BBC News last week ran a story on the 50th anniversary commemoration of the worldwide effort led by UNESCO to save the ancient monuments in Nubia from the rising waters of Lake Nasser. In April 1959, Egypt made an international appeal for assistance in saving the remains of Nubian civilization, claiming that the monuments belonged to the world, not just to their country. Sudan made a similar appeal in October that year. The BBC story covered the work needed to move the huge monuments up out of the way of the reservoir rising behind the Aswan Dam.
The UNESCO web page about what they refer to as “The Nubia Campaign” focuses, as many press stories have done, on just the technical achievements of saving the monuments themselves. The BBC article, however, includes the resettlement efforts for the living Nubian people, whose villages and lands were also destroyed by the dam. Next to a photo of part of the famous Abu Simbel temple being moved up above the reservoir, the text describes the way tens of thousands of Nubian people were removed from their villages and established into totally inadequate resettlement communities. Some were made to live in desert conditions that did not permit them to practice agriculture.
Government agencies some years later built the Nubia Museum in Aswan as a way to commemorate the mostly destroyed Nubian culture and to help preserve at least the history of the people. “The Nubia Museum was a gift for those who sacrificed their homeland,” according to Osama Abdul Waruth, director of the museum who is, himself, a Nubian.
Mr. Waruth told the BBC that Nubian culture is based on the Nile River itself, the essence of life in the desert and the source of the myths and traditions of the people. “In the desert,” he said, “Nubians are kept away from all their intangible heritage connected to the Nile. The living culture will disappear soon if they do not go back home.”
The article refers to the efforts by Nubian leaders to get government agencies to allow them to resettle near the Nile, an effort that appeared, recently, to be gaining some success. The governor of Aswan announced in late March last year at a conference his commitment to the Nubians that the government would build over 5,000 new homes near the Nile for them.
The BBC quotes some of the anguish that pervades the Nubian community to this day. One man, who left his village as a child 50 years ago, said, “I still remember it with sorrow with a broken heart—you can imagine what is your feeling when you are prevented from going to your native land.” He added, “when I dream, I never dream in my village now. All my dreams are in our old Nubian one.”
A public ceremony marking the beginning of construction of the new development for the Nubian people highlighted their feelings. “All the Nubians are very happy because they are about to return to their motherland,” one man said.
The Egyptian government, however, may not always be adept at resettling its poorer citizens into better housing. The poor quality of the houses it built for displaced Nubians in the town of Kom Ombo, north of Aswan, nearly 50 years ago is apparently being repeated in shoddy public housing being built today in the slum areas of Cairo. A recent landslide disaster that buried a Cairo-area slum has prompted a very uneven response from government agencies that should have taken responsibility for assisting the survivors to obtain safe, well-built dwellings. Outsiders can only hope that the promised new houses for over 5,000 Nubians in southern Egypt will be better made.