Ancient Quarries for Sandstone, Limestone and Travertine at Risk in Egypt's Nile Valley
For the past 18 years I have been conducting a survey of Egypt's ancient quarries and to date 180 have been identified (for more information on the survey results see my web site at www.eeescience.utoledo.edu/egypt/ ). Nearly 80% of the quarries are in the Nile Valley and, with the exception of granite and granodiorite from Aswan, these produced either limestone, sandstone (including siliceous sandstone or quartzite) and travertine (a.k.a. Egyptian alabaster).
From Alexandria to Wadi Halfa
The 94 known limestone quarries extend from Cairo in the north to near Esna in the south with additional workings along the Mediterranean coast between Alexandria and Abu Sir. Limestone was quarried from 2nd Dynasty of the Early Dynastic period (2800 BC) until the end of the Roman period (400 AD), and was used for pyramids, free-standing temples, causeways, temple and tomb reliefs, stelae, sarcophagi, and statuary and other sculptures. Except for the one near Cairo, the other 36 known sandstone quarries are all in Upper Egypt between Edfu in the north and Wadi Halfa (Sudan) in the south. Sandstone was employed sparingly during the Middle Kingdom (2040-1640 BC) and then heavily beginning in the New Kingdom (1550 BC), when it replaced limestone as the primary building material, and continued to be exploited until the end of the Roman period. It was used for rock-cut and free-standing temples, temple and tomb reliefs, and statuary with the harder, siliceous variety also carved into sarcophagi, stelae, small shrines, obelisks and door frames. Travertine occurs as fissure and cave fillings within the limestone, and all except one of the 9 known quarries are found just beyond the eastern edge of the Nile Valley between Helwan in the north and Assiut in the south. This stone was quarried from the 1st Dynasty of the Early Dynastic period (2900 BC) until the end of the Roman period, and was used for barque shrines, sarcophagi, statuary and other sculptures, and especially canopic jars and other vessels.
The ancient quarries in the Nile Valley are now threatened with destruction . Numerous sandstone quarries have been drowned by Lake Nasser, many are now being reworked for the production of construction blocks, and still others are succumbing to urban development. The threats are more numerous for the limestone quarries and include not only reworking for construction blocks and destruction through urban development, but especially reworking for the production of lime cement. Additionally, the underground galleries, which characterize many of the ancient limestone quarries, are subject to collapse as a result of earthquakes and rock fatigue, and are also being used as hideaways by various fringe groups. Travertine is still a popular ornamental stone in Egypt and so the ancient quarries are being reworked to supply products for both the tourist and building industries.
Protection and conservation
Many of the Nile Valley's ancient quarries have already been lost and not all of those remaining can be saved, but some can and should be protected both for the sake of preserving Egyptian history and for the purpose of providing the tourism industry with more sites to visit. With these objectives in mind, I recommend the following future work on these quarries. First, conduct a comprehensive survey of all sandstone, limestone and travertine quarries to see which ones still exist, and for these document their geoarchaeological and other remains. Second, select for protection some of the quarries for each rock type, including those representative of each ancient period with good evidence of the quarrying methods employed and other cultural remains. And third, develop some of the protected quarries for tourism as a means of conserving them and also demonstrating their importance to the history of ancient Egypt.
Text by Professor James Harrell, University of Toledo, USA
Satellite image of Egypt with most ancient quarries marked. Famous quarries are named. Map based on James Harrell's quarry map of Egypt at www.eeescience.utoledo.edu/egypt/. (Click for bigger map)
Ptolemaic sandstone quarry near the village of El-Hadedoon with the Nile River at right. Photo by James Harrell.
Ancient limestone quarries of uncertain age near the village of Qaw El-Kebir. Note the open-cast quarry at left in the foreground and the underground gallery quarry at right in the distance. Photo by James Harrell.
Old Kingdom travertine quarry in Wadi El-Garawi near the city of Helwan. Photo by James Harrell.
December 2009 New book: a special volume with papers from the QuarryScapes project soon printed.
November 2008 Final workshop: the third QuarryScapes workshop was held in Aswan 12. - 15. October