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Before the flood
Abdallah Schleifer and Barbi Bursch Eysselinck highlight the wonders of Nubia as they walk us through the pulling together of a collection that offers unprecedented insight into a land that once was
A WAY OF LIFE THAT IS NO MORE: Images of Nubia before the flood showcased by AUC (photos courtesy of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library and the Sony Gallery for Photography at AUC)
This week, The Rare Books and Special Collections Library and The Sony Gallery for Photography at the American University in Cairo hosted a joint exhibition, "Nubia Before the Flood", which celebrates the work of artists, archaeologists, and ethnologists who documented Nubia at various points in recent history.
The exhibit includes drawings, gouaches, plans and photographs of Nubian houses and villages by the internationally renowned Egyptian architect, the late Hassan Fathy -- this in addition to David Roberts' prints, illustrations from La Description de l'Egypte, and photos of the Nubians and the monuments of Nubia by KAC Creswell and Margot Veillon. Early maps and travel accounts of Nubia from the Rare Books special collection as well as craft items and textiles, courtesy of the Nubia Museum, are also on display.
For its part the Sony Gallery is showcasing black and white photographs taken in the early 1960s by Abdel-Fattah Eid as part of a project to document Nubian culture before the valley was submerged by Lake Nasser.
In the late 1950s a sense of urgency swept across a dispersed but deeply concerned community of historians, archeologists, architects, anthropologists, painters, and documentary film makers with the realisation, in the words of Rex Keating, that "this evocative land of Nubia" which they knew and loved, was under sentence of imminent death by drowning. This would be the first, the most immediate, and as yet the most drastic, price to be paid for the construction of the Aswan High Dam (The most immediate adverse as well as positive consequences of the construction of the High Dam are neatly summarised in Jocelyn Gohary, Guide to the Nubian Monuments on Lake Nasser, American University in Cairo Press).
This twisting narrow, seemingly inhospitable strip of riverside stretching some 300 miles from Aswan (the southern frontier of Egypt in Pharaonic times) well into northern Sudan, settled with relatively small, isolated villages built in a stunning mud brick vernacular architecture upon both banks and separated from each other by rocks and desert -- this land described as the cockpit of the ancient world and both the connection and the buffer between the ancient Mediterranean civilisations and the vanished high cultures of Black Africa would disappear beneath the backed up waters of the Nile. The Nile valley, blocked by the massive High Dam at Aswan, would, by the late 1960s, be submerged under the waters of the world's largest artificial body of water, Lake Nasser.
The anthropologists tell us that even before the flooding by the High Dam, Nubia had become a somewhat idealised homeland for most of its men, forced by economic circumstance to migrate north to Cairo and other Egyptian and Arab urban centres for employment, returning briefly during holidays and finally at the time of retirement. Elizabeth and Robert Fernea Elizabeth in their Nubian Ethnologies published by Waveland Press in 1991 note that the Nubian migrants would talk of their villages "as places of peace and honesty; a 'blessed land' they would say, free of the strife and conflict of urban life". But this idealised recollection was rooted in reality; the Ferneas acknowledged that Nubia was an isolated, sheltered place, out of the purview of strangers, including government administrators. "The beautiful villages along the Nile with spacious houses and groves of green palm trees were a place of peace and tranquility, even for anthropologists engaged in their fieldwork."
Ancient Egyptian occupation and local Nubian kings (some destined by the eighth century BC to rule as Pharaohs over all of Egypt) had left hundreds of temples and monuments which would be drowned, save for a dozen or so of the great Pharaonic stone monuments such as Abu Simbel, the temples of Kalabsha, Wadi Al-Sebua, and Philae, which were to be dismantled, moved, and reassembled upon higher ground or given to countries in recognition of their contribution to the UNESCO sponsored Nubian Rescue Campaign. (An entire temple, that of Dendur, was reassembled and placed on permanent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.) The great mud brick fortresses that preceded the mud brick churches and monasteries of the Christian era could not be moved; many were excavated and recorded in detail at this time.
The 50,000 Nubians living within Egyptian territorial borders were all evacuated and re-settled in what could be described as, at best, culturally indifferent government housing in Kom Ombo, north of Aswan. (Some 53,000 Nubians from villages south of the demarcation were resettled by the Sudanese government even further away from their original homeland, 1,000 kilometres south of Wadi Halfa.)
Now, 40 years later, Nubia is gone and largely forgotten but by the Nubians and those still surviving artists and scholars whose desperate efforts to record in art and scholarship the life and legacy of Nubia are celebrated in this exhibition.
The origin of this exhibit is to be located in fortuitous circumstance. UNESCO has a project to collect or copy and electronically record and preserve all known data and documents about Nubia for a website that will be launched in the near future.
In pursuit of this goal representatives of UNESCO came to The Rare Books and Special Collections Library more than a year and a half ago, convinced that Hassan Fathy had "some photographs" of Nubia in the Rare Books Library's Hassan Fathy Archives. The overall archives -- An extraordinary collection donated to The Rare Books and Special Collections Library by the Fathy Estate and partially showcased in The Rare Books Library and Sony Gallery's joint exhibition marking Hassan Fathy's centennial in March 2000 -- are vast; much of them have never been completely catalogued due to lack of funds. Rare Books staff members were amazed to discover that the archives contained not "some", but several hundred, photographs.
No one at the Rare Books Library was aware of this wealth of material since the photographs were not organised as a separate collection; instead they were to be found among the drawings of floor plans, façades, decorative details, names of families in occupancy, and data about particular builders for each Nubian house that Hassan Fathy had documented. All of this documentation was undertaken following Hassan Fathy's appointment by then Minister of Culture Tharwat Okasha to lead a team of young Egyptian scholars, artists, and painters to Nubia following the decision to build the Aswan High Dam, in order to create a state Nubian Archive.
This material has now been scanned for the website on Nubia supported by UNESCO and a selection from the Fathy photographs along with examples of his floor plan drawings, gouache elevations, and drawings of façades and decorative details is on exhibit at The Rare Books Library along with photographs of Nubian monuments from the library's famous Creswell Collection.
This expedition was not Hassan Fathy's first exposure to Nubian architecture. His discovery in the late 1940s of the still-living Nubian tradition of building domes and vaults to roof the houses of poor people who could never afford wooden roofs and instead lived in simple but spacious homes that managed to soar like palaces would inform his most famous building project -- the village of New Gourna on the Western bank of the Nile opposite Luxor and within sight of the Colossus of Memnon.
At about the same time, while planning for a celebration of its own 50th anniversary in 2004, staff at the Social Research Centre (SRC) uncovered some 750 photographs of Nubia before the flood taken by photographer Abdel-Fattah Eid, who had been commissioned by the Ethnographic Survey of Egyptian Nubia -- an SRC project mounted as a response to the looming fate of Nubia by the ethnographer Robert Fernea, his colleagues in Cairo and Luxor, and then director Dr Laila Hamamsi.
Begun informally in 1960 as a "salvage anthropology project" to record the culture and heritage of the Nubians who would soon be evacuated, and continued with the support of two Ford Foundation grants (1961 and 1963), the Ethnographic Survey turned into a pioneering study of the Nubian villages, focussing on their livelihood, customs, and other aspects of their distinctive and creative culture. Village studies took place in the three distinct linguistic areas of Egyptian Nubia and a demographic study of the whole area, from Aswan to Wadi Halfa on the Sudanese border, was carried out. A later component focussed on a Nubian community which the anthropologists called Kanuba, established near Kom Ombo in the 1930s when the river had risen sufficiently to flood several villages in lower or northern Nubia following the construction by the British of the first and far more modest Aswan Dam. This village, however, unlike the later Kom Ombo Resettlement of the 1960s, was built along traditional lines using traditional materials to recreate a sense of the original villages.
Throughout the duration of these projects, SRC researchers worked closely with Egyptian government agencies in the hope of introducing at least some appropriate cultural features into re- settlement plans.
Swiss photographer Georg Gerster was also at work in Egyptian Nubia and his pictures appeared in the now out-of-print Egyptian Nubians: Peaceful People with accompanying text by Robert Fernea, a text that reappears as Part II of Nubian Ethnographies. Gerster also photographed in northern Sudan, accompanying Robert Fernea and Margo Veillon during a six week expedition that covered the length of Sudanese Nubia. His pictures of Veillon, an Austro-Swiss painter and photographer born in Cairo who lived most of her life in Egypt, appear in Veillon's Nubia: Sketches, Notes and Photographs, first published in England and now recently re- issued by AUC Press with a new introduction by John Rodenbeck. Veillon's photographs, ranging from marvelous portraits to acute studies of the façades and interiors of traditional houses, are on exhibit at the Rare Books Library. Like the great 19th-century watercolourist David Roberts (half a dozen of whose prints are also on display in this exhibit), Veillon records in her extraordinary notes the deep impression made on her by the beauty of the Nubian women, the impressive arrangement of their jewellery around their necks, and the framing of their faces with thick black double sets of earrings. "There is nothing as beautiful and so in harmony," remarks Veillon of the interiors of the Nubian homes. As for Abdel- Fattah Eid's photographs taken for the Survey, 61 are now on exhibit at the Sony Gallery for Photography.
While Nubia was the subject of occasional comment by ancient historians, this exhibit focusses upon critical documentation in the modern era, which as far as Egypt and the contemporary European interest in Egypt is concerned, dates back to Napoleon's expedition and brief conquest of Egypt. The entourage of scholars and artists who travelled in the wake of Napoleon's army to survey both ancient monuments and contemporary life published their findings, including comment on and illustration of the differences between Nubians and Egyptians in language, customs, and appearance, in 1809 in the Description d'Egypte.
The drawings from the Description of tools used by the Nubians in their daily life are on display at the Rare Books Library along with travellers' accounts by JL Burckhardt (the first modern European to "discover" Abu Simbel, at that time largely covered by sand), Belzoni, and Richard Burton. David Robert's paintings (1830-1839) are particularly significant for they are the first visual representation in the modern period of both the monuments and people of Nubia. His work would clearly inspire one of the earliest and most prolific of photographers, Francis Frith, who left England bound for Egypt in 1856. Frith's timing was impeccable, for this was the beginning of the high tide of Victorian interest in the Orient in general and in Egypt in particular and his work was a tremendous commercial success. Several of Frith's photographs appear in the collection.
It is apparent from these 19th-century photographs and from the diaries and travellers' accounts that the discovery of the Nubians as a people and as a culture distinct from "the Egyptians" or the Sudanese of the Nile Valley further south came about as an almost incidental result of 19th-century Egyptologists' fervour to uncover and document the ancient monuments. And much in the same way that that discovery (with its eventual acknowledgement of an amazing people and their extraordinary culture) was the side- product of the modern age's first wave of globalisation, so today's travellers, carried for thousands of miles on the wings of mass tourism for a sight of Abu Simbel, Philae, and the Kalabsha Temple, arrive with little or no sense that these stunning monuments are cenotaphs of a murdered way of life.
But this time history repeats itself as farce. Our consciousness of the Nubians and their culture is no longer the side product of global discovery. The Nubians and what purports to be their culture are today's tourist sideshow, their songs and dances transformed into a style reminiscent of Soviet choreography -- a tradition reborn to be reenacted night after night on the endless dance floors of five star hotels from Cairo to Khartoum.
S Abdallah Schleifer is director of The Sony Gallery for Photography and The Adham Center for Television Journalism. Barbi Bursch Eysselinck is Visiting Curator at the Rare Books and Special Collections Library.