding. We are doing a plan for the restoration."

The Gourna Village is one of the youngest sites recognized by the WHF, but its historical significance has not been lost. Conceived by architect Hassan Fathy through a commission by the Department of Antiquities in 1945, the village blends traditional knowledge and resources with a consideration for the local population, precepts often employed in what we know now as eco-tourism.

"Fathy’s philosophy and vision derived from humanistic values about the connections between people and places and the use of traditional knowledge and resources in designing the built environment," the WHF website says. "Fathy inspired a new generation of architects and planners worldwide through his integration of traditional materials and technology with modern architectural principles."

Today the site is falling to pieces, mostly due to mismanagement, according the WHF. The WHF estimates that about 40% of the village has been destroyed–including a demolished boys’ school– while several other structures including homes, a theater and the Khan are near collapse.

The site was originally built to move local residents to prevent looting of Pharaonic sites, and has become a continuing symbol of the struggle between the government to take over land through eminent domain and a local population’s desire to keep their homes.

"It is far away from the area of antiquities," said Mansour Boraik, general supervisor of antiquities in Luxor. "The people refused to move to it."

Unlike the 20th century village, the Old Mosque of Shali Fortress was built more than 800 years ago. The mosque has gradually deteriorated through a series of events in the last 100 years. Floods, World War II bombings and modern tourism development have all contributed to the mosque’s disintegration.

It is the oldest mosque in the world built of calcified soil, an ancient technique of naturally hardening earth with salt. It also literally bears the marks of its early 13th century creators.

"The rough, undulating texture of the fa├žade still bears the handprints of the original builders," the WHF’s website says.

Although many historical sites in Egypt have collapsed over the course of thousands of years due to many different human and natural events, many sites have been saved due to the attention of social scientists. The Philae Temple south of Aswan, for example, was nearly submerged in the 1970’s, but was moved piece-by-piece by UNESCO to another nearby island.

Antiquities authorities are hoping the plans to restore the village in Gourna will preserve the area for the world to see. The Luxor antiquities authority will receive a grant from the SCA and the Egyptian government, but the amount has not been decided yet. The grant will preserve the house of the mayor at the time, the house of the architect Fathy, the khan, or marketplace, as well as supporting the foundations of the houses and domes of the village.

"We will have a big grant to renovate the area," Boraik said. "It is to be kept as an example of Hassan Fathy architecture. We will begin this project to open to the public to see something different that we have in Luxor."
 

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