Apr 2, 2011

The most ambitious plans of the twentieth century: Rescuing the Monuments of Nubia

The most ambitious plans of the twentieth century: Rescuing the Monuments of Nubia

One of the major projects of the twentieth century was the massive international exercise mounted to rescue the archaeological heritage of Nubia from the consequences brought about by constructing the two dams at Aswan. The first project, the Archaeological Survey of Nubia, was initiated by the construction and subsequent raising of the first dam built at Aswan. Because of the large increase in population that occurred in the twentieth century, the governments of Egypt and the Sudan decided to build a new dam in order to regulate and distribute the water more effectively, increasing irrigation of the land and enabling more food to be produced.

Under the plan, the hydroelectric capacity of the dam would also provide enhanced fuel supplies for domestic and industrial use.
Early discussions took place in the 1950s, and the construction of the High Dam began in 1960. It was evident that the results would be far reaching and irreversible. Building such a dam involved the creation of an extensive stretch of water (named Lake Nasser) behind the barrier, and this would cover an area 312 miles in length (stretching across Egypt and the Sudan) and, in parts, would reach a width of some 12 to 16 miles. In effect, the land known as Nubia in antiquity, which in modern times is shared between Egypt and Sudan, would disappear under the water. As a result, people would lose their homes and agricultural land, and many important archaeological monuments and sites would disappear.

Plans were put in hand to transfer the Nubian population in Egypt to purpose-built villages around Esna and Kom Ombo, and there was a worldwide appeal through UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) for international assistance to save as many ancient monuments as possible before the dam was completed in 1965. There was an enthusiastic response to save these sites, which were regarded as part of the world’s heritage.
The salvage operation, led by archaeologists, copyists, architects, and engineers from many countries, involved various processes. Using photography, epigraphy, and photogrammetry (a contour-mapping procedure consisting of a series of photographs taken in “stereo pairs”), the monuments were recorded as completely as possible, and urgent excavation was undertaken in order to complete outstanding projects and investigate important new sites. In addition, aerial photography was used to produce a map of the sites.

Salvaging the monuments

The most ambitious plans, however, revolved around schemes to rescue some of the most important monuments. Several temples and monuments were presented as gifts to participating countries that had offered considerable financial support to the scheme, and these buildings were dismantled and moved to museums in the United States and Europe. Other sites in Egypt and Sudan were turned into “outdoor museums” where selected monuments were brought and reassembled. This included the relocation of some temples in Sudanese Nubia to a park in Khartoum, and the reconstruction of the Temples of Kalabsha and Beit el-Wali, as well as the Kiosk of Kertassi (a temple gateway), on a promontory near Aswan, subsequently
called New Kalabsha.
Other temples in Egypt were also moved to new positions, safely beyond the encroaching waters of the human-made lake. The most remarkable of these schemes centered around the temples at Abu Simbel and those originally built on the island of Philae, which was situated at the First Cataract of the Nile. In both cases, it was decided to reposition the monuments as closely as possible to their original locations, because their natural settings were regarded as an essential and integral element of the architectural design.
Both these projects drew on the expertise of many specialists from different countries; they attracted widespread publicity, and came to symbolize a level of international cooperation that had never been witnessed in previous archaeological endeavors. Such a unity of purpose contrasted sharply with the rivalries of the early “treasure seekers.” Nevertheless, there were divided opinions about the correct procedures that should be adopted to salvage the monuments.

The Temples of Philae

The monuments on Philae presented unique problems. The island, known as Pi-lak in antiquity, was originally a great religious center, regarded as the place where the creation of the world had occurred.
The construction of the first dam at Aswan, completed in 1902, had resulted in the submergence of the buildings on Philae for nine months of the year. The High Dam, however, would result in the monuments being partially but continuously under water; there would be no opportunity for them to dry out, and this would result in the eventual collapse of the walls. The island’s distinctive main temple, dedicated to Isis, the mother-goddess, and all the surrounding buildings would disappear forever.
Several schemes to save these monuments were proposed, and the panel of experts selected a suggestion that had originally been made in 1902. This involved dismantling and reassembling the buildings on the higher neighboring island of Agilkia, thereby ensuring that they would remain above water through- out the year. Also, because they would be relocated in another island setting, the beauty of the original location could be easily re-created.

The Temples of Abu Simbel

The other rescue project involved even greater difficulties. This centered around the two temples built by Ramesses II at Abu Simbel: the Great Temple, dedicated to the gods Ptah, Amen-Re, Re-Harakhte, and the deified Ramesses II, and the nearby Smaller Temple, honoring the goddess Hathor and Ramesses II’s favorite wife, Queen Nefertari.
As with all temples the Egyptians built in Nubia, these were intended to impress the local Nubian population with the might of their Egyptian overlord. In the Great Temple,the wall scenes depicted not only the religious rites that were found in all temples but also commemorative scenes and inscriptions that described the king’s military campaigns.
Both temples are spectacular. They were cut originally from the cliffside and formed an integral part of the natural rock formation.
The explorer Burckhardt discovered the Great Temple in 1813, and it was subsequently excavated by Belzoni to fully reveal four colossal statues, each measuring more than sixty-five feet in height, that dominated its facade.
Because these temples harmonized with their background so completely, the rescue project decided that they must be moved to a similar setting. Thus, to ensure that they were relocated beyond the water level that Lake

Nasser would eventually reach, the new site was at a level some 210 feet above the original location, and 590 feet back from the river. This scheme, devised by a Swedish company, was chosen in preference to various other proposals which would have presented technical problems and involved higher costs. The temples were transferred between 1964 and 1968.
During this four-year period, the mass of rock in the cliffside above the temples was removed so that the buildings could be released from their original locations. The engineers constructed a cofferdam to hold back the water of the lake; the buildings were then cut into sections and dismantled, and the largest blocks were removed first to a holding area, before being taken to the new location where the facades and interior walls of the temples were rebuilt. Behind these, a dome-shaped structure of reinforced concrete was built to surround and hold together the reinstated sections, and to support the rock facade; in effect, it replaced the original cliffside of which the temples had formed an integral part.
The temples were reopened in 1968. This scheme had the advantage that it still enabled visitors to have access to the temples, and it even preserved an important feature of the original Great Temple—the sun still entered the sanctuary twice a year and illuminated the statues of the gods in the sanctuary area.
Nonetheless, there was some criticism of the final result. Some claimed that the removal of the temples from their original sites had destroyed their architectural context and visual impact. However, this rescue operation was generally believed to be a considerable success.
Not only had the temples been saved for future generations to admire and study, but many specialists from different countries had been involved in the scheme, and this had exempli fied an unprecedented level of international cooperation in archaeology.

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