Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 February 2010
Issue No. 984
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

When Rome came to Nubia

To highlight Italy's help in rescuing Nubian monuments during the Salvage Campaign of the 1960s and 70s, a photographic exhibition is on show at Al-Sama Khana. Nevine El-Aref recalls the events as she tours the display

Click to view caption
Abu Simbel temple at its new site overlooking Lake Nasser; A birdÅs eye view of the Philae Island in Aswan

To the beat of Nubian drums at Al-Sama Khana in Sayeda Zeinab, the director of the scientific office of the Italian Embassy in Cairo, Franco Porcelli, accompanied by Rosanna Pirelli, director of the Italian Archaeological Institute and Tareq Shawqi, director of UNESCO's Cairo office, on Monday evening opened a photographic exhibition entitled "Abu Simbel: the Salvaging of the Monuments. Men and Technology".

The idea for an exhibition was dreamed up last year in Rome by the World Wide Artists Association and the Chamber of Commerce in Rome to highlight the role of Italy in rescuing Nubian monuments from the rising waters of Lake Nasser following the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The exhibition was previously shown in 2009 in Rome inside the Temple of Hadrian. The exhibition will later tour some of the principle capitals of Europe and worldwide.

Italian scholars and technicians played a decisive role in the interventions on the most important monuments: the twin temples of Abu Simbel and the Philae complex. So at the request of the UNESCO Cairo Office, the exhibition previously opened in Aswan on the fringe of last year's international conference held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the launch of the appeal by Egypt and Sudan for help to rescue the monuments from the rising water.

The conference -- "The Lower Nubia: Revisiting Memories of the Past, Envisaging Perspectives for the Future" -- was attended by almost all the protagonists of the event that drew the focus of world attention in the 1960s and 70s. The nations who contributed to the effort were presented with awards by the two States of Egypt and Sudan during the opening ceremony.

The exhibition in Egypt was organised in collaboration with the Nubia Museum and the Italian Archaeological Centre under the patronage of the Italian Embassy. It then moved to the Antiquities Museum at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and is now in Cairo.

The event is taking the form of a worldwide documentary exhibition and will have a high impact, with images never before published. It will enhance not only the natural and historical value of the archaeological site, but also the anthropological aspect, paying particular attention to the human resources involved in the feat, the methodologies employed and the machinery and equipment used, as well as the projects throughout their development and realisation.

More than 2,000 Egyptians made extraordinary contributions, both in terms of untiring activity and in the genial execution of the work done. To them goes the merit of having carried out such a feat, fraught with potential hazards, and without one single fatal accident.

Indeed, when remembering the great works of art and monuments of the past, it is always to the authors of plans and projects that tribute is paid, not to the human resources who, through their invaluable indispensable contributions, devoted their lives to projects with their innate and time-tested abilities to resolve the many and varied everyday problems that arose in an age not yet witness to the advent of advanced technologies in the field of electronics. It was an age of manual labour.

Who were these men? How did they work? How did they spend their days? How were they considered when they completed the magnificent dream? When they carried out their daily tasks, were they aware of the significance of their contributions, of their culture, of their ethnicity with all its background, history and civilisation?

According to the official statement by the organiser, the exhibition will strive to meet two main objectives: one that of reaching a global public, bringing to them awareness of the history of man, of what was achieved, the ideas that took shape in the knowledge of the convergence of historical and archaeological themes, in an effort to involve the "public at large", not only those who dedicate themselves daily to this fascinating field, the other is that of taking advantage of this unique opportunity to valorise the entrepreneurial network between Rome, Italy and Egypt's social and economic realities.

Back in 1954, When Egypt decided to construct the High Dam across the River Nile at Aswan, it became apparent that a large number of the ancient Egyptians' priceless archaeological monuments would be drowned in the newly-created Lake Nasser, which would stretch from Aswan in Egypt to the Dal Cataract in Sudan. Many sites in the area were threatened, particularly unexcavated and little-known cemeteries and small settlements. Not only would more than 14 temples have to be moved, but urgent excavations would need to take place at sites that would soon be under several dozen metres of water.

An international appeal was launched by UNESCO in 1960 to save the Nubian monuments. This appeal resulted in the excavation and recording of hundreds of sites, the recovery of thousands of objects, and the salvage and relocation of a number of important temples to higher ground. Philae, Kalabsha, Wadi Al-Sabua, Dakka, Derr and other sites were moved, with the twin temples of Abu Simbel receiving the most media attention.

Fifty nations contributed to the fund to save these monuments. The temple of Amada was a difficult case, because of its small, beautifully painted reliefs. Chopping it into blocks, as was being done with the other temples, was not an option; the paintings would not have survived. Seeing that all seemed resigned to see the temple flooded by the water of Lake Nasser. France saved it. The method used for moving the temple was to transport it in one piece. The idea of the French architects was to put the temple on rails and convey it hydraulically to a site a few kilometres away but more than 60 metres higher. Ultimately the rescue project, including the transportation and reconstruction of the temples on their new sites, took 20 years. The campaign ended on 10 March 1980 as a complete and spectacular success. The monuments were then declared a World Heritage Property.

ITALIAN SCHOLARS' CONTRIBUTION: More than 40 million man-hours, more than five years' work, more than 4,000 blocks of varying tonnage relocated some 65 metres higher, about 200 metres inland from the river, by an almost exclusively local workforce of more than 2,000, 150 specialised technicians of various nationalities, 50 families and 20 children. These are just a few statistics of the great feat accomplished by man from 1964 to 1968, when the Egyptian Abu Simbel Temples, otherwise destined to be flooded and lost forever during the construction of the High Dam, were salvaged.

The archaeological site has two temples, originally carved out of the mountainside, near the Nile during the reign of Ramses II in the 13th century BC. The Great Temple is generally considered the most beautiful and impressive of the many monuments erected by the Pharaoh. On the façade stand four colossal, 20-metre statues of Pharaoh Ramses II.

In the inner part of the temple, the sanctuary, is a room where, on a back wall, sculptures of four seated figures are cut from the rock looking towards the entrance. To the east Ra-Horakhte ("Re-Horus at the horizon", a combination of the sun-god Ra from Lower Egypt and Horakhte, who was an aspect of the falcon god Horus from Upper Egypt), Ramses II deified as Amun Ra and Ptah, considered the god of craftsmen, in particular that of stone- based crafts.

Here, thanks to the axis of the temple, twice a year, on 22 October, Ramses's presumed coronation, and 20 February, Ramses's presumed birthday, the first rays of the sun penetrated the sanctuary and illuminate the face of the sculpture on the back wall, except for the statue of Ptah, the god connected with the underworld, who always remains in the dark.

To the north, at a distance of about 100 metres or so from the Great Temple, we find the Small Temple, dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Nefertari, Ramses's favoured consort. The façade, 28 metres wide and 12 metres high, is ornamented by six statues each 10 metres high, three on the south side and three on the north side of the entrance.

In recognition of the Italian efforts to rescue these temples, Egypt offered Italy the rock-cut temple of Al-Lessiya. It was built at the time of Pharaoh Tuthmosis III in honour of the local Nubian falcon god Dedwen, considered by the Egyptians to be a form of Horus. Dedwen is the provider of incense, among other attributes.

Al-Lessiya Temple was flooded when the first Aswan Dam was built in 1902. All the colours were lost, and many of the wall reliefs were damaged. In the 1960s, as part of the international Nubian campaign, the temple was cut from the rock and re-assembled in the Egyptian Museumat Turin, a gift to Italy in recognition of the assistance furnished by the Italians in the rescue of the monuments.

It consists of a cella, 10 paces in length and seven in breadth, and about 12 feet high. Within it are four columns, with Egyptian capitals. On either side of the cella is an apartment, which receives light only by the entrance from the cella. Low stone benches run along the walls of the cella, a peculiarity which was not seen in any other Egyptian temple. There is an ascent by three low steps from the cella into the adytum in which is a deep sepulchral excavation; there is also a similar but smaller one in the cella itself. The walls both of the cella and adytum are covered with mystic sculptures in the usual style, but there are none in the two side chambers. At some point it was converted into a church and the walls plastered white as a base for their paintings, many of which still remain; St George killing the dragon is particularly conspicuous.

Mohamed El-Beyali head of Aswan and Nubian monuments at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), told Al-Ahram Weekly that he wished UNESCO could reunite with the SCA to save Qasr Ibrim, the only Nubian site still in situ and threatened by the rising water level at Lake Nasser and the strong winds.

Qasr Ibrim displays a number of archaeological remnants of Egypt's various historical epochs that once witnessed a unique civilisation. Once it was an eagle's nest over Lower Nubia, but is now an island, or at times a peninsula, on the east bank of the artificial Lake Nasser. The site was intermittently inhabited from as early as the Middle Kingdom until the 1840s. It also functioned as a military stronghold and a destination of religious pilgrimage for various armies and religious denominations.

Throughout its 3,000-year history, Qasr Ibrim has lain on the border territory between Egypt and her southern neighbours. Control of the area around Ibrim fluctuated with the changing political situations to the north and south. The fortress of Qasr Ibrim, situated high above the Nile, provided a secure military base for whoever was the controlling power at the time from which to watch over traffic on the river, and to oversee the nomads who roamed the Eastern Desert, an ever-present threat to the settled communities along the Nile. From the earliest feature so far discovered on the site -- a length of massive fortification wall dating from about 1000 BC through to the 16th-century Ottoman garrison that repaired and occupied the fortress to guard their southern frontier --- Qasr Ibrim's military importance has always been paramount. Alongside its military role, however, Qasr Ibrim also functioned as a religious centre early in its history and a centre of pilgrimage in both pagan and Christian times. Pharaonic and Roman temples have been discovered, and even today the site is dominated by the shell of a Christian cathedral that dwarfs the surrounding remains.

The Middle Kingdom fortress of Senusert III (1881 -- 1840 BC) is the oldest monument found on the island, along with a number of New Kingdom chapels of the 18th-Dynasty Pharaohs Tuthmosis III, Amenhotep II and Queen Hatshepsut. It also houses a mud-brick temple of the 25th-Dynasty Nubian ruler Taharqa and several residential houses of the same era.

During the Graeco-Roman period no fewer than six mud-brick temples dedicated to Isis, Amun and other ancient Egyptian deities were built, along with a small military garrison and dormitory for soldiers. The name of the island was changed to Premis.

When Christianity took roots in Egypt, it became the seat of the Coptic Patriarchy where an enormous cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary was constructed during the sixth century. Taharqa's temple was also transformed into a Coptic church. When the Ottomans invaded the island in the 16th century, they changed the name of the island to Ibrim, built a small mosque there and left some Bosnian soldiers to protect their new territory. These intermarried with the Nubians and formed their own families. Down the ages the island was transformed into a small town filled first with temples, colossi and a necropolis, then a fortress, houses, cathedral and mosque.

In the 1960s, when Egypt decided to build the High Dam and called for the salvage operation to save the threatened monuments, all the temples were relocated to other, safer locations except the monuments of Qasr Ibrim, which was built on top of an 80-metre high rock formation above the Nile water level which it was thought would prevent its inundation after the completion of the dam. Despite this, almost 60 per cent of the island has since been inundated and water leaks into the temple most of the time. Water has now reached the foundations of the cathedral, which has led to several cracks in the walls. Blocks of the podium located on the edge of the Nile have been dismantled, which may lead to an eventual total collapse. The fortification walls have already collapsed and mud-brick buildings near the new water line have also fallen, either from the effects of direct water or from percolation. The most important of these is a 25th-Dynasty temple, from which a wall painting has already collapsed and another is now in danger of disappearing.

Percolation through dry deposits also threatens the excellent organic preservation of the site. Once exposed to water, the organic matter decays rapidly to a brown, smelly slime from which nothing can be recovered.

"The damage is increasing year after year, calling for the intervention of UNESCO to rescue and protect the only vestige of Nubian monuments that still remain in situ," El-Beyali says. Egypt renewed its appeal to UNESCO in 2000 and 2005.

El-Beyali says UNESCO must go forward to rescue such a priceless monument. "If Herodotus said that Egypt is the gift of the Nile, then in my point of view UNESCO is the gift of Nubian monuments," El-Beyali says.

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