The American Research Center in Egypt, supported by grant funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, takes on significant projects in the Egyptian cultural heritage field. ARCE teams restore, conserve and document Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic monuments and objects and partner with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and its predecessors to train Egyptian heritage professionals and upgrade local museum and conservation infrastructures. ARCE’s projects and initiatives run the gamut of Egyptian history, while tackling present and future needs in the heritage sector. It is this forward-thinking and comprehensive attitude that constitutes the foundation of ARCE’s sustainable approach towards heritage preservation and management.
The concept of sustainable heritage positions monuments, landscapes, objects, local customs and practices as vital tools in supporting the development of communities. Effectively, this means that heritage preservation can contribute towards, and even catalyze, social, economic and environmental development and equity – the three pillars of sustainability. This translates in many of ARCE’s projects on the ground: providing hands-on experience to Egyptian archaeologists and conservators in the newest and best methods, outfitting a Roman temple with sustainably sourced local materials and solar panels to decrease energy consumption, or restoring a beloved ancient church and medieval mosque so communities can continue to benefit from their use.
In this respect, ARCE’s dedicated work in Egypt’s cultural heritage sector not only offers tangible results, such as restored or visibly improved monuments, but also intangible ones. These intangible qualities often reverberate for many years after the completion of a project and can be a challenge to quantify, yet their value is truly immeasurable. These intangible outcomes—the ability for a community to interact in beneficial ways, better themselves, and pursue a good quality of life—define the undercurrent of many of ARCE’s projects. They are often defined as social sustainability and augment the impact of projects such as the Red Monastery church and Aslam al-Silahdar mosque.
The restoration of Aslam al-Silahdar mosque relied largely on the traditional skills and know-how of local craftsmen and workers to recreate certain aspects of the monument, such as its prayer niche and ablutions area. A heritage in their own right, these skills are often passed down from one generation to the next. However, commercialized production and a slowdown of demand for traditional workmanship and materials pose substantial challenges. Use of these skills for conservation projects, such as Aslam al-Silahdar, encourages craftsmen to retain their specialized lines of work and ensures that these traditions are not lost over time.
A pillar of ARCE’s 12-year conservation project on the Red Monastery church was the training and inclusion of the local church figures and the community. Young volunteers were taught about the history of the church and the ongoing conservation process, creating an awareness of the project’s significance to share with visitors during guided tours. Members of the church’s monastic school also requested and received special trainings on visitor management and the care of the church’s conserved artwork and improved facilities, thereby empowering them to better steward the conserved church.
In both of these cases, community engagement was a key aspect of the restoration projects. This is especially important given that both monuments still actively function as houses of worship and community hubs. In restoring historic monuments such as Aslam al-Silahdar mosque and the Red Monastery church, ARCE certainly provides a physical reinvigoration of the structures. Furthermore, it upholds their functions as purpose-built spaces for communities to reconnect and engage with their faiths, history and sense of identity. These vital qualities maintain productive, equitable and diverse societies.
Community engagement in the restoration of Aslam al-Silahdar also illustrates one form of the economic sustainability that is often inherent in ARCE’s heritage preservation projects. ARCE’s archaeological Field School in Memphis also demonstrated economic sustainability. The Field School provided 70 archaeologists from the Supreme Council of Antiquities (the predecessor of the Ministry of Antiquities) with intensive five-week long excavation trainings in Memphis. Participants benefited from hands-on dig experience and lectures, in addition to exchanging expertise with their American peers. The archaeologists were provided with a competitive, international standard dig experience, broadening their professional experience and employability. This contributed to the overall economic sustainability of the project. Additionally, through initiatives like archaeological and conservation field schools, ARCE ultimately empowers local professionals to document, preserve and maintain heritage monuments and sites without external assistance or support.
ARCE accomplishes economic sustainability or resiliency by enlarging the number of accessible heritage monuments and collections as a way to increase or maintain income generation from cultural tourism – a valuable asset in an economy reliant on tourism. The restoration of Villa of the Birds and the renovation of exhibition rooms in the Egyptian Museum demonstrate ARCE’s achievements in this area. Prior to ARCE’s excavation, conservation and development of the site, the Villa of the Birds was a closed-off zone in Alexandria’s Roman Archaeological Park. Following the completion of ARCE’s project there, the Villa now functions as a ticketed cultural heritage attraction alongside the park’s other Roman remains, further engaging with and educating visitors about the city’s pre-modern history.
Similarly, ARCE’s conversion of unused rooms at the Egyptian Museum into sophisticated displays for a collection of royal Pharaonic and Greco-Roman objects increased revenue and visitor numbers at the world-famous museum. Two former storage rooms were emptied, repaired, and outfitted with upgraded security, temperature control facilities and airtight display cases against a dramatic black backdrop. The Egyptian Museum’s collection of precious metal and stone jewelry and objects were curated and arranged in the new glass displays, and quickly became a must-see on every visitor’s agenda. The new royal jewelry rooms provide a fascinating supplement to the Egyptian Museum’s wide-spanning collections on display that allow for a greater insight and appreciation of Egypt’s Pharaonic and Greco-Roman periods. But they also contribute towards a steady stream of ticket revenue that is utilized to support the Egyptian Museum’s other functions.
More recently, ARCE’s projects have also taken on an environmentally conscious approach to heritage preservation. The reduction of environmental waste and strain, or environmental sustainability, can be accomplished in a variety of ways, as embodied in ARCE’s restoration of the early Roman Isis Temple, the Theban Tomb of Djehuty and the conservation of the Red Sea coast’s Quseir Fort. In all three conservation and restoration projects, solar panels were installed to provide an energy supply to internal lighting fixtures and perimeter lights. The conservation and operational development of the Isis Temple site took additional measures to make the site as low-waste and low-impact as possible, utilizing waste materials from surrounding sites. These included mudbrick and limestone debris from a nearby project in Qurna. The mudbrick debris was used to repair and restore the temple’s original mudbrick perimeter fence, and the salvaged limestone now defines the visitor walking paths and parking lot.
Additionally, in all three of these projects, ARCE employed local workers and ARCE’s archaeological and conservation field schools trained and carried out much of the excavation, repair and conservation work in TT110 and Isis Temple. This ‘full spectrum’ of sustainable practices is not exclusive to these latter two projects, and has, in fact, become a trademark of all of ARCE’s cultural heritage activities in Egypt over the years. Without the support of private donors, official bodies like the United States Agency for International Development and the assistance and participation of local heritage professionals and institutions, like the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, ARCE’s pioneering and broad-impact work in cultural heritage would not be possible. With ongoing support, ARCE will continue to pursue impactful and self-sustaining projects and research in the Egyptian heritage sector, contribute towards strong American-Egyptian cultural ties, and safeguard the rich and diverse heritage of Egypt for coming generations.