The current predicament of the deleterious effects of climate change worldwide is a perilous one and requires a thorough investigation of similar critical events in the remote and more recent history of humankind.
Archaeologists and historians have for decades been concerned with how climate change has in the past influenced the course of human civilisation.
In Egypt, where the UN Climate Change COP27 will be held in November this year, numerous archaeological sites and other historical places bear witness to the impacts of climate change on the course of Egyptian civilisation.
I myself have conducted field work and archaeological research at many of these sites over the last 50 years, publishing more than 200 scientific articles in international journals.
These sites are exceptional places where people can learn about climate change and its influence on past societies, as well as, more importantly, how people in the past adapted to it. Visits to these sites in association with the COP27 Conference could provide visitors from abroad as well as Egyptian nationals with firsthand experience of past records of climate change and of the dramatic consequences of its impacts on human societies.
There are at least three sites worthy of visiting in this regard: the Nilometer on the Roda Island in Cairo; the QarOun Lake in the Fayoum Depression; and the village of New Gourna built by Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor in Upper Egypt.
There are also numerous sites in the Eastern and Western Deserts.
Studies of records from the Roda Nilometer on the maximum height of the Nile during its inundation and of its lowest level each year since the ninth century CE reveal the pattern of the Nile floods as a response to the effects of global climate change on the amount and seasonality of rainfall in Equatorial Africa and Ethiopia.
Another study has revealed the relationship between climate change and extremely high or low Nile floods on famines and political disorder in mediaeval Egypt. These records, covering more than 1,200 years, are unparalleled since instrumental records only go back to the 18th century.
There is abundant evidence of the social, economic, and political consequences of mediaeval climatic anomalies in Egypt during the rule of the Fatimids and the Mamelukes, as well as in the late 18th century just prior to the Napoleonic invasion. These climatic anomalies are associated with global events known in Europe as the Mediaeval Warming Period and the Little Ice Age.
An even longer record, going back more than 10,000 years, has been extracted from the bottom sediments of a huge lake that once covered the whole of the Fayoum Depression, with its shores more than 20 metres above sea level.
By comparison, the current level of Lake Qaroun in Fayoum is 45 metres below sea level.
Sediments obtained using a systematic grid of drill cores from this Lake provide an extraordinary view of the highs and lows of the Nile floods that entered the Depression through Bahr Yusuf. The records clearly show a deeper Lake associated with higher rainfall and with its sources in both the White and the Blue Nile from 10,000 to 7,000 years ago.
They also reveal changing climatic conditions 7,000 years ago as the global climate began to be cooler and drier. This was at a time when studies of sediments from the Egyptian Sahara also reveal the beginning of the desiccation that led to the emergence of the current barren desert landscape.
By 6,000 years ago, attempts to cope with the impact of climate change on the Nile floods and consequently on the food security of farmers in the Nile Valley led to cooperation between the petty states of the time and to the emergence of provincial states that were eventually unified 5,000 years ago to form the first nation-state in history.
This is a lesson on the road towards unity, as stated by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in a speech on the COP27 when he said it was a means to fight “against an existential threat that we can only overcome through concerted action and effective implementation.”
The remarkable Fayoum record also explains the mystery of the sudden collapse of the ancient Egyptian Old Kingdom, a glorious period when monumental pyramids were constructed over a period of more than 478 years (2630 to 2152 BCE).
Studies in the Fayoum have revealed that an abrupt climatic event around 2,200 years BCE led to an abrupt and severe drop in the volume of the Nile floods lasting for about 20 years. Severe famine impoverished the royal treasury and hence led to the breakdown of centralised power.
Renewed unity after a turbulent period of about 200 years led to the re-emergence of a unified Egyptian state during the Middle Kingdom. This unity was based on a new ideological creed that made the ruler the protector of the poor and oppressed, as well as the reform of the state bureaucracy.
While technical innovations were attempted including digging canals and constructing a dam to manage the water flow in the Fayoum Depression and the flow of water to Middle Egypt as far as the Giza Pyramid area, higher floods at a later time destroyed this dam. It was reconstructed later in Graeco-Roman times and more recently in the 18th century at Al-Lahun. The two earthen pyramids at Al-Lahun and Hawara at the entry point and end of the waterway linking the Fayoum Depression with the Nile bear witness to this first state hydraulic project.
As far as climate tourism is concerned, a visit to the Fayoum today could include a trip to see the high shorelines of the ancient great Lake. There are also the remains of two large stone pedestals that once supported colossi of Amenemhat III at Biahmu in the north of Fayoum that bear witness to the reclamation project during the Middle Kingdom.
Sediment on collapsed fragments of the pedestals documents the higher floods that destroyed the dam here at a later time. A visit could include trips to the Al-Lahun and Hawara pyramids and associated archaeological sites. It would not be complete without a trip to Wadi Al-Hitan, a World Heritage Site containing the remains of whales stranded when sea levels dropped as a result of colder, drier global climatic conditions 37 million years ago.
The Climate Change Museum in Wadi Al-Hitan, conceptualised by the present author and designed by architect Gabriel (Gaby) Mikhail and inaugurated in 2016, is the first such museum in the world. More recent climate museums have since been initiated in the US, UK and Norway. The climate museum in New York saw its first exhibition in 2017.
Additional visits could be made to marvel at the remnants of the ancient lakes in the Baharia, Farfara, Dakhla and Kharga Oases that bear witness to a wetter climate in the region from 12,000 to 7,000 years ago.
The desert then bloomed with summer rains advancing from the south. Rivers and surface runoff fed lakes in numerous depressions. Prehistoric peoples congregated around water sources and left behind evidence of their settlements as well as spectacular rock art like that in the Djara Cave and Hidden Valley rock shelter and farther south in the Uweinat and Gilf Al-Kebir areas.
There are many other sites containing geological and archaeological evidence of climate change in the Eastern Desert, like in Wadi Sannur and the Nimr Cave. Evidence both in the Eastern Desert and the Eastern Sahara provides ample evidence of cold, dry conditions at the time that motivated herders and hunters from Southwest Asia to cross the Sinai Peninsula and arrive at coastal areas on the Red Sea.
They subsequently crossed the desert wadis and made their way to the Western Desert where they settled before descending to the Nile Valley and the Delta where the first evidence of farming and herding is known from the Fayoum and Merimde Beni Salama in the West Delta.
A third heritage site that could be on a climate tour dates back to the 1940s when Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy undertook a pioneering project to provide adequate and affordable housing to the villagers of Gourna in Upper Egypt.
His work is immortalised in his book Architecture for People (also known as Architecture for the Poor) and aimed to provide housing using local materials and local labour that fitted with the traditions of the local community and at the same time provided natural ventilation, light, and environmental comfort.
In a recent workshop organised by the Hassan Fathy Centre for Architecture and Sustainable Development and the UN organisation UN-Habitat, Hassan’s contributions to adapting houses to climatic conditions were reviewed. They anticipated measures now being considered by contemporary architects, such as the use of biodegradable local and recycled materials (mudbrick, stone, and wood), constructing structures, walls, and ceilings from local materials to avoid the climatic costs of transportation, and passive energy design to ensure adequate ventilation, reduced heat loss, and maximised light utilisation.
The New Gourna village that Fathy built is midway between the Nile ferry and the monuments of the Theban Necropolis World Heritage Site at Luxor. Visiting it would also provide an opportunity to see ancient Egyptian constructions using earthen architecture at the Ramesseum and the newly discovered “City of the Ascent of Aten”.
Egypt has much to offer visitors from abroad as well as Egyptian nationals in planning the world’s first experience of climate tourism, with the educational impacts and awareness-raising of climate change and adaptive responses to it that this entails. It would put Egypt at the forefront of pioneering efforts in global tourism, while reaping the socioeconomic benefits of this new kind of tourism.
COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh in November would also be an ideal occasion on which to launch this kind of tourism in Egypt.
*The writer is an archaeologist.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.