Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 October 2005
Issue No. 765
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sixty years of beauty

Perhaps the first organisation of true human globalisation, UNESCO's projects for protecting history and culture are themselves a heritage to be proud of, writes Chafik Chamass

Click to view caption
Abu Simbel before the restoration work

With the UNESCO campaign for safeguarding the Nubia monuments, initiated some 45 years ago, Egypt marked the launch of one of the first large- scale cultural heritage salvation initiatives in the history of mankind. By weight of its unique, ancient civilisation, Egypt ensures the centrality of the role it still plays internationally today. Thus, in 1959, when UNESCO launched its first international cultural heritage salvation campaign, it was with the aim of helping Egypt safeguard the Abu Simbel temples in the Nile Valley. These treasures of ancient Egyptian civilisation were threatened by the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

Once again, Egypt was advantageously on the front page: books, magazines and memoirs related this story of an emerging conflict between culture and human development. The story also brought to light the Pharaohs' obsession with immortality as well as their divine concepts of beauty and peace as exemplified by their civilisation. The modern threat to the survival of the unique temples demonstrated that the conservation of the world's common heritage concerned all countries. It encouraged UNESCO to give its legal support to a new movement, perhaps one of the first global ones. It paved the way, a few years later, to the drafting of a convention that was adopted on 16 November 1972 by the UNESCO General Conference. The convention concerned the protection of the world's cultural and natural heritage. To date, 159 countries have ratified it, and 24 international protection campaigns are currently underway worldwide.

Nubian beginnings

When the glorious project in Egypt that kick-started this effort is contemplated in retrospect today, it must be remembered that its unexpected success was achieved through the participation of only 50 countries donating half of the $80 million needed for the rescue. A limited number of steadfast believers in the worth of humanity's heritage led to that colossal work. Egypt's then minister of culture, Sarwat Okacha, describes in his Mémoires the heaviness of the burden he shouldered when he started this venture. His Mémoires relate the meetings held at first with responsible authorities of US museums who recommended that doubles of antiquities hidden in the Egyptian Museum basement be sold and proceeds be used to finance the Abu Simbel salvation, and how his reaction had been, "Should I sell the heritage of my ancestors?"

The famous French Egyptologist Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt had recently helped establish the Egyptian Archaeological Documentation Centre, intended to fulfil the needs of studying and recording ancient Egypt's history, arts and civilisations. Okasha's consultations with her resulted in an invitation sent to UNESCO to propose a solution to the Nubia monuments problem. Okasha recounts the difficulties faced within the international organisation, followed finally by the approval by leading authorities of a plan. The epic goes on embracing the numerous efforts of both then UNESCO Director-General Vittorino Veronese and his assistant René Maheu (who later became one of the organisation's most famous director-generals). Last but not least came Ali Vrioni, the campaign fundraiser, who travelled around the world bringing the right words to convince sponsors to dig into their pockets until the temples were dismantled, moved to dry ground, reassembled and saved.

This success was the most striking example of international understanding and world solidarity in the field of cultural co- operation and the preservation of heritage: dozens of temples and archaeological sites and areas in Nubia were in danger of being submerged by the waters of the vast artificial lake formed behind the High Dam. It would be 25 kilometres wide in some areas, would extend over 300 kilometres up into 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 above sea level and that of the smaller temple 122 meters above. The temples lay upstream of the old Aswan Dam, which had been constructed around the turn of the century. As the water levels of the reservoir created by this dam never exceeded 121 metres, never were parts of the two temples submerged. 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 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 daily between 102 and 110 metres in the process of electricity generation. 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.

It must be added here that the work could not have been undertaken had it not been preceded by the following archaeological activities. First, the comprehensive recording of the monuments of Nubia, meticulously carried out by the Archaeological Documentation Centre, which was established in Cairo in 1955 by the Egyptian government with the technical assistance and equipment provided by UNESCO. Second, the archaeological survey of Nubia, carried out by 70 archaeological missions from 25 countries to secure the inventory of sites as well as identifying areas not yet excavated.

The work ended not only with the salvation of the Abu Simbel and Philae temples, but also with rescue operations on over 20 temples in Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia, many chapels, rock formations and carvings being dismantled, transported and safely reassembled on higher grounds, above the waters of the new lake. A French mission moved the temple of Amada on rails near its original area, while a German mission rescued the temple of Kalabsha.

The sight of thousands of experts, male and female, as well as workers, operating day and night in the Nubian desert, against the clock and mounting waters, will remain for those who had the chance of seeing it a most beautiful example of what human cooperation can achieve.

Geoparks and prehistoric heritage

Later, UNESCO undertook an initiative to promote a global network of sites -- dubbed "geoparks" -- of special scientific importance, rarity or beauty. The UNESCO geopark concept explores and demonstrates methods of conserving sites of geo-scientific importance, as well as archaeological, ecological, historical or cultural value, turning them into areas for environmental education, training and research. Prehistoric sites in Egypt have been electronically documented and mapped, some of which are onsidered geoparks deserving of protection. The survey achieved is, in fact, an unprecedented endeavour in the field of the prehistory of Egypt. The prehistoric sites database itself is founded on the greatest number of available published works and internal reports of expeditions into prehistory conducted in Egypt, through the cooperation of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities.

The earliest discovered occurrences of prehistoric human presence are regarded as Lower Paleolithic, Acheulian (early Stone Age, 300,000 years ago). Prehistoric human cultures petered out in the Final Neolithic Era (late Stone Age, 5000 -- 4000 years ago). Wet and dry climate intervals certainly had an influence on the distribution of prehistoric human populations living along the Nile and in the Western Desert. During the wetter periods in the Western Desert, shallow seasonal lakes and playas formed in basins. Water was available not only as a source of drinking but also in catchments areas to support plant growth and animals that supplied the food base for prehistoric people.

By around 60,000 years ago, the Western Desert fell under the influence of a very dry climate; an episode that lasted until around 11,000 years ago. This hostile environment did not allow prehistoric humans to live in the Sahara. It was a period of migration from the Western Desert to the Nile Valley. By 11,000 years ago, a gap in occupation along the Nile Valley occurred due to the "wild stage" of the River Nile. At the same time, the wet climate prevailed again in the Western Desert leading to a new migration of prehistoric people to the desert.

In the Nile Valley, the only places where the prehistoric groups could have enough resources were in the embayment of the Nile. Fishing and hunting wild cattle were the most important sources of food. Through the survey of research into prehistory carried out by UNESCO, it became evident that Egypt has a fascinating and complex mosaic of archaeological remains, documenting early human presence. Studies revealed areas possessing abundant prehistoric cultural storage pits, ceremonial structures and burials that should be protected as geoparks of unique human record. The cultural heritage discovered at Nabta Playa, for example, is of global importance and must be preserved for future research and study as a monument to ancestral Egypt. Despite this, the prehistory of Egypt has surprisingly not attracted the attention of archaeologists who, rather, have concentrated on Pharaonic, Roman and Islamic antiquities.

Additional to above, currently a first preliminary survey of Egypt's intangible heritage (oral tradition, knowledge, cultural spaces, etc) has also now started, as a contribution to the future National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation. A second project cataloguing and protecting Egypt's intangible heritage is about to be launched. Following the inclusion of the Sirah Al-Hilaliya epic on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, a project of collection, protection and promotion of still extant expressions of the Sirah in songs, poems and music has now started.

Looking forward, looking back

Anniversaries are always an occasion for looking to the future. This is the youthful approach! They also stimulate looking back. Consequently, "to pay back to Caesar what Caesar deserves," it should be mentioned here that when I had the honour and pleasure to start working for UNESCO in the early 1950s, I was entrusted with the establishment of a bibliography of the Middle East social sciences. At that time, the Sirs El-Layyan Centre for Literacy (in Al-Menoufiya Governorate) had been established by UNESCO and was working with great energy, bringing together eminent education and social science specialists from Egypt and abroad. I was working then in the Bureau of Relations with Member- States, UNESCO-HQ, Paris, before joining the Natural Sciences Department. Happy days and memories! Later, I contributed to the first steps of the Department for the Preservation of Monuments newly created by a UNESCO General Assembly decision. Through my affiliation to the above various departments in the organisation I was able to observe the panoramic aspect of the organisation's approach to human development, an approach that preceded the modern globalisation movement.

It is worth noting that UNESCO remains, first and foremost, a human organisation. Its civil servants are human beings acting, naturally, out of human impulses; that means that they are not free of bureaucratic routines, entanglements and conspiracies. Nevertheless, the organisation, empowered by an ever-inspired spirit of vision and beauty, has proven able to rise throughout its course above individual weaknesses. The totality of the organisation's 60-year colossal impact cannot be encompassed in any single work, be it a book or an article. The present paper, through its concise review of some of UNESCO's activities in Egypt, has endeavoured to throw some light on the infinite spectrum of UNESCO's ambitious undertakings.

Journalist since the age of 20, the writer became editor-in-chief of Le Progres Egyptien in the late 1970s. He is founder and editor-in-chief of Aujourd'hui l'Egypte and worked with UNESCO from 1956 to 1972.

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 765 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Election Focus | Region | Economy | International | Beyond | Opinion | Press review | Reader's corner | Culture | Ramadan Focus | Living | Sports | Chronicles | Cartoons | Encounter | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map