The Nubian salvage campaigns

In 1898, work started on the construction of the Aswan Dam which was to revolutionise traditional irrigation methods in Egypt. The dam reduced the annual Nile flooding and improved irrigation. However, it also changed the traditional way of life of the Nubian people and heralded the beginning of the end of the ancient monuments that abounded there.

“I visited the temples at Nubia, to check on their state of repair and to decide what to do with them once the Aswan Dam had been built. My inspection took seven weeks, from 3rd December 1904 to 21st January 1905, and I visited every site that seemed to be threatened… If we compare them to the sketches made of them and pictures taken of them in the 18th and 19th centuries, we must admit that they have been considerably damaged… it is time to do something about this if we want to save them.”
[Report made by Gaston Maspero, Director-General of the Antiquities Department, to the Egyptian Undersecretary of State (1904-1905). Translated from French].

“The question of raising the Barrage at Aswan at this time began to be discussed again; and as there seemed some probability of the work being carried out, Monsieur Maspero’s help was asked in order to prepare this report, and to make an estimate of the cost of the necessary repairs and excavations, so that it could be compared with his own estimate. The report is thus intended, in the first place, to show the archaeologist how very many antiquities Lower Nubia contains, with a view to encouraging scientific work there. In the second place it is intended to give some idea of the work which will have to be undertaken in that part of Lower Nubia which will be flooded when the Barrage is raised. In the third place it constitutes a statement of the condition of all the monuments of Lower Nubia, with suggestion as to the best means of preserving and safeguarding them… Beside this the water will flood the large number of ancient sites which are not know, but which very certainly exist. Practically all the temples can be strengthened so as to be able to survive their flooding; and if the excavation of every likely part of the desert is carried out, and a full publication of all the material, both in temples and cemeteries, is made, the loss to science will not be great. It cannot, however, be too clearly understood how serious the loss will be if the most elaborate works are not undertaken”.
[Report of A. Weigall, Chief Inspector of the Antiquities Department; 1907.]

“In 1907 the Egyptian Government decided to increase the volume of water… The decision was therefore taken that the height of the dam at Aswan should be increased by seven metres, in order that a much greater volume of water might be stored upstream of it. This involved the submersion of the valley and the cultivated land on either bank about as far as the village of Derr, and in the lower reach the desert margins would also be inundated and the tributary valleys would be flooded for half of the year. So small and impoverished a region as this, two hundred and fifty kilometres in length, seldom more than a kilometre wide, can never have supported a large population, but it had been long inhabited, and it seemed likely that, enclosed by deserts on either side, dwellers in it had opportunity to develop without interference by invasion or immigration on any large scale. Funds were therefore set aside by the Egyptian Government to provide a systematic archaeological survey of so much of the valley as was to be submerged by the reservoir, when increased to the new level, that is, to the height of 113 metres above the Mediterranean Sea instead of 106 metres… The region extended from the head of the first Cataract for some 250 kilometres to about the village of Derr… The task was a formidable one, and had to be carried out on a comprehensive scale, in order, once and for all, to search the whole of this belt of country on either bank throughout the entire reach which was to be affected…
Under his [Dr. G.A. Reisner’s] direction each site was carefully exposed, each interment was photographed, every object was registered and full records kept, in order that as much information as possible should be preserved in addition to the collection of objects found. Dr. Reisner’s intimate acquaintance with early Egyptian art and civilization was especially valuable in the study of this region, for it enabled him to date each interment, and thereby provide a firm basis for anthropological studies; for a thorough study of such a region involved not only the collection of objects and reconstruction of the culture of the people who had once inhabited the valley, but also the determination of their race and ethnological affinities”.
[H.G. Lyons, Preface to the “Archaeological Survey of Nubia, 1907-1908”. December 1909].

At the same time, other missions, more closely concerned with the archaeological sites themselves, offered their support to the major mission.

Between 1929 and 1934, the height of the dam was raised further, reaching its maximum height of 41.5m. This meant the water would reach as far as the Sudanese border. To avoid serious damage to the monuments of the area, Professor W. Emery, supported by the Egyptian Government, undertook the ‘Second Archaeological Survey of Nubia’. Again this was between 1929 and 1934. Other, smaller missions were working simultaneously in the area.

But the days of the Nubians’ land were numbered. The creation of the Aswan Dam resulted in changes in irrigation patterns and reduced the problems of the Nile floods, but it did not solve the two problems completely. The fact that Egypt’s population was beginning to spiral exacerbated the situation. In 1954 an international committee of experts concluded that the only solution was to construct a High Dam. A bonus would be the ability of such a dam to provide large amounts of energy to boost the development of local industry. On this basis the Government took the decision to construct the High Dam.

“When I was appointed General Director of the Antiquities Department, the investigations concerning the construction of the High Dam were already advanced. I naturally felt that it was my immediate duty to bring to the notice of the responsible authorities the necessity of considering the fate of the monuments of Nubia, which would be threatened by submersion as a result of the execution of the project, and to stress the pressing need of a study of the means of preserving, protecting and registering, as well as saving what ca be saved of these monuments both for history and for coming generations. In April 1953, I made the necessary contact with the Ministry of Public Work regarding this matter, and steps were at once taken to form a Committee from amongst the staff of the Department to make a preliminary investigation of the problem. The Committee immediately set the work and finally presented a brief report containing the results of its studies… ”
[Mustafa Amer, March 1955]

“… We have not restricted our investigations to those monuments, which will be directly affected by the High Dam. We wished that the registration should be as comprehensive as possible, and include all the monuments of Nubia, and thus complete any lack found in the previous publications. The reason for this lies in the fact that all the temples of Nubia and all the zones containing ancient sites will be covered by water… It is worthy of note that this report is limited to the monuments occurring inside the Egyptian zone… The question of the antiquities which will be covered with the water of the High dam in the Sudan is thus left for a future opportunity, and we hope that the necessary steps will be taken to formulate a programme for the excavation and registration of monuments in that zone, so that the work in Egypt and Sudan would go together hand by hand”…
[Report of the Egyptian Archaeologist Selim Hassan, 26 January 1955].

“In our country, according to the Antiquities Ordinance, every excavator has always been, and is still, entitled to fifty per cent of the objects discovered by him; but this is the only counterpart we can offer. We don’t possess important reserves in our museum which we could cede; we have no attractive sites like Sakkara to offer as a favour in return if the finds from an endangered site are insufficient; furthermore we don’t have enough temples and chapels in the threatened area to allow some of them to be transported to foreign countries. So the only hope that is left to us, after the United Arab Republic’s offer, lies in the fact that the prehistory, history and archaeology of the area endangered in our territory are much less know than the Egyptian Nubia and for this reason might attract scholars to help us to undertake in the short time available the work of the survey, prospection, excavation, removal and documentation, necessary to ensure that at least part of the history of our country- and thus of the world in general- will be safeguarded for future generations…”
[Appeal signed by the Sudanese Minister of Education H.E. Ziada Arbab, 24 October 1959.]

“Work has begun of the Great Aswan Dam. Within five years, the Middle Valley of the Nile will be turned into a vast lake. Wondrous structures, ranking among the most magnificent on earth, are in danger of disappearing beneath the waters. The Dam will bring fertility to huge stretches of desert; but the opening of new fields to the tractors, the provision of new sources of power to future factories threatens to exact a terrible price….” “It is not easy to choose between a heritage of the past and the present well being of a people, living in need in the shadow of one of history’s most splendid legacies; it is not easy to choose between temples and crops. I would be sorry for any man called on to make that choice who could do so without a feeling of despair; I would be sorry for any man who whatever decision he might reach, could bear the responsibility for that decision without a feeling of remorse. It is not surprising, therefore, therefore, that the governments of the United Arab Republic and Sudan have called on an international body, on UNESCO, to try to save the threatened monuments. These monuments, the loss of which may be tragically near, do not belong solely to the countries who hold them in trust. The whole world has the right to see them endure”…
[World Appeal of Vittorino Veronese Director-General of Unesco, 8 March 1960, Translated from French].

“The conservation and protection of works of art and monuments of history and science in one of the essential tasks laid on Unesco by its Constitution. The international campaign to save the monuments of Nubia was the first major operation where this task was accomplished on a grand scale in practice and not just through recommendations and conventions. The principle of international cooperation for the conservation and protection of the world’s common cultural heritage in the form of historical monuments was here applied to a concrete situation…”
“Monuments and objects of art and great beauty and historical importance had been saved for future generations and an important chapter in the history of Africa and of the world had escaped oblivion thanks to the archaeological investigations…”
“This success, achieved in so short a time and against unfavourable odds, with little time for proper preparations, often improvized and with no precedents, was brought about by world-wide cooperation, a result in which the governments of Egypt and the Sudan together with UNESCO with its Member State played fundamental roles….”
“The mechanisms of this success are apparent from the development of the Campaign, from hesitant start to final triumph, and its continuation in the International Campaign for Egyptian Museums: the Nubia Museum in Aswan and the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Cairo.”
[Torgny Save-Soderbergh, 1987].