Qaitbay Citadel in Alexandria, Egypt
Qaitbay Citadel in Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria Egypt: Measures to protect historic citadel from climate change

In Alexandria, Egypt, more than five centuries ago, the Mamluk Sultan Al-Ashraf Qaitbay stood on the ruins of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the vanished wonders of the world and the first beacons of the world. Perhaps realizing the seriousness of the loss, he gave the order to erect a citadel in the same location on the island of Pharos at the time.

The magnificent Qaitbay Citadel was constructed in just two years and proudly took its position among the citadels of the Mediterranean. It has drawn the interest of Egyptian rulers, citizens, and tourists throughout history, but the sea level rise poses a threat of flooding it and causing it to vanish by the year 2100.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), one out of every six cultural heritage sites in the world is currently under threat due to climate change. As a result of the increasing danger, the organization chose “Heritage and Climate” as the theme for 2022 for the International Day of Archeology, on April 18, stressing Our growing need to monitor these effects with more accurate data.

Stones against the climate

Our Egyptian stones and temples have struggled with beauty and majesty for thousands of years in the face of harsh climatic conditions. However, the continued changing patterns of temperature, humidity, and sea level rise present “worrying” future scenarios. They are affected by expansion and contraction processes, while sea level rise threatens to drown the monuments of the northern coast, according to Islam Abu Al-Magd, deputy head of the National Authority for Remote Sensing.

According to “Abu Al- Magd ” of “For Science” magazine, remote sensing and early warning technologies can give us a detailed map of endangered archaeological sites up to the next 100 years, assisting decision-makers to take the necessary adaptation measures in accordance with the priorities and the urgent need for intervention and protection.

Qaitbay Citadel in Alexandria, Egypt
Qaitbay Citadel is located in Alexandria, Egypt, near the Mediterranian sea

A separate national strategy for adapting to climate change in the archaeology sector should be set, according to a scientific paper published last June by researchers from Sadat City University, including Abul-Magd. This recommendation came after a survey of 111 people working in the sector revealed that 64% of respondents did not conduct studies on the effects of climate change on monuments.

Building resistance and adaptability to climate change is stated as the second goal of the National Climate Change Strategy for Egypt 2050 and includes a special clause for preserving historical heritage landmarks.

“More research is required to comprehend the impacts and identify appropriate solutions for every situation separately. We are currently working on a project to use artificial intelligence and satellite images to study potential future scenarios so that we can deal with them, says Abul-Magd. “There is a monument that may need to construct a fence or a concrete building to protect it from floods, and another that requires insulating designs to mitigate its impact on heat and rain,” he adds.

Last November, the Minister of Environment, Dr. Yasmine Fouad, explained on the sidelines of the launch of the National Climate Change Strategy during the United Nations Climate Summit (COP26) that Egypt will use a set of policies and tools to implement its strategic objectives, including using the interactive map as a planning tool to identify areas exposed to potential climate change risks, implementing flood protection systems, rainwater collecting, and integrated coastal zone management facing the climate change impacts.

The majority of our monuments of limestone and sandstone, which can become brittle and friable due to frequent exposure to high heat and rain, according to Magdy Shaker, chief archaeologist at the Ministry of Antiquities, who expresses his concern about the damage caused to archaeological sites. There are entire cities like Alexandria that are likely to vanish in the future as sea levels rise, and we have already destroyed monuments.

Qaitbay Citadel in Alexandria, Egypt
Qaitbay Citadel in Alexandria, Egypt

In a study published by the Journal of Scientific Research in Arts in 2019, the damage to the archaeological site of Beni Hassan in Minya from surface water as a result of floods and wind erosion factors along the western facades of tombs and their deterioration was monitored and mentioned. It also recommended removing the accumulation of sand in front of the tombs, protecting it from rainwater, treating gaps and cracks, and restoring them using scientific methods, to preserve their original colors.

In his interview with “For Science” magazine, Shaker proceeded, “We deal with immediate damage through restoration, but we need systems to predict what will happen in the future, and we need to coordinate with other parties to find scientific solutions to preserve our historical wealth, as well as financial resources to implement adaptation plans.

Last May, the first archaeological scientific forum, themed “The Future of Egyptian Archaeology and Climate Changes,” was organized by the Academy of Scientific Research. During the forum, Ahmed Abdel Hamid Al-Nemr, a member of the Scientific Office of the Minister of Antiquities, reviewed the projects implemented by the ministry to deal with climate change.

Al-Nemr told “For Science” magazine that “at the moment, we have restoration and rehabilitation projects covering various governorates, especially with the clear effects of climate change on the damage to murals and inscriptions, including projects to develop Rams Road, Abu Serga Church in ancient Egypt, the monuments of the Holy Family, the Jewish Temple, and the Muhammad Ali Mosque.

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He declared: “Our work is divided into several stages, beginning with the complete documentation of antiquities in electronic databases as soon as they are removed from the excavations and warehouses, followed by periodic monitoring of the state of antiquities by restorers and reporting any damage, whether related to climate change or other causes and then the monument is included in projects Restoration and Rehabilitation.

In these projects, we consider a thorough and specialized restoration effort to address climate change and fortify the monument to counter the numerous aspects of climate change in Egypt. Additionally, we designated some locations to use solar power for lighting and provided tourists with environmentally friendly transportation in a few of the Luxor and Aswan temples. We also have equipment for precisely tracking temperature changes and their effects on antiquities, particularly organic ones like mummies. We are currently working to transfer the precious artifacts in storage and some sites to advanced museums, where modern technologies for thermal insulation and preservation of antiquities from various climatic factors, such as the National Museum of Civilization.” he continued.

The Most Threatened sites

Islam Kamal, a professor of cultural heritage site management at the Faculty of Tourism at Sadat City University, examined the effects of climate change on a variety of Egyptian historical monuments using remote sensing methods and graphic information systems in his Ph.D.

According to future climate simulations, the Qaitbay Castle might be sunk by 44% by 2100 due to an average sea level rise of up to 2 meters. In the most optimistic scenario, a sea level rise of 32 cm would threaten to submerge 11% of the castle’s area. As a result, “we have no luxury waiting; If the archaeological site is flooded by even 1%, the harm is done,” the report concludes. Islam Kamal says to ” For Science” magazine, and his study included 16 archaeological sites in North Sinai, Alexandria, Damietta, and Matrouh, and among the sites most at risk of drowning – according to the letter – the fortress of Umm Mufarrej, Tell al-Dahab, the Flossiya archaeological site in North Sinai and Rommel Cave in Marsa Matrouh, with rates of drowning. On some sites, it reached 100% in the period from 2065 to 2100.

The study also tackled the effects of rising temperatures were also evaluated in 12 other areas in the governorates of Luxor, Aswan, and the New Valley. “The future variation in maximum and minimum temperatures is huge, especially in a governorate like Luxor,”. “Future scenarios for the year 2100 revealed that the difference will range between 15.6 and 17.9 degrees between night and day, which will cause mechanical damage to the monuments that will vary according to the type of stone and its ability to resist damage.”

Qaitbay Citadel in Alexandria, Egypt
Qaitbay Citadel in Alexandria, Egypt

The processes of expansion and contraction cause the bodies of the stones, which are made of limestone or sand, to become ill. Metal particles expand owing to surface warmth during the day and contract again at night when it cools. This causes the stone’s surfaces to become cold while the stone inside remains hot, which causes structures to fall apart and certain particles to separate from one another. Kamal clarifies. All of the famous temples in Luxor and Aswan, including Karnak, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Kalabsha, and others, are put in danger as a result.

In order to combat sea level rise and the rise in storm frequency, the Egyptian government launched the “Promoting Adaptation to Climate Change in the North Coast and the Nile Delta” project in 2017. It is funded by the Green Climate Fund and is being carried out in collaboration with the United Nations Development Program for over seven years. According to researcher Islam Kamal, “We need more of these efforts to prevent catastrophic climate scenarios from happening.”

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Nile Delta is one of the three most vulnerable locations in the world. By the end of the twenty-first century, a one-meter increase in sea level is predicted to submerge 20% of the delta’s land area.

The most recent annual performance report for the project was published in September of last year, and it stated that “Adaptation projects worth $3.5 million were implemented during 2020, and among the accomplishments were the completion of field studies and design work for 55 km of hot spots out of a total of 69 km targeted within the coastal protection system in the Nile Delta. Contracts were also signed with consulting firms to create a comprehensive plan for climate-resistant management that covers 1,000 kilometers of the northern Egyptian coast as well as to implement awareness campaigns for government officials to help with the execution plans.

With increasing sea levels and soil salinization posing a serious threat to undiscovered buried monuments, as well as rising temperatures and heavy rains affecting the quality of temple inscriptions and colors and sandstorms posing a threat to erode them, the hazard extends to these structures. The former director of the Ministry of Environment’s Department of Climate Change Adaptation, Saber Othman, a change specialist, says.

He adds, “We need scientific rooting to the problem by comprehending, categorizing, and color-coding the risks, and then creating an interactive map for all the Egyptian antiquities with a database of data on each monument, the best way to handle it, and the timing of the response to provide resources. Additionally, we need to understand the varied global experiences and how they might assist us.

International experiences of adaptation

The aforementioned suggestions are consistent with those made by UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (in the Cultural Heritage from Pollution to Climate Change Book – 2016), which state that heritage sites’ resilience should be increased by reducing non-climate sources of pressure like pollution and human activities, increasing research and training in implementing adaptation methods, which includes designing heat-insulated areas, erecting heat-resistant structures, and other measures.

A chapter in the book evaluates an adaptation experience that occurred in Malta, where a shelter was constructed in 2009 to cover a megalithic temple that is among the oldest free-standing stone structures in the world after it suffered serious collapses and was harmed by wind, sun, and salt. An assessment of the shelter’s effectiveness showed that it was successful in shielding the temple from degrees of extreme heat, temperature fluctuations, and direct precipitation.

The Hagar Qim Temples in Malta. Credit: JoAnn CASSA

One of the best ways to respond to climate change in the antiquities sector is by building shelters. Metal plates are typically used to construct open shelters to act as a physical barrier against rain and sunshine. The idea holds that protecting a site is always preferable to leaving it open to climate elements. According to a 2017 study by a researcher at the Autonomous University of Madrid, it is necessary to regularly monitor the status of the shelter, rectify any design flaws that could accelerate the damage and change in line with changing climatic circumstances.

Additionally, the possibilities must be evaluated, and the implementation of the best solution for each location must begin. so that visiting the Qaitbay Fort and the rest of our amazing heritage sites won’t be denied to future generations.

This story has been published in Arabic on 2 July 2022 at “For science” magazine, the Arabic edition of “Scientific American” magazine. Read the original story here.

Rahma Diaa
Rahma is a freelance Egyptian journalist and media trainer. She’s the founder of the Climate school initiative and the winner of Covering Climate Now’s Emerging Journalist Award 2021. She’s collaborated with Arab and foreign media, such as, Asharq news, Scientific American (Arabic version), climate tracker, VICE, and ARIJ websites and networks.