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Egyptian Revolution May Save Neolithic Treasure, Was Threatened by Mubarak's Regime

Egypt’s revolution may save Neolithic treasure

Jordan Times, 3 June 2011

By Patrick Werr Reuters


Egypt's popular uprising may have arrived just in time to save a Neolithic site that holds the country's oldest evidence of agriculture and could yield vital clues to the rise of Pharaonic civilisation.

The site lies in a protected nature reserve along the shore north of Lake Qarun that until recently had remained virtually untouched, even though it lies only 70km from Cairo.

A month before the protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak erupted in January, the Egyptian government carved 2.8 square kilometres of prime land from the reserve and awarded it to property developer Amer Group for a tourist resort.

Since Mubarak was ousted, three government ministers who sat on a committee that approved the sale have been jailed while they battle corruption charges not related to the Amer deal.

One of them, Housing Minister Ahmed Maghrabi, told Reuters in January that archaeology officials had given the re-development the necessary green light.

Egypt's archaeology chief now says that was untrue.

"I did not give any permission to anyone. The excavations are not finished," Zahi Hawass, head of the supreme council for antiquities, told Reuters.

Egyptian conservation groups have decried the Amer deal, saying it was done without proper oversight and that the arrival of large numbers of holidaymakers would wreak heavy damage to a wide swathe of the delicate desert landscape.

"This is the thin end of the wedge. It is the destruction of Egyptian natural heritage for future generations," said Ali Fahmi, director of the conservation group Friends of Lake Qarun. "It sets a precedent in desecrating a protected area."

Whale, primate fossils

Egypt's Cabinet in 1989 declared 1,110 square kilometres north of the lake a nature protectorate, an area that also contains unique geology, Pharaonic basalt quarries from the old kingdom and fossils of early whales and primates.

Archaeologists say the remains of rain-based Neolithic farming in the reserve may hold vital clues to a technological leap that led to irrigation-based farming along the Nile.

Around 4,000 BC, humans occupying a strip along the northern shore of the lake seized a window of only a few centuries of rainfall to grow grain in previously inhospitable desert, archaeologists say.

"We have the evidence of the earliest agriculture activity in Egypt. So it's before the pharaohs, it's before the early dynastic period when Egypt becomes a state," said Willeke Wendrich, an archaeology professor at the University of California in Los Angeles.

"What we have on the north shore of Fayoum is something unique worldwide. What we have is a Neolithic landscape which, because it's desert, has not been overbuilt," she said in an interview.

Khaled Saad, department manager for prehistory at Egypt's Supreme Council for Antiquities (SCA), said that four years ago the tourism ministry decided it wanted to build hotels and tourist attractions on a 20 square kilometre tract stretching 10km along the lake's northern shoreline.

It formed a committee to approve designating the land for development that included Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, Tourism Minister Zoheir Garranah, Maghrabi and other officials, Saad said.

In December, the tourism Development Authority (TDA), which is under the tourism ministry, awarded Amer Group the land under a 99-year concession, charging $28,000 in the first year, rising to an annual $92,000 in the fourth to 10th years.

Maghrabi said in early January that the SCA had brought in archaeologists to survey the area before the project went ahead.

"It has been completely cleared by the department of antiquities. We made sure of that," Maghrabi told Reuters at the time.

More research 'crucial'

But Hawass of the antiquities council said the work was still ongoing and he was now demanding a fresh assessment.

"Two weeks ago I asked Khaled Saad to come to me with a report to tell me as an archaeologist what he thinks. And now I asked him that we will appoint a large committee of archaeologists to decide the future of the land," Hawass said.

Saad said the survey mentioned by Maghrabi took place between March 2009 and October 2010 and was designed to see if there were antiquities on the site.

"I proved that there were," he said.

The site holds a wealth of prehistoric remains from mid-Mesolithic period 200,000 years ago to the Pharaonic period and later, said Saad.

They also found the remains of 24 ancient whales that swam in the region's waters 42 million years ago, including one belonging to an entirely new species.

Weindrich said further research in the area is crucial to cast light on the origins of Egyptian civilisation.

The Neolithic farming community that appeared around six millennia ago had little material to build with and left no sign of permanent buildings or structures, she said.

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