“The loss of Nubia was one of the world’s great tragedies,” according to the Cairo magazine Al-Ahram, in an article this week about the Nubian Museum in Southern Egypt. The article describes how the museum, built near Aswan by the Egyptian government and opened in 1997, effectively depicts Nubian history and culture.
The article reviews the progressive destruction of Nubia by several earlier dams in the first half of the 20th century. Even though most Nubians today are several generations away from the old homeland, “the Nubia Museum goes a long way towards giving them a sense of pride and cultural identity.”
According to the official press release issued when the museum was opened, provincial museums in Egypt were “expected to play a cultural role and contribute to the tourist industry.” The article praises the effectiveness of the museum in reaffirming the cultural identity of the Egyptian Nubian people, many of whom were resettled near Aswan in Kom Ombo, but it decries the lack of tourists from other areas of Egypt or from other countries.
The article is quite respectful of the culture and people of Nubia—it does not just focus on the loss of ancient monuments that were inundated by Lake Nasser. The journalist, Jill Kamil, appreciates the fact that the Nubians had a very strong attachment to their land. She writes that when elderly people come to the museum, they “still remember the beautiful austere land in which they once dwelt” and they “come away with a sense of pride. Their self-esteem is stretched by this contact with the past.”
Accompanied by four good photos of the museum, the article describes the layout and some of the major collections, which depict the Nubian people from the earliest hunter-gatherers to the agriculturalists who were displaced by the big dam in the 1960s. Various UNESCO experts and university people assisted in the conception of the museum, and apparently a good architect designed the expansive facility. The building has rich collections on display, some of which were transferred from other Egyptian museums.
Deploring the fact that few visitors other than Nubians visit, Ms. Kamil explains that the building was not well sited. Evidently, the typical tourist groups that visit Nubia do not have the time to go to the museum—their tight schedules only allow them to visit the spectacular monuments in the area. If sited better, she argues, it could be included on the itineraries of most of the travel agencies. It might have provided a “major source of national income,” she says.
Whatever the case, she emphasizes that many Nubians do enjoy their visits to the facility. They are particularly drawn to the ethnography section, which includes reconstructed domestic buildings in the characteristic style of Old Nubia. These displays of Old Nubia show the exteriors and interiors of the houses, with models of Nubians engaged in various agricultural, social, and domestic activities. The museum, the author concludes, “encourages identity and pride, and, indeed, it represents the [Nubian] people’s living memory and deepens their sense of belonging.”
She also concludes that it is “sad that its tourist potential remains untapped.” But is it possible that the lack of tourists may, in fact, be a blessing for the Nubians? If the museum had been built in a location convenient for hordes of tourists, would it also have been just as convenient for the Nubian people to visit and celebrate their own culture? These different purposes are not necessarily incompatible, of course, but surely the continued vitality of the Nubian people themselves, which the museum evidently helps foster, is arguably even more important than tourist dollars.