UNESCO and the Ancient Egyptian Heritage; from the Nubian Campaign to the Library of Alexandria

By Mokhtar, Gamal | UNESCO Courier, September 1988 | Go to article overview

UNESCO and the Ancient Egyptian Heritage; from the Nubian Campaign to the Library of Alexandria


Mokhtar, Gamal, UNESCO Courier


THE campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia was the most spectacular demonstration of Unesco's concern for the legacy of ancient Egypt, and its success was the most striking example of international understanding and world solidarity in the field of cultural co-operation and the preservation of the heritage.

When the Egyptian Government began to study a project for building a High Dam to the south of the city of Aswan in order to develop and modernize the country's economy and decided to execute the project in 1954, it became apparent that Egypt and the Sudan had a major cultural problem on their hands: dozens of temples and archaeological sites and areas in Nubia were in danger of being submerged by the waters of the vast artificial lake that would be formed behind the High Dam. The lake, which would be 25 kilometres wide in some areas, would extend over 300 kilometres up the Nile Valley in Egyptian Nubia and some 200 kilometres into Sudanese Nubia.

Two examples indicate the scale of the problem. The first concerns the two temples of Abu Simbel, 270 kilometres south of Aswan. The base of the larger temple stood 124 metres and that of the smaller temple 122 metres above sea level. The temples lay upstream of the old Aswan Dam, which had been constructed around the turn of the century, but as the water level of the reservoir created by this dam never exceeded 121 metres, no part of the two temples was ever submerged by its waters. After the construction of the High Dam, however, the water level would rise to 182 metres, exceeding the highest level reached by the waters of the old Aswan Dam by 62 metres and submerging the two temples completely.

The second example is that of the temples which stood on the island of Philae, 104 metres above sea level to the south of the old Aswan Dam and to the north of the High Dam. The Philae temples were submerged almost totally by the waters of the old Aswan Dam most days of the year. However, after the construction of the High Dam (whose waters would not directly affect these temples, as they were located downstream) the water level of the old reservoir would drop and fluctuate dally between 102 and 110 metres in the process of generating electricity. In other words, the water would only partially inundate the temple walls, but the fluctuating water level would pose a more serious threat to the stonework of the temples than their total and permanent submersion.

The High Dam project thus confronted the two governments with a major responsibility to the land of Nubia, which had had strong links with Egypt throughout its histo especially during the Pharaonic period. It had therefore been the scene of major architectural activity, particularly the construction of temples, fortifications and castles for the protection of trade routes and the maintenance of peace. Cities, cemeteries and tombs were built in various periods, and innumerable quantities of rock stelae, carvings and inscriptions had survived, not to mention all the records of the past that still lay buried.

The Egyptian Government therefore approached Unesco on 6 April 1959, requesting its active material, technical and scientific assistance in the design and execution of projects to save the monuments of Nubia. Such a step was warranted by the scale and costliness of the task and also by the fact that the monuments were part of the universal human heritage and hence a matter of concern to the world as a whole. Moreover, it was felt that Unesco had a major responsibility for preserving and safeguarding the world heritage and was the only international organization capable of raising the financial support and rallying the specialists and technicians that were needed from all over the world. A few months later, the Sudanese Government submitted a similar request to Unesco.

Unesco responded to these requests by launching two major appeals. A first general appeal was made by the Director-General of Unesco on 8 Marc 1960 and a second, concerned more specifically with the need to rescue the temples of Philae, was made on 6 November 1968. …

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