UNESCO is commemorating the mammoth combined effort by archaeologists, engineers and researchers from across the globe which led to the salvaging of extraordinary temples and Pharaonic monuments which would otherwise have disappeared under the waters of Lake Nasser with the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Fifty years on from the earnest appeal sent out from Egypt and Sudan for an international salvage campaign for the Nubian monuments, UNESCO will be celebrating this important anniversary with the conference: ‘Lower Nubia: Revisiting memories of the past, envisaging perspectives for the future’ to be held on March 21-24.
With the construction of the great dam – approved by the Egyptian government in 1958 to allow the country’s economy to be modernised, and built between 1960 and 1964 – 360 kilometres of territory in Egypt and 140 in Sudan were to be irretrievably transformed into a great inland sea. Which is why the Cairo and Khartoum governments resolved to sign an official request for an appeal to UNESCO. So it was that in 1960 the organisation turned to its member states and what was later to be called the greatest archaeological salvage operation of all time got underway.
Over 70 separate archaeological missions from 25 countries explored each of the Nubian regions that were due to be flooded, both in Egypt and in Sudan. ”Hundreds of sites were inventoried and thousands of objects were identified and conserved”, recalls Professor Giuseppe Fanfoni, director of the Italo-Egyptian Centre for Restoration and Archaeology in Cairo. He took part in two missions sponsored by the Egyptology Institute of Rome’s La Sapienza university, under the direction of Professor Donadoni: those in the Egyptian village of Tamit and in Sundan’s Sonqi centre. ‘
‘We worked extremely quickly in Tamit. We only managed to complete survey and a technical drawing of the village”, the archaeologist notes, saying of how he remembers: ”the animals that, like us, sought shelter at the highest parts of the village, while our mission awaited the boat that allowed us to escape to safety before the flood waters closed in and everything was submerged”. It was a giant undertaking, which permitted the savings of innumerable finds and monuments, Fanfoni remarks, ”but many others were lost. An inestimable blow to the history of humankind”.
14 temples and monuments scattered along this stretch of the Nile valley were dismantled stone by stone and completely reconstructed beyond the reach of the waters. Without doubt, the most famous of these operations were those leading to the salvaging of the two temples of Abu Simbel and those of Philae. Five temples – including that of Ellesya, which is today reconstructed in Turin’s Museum of Egypt – were donated to the countries that collaborated in the rescue work.
During the conference at Aswan, which has been organised by Egypt’s and Sudan’s ministries of culture, scholars who took part in the salvage campaign will be presented with an award by UNESCO. Some hitherto unpublished documents relating to the period of salvage work will go on display, and a new campaign for the preservation of the Nubian heritage will be launched.