Rising Water Table Threatens Egypt's Monuments

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In a race against time, Hawass and colleagues dismantled the tomb, numbered, labeled, and treated the blocks, and restored the drawings.

The restoration was completed earlier this month and the tomb now sits on a concrete base in a dry area well above the water table. "If we had waited more than one month, this tomb could have been gone."

It's not just small tombs that could crumble to dust. Hawass first realized how serious a threat the rising water levels were to Egypt's monuments when water crept to within two feet of the great sphinx of Giza.

To rescue it, a massive three-year project to build sewage systems in surrounding villages caused the water level to drop to about 27 feet (8 meters) below the surface.

But rising water is riddling the whole of Egypt. And nowhere is the problem more severe than in northern Egypt, where the Nile branches off into the delta before emptying into the Mediterranean.

In Zagazig, the site of another once great temple about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Cairo, workers recently discovered an 11-ton (10-metric-ton), well-preserved head, most likely of queen Nefertari, wife of Pharaoh Ramses II, who ruled about 3,300 years ago. The find is special because the artifacts in the north don't usually fare as well as the ones in the south, which has a much drier climate.

Hawass said Zagazig is just one of hundreds of sites in the delta, and he's convinced this area still holds many more treasures.

"But I need the help of foreign expeditions," Hawass said. "Therefore I'm going to direct and make rules that any new expedition [Egyptian or foreign] that wants to come and work in Egypt should work in the Delta to save the monuments before they are destroyed by the water table."

Building a sewage system for the entire Delta is impractical, says Hawass. The only way to save the monuments is to excavate and remove them from danger. "You have to start working right now," Hawass said.

With help, like that mythical phoenix, Egypt's ancient mysteries will also rise, not from fire, but from water.

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