Egypt’s extraterrestrial heritage

Mohammed Elrazzaz, Saturday 14 Jul 2012

Some sites are beyond the traditional classification of heritage, yet are worthy of attention and protection, such as Egypt's Kamil Crater which was only even noticed using Google Earth

Nakhla Meteor- Vienna

A few years ago, New Zealand called on the UNESCO to put one of its sites, Aoraki Mackenzie, on the World Heritage List. The site is a Dark Sky Park, known as one of the best spots on earth for stargazing. The call was rejected because there were no categories under which the site could be listed. Moreover, the ‘sky’ in itself does not belong to anyone and is not an ‘earthly’ heritage. In Egypt, it is not the sky that raises the debate; it is actually things falling from the sky!

Vagabonds from outer space

“Subject to the mercy of wind, a grain of sand is an eternal vagabond” – Cassandra Vivian, Islands of the Blest

And subject to the mercy of gravity, a meteoroid is a vagabond, too, until it hits another body in space. When this ‘body’ is our planet Earth, the consequences can be apocalyptic. One look at the moon is enough to understand why: Theories hold that it was formed following a catastrophic impact involving a body from space colliding with our planet. The debris eventually cooled off and, attracted by gravity, gave birth to the moon. But such impacts are not always that grand, and we do not have to go as far as the moon to imagine the possible outcome: Egypt has quite a track record of such collisions, and Nakhla village in Beheira is a good place to start.

In 1911, something happened in Nakhla that the little village would remember ever after. On the morning of June 28 of that year, the locals saw a meteorite shower over their village. They did not understand what it was, and obviously did not know the treasure that this shower had brought: this was one of the few meteorites in history to be identified as proceeding from Mars. Eventually, this meteorite would immortalize the name of the village, being the prototype of a famous type of meteorites: The Nakhlites.

Folk tales are not lacking on this incident. An urban legend holds, for example, that a dog was in the wrong time and place when the meteorite hit, and it simply vanished in the air due to the impact. Back to tangible evidence, and apart from specimen scattered in museums around the world, one can still contemplate meteorite fragments from Nakhla at the Egyptian Geological Museum in Cairo. There, visitors can see fragments from another, much larger and older meteorite.

Gebel Kamil Crater

The silicon in the rocks, the oxygen in the air, the carbon in our DNA, the gold in our banks, the uranium in our arsenals were all made thousands of light years away and billions of years ago … we are made of star stuff.” – Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Star-stuff is what we can call the meteorite debris of Gebel Kamil. It took the Italian mineralogist Vincenzo de Michele a lot of time and hard work to spot a crater that bears witness to yet another meteorite collision. He found it in Egypt’s Western Desert, surprisingly, using Google Earth.

The Gebel Kamil Crater is a relatively recent one, a few thousand years old. Its importance lies in the fact that it is “one of the best preserved craters yet found on Earth” as National Geographic described it, since craters that size are usually eroded or have disappeared completely.

Over the last couple of years, meteorite fragments from the Kamil Crater appeared on the black market, both physically and online. Collectors from all over the world can buy these fragments and very little can be done to recover them. We have yet to figure out how protect this remote area, almost on the border with Sudan.

Egypt's extraterrestrial heritage

Heritage, by definition, is not necessarily man-made. In the case of Egypt, natural heritage is clearly visible in such sites as Gebel Elba, the White Desert, Ras Mohamed and elsewhere. Many of these sites are national parks, and one of them is even a UNESCO World Heritage Site (namely Wadi Al-Hitan).

This means that, at least in theory, these sites enjoy some measure of protection and have a management and conservation plan in place. This is also the case with sites like Gebel Kamil Crater, which, since March 2012, is a protected area. A problem arises, however, because many people fail to see why we should celebrate such a site as heritage in the first place.

What heritage values are there in an alien body hitting a spot in our desert and leaving a scar? How can we classify this heritage and what would be its type? Why and how should we protect it?

Apart from its value for geologist and mineralogists, the Kamil Crater (and other such sites) represent a very rare type of heritage…one that involved a unique astronomical phenomenon in Egypt thousands of years ago and that changed part of its topography for good. Meteorites are visitors from other worlds, and in the case of the Nakhla Meteorite, the fragments are believed to have been formed over one billion years ago. This makes them like time capsules; storing a priceless record of our cosmic history and helping us better understand the evolution of our solar system and the evolution of life itself.

The toughest question remains: how to protect this heritage, apart from technicalities such as declaring the site a protected area.

Spreading awareness and educating people about its existence and its significance is a first step. Only then will people behave as stakeholders and perceive the site as something worth protecting, investigating and passing on to future generations.

Short link: