Over 150 ancient and Medieval Egyptian sites hit by October earthquake

Unesco is coordinating a restoration programme for buildings from the Pyramid of Cheops to the Blue Mosque


The earthquake of 12 October caused a range of damage to over 150 Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic monuments in and around Cairo, weakening a number of structures that were already unstable and details of whose condition before the quake do not exist. The original list of damage compiled by the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation has now been verified by the The Conservation Practice in West Sussex, England, and Gifford Consulting Engineers, who were invited to inspect the damage by UNESCO in preparation for a coordinated relief effort. The monuments in the Islamic centre of Cairo have been a cause of concern for many years—sewage and water systems in the old city are in a constant state of collapse and the resultant rising damp and sulphate action has considerably weakened foundations. Medieval Cairo, included on the World Heritage list, contains the greatest concentration of major monuments in the Islamic world. UNESCO however is unlikely to able to pay for the full cost of the restoration programme and intends to enlist aid from other international agencies. President Mubarak, appealing for outside aid, said that “above all we need experts and specialists in saving damaged buildings”.

The Pharaonic monuments, solidly constructed from massive blocks, withstood the seismic shocks far better than later buildings. At Giza some stones fell from the Pyramid of Cheops and stones were displaced from the side of the Pyramid of Khephren that faces the Sphinx, leaving fissures. At Saqqara seven small stones fell from the step pyramid and the Serapeum, the underground burial chamber of the bulls of Apis, suffered cracks in the roof, side chambers and corridors. Cracks have also appeared in the underground passageways of the Tuna el-Gebel at Minia 300 km. south of Cairo and the granite columns of the Roman basilica at the neighbouring el-Ashmunein now incline several degrees away from the vertical. In the Valley of the Kings at Thebes sixty-five tombs now need internal support; the tombs of Ramasses I and III have cracks in the walls. While the Luxor temples escaped with only cracks and fractures in some of the columns, two blocks of stone each weighing ten tons fell from the roof of the hypostyle of the temple at Kom Ombo 140 km. down the Nile. Cracks in the temple of Hibis in the el-Kharga oasis in the Libyan desert have widened, giving urgency to the plan to move the temple which was already suffering from underground water seepage.

Altogether twenty-three Pharaonic monuments (grade one classification) suffered damage as opposed to a total of 132 Islamic and Coptic monuments in Cairo itself. Among the latter the Qualawan Mosque has suffered cracks in all the arches of the mauaoleum, and detachment of plaster decoration in the madrasa (school building). At the As-Salih Negm Ad-din madrasa and mausoleum urgent action is needed to save the minaret, which has cracked and is sloping one way, while the supporting timber lintel slopes the other. The mosque of the sixteenth-century Al-Ghouri, the last of the great Mameluk sultans, is in very poor condition: the minaret has moved and many areas of marble facing are loose. The decorative marble floor has subsided into the basement while the poor condition of the building has been further aggravated by the actions of the shopkeepers at the base of the mosque. The minarets of Al-Hakkim of Bi-biralahi are both in poor condition and in need of repair. The fourteenth-century Blue Mosque now has cracks in the walls and a dangerously leaning minaret. The side wall of the seventh-century Coptic Church of Mi-allaqa (the Hanging Church) is leaning, pulling the internal colonnade with it. In addition the Roman masonry below is suffering from sulphate attack aggravated by the recent use of cement mortar and render. Daryl Fowler of The Conservation Practice commented “The cultural spine of the Fatimid and Ayyubid city has been badly damaged and repair and conservation programmes, long needed in Cairo, are now increasingly urgent”.