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EGYPT: New book tells the story of saving the past

April 8, 2010 |  9:07 am

Queen Hatshepsut From boat graves to sarcophaguses and from tomb robbers to the temple of a lion goddess, Egypt is a history of epochs tumbling into one another.

Defined by masterpieces such as the pyramids, and by lesser known treasures stretching from the Grecco-Roman period to Napoleonic times, the nation’s art and architecture speak to the distinctive powers and religions that have risen along the Nile for more than 6,000 years. 

Some of it may have been lost if not for nearly $15 million in restorations and excavations done by the American Research Center in Egypt and mostly funded by grants from the United States Agency for International Development. The work -- part cultural reclamation, part exploration of unexpected wonders – includes salvaging the temples at Karnak and Luxor and saving medieval paintings at the Church of St. Anthony. 

A new book, "Preserving Egypt’s Cultural Heritage," offers intriguing glimpses into dozens of projects. A collection of essays edited by Randi Danforth, the book, which includes before and after photographs, is a reminder of the passion and meticulousness that comes with conserving Egypt’s glorious and often troubled past.

The splendor is much diminished these days. The world’s first empire, which the book describes as once spanning “from the fourth cataract of the Nile in the south to the Euphrates River to the northeast,” disappeared centuries ago. Today’s Egypt is a poor, chaotic and dusty offspring, a nation still important but slipping in stature in a changing Middle East.

"Preserving Egypt’s Cultural Heritage" is the story of saving for new generations what flourished from the days of Pharaohs to Christian monasteries to the rise of Islam. In an essay on a project to lower groundwater in Old Cairo to protect the Abu Serga Church, where the Holy Family was believed to have stayed, is a letter penned by an Italian traveler from another time:

“I was in the city of Babylon in Egypt where there was a house in which the Blessed Virgin and her son lived when they fled to Egypt. There is an old and beautiful church. . .and under the main altar of this great church is a covered chapel,” wrote Franciscus Pipinus de Bononia in 1320.

The book, distributed by the American University in Cairo Press, has many such tales for Egyptologists who may not have the maps or the time to explore tombs and crypts.

-- Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: Police stand guard in the Valley of the Kings. Credit: Reuters