A Lost Ancient Land

By Miles, Helen | The Middle East, July-August 1994 | Go to article overview

A Lost Ancient Land


Miles, Helen, The Middle East


The decision by former Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser, to construct the High Dam at Aswan meant the end of the country known as Nubia. Before the land was flooded international efforts were made to relocate a number of pharaonic monuments. With much less fanfare the people who occupied the region, the Nubians, suffered a similar fate. They were forced to leave their homes and relocate elsewhere. Helen Miles reports on the latest initiatives to allow them to return to the shores of the lake which now covers their original homes and villages.

The ancient land of Nubia is gone. The mudbrick walls of the villages once dotted along the banks of the Nile from Aswan in Egypt to Dongola in Sudan have disintergrated into the silty bed of Lake Nasser. The fields, the date palm groves, the water wheels, the ancestral graveyards, even the dogs which stood barking on the shore as the last boats pulled away, have left no traces.

All gone, as surely as if it never existed. In its place is the world's largest artificial lake stretching for nearly 500km and covering 6,000sq km.

In the 1950s, Egypt's then president, Gamal Abdul Nasser pledged to build a new dam near Aswan to increase the area of arable land in Egypt. His aim was to help feed the country's burgeoning population, as well as supplying all the electricity Egypt needed.

The High Dam, which harnessed the waters of the mighty River Nile, was one of the greatest technological feats of all time and brought incalculable benefits to the Egyptian people. But it also sounded the death knell for the kingdom of Nubia which had been inhabited for thousands of years, yet had largely escaped the attention of invaders and casual visitors because of its paucity of natural resources and isolated position.

When plans were being mooted for the building of the High Dam, Nubia was just a sleepy backwater, a collection of Nile side villages, with no electricity or roads to link it to the rest of Egypt. Nubians spoke a different language and practised different customs and traditions from their Egyptian and Sudanese neighbours. However, when it became apparent that Nasser's promise to build a dam would become a reality, the area was suddenly thrust into the international spotlight. Most of the world's attention focused on UNESCO's effort to save the Pharaonic monuments of Nubia.

Nubian culture, however, was equally at risk from the flood waters perhaps more so because it could not be plucked from the rising waters and plopped down somewhere safely out of harm's way, unlike the rocks of Abu Simbel temple. For this reason social researchers rushed to document the villagers' every move.

In some places there was no living memory of an outsider's visit before the research team's arrival. "When the Nubians talk about a lost paradise they are not exaggerating," said Nawal El Missiri Nadim, who took part in a massive ethnological project undertaken by the American University in Cairo at the time of the villagers' exodus.

"It was an extremely beautiful place, with the Nile and the trees and the houses. They were a very neat and clean people. They may have been poor but everything was perfect. You wouldn't see a bed with an ordinary sheet, it would have to have an exquisite embroidered border."

In June 1964, this traditional way of life ceased to exist as the last Nubians packed their bags and headed for new purpose built settlements in Egypt and Sudan. In all about 120,000 Nubians were displaced, including nearly 50,000 Egyptian Nubians who were given alternative houses at Kom Ombo, near Aswan.

These people, who had been famous for their spacious and handsomely decorated houses where extended families lived communally, were moved into government issue housing laid out in grids. In exchange for the Nile-fed land which they had farmed for millenia, the Nubians were given 25,000 feddans of newly-reclaimed desert. The river which had been central to every ceremony in village life from birth to death, was substituted with a canal.

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