Egypt is building two highways across the pyramids plateau outside Cairo, reviving and expanding a project that was suspended in the 1990s after an international outcry.
The Great Pyramids, Egypt’s top tourist destination, are the sole survivor of the seven wonders of the ancient world and the plateau is a Unesco world heritage site.
The highways are part of an infrastructure push spearheaded by Egypt’s powerful military and championed by the president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who is building a new capital city to ease the population pressure on Cairo, home to 20 million people.
The northern highway will cross the desert 1.6 miles south of the Great Pyramids. The southern highway will pass between the Step Pyramid of Saqqara – the oldest pyramid – and the Dahshur area, home to the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid.
Each highway appears to be about eight lanes wide. Construction began more than a year ago in desert areas largely out of public sight and became more visible around March, Egyptologists and Google Earth images indicate.
Critics say they could cause irrevocable damage to one of the world’s most important heritage sites. Authorities say they will be built with care and improve transport links, connecting new urban developments and bypassing central Cairo’s congestion.
“The roads are very, very important for development, for Egyptians, for inside Egypt,” said Mostafa al-Waziri, the secretary general of Egypt’s supreme council of antiquities. “Know that we take good care of our antiquities sites everywhere in Egypt.“
Some Egyptologists and conservationists say the highways will disrupt the integrity of the pyramids plateau, pave over unexplored archaeological sites, generate pollution that could corrode monuments, produce litter and expose closed areas packed with hidden archaeological treasures to looting.
Al-Waziri said existing roads were much closer to the pyramids and carried a lot of tourist buses. “That is why we are doing a lot of development,” he said, noting plans to use electric tourist buses within the plateau to avoid pollution.
The highways, which will dissect the plateau into three, will cross a section of ancient Memphis, one of the world’s biggest and most influential cities for almost 3,000 years.
“I was flabbergasted by what I saw,” said Said Zulficar, a former senior Unesco official, who visited the southern highway two months ago. “All the work that I had done nearly 25 years ago is now being put into question.“
Zulficar led a successful campaign in the mid-1990s to suspend construction of the northern highway, a branch of Cairo’s first ringroad. Unesco said it had requested detailed information on the new plan several times and asked to send a monitoring mission.
The state press centre referred a Reuters request for further comment on the plans to a communications adviser of the tourism and antiquities ministry, who could not be reached.
Memphis, said to have been founded in about 3,000 BC when Egypt was united into a single country, was eclipsed but not abandoned when Alexander the Great moved the capital to Alexandria in 331 BC.
The new road comes close to the ancient city’s commercial districts, its harbour walls and the former site of an ancient Nilometer, used to measure the height of the annual flood, said David Jeffreys, a British Egyptologist who has been working on Memphis for the Egypt Exploration Society since 1981.