Why do so few Egyptian and foreign tourists visit the Nubia Museum in Aswan, asks Jill Kamil
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Grand interior of the Nubia Museum; a couple of its treasures; the museum stands on a rocky slope of sandstone in Aswan (left)
In his press release on the occasion of the opening of the Nubia Museum in Aswan in 1997, Ahmed Nawar, head of the museum sector of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), wrote that the setting up of new museums in the provinces was based on sound research into the singular identity of each chosen area "because museums are expected to play a cultural role and contribute to the tourist industry".
Today, while Nubians regularly flock to the museum, singly or in groups, on family or school outings, they outnumber by far foreign and Egyptian tourists and sightseers. It is worth looking into the reason why the museum is failing to fulfil its role as an income-generating destination for tourism.
The loss of Nubia was one of the world's great tragedies. Not only did it mean the inundation of an entire land and the loss of its ancient monuments, but it uprooted an entire population from its native soil. Nubia was one of the few places remaining on earth that was unspoiled by humanity. It was a harsh and barren land to be sure, but it was one to which the people had, and indeed have until today, a strong attachment. That is why Nubians -- especially if accompanied by aged parents or grandparents who still remember the beautiful austere land in which they once dwelt -- visit the museum and come away with a sense of pride. Their self-esteem is stretched by this contact with the past.
Yet, ironically, while cruises ply Lake Nasser and conduct visitors to ancient temples like those at Abu Simbel, Wadi Al-Sebua, Qasr Ibrim and others in Nubia, travel agents do not make it easy for clients to visit the museum, even though it would bring their cruise experience to life in its revelation of the ancient cultures of the lost land. And as far as Nile cruises are concerned, although they either start or end in Aswan this beautiful museum is too often bypassed.
The reason, according to tour guide Ihab, is because the cruise-goers spend only two nights in Aswan and have a very tight schedule visiting the granite quarries and the Unfinished Obelisk, the High Dam, the tombs at Qubbet Al-Hawa, and of course the monuments on the island of Philae. "Their thoughts are on the Pharaonic civilisation, not on the Nubians," Ihab says.
As for those on Lake Nasser cruises, the High Dam port to the south makes it more convenient for them to visit the saved temple of Kalabsha and the rock tomb of Beit Al-Wali during the single night they spend in Aswan. "They have a very tight schedule and it is too much hassle for them to pass through the port authorities and have a police escort to go to the Nubia Museum 12kms away. It is not easily accessible, and it is not included on their itinerary anyway," Ihab says. "Few travel agencies provide for two nights in Aswan, and even if they do tourists prefer to go to Philae than take a taxi to the museum."
Nubians first became victims of forces beyond their control when the Aswan Dam was built at the turn of the 20th century, and subsequently heightened on two occasions. Each time the Nubian residents -- their settlements necessarily built on the narrow floodplain of the Nile -- were obliged to move to higher ground as their land became progressively inundated.
When in 1960 they were told that their entire land would be lost once the High Dam was completed, and that they would have to start a new life far from their ancestral homes, they found it difficult to believe. Nevertheless, they were relocated, 50,000 of them, on Egyptian soil. They are now in their second generation as Egyptian nationals, but Egyptian Nubians are nevertheless sensitive to their ethnicity and the Nubia Museum goes a long way towards giving them a sense of pride and cultural identity.
A museum for Nubian antiquities was envisioned in the 1960s when it became clear that the magnitude of objects that resulted from the work of archaeological teams working in Nubia prior to its inundation were such that no existing museum could possibly allocate the space needed to house them. The Egyptian government consequently set the project in motion, called upon UNESCO, and early in 1980 committees were formed of UNESCO experts, members of the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation and Egyptian university staff. The late Egyptian architect Mahmoud Al-Hakim designed a museum, and several potential sites in Aswan were considered and rejected before it was decided to construct it southeast of the Cataract Hotel.
There it stands today, on a rocky slope of sandstone and granite overlooking the ancient Egyptian granite quarry. It combines the square or rectangular lines of ancient Egyptian temples, with Nubian fortresses and domestic architecture. Constructed on two floors with a low mezzanine to enhance the interior, the museum houses more than 3,000 items from various sites in Nubia and presents its history from the earliest hunters-gathers of the Late Paleolithic through to its inundation by Lake Nasser.
The museum is rich in artefacts. A prehistoric cave presents man's first creative attempt at depicting his environment in rock carvings; the various animals of the period, notably elephants and giraffes, are some of the earliest specimens of free artistic expression directly on stone. Predynastic material includes hand-axes, copper tools, palettes and amulets, cylinder seals and pottery of various Nubian cultures, all of which are displayed in state-of-the-art showcases accompanied by clear, concise labels and appropriate lighting.
There is a model of a Neolithic corpse buried with simple grave goods, as well as a model of the intact tomb discovered by British archaeologist Walter Emery in 1931 at Ballana, south of Abu Simbel. Its marvellous accompanying collection of royal crowns and jewels (hitherto in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo) that belonged to the Nobodai tribe of Nubia is certainly one of the museum's many highlights.
Artefacts that were transferred from the Coptic Museum in Cairo include 10th century wall paintings salvaged from the Church of Abdallah Nirgi and unique icons from the church at Qasr Ibrim, while from the Islamic Museum are tapestries, texts and miscellaneous metalware items.
A massive flight of stairs leads down from street level towards the entrance of the museum. An eight- metre-long model of the Nile Valley shows all the temples of Nubia in their original (now inundated) locations, along with the sites of their reconstruction. Selected as a focal point of interest in the great auditorium that spreads out behind this model is an eight-metre tall Nubian sandstone statue of Ramses II that had been in storage for 27 years. It is from a pillar of the temple that stood at the edge of the Nile in Gerf Hussein and its unusual, somewhat crude proportions are clear indication that it was fashioned not by Pharaonic court sculptors, but was guided rather by folk tradition.
Low ceilings, diffused light, and space create a dramatic setting for the manifold objects of the diverse cultures.
The low impact interior of the museum, the lighting, and the individual vistas at strategic positions encourage an organised, uninterrupted flow of people, thus preventing the tendency to double back and congest the space. Worth mentioning are the historical placards placed at appropriate positions throughout the museum and providing clear and accurate texts covering each phase of Nubia's long history, revealing the vicissitudes of its culture.
From the advantage of hindsight it is clear that the Nubia Museum should not have been built in Aswan, to the north of the High Dam, but to the south. Had it been constructed in the vicinity of New Kalabsha near the High Dam, where the temples of Kalabsha, Beit Al-Wadi, the Kiosk of Kertassi, and rocks with predynastic drawings saved from Nubia are now located, it would have enhanced the Nubia experience and helped, in Nawar's words, "develop and coordinate relations between museums and mass media because of their active role in social, economic and cultural development."
Unfortunately, the notables who chose the site for the Nubia Museum did not collaborate with the then Transport Planning Authority, and unfortunately, as a result of this oversight, the museum has failed to provide a major source of national income by attracting tourism. It has also failed to achieve its full potential as a scientific research centre.
Neglect properly to promote the Nubia Museum is also regrettable, because although it is often used for the entertainment of VIP's, or during festivals at Aswan when Nubian dancers in tribal dress perform in the amphitheatre, the museum is a mere backcloth. The dances enact the agricultural seasons, the planting, sowing and harvest. They ask for prosperity and plentiful crops. They dance to the beating of tambourines, the men sometimes with spear in hand or a dagger bound to the arm. The sheer joy of their performances delights the audiences. But it does little to bring to mind the rich history of the country in which they once dwelled.
Nubian women until today tell tales to their children in the Nubian dialect. When they make plastic baskets for utilitarian purposes and for sale to tourists, they recall the time when they were woven from the natural fibers of Nubia's sacred palms. They chant Nubian songs, perform traditional dances, marry within their own, and even the concrete houses that were built for them when they resettled in Kom Ombo have been lovingly adorned with colorful façades reminiscent of their neat domed houses in Nubia, their walls sometimes finger-painted with pictures of chickens, scorpions and other sacred symbols, or with records of their pilgrimages to Mecca.
From the point of view of the Nubian heritage for Nubians, the museum is a resounding success. Many of the younger generation are drawn to the ethnography section which includes model reconstructions of the distinctive domestic architecture of their lost land, and which charmingly reveals every aspect of life. Nubian villages were built of stone, clay and sand, the roofs usually of jareed and grain stalks. The floors were covered with clean sand and household utensils for everyday use hung from the ceiling.
Models of Nubians are shown in such houses carrying out various domestic, social and agricultural activities that reveal the traditional way of life. There is even a painting of the weekly Post Boat that once stopped at each of the 46 districts of Nubia en route to Wadi Halfa from Shellel, south of Aswan, carrying mail and supplies.
One of the purposes of the museum is to record a heritage and encourage identity and pride, and, indeed, it represents the Nubia people's living memory and deepens their sense of belonging. It also gives them a glimpse, across time, of Nubia's long history, art and traditions. Too sad that its tourist potential remains untapped and that post-High Dam development of the area does not permit correction of a mistake already made.
Guide to the Nubian Monuments on Lake Nasser, Jocelyn Gohary, AUC Press, Cairo, 1998.