OnEarth (Web exclusive) 2011-07-28 A mega-resort west of Cairo threatens a vast archeological treasure.
Each working day, a road crew lays another few hundred feet of two-lane highway around Lake Qarun, the gemstone of the Fayoum governorate in central Egypt. When finished, the 60-kilometer tarmac will serve a planned resort complex to be raised on the northeastern shore of the lake, a stunning oasis about an hour’s drive west of Cairo, and for those opposing the project it may as well be a noose.
"The access road is the beginning of the end," says Erik R. Seiffert, a vertebrae paleontologist and an associate professor at New York’s Stony Brook University who has done research in the area. "I don’t see how we can offer any real protection with that thing coming in."
It is a tragedy of modern Egypt that what lies below the soil is often of greater potential value than what lives above it. That is certainly the case with Fayoum, which is among the more neglected regions in an historically deprived nation. Settled in 4,000 B.C., the city is thought to be one of the oldest in Egypt and is a treasure trove of antiquities of all kinds. There is little industry to speak of, to say nothing of basic services like running water and electricity beyond the urban core, and unemployment among its population of more than 300,000 is chronic. Verdant fields nourished by the Nile Delta are interrupted by gray clusters of concrete blockhouses in various stages of construction and disrepair. Buried beneath its desert sea, however, is a lavish feast of fossilized animal bones and vegetation that thrived tens of millions of years ago. Its contribution to the record of Egyptian pre-history, if properly exploited, is beyond estimation.
Egypt, however, like other countries with a long and lush patrimony, often appears to be in contempt of it. (The Egyptian Museum is notorious for the cavalier way in which it displays and curates everything from mummies to ancient cotton spores.) In 2009, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif declared Fayoum would be transformed into a top tourist destination. Not long after that, it was announced that the cornerstone for its restoration would not be a sustainable eco-lodge and museum but Porto Fayoum, a sprawling hotel and spa complex on 650 acres along Lake Qarun, for decades a national protectorate. Upon completion, it will have the means to accommodate 5,000 guests. Its introduction to such a fragile, if vital preserve, says Seiffert, "would be the paleontological equivalent of bulldozing [the pharaonic tombs at] Luxor."
Work on Porto Fayoum is scheduled to begin late this year. The project was approved by Egypt’s Tourism Development Authority, which, like several other government agencies, is under investigation for deals it approved during the thirty-year, single-party reign of president Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted earlier this year in a peaceful uprising. It is the inspiration of the Cairo-based Amer Group, which acquired the site from the Egyptian government in 2010 for the equivalent of $28,000, or about $0.01 per square meter, according to the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt. (The Amer Group did not respond to emailed questions and requests for comment for this story.) Opposition to Porto Fayoum has been registered by Egypt’s Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs as well as Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass, who last year requested that the development be redesigned as a sustainable destination for eco-tourists and that it be located 1.5 kilometers away from Lake Qarun’s shoreline so as not to disturb the archeological remains that rest along its banks.
A coalition of environmental groups, led by a local NGO called Nature Conservation Egypt, are calling for the Porto Fayoum site and its surrounding areas to be declared an UNESCO Geopark, as a first step toward making it a World Heritage preserve. Stony Brook’s Seiffert is encouraging colleagues at the Egyptian Museum to assume authority over the region for the sake of its fossil finds. As Egypt prepares for national elections in September, however, and with the country’s political terrain still convulsing in the wake of Mubarak’s departure -- just last week, the government announced Hawass would be dismissed only to reverse itself a few days later -- the country’s vast bureaucracy is stuck in neutral.
"The government said it would excavate and clear the area of fossils before construction begins, but it has done nothing," says Rebecca Porteous of Nature Conservation Egypt. "We’re stymied."
In the middle of this tempest is geologist Ahmed Gedelli, one of three park rangers who is responsible for maintaining the ten-kilometer stretch of coastline that will host Porto Fayoum. Gedelli is an expert on the kind of fossil remains that make Fayoum an indispensable paleontological reserve, in particular its bounty of whale skeletons that date back some 40 million years, when the region was a bay on Egypt’s prehistoric Mediterranean coast.
From the passenger seat of a late-model Toyota Land Cruiser, below a desert escarpment capped by a sandstone ridge, Gedelli escorts a visitor from one Paleogenic find to another. Here is an exquisitely preserved specimen of Basilisaurus, a whale that grew to an average of 18 meters in length. There are the stone-like remains of a Dorudon Atrox, or "Spear Tooth," Basilisaurus’ smaller cousin. Not far away is a rare Pakicetidae, which evolved from the Early Eocene as a carnivorous mammal into a fully aquatic ancestor to modern whales.
The Pakicetidae is an extraordinary find, says Gedelli. Unlike many of the other sites, which have been partially uncovered by a millennia of Fayoum’s famously strong winds, this one is almost entirely submerged in the desert sand and is therefore most surely intact. All that betrays it is the ridge-line of its thoracic vertebrae, from which Gedelli extrapolates a giant some 35 meters long. Fully excavated, it could speak volumes about how whales made their epochal transition from land to sea.
Some months ago, Gedelli says, he sent a formal recommendation to his superiors in Cairo that the Pakicetidae be exhumed and turned into an open-air museum. "It would be a good way to protect it from tourists and fossil collectors," he says. "But I never heard back."
The Pakicetidae remains are a few kilometers up a gentle rise from where Porto Fayoum is to be erected. Just offshore is an island that accommodates a population of some 20,000 migratory White Gulls. Gedelli shrugs fatefully when asked about the impact a massive coastal development a few hundred meters away would have on the birds and their nests, or the threat posed by several thousand tourists to the delicate fossil sites that have become his life’s work.
"They will be a disruption," Gedelli finally says as his Land Cruiser abandons the desert mantel for the freshly laid tarmac of the access road. "So many tourists. I don’t know what we’ll do."