From brief limelight to obscurity
It's full speed ahead for the Sudanese hydroelectric project which will flood the ancient kingdom of Meroe, says Jill Kamil
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From top: map of Meroitic Nubia; royal pyramids in the north Meroe cemetery; inlaid chest from the cemetery of Karonog; elite Meroitic houses at Ash-Shaukan (right)
Technology and archaeology are at odds again. The Meroe High Dam, otherwise known as the Multi-Purpose Hydro Project or Hamdab Dam, is well underway -- and the archaeological remains of the ancient African kingdom of Meroe which developed along the upper reaches of the Nile is destined to oblivion.
The purpose of the dam being constructed close to the Fourth Cataract, about 200 kilometres north of Khartoum, is to generate electricity. It is the largest hydropower project currently under construction in Africa. With a length of some nine kilometres, and a crest height of up to 67 kilometres it is reminiscent of the High Dam at Aswan constructed in the 1960s. It too is designed with a concrete-faced rock-fill barrage on each river bank, the left river channel with a clay core, and the right with a live water section. Once completed, its 200-kilometre long reservoir, with a capacity to produce 1,250 megawatts of power, will displace 50,000 people and inundate countless archaeological sites including Meroe in the African kingdom of Kush, sub-Saharan Africa's earliest urban civilisation.
Meroe, which is situated at a strategic location in the region known as Butana, enjoyed stability when Kushites moved the centre of their government there from the old capital of Napata (Nuri) -- which gradually declined but nevertheless retained its sacred status. The new capital grew and flourished contemporaneously with the Persian rule of Egypt, the later Egyptian dynasties, and the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, which is to say for nine centuries. The Meroitic Kingdom controlled trade routes -- east to the Red Sea, west to Kordofan and Darfur, north to Egypt, and south to central Africa -- and its sphere of influence spread even as far north as the island of Philae within sight of Aswan. Traders found markets for their ivory, gold, ebony and live animals, and the names of its kings have been documented by historians, even down to the approximate lengths of their reigns.
The first century AD marked the peak of Meroitic ascendancy, and its flourishing economy is reflected in the advanced culture seen in the superior quality of Meroitic crafts, particularly fine work in jewellery and pottery. Then started a slow decline, precipitated first by the inroads of two desert peoples, the Blemmyes and the Noba; then in competition with the new kingdom of Axum in northern Ethiopia when it emerged as the largest commercial centre in north-east Africa; and finally, in about 350 AD, when the first Christian king of Axum led a campaign into the region and defeated Meroitic troops near the confluence of the White Nile and the Atbara. By the beginning of the fourth century Meroe was no more. It fell to ruin and became a part of legendary history.
Meroe was not included among the sites studied and protected when the High Dam at Aswan was built in the 1960s and Nubia was subjected to the largest archaeological salvage operation ever known, because it did not fall within the threatened area. Now the area is threatened by the Meroe High Dam Project which was signed in 2002 and 2003.
Despite numerous efforts to curb the construction of dams along the Upper Nile by the board of the Nubian Society (which represents a body of the international archaeological community working closely with the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums), and contact with major stakeholders in Sudan to give due consideration to potential damage to a major heritage sites, the project has moved ahead. Chinese, German and French contractors began work on river diversion and construction of the concrete dams early in 2004. The reservoir impounding started in mid-2006, and the land for the reservoir was marked out. The local population nearest the construction site were moved, without prior warning, to a new location. Flooding started in August 2007. By the end of this year large segments of the land will be underwater, and when the level in the reservoir reaches 300 metres all ten generating units will be operational. This is scheduled before the end of 2008 or the beginning of 2009. Time is running out and archaeologists are watching closely to see what they can rescue before it is too late.
In his paper at the Eleventh Conference for Nubian Studies in Warsaw, Derek Welsby of the British Museum, president of the International Association of Nubian Studies, said that in the past the assumption that this section of the Upper Nile was an inhospitable region led archaeologists to consider it a marginal zone avoided by the major cultures which flourished in the Nile Valley to the north and south. "The current work," he said, "is causing a radical rethinking of this position. Vast numbers of archaeological sites are now known". He outlined the work of the many archaeological missions active in the Fourth Cataract region, and summarised their achievements in casting light on the Paleolithic occupation, through the Neolithic, Kerma and Kushite periods, to the post-Meroitic, Mediaeval and post-Medieval remains. "The region may be rocky and inhospitable, but archaeologists now know that it was not a marginal zone avoided by the major cultures," he said.
In fact the Fourth Cataract region is rich in archaeology, and it is unfortunate that, unlike the UNESCO project of the 1960s when the High Dam was built at Aswan, Sudanese Nubia has no monuments of the calibre of Abu Simbel to attract world attention to what is being done. The half-dozen Sudanese and foreign missions working in the threatened area have already pin-pointed hundreds of settlements and cemeteries spanning four millennia, and lithic artefacts, rock art, pottery, and even a granite pyramid -- the only one so far known in Sudan -- have been found, not to mention mediaeval Christian remains and Islamic cemeteries.
The idea of a Nile dam at the Fourth Cataract is not new. During the first half of the 20th century, the authorities of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan proposed it several times with a view to creating conditions for cotton-growing and providing flood protection for the lower Nile Valley. After Sudan gained independence in 1956, the idea of a dam in Sudan was abandoned in favour of the High Dam at Aswan. In 1979, under the government of President Nimeiri, the plan was revived with a view to producing hydro-electricity to meet Sudan's rising demand. Feasibility studies were carried out, but the project stalled for insufficient funding and lack of investor interest. The situation changed when the country started exporting oil in commercial quantities in the years 1999/2000, when improved credit-worthiness brought an influx of foreign investment and contracts for the construction of the Meroe Dam Project.
While the inevitable loss of sites beneath the Meroe Dam lake is to be regreted, the project has provided the stimulus for archaeological research and that is a good thing. Thanks to the wealth of data resulting from various surveys, particularly for the Meroitic and later periods, attention has been drawn to what was hitherto a neglected area and field of investigation. Unexpectedly, evidence has come to light of formally and legally stratified society in Meroitic Nubia, with royalty at the top of the scale and slaves at the bottom. The high status of women within the royal families is now well attested both for Kush and for Christian Nubia. And as for slaves in Islamic times, while a number were exported, most of them appear to have lived in the households of the owners and, because of their attachment to families, were given humane consideration at the time of death and buried with the same ritual considerations as free men.
Meroe is already attracting tourists. Indeed, it is somewhat reminiscent of the last days of Egyptian Nubia before the completion of the High Dam at Aswan. The area is within easy reach of Khartoum, only a couple of hours away by car, and visitors are coming to see contractors at work on the reservoir and visit those sites that lie above the expected high waterline of the lake. In fact, even as this article goes to press, I hear that tourist infrastructure is being provided in some areas, that a pipeline is bringing fresh water to the site, and that a small visitor's centre is being built to provide the necessary facilities.