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Faiyumi Sites to be placed on Tourist Map

In early September 2005, the Minister of Culture - Farouq Hosni, approved an LE 3 million Egyptian-Italian project to renovate and develop archaeological sites in the area of Medinet Madi, located in Gharaq Depression in the Faiyum. Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities said that further excavations would be conducted in the Temple Area, dating to the Middle Kingdom and Ptolemaic period. Hawass added that the aeolian sand presently covering the cemetery adjacent to the temple would be removed, and the whole site would be renovated. This project is expected to be completed within 12 months, and aims at providing the facilities required to put this area on the local and international tourist maps.

The government has launched a development project of the Wadi al-Hitan (aka Wadi Zeuglodon or Whale Valley) Protectorate (nature reserve) in the Wadi Rayyan, Faiyum Governorate. The project aims at placing the area, newly inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, on the eco-tourist map. Wadi Rayyan is separated from the Faiyum Depression by a limestone ridge and is a depression in its own right. This depression, like the Faiyum, lies at 42 m b.s.l. Today, the once barren desert depressions have been transformed into large reservoirs in the hope of irrigating the desert. However, one of the two large artificial lakes has turned from fresh water to salt water, like other lakes in the Western Desert - Qarun and Mariut – therefore halting the project.

The Egyptian Prime Minister, Dr. Ahmed Nazif, received a report from Maged George, State Minister for Environmental Affairs on this area, asserting that this are houses several geological components, water springs and rare fossils as well as a great number of whale skeletons dating back 40 million years. Nazif has decided to form a committee comprising of the ministries of higher education, environmental and foreign affairs, Faiyum Governorate in addition to a number of Egyptian universities experts to take part in drawing up a comprehensive plan for boosting investment in the natural and archaeological sites in whole of the Faiyum Governorate.

The Ptolemaic temple forecourt in front of the Middle Kingdom temple of Amenemhet III at Medinet Madi.

As well as having 212 archaeological sites in the Faiyum Depression and another 29 on its boarders dating from the Qarunian (7200 BP-6200 BP to the Late Antique Period (AD 306 – AD 640) the Faiyum area is rich in palaeontological deposits. Many fossils have been found in the area north of Lake Qarun dating to the Eocene, Oligocene and Pliocene epochs. The environment of the periods that created these fossils was similar to modern day Uganda: subtropical and tropical forest with plenty of trees, vines, and mangroves. Within the forests were freshwater swamps and rivers and the area had plenty of rainfall. By the beginning of the Oligocene, 37 million years ago, the sea that had covered much of Egypt had receded northward to the Faiyum – Siwa line, creating a coastal plain along the shore of the Tethys Sea. The delta of one of the Gilf Rivers lay in what is now the Faiyum Depression, emptying out into the Tethys Sea. The deposition of a variety of reptilian and mammalian fossils began in the Mid-Eocene, over 40 million years ago. There are four major geological formations that contain these ancient fossils: the Upper Eocene Birket Qarun Formation (40 million years ago); the Lower Oligocene Gebel Qatrani Formation (37.28 million years ago); Mid-Eocene Qasr el-Sagha Formation (45 million years ago); and the Lower Pliocene Fluvio-Marine Formation (45-25 million years ago). The strata in these various formations represent some of the richest fossil deposits in the whole of Egypt, and there discovery has affected research worldwide.

Fossil hunting in the Faiyum has a history of over 150 years, with one of the earliest palaeontologists being Georg Schweinfurth, who discovered the ancient whale Zeuglodon osiris in 1879. At the beginning of the 20th century Hugh Beadnell and Charles Andrews collected thousands of fossils, including Palaeomastodon, which is the oldest known elephant. The first American palaeontologists to work in the Faiyum were Walter Granger and George Olsen who collected 27 crates of fossils, starting in 1907. This association of American palaeontologists with the Faiyum has remained strong, with probably the most famous being Elwyn Simons who from 1961 to 1986 mounted 17 expeditions, dividing the tens of thousands of fossils he collected between the Cairo Geological Museum and Yale Peabody and Duke University in the USA.

Petrified forest, north of Lake Qarun in the Faiyum.

Petrified wood is found all over the Western Desert, although that found in the Faiyum Gebel Qatrani Formation are from very diverse species, which are typical of a tropical climate. One of the oldest reptiles found in the Faiyum is Gigantophis, a Middle Eocene snake measuring 9 meters long found in the Qasr el-Sagha Formation. The most common reptiles found in the Faiyum are turtles and tortoises, such as the Testudo ammon, a giant tortoise or Podocnemis blankenhorni and Stereogenys pelomedusa, both tropical river turtles. The bird fossils of the Faiyum represent one of the most diverse and best known Paleogene record in Africa. There are thirteen bird families represented, with eleven of them still living in the upper Nile River and Lake Victoria region, an area that approximates the climate of the Faiyum millions of years ago.

Over 20 orders of mammal fossils are to be found in the Faiyum. The most common is Megalohyrax eocaenus, a large Lower Eocene hyrax. One of the animals that has only rarely been found outside of the Faiyum is Arsinoitherium, a mammal similar to a rhinoceros, which lived 45 to 25 million years ago and is found in the Fluvio-Marine Formation. Predators such as Apterdodon, Pterodon and Hyaenodon preyed on the large slow moving creatures that grazed in the Faiyum some 45 to 25 million years ago. Southwest of the Faiyum Depression lies Wadi el-Hitan; this was once a bay of the Tethys Sea measuring 8 km2. In this wadi over 240 skeletons of the ancient whale Zeuglodon, the Basilosauris isis have been found in the Lower Eocene Birket Qarun Formation, these whales averaged 20 m long. A smaller ancient whale called Dorudon, averaging 3-5 m has also been found here. These fossils, which are over 40 million years old, are important links in the evolutionary chain of whales moving from land to sea creatures.

The most important fossils, however, are those of the thirteen primate species found in the Gebel Qatrani Formation, which roamed the Faiyum’s Eocene and Oligocene forests 35 to 28 million years ago. Gebel Qatrani is the only place in Egypt (and Africa) where these particular primate species have been found. They precede the famous primate species Australopithecus and the later Homo species found by people such as the Leaky’s. There were two distinct groups of primates in the Faiyum – lower sequence primates and upper sequence primates. The lower primates are the rarest and include Oligopithicus savagei and Qatrania wingi. These were small primates that may be the link between Eocene prosimans and Oligocene anthropoideans. There have been found numerous examples of the upper sequence of primates, the oldest being the late Eocene Catopithecus browni and Proteopithecus sylviae, which were short faced monkeys. Other squirrel monkey-like primates have also been found. The most important of the primates are the five species of so-called ‘Dawn apes’. The largest of these primates was Aegyptopithecus zeuxis (30 to 28 million years old), the other four species of dawn apes were: Propliopithecus chirobates, Propliopithecus ankeli, Propliopithecus haeckeli and Propliopithecus markgrafi. These primates appear to be the ancestors of the two branches that formed later into the great apes, with Aegyptopithecus zeuxis being an ancestor of this line, and Propliopithecus haeckeli and Propliopithecus markgrafi being progenitors of the hominid line, which later produced Australopithecus africanus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus and eventually Homo sapiens.

Dr Hossam Kamel, Director of the Faiyum Protectorates has raised concerns regarding the mining activities in the region. The threat comes from companies quarrying basalt from the fossil-rich area. Several local companies are using heavy equipment and explosives to extract basalt from a three-seven metre layer of stone that runs throughout the area, particularly in the Gebel Qatrani region. The extraction of basalt, Kamel says, is taking place on a large-scale and some invaluable fossils may be lost forever in the process (http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2005/749/en7.htm and http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2005/749/en8.htm). As well as basalt quarrying, there is imminent danger from gravel quarrying to many Epi-Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Graeco-Roman sites located to the north of Lake Qarun, the majority of which were discovered by Gertrude Caton-Thompson in the 1920s and 30s. A land reclamation project to the north of Kom Aushim has already destroyed the famous Neolithic K-Pits and probably Kom K, sites that attested some of the earliest agricultural practices in Egypt. A proposed tarmac road to take tourists to the famous sites of Qasr Sagha (Middle Kingdom Temple) and Dimai (Ptolemaic to Roman city) cuts straight through these Epi-Palaeolithic and Neolithic sites. The bringing of tourists through these fragile sites with lithic scatters marking their existence is a grave threat, for tourists may pick up these exquisitely made tools, depriving them of their context and archaeologists valuable information on the beginnings of Egyptian civilisation. If eco and cultural tourism is to be encouraged in this region, then it has to have governing rules advising tourists on how to behave in such a fragile and finite environment (see also Protect the Saharan Heritage).

Prof. Mustafha Fouda, head of Nature conservation at the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) states that the Wadi Rayyan needs permanent supervision by trained personnel to ensure that environmental laws are not broken. Rangers will patrol the Wadi al-Hitan region and coordinate with local residents to enforce the environmental protection plan for the area. New regulations require visitors to obtain a permit and to be escorted by a ranger when sightseeing at this beautiful spot. Cars, except for those specified by the Protectorate officials, will be banned from entering the region and will have to use the specified car park. An ecolodge is to be built just outside the Wadi to allow visitors to stay overnight, and signposts and light structures will be erected to provide the necessary facilities. Plans are also well developed to promote local folkcrafts, which will be sold in a visitor centre near the new open-air museum; the latter will hold a replica whale skeleton. A scientific cooperation initiative has been struck between the Protectorate and the University of Michigan. This agreement will allow students to receive training in both Egypt and the US. A survey of the Wadi Rayyan region is being funded by a twinning agreement with the Italian National Park of Gran Sasso. Expertise on the logistics of running the Wadi Rayyan National Park is also being provided by the Italian mission. This type of safeguarding of natural heritage should be expanded to the area north of Lake Qarun before it is too late. As well as the archaeological remains that are at risk many fossils are in grave danger. Sites such as Kom W are still safe, but for how long is the question. At present these sites of world importance are not even registered as archaeological sites by the SCA. The first step in their protection is to get them recognised by the Egyptian heritage bodies such as CultNat, the EAIS and the SCA. ECHO has made provisional agreements with CultNat and the EAIS and is at present preparing a dossier listing all the sites in the Faiyum and the exact co-ordinates and importance of each site to present to these authorities. This GIS and database will in due course be posted on the web.

Land reclamation in the area of the K-Pits.

Quarrying for gravel in the area of Epi-Palaeolithic to Neolithic sites north of Lake Qarun.

The towering walls of the city of Soknopain Neos at Dimai.

The Middle Kingdom temple at Qasr Sagha.

The proposed new road to take tourists to visit Dimai and Qasr Sagha.

In December 2005, the Minister of Tourism - Ahmed el-Maghrabi and the Minister of Environment - Engineer Maged George agreed on boosting environmental tourism, particularly in the Western Desert, the Bahariya Oasis and Faiyum. El-Maghrabi stressed the necessity of paying heed to eco-tourism to help develop communities there. On his part, George underlined the importance of eco-tourism, which attracts a special category of tourists, a matter which in turn leads to achieving economic progress in the surrounding areas.

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A Return to Recuperative Tourism

During the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century many tourist would go to Egypt to convalesce in the belief that the warm climate would help their ailments. Today many patients go to Eastern Europe or India to have operations. A new Egyptian governmental directive has been drawn up involving several ministries interacting with oversees trading offices to promote recuperative tourism. The Prime Minister, Ahmed Nazif, announced this August the creation of a Recuperative Tourism Office to develop the countries 1350 health springs, which are popular in combating chronic skin diseases. The office will concentrate on developing the natural potential of the sandy areas in Safaga on the Read Sea Coast and Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert. The governments plan also involves developing hospitals at these locations, providing them with state-of-the-art technologies and improving the training of the medical staff.

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