Mapping the Nation’s Treasures

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Egypt Today | December 2003 | pp. 98–99

Egypt’s wealth of archaeological and historical sites is subject to all kinds of threats—foremost of which are poor management and a dearth of transparent data. 

Addressing this urgent need is the Egyptian Antiquities Information System (EAIS), set up in June 2000 with a five-year, €2.5 million grant from the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, matched by a sum just slightly less by the Supreme Council of Antiquities. The goal: establishing an accurate geographic and information database that maps, registers and documents all of Egypt’s cultural heritage sites. 

The data would be available to institutions and agencies involved in land-use planning, such as the General Organization for Physical Planning, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Irrigation and urban planning departments. The information needs to be available and easily accessible even before design and construction work commences.

The Antiquities Protection Law of 1983 mandates that the Supreme Council of Antiquities provide institutions and public organizations responsible for planning with the maps and limits of protected sites. Previously, this registry archive was dispersed, often incoherent and not accessible to those who needed it most, says Naguib Amin, the architect, engineer and planner who heads the EAIS team. 

EAIS gathers information about each site including its location, legal status, a historical description, risk assessment survey, photographs, and a list of the missions that have worked it. Supplementing this tabular data are 10 to 15 layers of maps: geological and topographical maps of Egypt, satellite images, maps of the administrative limits by governorate and agricultural charts. 

Amin’s team has already mapped Sharqiya, Port Said, Ismailia and North Sinai. Next up is Fayoum, then Luxor, and so on. The Supreme Council of Antiquities is also publishing a Cahier des sites, which catalogs the sites in each governorate. The first 1,700-plus-page volume for Sharqiya, containing five maps for each site, will soon be released in Arabic and English. 

EAIS’s case studies include documenting the underwater archaeology in Alexandria so it is not landfilled during Corniche extensions. It is also defining a methodology to save the city’s Turkish quarter. 

“We are about to do case studies of risk and risk analysis on Luxor, Nubia, and Toshka,” adds Amin, indicating to maps taped on the walls.

“The Supreme Council of Antiquities has a policy of rescue excavations, but it is obvious it is not enough. Sometimes it is not done according to international norms,” says Amin, who believes that a better salvage archaeology system also needs to be implemented. 

Other methods of site management and site protection need to be explored, he adds: adapting laws, building awareness, setting priorities.

Foreign missions also need to be more involved, he argues. “Some missions have been working for decades, but we don’t have direct access to the data they have about the sites,” says Amin. “We even claim that many sites are known, are excavated by the mission, but never registered.

“Missions and the institutions that work in Egypt must change strategic visions from searching for a concession, maximum excavation, and maximum discovery, toward site protection and helping Egyptians do site protection and site management.”