The UN's culture and heritage arm is accusing the Egyptian government of vandalism and bad faith because of its treatment of the world's most famous ancient monuments, the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx.
Unless President Hosni Mubarak orders a complete re-think on the route of the Cairo ring road, Unesco will threaten to scratch the Great Pyramids and other nearby ruins off the list of World Heritage sites.
"That is the only sanction we have," Said Zulficar, a senior official with the organisation, told The Independent. Since these sole survivors of the seven ancient wonders of the world are the most august monuments on a list including Stonehenge and the Acropolis, the hope is that this threat will shame the Egyptians into action.
The 66-mile ring road is nearing completion. It runs right through the officially designated World Heritage site, less than two miles south of the three Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. The road's construction may already have covered tombs, and is attracting chaotic development which is likely to leave the pyramids encircled by urban sprawl by the year 2000.
President Mubarak has already ordered a suspension of construction work on the section of road nearest the 4,700-year-old pyramids. This followed a plea from Unesco's director-general after an article in The Independent last October which exposed the threat. But the authorities have now come up with an even worse solution, in Unesco's eyes: to route the road two miles further to the south.
There, it will still run right through the World Heritage site and threaten buried tombs and ruins around the Abu Syr and Zawiyat al Aryan pyramid fields. Although these pyramids are not as impressive as nearby Giza's they also date back to the Pharoahs'Old Kingdom, from 2,700 to 2,200 BC.
Last week Unesco's Spanish director general, Frederico Mayor, wrote to President Mubarak demanding that the ring road be re-routed north of the Great Pyramids.Unesco's World Heritage committee met in Thailand this month and passed a resolution voicing its concern. Egypt did not send a representative, but Professor Mohammed Nur El Din, chairman of the government's Supreme Antiquities Council, sent a letter suggesting that a tunnel under the site would solve the problem.
Dr Zulficar, Unesco's director of operations for heritage and an Egyptian, has paid four visits to the site this winter. "I was shocked and horrified at what I saw," he said. He found the dual-carriageway ring road was virtually complete. It is carried on a high embankment 200 yards wide. There were other, smaller new roads and two large rubbish dumps, one inside the World Heritage site and one just outside. He also found army camps and, in the "buffer zone" surrounding the site a new complex of flats for 15,000 people.
Development should be strictly controlled in the buffer zone and banned altogether inside the site, apart from the most exceptional circumstances. At the site's southern end, Dahshur, a military factory continuously belches out thick black smoke. Dr Zulficar believes this pollution threatens the mud bricks which make up the pyramids there. He said Egypt was in breach of the World Heritage convention, which underpins the listing of sites, and its own heritage law, passed in 1983. "You can't chop up thissite just as if it's a salami," he said.
But what upsets him most is what a young archaeologist from the Supreme Antiquities Council told him. In 1986 the SAC, statutory guardian of Egypt's heritage, gave its permission for construction of the ring road after salvage excavations had shown therewere no remains in the construction area.
Not so. The archaeologist, who Dr Zulficar will not name, said he had been told to make borings every 300 metres along the route, being given no labour and only one week in which to report his findings. So he simply said nothing had been found. And the SAC never told Unesco it had given permission. Subsequently two sarcophagi, mummies and pottery from Egypt's Roman period had been found close to the almost complete road. Dr Zulficar said the authorities were angry at Unesco's intervention, and complaine d that re-routing the road would cost an extra $50m (£32m).
Less than 20 years ago the Great Pyramids were well outside Cairo. Now the city presses up against their eastern and northern flanks, with blocks of flats a couple of hundred yards away. But to the south there is open desert. If the ring road is built tothe south the city's explosive population growth virtually guarantees the Great Pyramids will be engulfed.
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