Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Tourists Punch in to Save Tombs

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Tourists Punch in to Save Tombs

Article excerpt

When archaeologist Kent Weeks crawled through the dank entrance of a Pharaonic tomb 10 years ago, he had no idea his discovery would change the way visitors experience Egypt's most famous sites.

In fact, tourism helped spur Dr. Weeks's find. When a road near the Valley of the Kings in Upper Egypt was to be widened, Weeks stymied the project, believing an important tomb was buried nearby. What he found rattled the foundations of Egyptology and made leading experts reconsider long-held hypotheses about Egyptian kingship. It also jump-started an award-winning preservation and conservation effort that is changing the way tourism is conducted.

His site is the first to make use of hot-air balloons to take aerial photographs, an event that spawned commercial hot-air balloon businesses that offer tourists rides over the valley.

Weeks and his team started mapping the area around Thebes in 1979. But it wasn't until 1995 that they sifted and removed enough debris to access a doorway in the back of the tomb's entrance.

"Getting in there we saw a long corridor, doorways off the sides of it, and as we moved back, we realized we were in a tomb of almost labyrinthine design and gargantuan proportions. Everywhere we looked there were more doors and more chambers.... Down the line was the statue of the god Osiris cut into the wall," Weeks says, on a visit to Boston's Museum of Science. "Clearly, this was something very special."

The magnitude of the find was staggering. The tomb is where Ramses II buried some or all of his more than 100 sons. "We don't know of any other family mausoleum like this," Weeks says. "We're now up to 110 corridors and chambers."

But tourist activities and gritty pollution have been nibbling away at major tombs in Egypt for years. Weeks says in the last six to nine months, as many as 5,000 hot, sweaty tourists wedged into various tombs every day. As Egypt's second-highest foreign-exchange earner, tourism is an archaeological problem that has to be dealt with. …

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