In Egypt, Archaeologists Fly Kites to Detect Ancient Sites

September 24, 2003

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In the Kharga Oasis, 175 miles (280 kilometers) west of Luxor in Egypt's Western Desert, surveyors are flying kites.

The oasis is in a military zone—where it is near impossible to organize private helicopter or balloon flights—so researchers use the kites, outfitted with remotely operated cameras, to help map one of Egypt's richest, least-studied archaeological troves.

A spectacular series of well-preserved Roman forts, possibly built on top of pharaonic ruins, speckle the oasis, 100 miles long and from 10 to 180 miles wide (160 kilometers long and from 15 to 300 kilometers wide). Many of the ruins have never been mapped; but looters have preyed on Kharga, and now archaeologists are racing to preserve it.

"You see these incredibly large, mud-brick walls about 50 feet (15 meters) tall rising out of sand dunes and rocky knolls," says Corinna Rossi, a fellow in Egyptology at the University of Cambridge, in England, and co-director of the North Kharga Oasis Survey.

Rossi first saw Kharga as a tourist in 1996.

"I thought this is utterly fantastic," she recalls. "When I returned to Cambridge I was stunned to find that the place had never been studied."

The surveyors work in the early morning and evening when the ruins, some almost completely buried, cast long shadows over the arid, rocky terrain. The aerial perspective allows the researchers to see features not obvious from the ground.

Kharga thrived during periods of strong government: 1400 B.C. to 800 B.C., during the Pharaonic Period, and 600 B.C. to 500 A.D. when a succession of conquerors—Persians, Greeks and Romans—ruled Egypt.

Roman Influence in Egypt

The region was renowned as the Roman Empire's grain basket and as a producer of dates and wine. Barley, olives, nabak berries and several strains of wheat were also cultivated, according to Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at American University in Cairo and co-director of NKOS. Ikram is also a grantee of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration.

"The Kharga Oasis was a crossroads for trade routes between the Nile Valley and Libya," says Terry Wilfong, associate curator for Greek and Roman Egypt at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "It was a hotspot for interactions between Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and nomadic North African tribes."

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