This article was published in the October 1963 National Geographic. We've retained the originally used names and spellings here.
"What else is left to us," Hassan exclaimed, "but to drown the past in order to save the future?" Beauty must perish, my friend was saying, so that life itself might be better.
For the moment his blunt words hung in the air. Hassan, a young Egyptian construction supervisor, seemed to be thinking of ancient temples and tombs, of fortresses, statues, and inscriptions—the heritage of thousands of years of human suffering and triumph in the Nile Valley. But quickly he returned to the present, the threshold of the future.
We stood on a cliff above the Nile, four miles south of the old Aswân Dam. Drills rattled against granite, and the dipper buckets of gigantic excavators made crunching noises. Below us, dump trucks poured rubble into the river.
We were watching the construction of the Sadd el Aali, the Aswân High Dam across the Nile. This was an early stage—the excavation of a diversion canal and the filling of coffer dams, to keep the building site dry. Hassan, trained in Texas, was eager to explain what a stupendous achievement the Sadd el Aali will be when it is completed sometime in 1968. It will tower 364 feet above the bed of the Nile, he said, and its crest will be more than two miles long. Pressing against the High Dam will be 127 million acre-feet of water, forming a reservoir more than 300 miles in length.
"Granted," Hassan said, "it will not be the highest dam in the world, or the longest. And the reservoir will not be the greatest lake created by man. But has a more productive dam ever been built? The Sadd el Aali should repay construction costs in less than two years—with great advantages to shipping, electric power for new industries, and protection against floods."
Above all, the High Dam will be a wall against hunger. Ninety-nine percent of all Egyptians, almost 27 million of them, live on less than 4 percent of the land. Every year adds half a million people.
"Here we are like ants on a stick of candy," Hassan declared. "But the Sadd el Aali will help set the table for everybody. It will increase by a third the amount of land that can be irrigated the year round."
Still bubbling with statistics and enthusiasm, Hassan impressed on me the difference between the new and old Aswân dams.
The old dam, begun in 1898 and completed in 1902, has twice been improved by making it higher. Normally, its 174-foot height equalizes the high water of summer and the low water of winter. But the Nile's flow varies not only seasonally but from one year to the next. The record annual high, in 1878-9, was 5,333 billion cubic feet; the record low was 1,483 billion, in 1913-14. Both spelled catastrophe.
The very size of Sadd el Aali will curb the lethal whims of the river. In years of heavy flow, the new reservoir will store the excess water against dry years to come. Thus the High Dam is designed to dispel forever the Biblical Pharaoh's dream of the seven fat and the seven lean years.
To appreciate the impact of the High Dam, one must become acquainted with the Nile Valley's geography, history, and way of life. A good introduction, I found, is a boat ride south of Aswân, upriver in Nubia. The Nile burrows through sandstone; barriers of hard, crystalline rock create dangerous rapids.
A handful of these sills of granite and diorite are counted by geographers as cataracts of the Nile. Many more go unnamed and unnumbered, and the Second Cataract is merely a prelude to a 100-mile-long valley full of rocks, the unique Batn el Hagar, or "Belly of Stones"—a chaos of hundreds of shinyblack little islands.
Nubia Fights Encroaching Sands
This is Nubia—a boundaryless area stretching from the Nile's First Cataract, in the United Arab Republic, to midway between the Third and Fourth Cataracts, in the Republic of the Sudan; it is Nubia because the people speak Nubian.
In much of Nubia the Nile is squeezed: From the east by mountains, which the Eastern and Nubian Deserts push to the very edge of the river; from the other side by the sands of the Libyan Desert. But fertile land is not entirely lacking. Fields and palm groves form narrow strips of green, irrigated by well-sweeps and by creaking water wheels. And yet man's toil has earned him no dominion over this land. The desert reclaims it at will.
Since my first trip several years ago, I have returned frequently—alone, or with my wife Isabel. Sometimes I take passage on the express steamer or the mail boat that ply between the First and Second Cataract. Or I charter the dilapidated river boat Hurriya.
In winter, after the inundation, the storage lake of the old dam is full and Nubia is lined with half-drowned palms, mimosas, and tamarisks. The Nile flows sluggishly and becomes so broad that not even the braying of a Nubian donkey carries from shore to shore.
In summer the reservoir is emptied. The river, so laden with sediment that its color reminds me of melted chocolate, recedes to its bed. In some places, newly exposed reefs and sandbanks stop traffic altogether. But now more than seasonal changes are in prospect. The water impounded by the old Aswân Dam rises to 396 feet above sea level; it forms a narrow lake stretching more than 200 miles to the south, all the way to the Egyptian-Sudanese border. Within the next decade or so, as the reservoir of the High Dam fills (maximum height—nearly 600 feet above sea level), the lake will widen and creep southward until it has swallowed the Second Cataract, and finally the whole belly of stones.
For a time it appeared certain that the precious storage water would also swallow the world's archeological treasures here. For Nubia is a gigantic outdoor museum, where temples and fortresses and cemeteries along the Nile are the legacy of a parade of cultures harking back to the dawn of history.
Five thousand years ago, Egyptian Pharaohs left their mark on Nubia. Some two thousand years later, the Egyptian heritage was Africanized by the Nubians. For centuries, the Ptolemaic Greeks, and especially the Romans, helped shape Nubia's destinies, only to give way as a Christian culture gradually came in. The Middle Ages saw the Arabic influence, modern times the Turkish.
In all, some two dozen salvageable monuments of these civilizations, and hundreds of other antiquities, survive in the threatened part of Nubia.
Hoping to save them from the encroaching waters, the United Arab Republic and the Sudan turned for help to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Thereupon, UNESCO appealed to all member states, and to private organizations and individuals as well, to assist in saving these mighty mementos of man's past.
Since then, a gigantic international salvage operation has sprung up, and I have visited Nubia more than half a dozen times to observe its progress. How eagerly I always looked forward to that poor, mysterious land. And my expectations were never more intense than at each first glimpse of Philae.
Every traveler who has held an Egyptian pound note in his hand is acquainted with Philae's landmarks, the Kiosk of the Emperor Trajan and the Temple of Isis. But few have come really close to this splendid preserve of Ptolemaic and Roman temples, barely 500 yards long and 160 yards wide; still fewer have set foot on it. For Philae is an island in the Nile, and most of the year it is covered almost entirely by the waters held by the old Aswân Dam.
Only when the Nubian summer reaches its peak does Philae emerge from the flood. And only when its covering of mud has dried and cracked does it invite the visitor to walk with wonder through the colonnades that lead from the landing place to the great Temple of Isis. In all Nubia there is no more harmonious combination of architecture and scenery. But summer's end brings rising waters, and once again Philae sinks beneath the Nile.
All this may change. After the High Dam is completed—and contingent upon a proposed six-million-dollar contribution by the United States—three dikes will be constructed to protect the monuments. In a decade, visitors may stroll once more, as perhaps Cleopatra did, under Philae's acacias and palms.
I found the roof of the pylon of the Isis temple an ideal place for contemplating this ancient highway that is the Nile. Beside me sat Dr. Francois Daumas, a French Egyptologist. We spoke of Nubia's long past; one could imagine the spectacle of Pharaoh's soldiers pressing through the valley.
Even in the very early days, Nubia linked the Mediterranean with Africa south of the Sahara. And as with many such corridors, it was a battleground. There is the famous report of a campaign under the Egyptian King Snefru 4,600 years ago: "The land of Nubia hacked to pieces; 7,000 men and women and 200,000 cattle and sheep led away."
In quieter times, Egyptians exploited Nubia's mines and quarries. In the Turin museum, Dr. Daumas and I recalled, is a papyrus with the location of gold mines—believed to be those in the Wâdi el 'Allâqi—sketched on it. It is one of the oldest maps in existence.
Traders passed on their way south with honey, wheat, and cloth, and returned with ebony, panther skins, ivory—and once, according to an old record, with a pygmy.
Eventually, Nubians took power over all Egypt, ruling from 750 to 656 B.C. as the Pharaohs of the XXVth Dynasty. Then Greek and Roman conquerors swept the Nile Valley. In time, the Roman garrisons were pressed by the Blemmyes, a nomadic people of the Eastern Desert, and other tribes. For centuries the Romans struggled against them.
Tradition has it that Christianity reached Alexandria in the middle of the first century; the new religion gradually replaced the old Egyptian gods. Islam conquered Egypt in the year 641, but Christian kingdoms lingered in southern Nubia for another 800 years. Nubia is a place where great changes have always come slowly; where neither the three Nubian dialects nor the Arab settlements scattered through Nubia have altered their identity; where time—like the Nile—has seemed to have neither beginning nor end.
Only now, as the shadow of the High Dam falls on this sunbaked land, have months and days and hours begun to matter. The time left for salvaging operations is short, and the task is tremendous. In the Sudan, the temple at Buhen has been dismantled and reconstructed at the capital, Khartoum. Temples at Kumna and Semna West will be moved out of danger. In Egyptian Nubia, many of the shrines will be relocated on the shores of the new storage lake.
Indeed, five temples—Dandûr, Dâbûd, Tîfa, El Dirr, and Ellesîya—have been designated as gifts to countries making donations for the salvage work. Already the stones of some of these temples lie on Elephantine Island, opposite Aswân, awaiting shipment to nations as yet unnamed.
I can testify to the worry and the sweat that go into such operations.
In the summer of 1961, Isabel and I visited the temple of Kalâbsha, one of the largest of Nubia's ancient structures. The West German Government was financing its relocation, and a team from the Egyptian Monuments Recording Center was working feverishly to complete its studies.
The man in charge, an Egyptian, congratulated us on the cool weather we picked for our arrival. Then I glimpsed a thermometer: 117°F in the shade. But our host was not joking, for all that. His party had seen the temperature reach 125°F.
It was high noon when I entered the temple. The walls seemed as hot as glowing coals. Although Isabel had tied cold compresses around my head and a worker followed me with a bucket of water to resoak them, the searing heat almost overcame me.
World Comes to Abu Simbil
When I returned a year later, I saw waterborne cranes lift the first stones onto waiting barges. Altogether, some 13,000 blocks, averaging a ton apiece, journeyed down the Nile to Kalâbsha's new site near the High Dam. A superhuman task, I thought, comparable to dismantling Notre Dame in Paris and rebuilding it 30 miles down the Seine.
Still, the moving of Kalâbsha was a modest undertaking by comparison with what is planned to save the huge temples at Abu Simbil. Rock weighing hundreds of thousands of tons must be cut from a cliff in large blocks and lifted to the plateau above if the temples are to be preserved.
Seven years ago, when I first visited Abu Simbil, I shared its orange sandbank with a crocodile. The express boat dropped me off with provisions—ten pieces of toast. A fellow passenger urged me to take his pistol. In those days, Abu Simbil was a lonely adventure.
On one recent visit I had to be careful not to tread on people's toes. Swedish and Yugoslav experts bustled everywhere with drills, compressors, and coiled cables. More recently, I saw tourists troop by, brought for quick visits by a hydrofoil boat on the Nile; it makes the 170-mile trip from Aswân in five hours.
Salvage Problem Challenges the World's Experts
This mammoth shrine was carved into the mountain 3,200 years ago by the best stonemasons of the Pharaoh Ramesses II. It honored the sun god Re-Harakhte and Ramesses himself, like all Pharaohs a god in the eyes of his contemporaries. A similar but smaller temple nearby was dedicated to Hathor, goddess of love, music, and the dance, and to Ramesses' wife Nefertari.
Abu Simbil is the most challenging salvage operation of them all. Engineers throughout the world submitted ingenious schemes to rescue the huge sandstone masterpiece from the rising waters. An Italian engineer proposed to lift the temples some 206 feet—the height of a 19-story building—with hydraulic jacks. A French proposal would have floated them to ground above the projected water level in immense concrete tanks.
One British plan called for enclosing the temples within a hollow pyramid. Another envisaged a thin membrane dam around the front of Abu Simbil: Elevators would lower visitors to the hollow bottom of the dam's wall for an underwater view of the temples.
All but one plan, however, proved unsatisfactory or prohibitively expensive. In the end, UNESCO, upon the recommendation of the United Arab Republic, accepted the plan of Swedish consulting engineers which calls for dismantling Abu Simbil's temples and reconstructing them on the desert plateau overlooking the present site.
This solution will require an estimated 33 to 39 million dollars, with the cost to be met by contributions of UNESCO member states, private groups, and individuals. The United States has provisionally agreed to put up one-third—between eleven and thirteen million dollars—in U.S.-owned Egyptian currency derived from the sale of surplus American agricultural products.
With the reservoir's rising waters due to lap at the feet of Abu Simbil's majestic statues in the fall of 1964, bids have been requested on a coffer dam to protect the temples while they are being sliced—piece by precisely calculated piece—out of the living rock.
I watched engineers probe the rock walls of Abu Simbil for inner tensions and collect measurements preparatory to the salvage operation. Inside the Great Temple I inspected several drillholes with an engineer who had been at Abu Simbil for two months. During this time, the 65-foot-high statues of Ramesses had gazed over the Nile every morning at dawn. Twice the milky light of the full moon had shone on the rosy sandstone of the temple facade. But the engineer had seen none of that. He marveled at the temple as an engineering feat, and that was all.
As we stood in the sanctuary inside the mountain, nearly 200 feet from the temple threshold, I tried to impress the engineer with the temple's political importance. The very size of the structure was an exaltation of the power of the Pharaoh. But Ramesses also was a subtle propagandist: The relation of the temple to the sun proves that. One can scarcely exaggerate the impression on Ramesses' subjects when, once each spring and fall, the rays of the rising sun penetrated the full distance inside the Great Temple—to shine, like fire from heaven, on the god-king in the company of his fellow gods.
Archeologists Comb Nubia's Sands
UNESCO has also urged archeologists to look into the unopened pages of Nubian history while time remains. Dr. W. Y. Adams, a UNESCO archeologist conducting excavations in the Wadi Halfa area for the Sudanese Government, showed me a map marked with hundreds of threatened sites in Sudanese Nubia alone. And I met hard-digging archeologists from Canada and the United States, from France, Scandinavia, Great Britain, West Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, India, Argentina, Ghana, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the U.S.S.R. The United States Government has contributed more than one and a quarter million dollars to assist American parties in the field, and two and a half million dollars for removal of Nubian monuments.
Among private sponsors, the National Geographic Society is supporting the intensive excavation of an ancient fortress and cemetery at Gebel Adda.
With this legion of archeologists at work, discoveries succeed each other helter-skelter. To date, the most spectacular find has come to light at Faras West, almost astride the Sudanese-Egyptian border.
There a Polish expedition under Dr. Kazimierz Michalowski unearthed the almost complete remains of the largest church ever found in Nubia, a basilica of the eighth century or earlier. On its interior walls, archeologists found more than a hundred paintings, along with inscriptions in Greek, Coptic, and Old Nubian. One of the outstanding paintings depicts the Biblical scene of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, with the wings of the Archangel Michael protecting them from the flames.
Nubians Retain Old Egyptian Ways
By now many people have heard Nubia called the world's greatest open-air museum. But that this museum is full of living human beings frequently causes surprise. Actually, the Nubians themselves form an intrinsic part of the treasure on exhibition.
An Egyptian from the time of the Pharaohs would feel more at home among Nubians than anywhere else in today's United Arab Republic. He would recognize their flat-bottomed boats, almost as broad as they are long, which defy the rapids of the cataracts. He would recognize the tunnel-vaulted architecture and the furniture in Nubian dwellings, the wooden locks on the doors, and the receptacles made of Nile mud for the storage of grain and lentils. And the tiny braids of Nubian women, shining with pomade—wasn't that the ancient Egyptian fashion?
Are these people, whose country now is threatened by the deluge, truly the sons of the old Nubians, or only their heirs?
We shall never know. There is no such thing as a Nubian race, not any more. Intruders from both north and south have left their traces. By turns, the blood of Negro slaves has darkened Nubian faces, and the blood of Turkish mercenaries from the Balkans and the Caucasus has made them lighter.
Today the very whereabouts of Nubia remains somewhat vague. A German authority, Dr. Rolf Herzog, counseled me to stick to this definition: "Nubia is that part of the Nile Valley where the inhabitants speak Nubian."
This Nubian language area ranges from the First Cataract, in the north, to the southern end of the great Nile bend, halfway between the Third and Fourth Cataracts. Today's Nubians are Moslems, but superstitious beliefs are deeply rooted among them. In Tûshka, an old man told me that water wheels must rattle, to frighten off the evil spirits in the night. In El Dakka I saw a Nubian woman draw a protective circle around her house while she murmured magic spells and scattered kernels of grain. And in Tîfa, when I wanted to photograph a little boy's evil-eye amulet, I was hard put to dispel his mother's fear of the "eye" of my camera.
Threat of Rising Water Haunts Nubians
Wherever we traveled in Lower Nubia in the festive days before Ramadan, the month of fasting, again and again we met the same happy faces, the same women in costumes as colorful as Easter eggs, with glittering ear pendants and necklaces, and rings for their noses, arms, and fingers. Their pendants, brooches, belt plates, pins, and anklets looked more like a bedecked harness than individual ornaments. And everywhere we heard the same gossip, the same tittering, the same songs, and especially the latest Nubian hit: "Darling, I know you are sweet. With your eyebrows you slay the people. "
None of the gossip or singing mentioned Sadd el Aali, the High Dam. But Marianne Bühler, a German missionary-nurse who is one of the three Nubian-speaking Europeans I know of, told me that her patients had nightmares because of the High Dam.
"Some jump out of their sleep," she said, "and they cry 'the water is coming!'"
In Sudanese Nubia, this nightmare is something new. But in Egyptian Nubia, the dream of terror is as old as our century. The old Aswân Dam, and its two elevations of 1912 and 1933, affected the life and economy of northern Nubia decisively.
The Nubians had always cultivated their dates, cereals, and vegetables with exemplary devotion. But their narrow strips of fertile Nile shore scarcely yielded enough food for survival, and therefore many Nubians had to emigrate even in ancient times.
The neat, intelligent, and honest servant from Nubia has been a familiar figure since the days of the Pharaohs. When the old Aswân Dam and its additional elevations reduced the arable land of Egyptian Nubia to fewer than 15,000 acres, the number of Nubians seeking employment abroad increased sharply.
Nubians are esteemed as cooks and male nurses, and hold positions of trust in many a household. They can also be found as drivers and mechanics, and lately they have shown a growing aptitude for white-collar jobs. Heavy work, however, does not suit them.
The Nubians' love of home and tradition, and their feeling of superiority over their neighbors north of the First Cataract, cause them, when away from home, to associate with fellow Nubians in clubs organized by villages and districts. When a foreigner takes interest in them, their suspicion is great. But once convinced that his interest is unselfish, their helpfulness knows no bounds. When I complained to Ali, a leading Nubian in Cairo, that I had never seen a Nubian wedding, he said obligingly: "You know, I could marry off my son. You need only give me a date that suits you." Ali was as good as his word. The wedding took place soon after in the village of Tûshka.
Children Greet Visitor Boisterously
I have stopped in so many Nubian villages that I have forgotten their number. Clay-brown and shiny-white villages. Villages with simple but artistic mosques, and villages without a place for prayer. Villages clinging to the sheer cliffs, or hiding behind palms and mimosas. Some have no name; some have five.
But one's arrival in a Nubian village is always the same. Droves of children descend on the stranger, hungry for diversion. Their older sisters and mothers run into the houses, crying "Sura, sura—Picture, picture." Then, yielding to curiosity, they peer from cracks in doors and windows.
They would love to be photographed, but custom is against it. The pictures I took of them were obtained only after persuasion—and even then few would look at the camera. A Nubian divorced his wife, I was told, when he saw her picture in a Cairo magazine.
Nubia is a barren, poor country—the farther north one goes, toward the old dam, the poorer and more barren it becomes. The men there go abroad—Cairo, too, is considered abroad—hoping to return sometime. They may yearn for their villages all their lives, these villages without stores and cafes, without hospitals or doctors, without moving pictures, automobiles, or bicycles, without telephones or electric lights.
Few men in their prime can be seen in the northern Nubian villages. A handful, armed with stick and shotgun, act as field guards and representatives of the civil government in each district, which may include two dozen villages in a strip seven miles or more long. The bulk of the village population are old men, children, women, and marriageable girls.
The Nubian woman passes her life in waiting. She waits for her husband, who often is gone for years. She waits for her grown son, who returns to his village to be married and leaves again a few weeks later, also for years. She waits for cash remittances from relatives abroad, from Cairo and Alexandria, or from Khartoum or Riyadh or Jidda.
The Nubian woman waits for the traveling tradesman. She waits for the weekly mail boat, for in Nubia love works through the post office. The mail boat is also the Nubian calendar. One day I inquired about an old man and was told that "He died three mail boats ago."
The woman is the guardian of tradition. Nubian men are bilingual, but only about one woman in five can manage even kitchen Arabic. She embroiders little caps and weaves trays for her house and for sale, but she is too proud to work for wages as a maid. She goes unveiled, but tradition restricts her freedom of movement. Only a short time ago, a trip to the other shore of the Nile was out of the question, and until recently she stayed confined to her house for two years after the birth of her first child.
Lately, more and more Nubian women accompany their husbands to Egypt; they are not even sent back to bear children. Nubians give many reasons for this, but the most convincing reason they generally discreetly conceal: Boys born south of the First Cataract used to be exempt from military service; but now, in the United Arab Republic, this old privilege no longer exists. Nevertheless, at least half of the Nubian emigrants still choose to leave their wives at home.
I believe that the architecture of the Nubian house aims to ease the mind of the departing husband. A rectangular wall encloses several one-story rooms which open on an inner court—a common ground plan in this part of the world, but in Nubia the walls are higher than elsewhere. I saw veritable castles, looking as if they had been designed jointly by a confectioner and a fortress engineer. When I asked about the owners, the usual answer was: a cook in Cairo, a doorman in Port Said, a waiter in Jidda. I always added mentally, as I looked at one of those stately houses: the palace of the wife who stayed behind—and her prison.
Strange Remedy Seems to Work
To know Nubia, one must see it in the summertime. Nubians are well prepared for the blazing months, and every dwelling has a room for summer, usually towering above the wall of the courtyard and facing north, the only direction from which a bit of cool air can come. Most residences have outdoor sleeping places on clay platforms in the yard.
When Margot Veillon, a visiting artist, and I were dizzy from the June heat, I swallowed salt pills but she permitted herself to be treated in the Nubian manner: A clever boy, appointed doctor by the village youths, put drops of salt water into her ear—with astonishing success, or so Margot declared.
In a sense, Nubia awakens only at this time of year—when women scream as they put their bare feet into the burning summer sand; when the scorpions get angry; when birds by the hundreds alight on the river and the rocky shore, and the swallows begin to play in the updraft before the sitting colossi of Abu Simbil.
This awakening is especially apparent in Egyptian Nubia, which all winter has been swallowed by the waters behind the old dam. In May and June this water cascades out, to enlarge the Nile in northern Egypt before the next flood. Now the kingfisher hovers almost motionless over the lagoons left behind as the Nile returns temporarily to its original bed. The water boils with shiny fish whose retreat has been cut off.
Birds and men alike lie in wait for easy prey. South of 'Ineiba, fishermen set up hundreds of salt depots. With both fixed and cast nets, they scoop out of the ponds a harvest of catfish, perch, and carp and salt them on the spot. But, curiously enough, no Nubians participate in the catch, perhaps because they are preoccupied with farming activities at this time. The fishermen come from farther north, mostly in small boats.
To be sure, the widespread notion that the eating of fish is taboo in Nubia is not true. When we saw a sizable catfish adrift in the Nile, injured or somehow stunned, the fishing passion awoke among the crew of the Hurriya.
The first mate threw the gangplank into the Nile, placed himself on it, and paddled flat on his stomach to sneak up on the fish. He grabbed the fish with his bare hands. Judging from the lingering aroma, this 20-pounder graced the menu of our crew for several days.
The Nile Gives—and Takes Away
Summer covers the plain with a green carpet—a welcome pasture for flocks of goats and sheep and a few camels and donkeys. The villagers also profit from the shore land which the Nile yields up temporarily, well fertilized with mud. As soon as this alluvial mush has hardened enough to support the weight of a man, it is parceled out and seeded. Wherever a scraggly stand of grass sprouts, haying follows without delay.
The feverish activity of the people seems to infect the seed millet. Crops flourish with a speed unusual under other skies. Even so, in regions adjacent to the dam the growing period is too short. Two months do not suffice to ripen the millet before rising waters swallow the fields once more.
Thus northern Nubia is visibly a victim of the old Aswân Dam. But in one way, at least, that dam brought good things: I am thinking of the houses and their charming decorations, seemingly endless in variety.
In Sudanese Nubia a handful of specialists ornament the houses. But in Egyptian Nubia, in the vicinity of the old dam, this is a task for the children and young women. The closer one gets to the dam, the more luxuriant the ornaments. Apparently this stems from the paucity of arable land near Aswân: As women and children are less and less needed in the fields, they reach more and more for brush and palette. Perhaps the ornamentation of the houses, and of the women's festival finery, is a protest of life and color against the monotony of the desert. Practicality isn't involved; women buy canned milk, dump the milk, and use the cans for decoration.
The Nubian craving to beautify seems unlimited. It begins with the portals—magnificently adorned with brick ornaments, porcelain dishes and lids of soup tureens, paintings and stuffed animal skins, and various objects coated with white plaster.
This sheer delight in decoration spreads from the portals to the walls and into the interior, especially the women's quarters. Here one finds painted and plastered ships, fish, scorpions, birds, camels, date palms, and flowers; suns, moons, and stars; crocodiles and lions, mosques and prayer carpets. Also airplanes, railroad trains, and automobiles.
Nubians who want to show that they really know the wide world favor still other motifs: Toothbrush and tea kettle, pressure cooker and Lazy Susan, alarm clock and transistor radio, and the girl skipping rope.
Time Runs Out for Nubia
Both times when the old dam was built higher the Nubians had to move, but at least they could remain in the vicinity of their former homes. Now, with the new High Dam expected to raise the water level by 200 feet, their time in the land of their fathers is running out. They will have to resettle far away.
Most unfortunate in this regard are the Nubians south of Ballâna. The border between the U.A.R. and the Sudanese Republic cuts right through their territory. This means that those on the Egyptian side must go far north beyond the High Dam. Those on the Sudanese side—about 50,000 of them—will go south, far beyond the Fourth Cataract, to a resettlement area along the Atbara River close to the Sudanese-Ethiopian border.
As might be expected, I found little enthusiasm in the Republic of the Sudan for the High Dam. Moreover, a good many Sudanese Nubians have their doubts about making the move to the Atbara River. But a Sudanese Government official said that the Nubians will find new houses there in a resettlement area with all the facilities and services of a modern community. He also pointed to a promising future for the Nubians: The Khashm El Girba Dam, a Sudanese irrigation project, is under construction there.
On the Egyptian side there are many problems too. "The U.A.R.'s resettlement law affects 25,328 families, or about 100,000 people, and practically all of them will go north to the Kôm Ombo region," I was told by Mohammed Safwat, Assistant Under Secretary of the Ministry of Social Affairs.
"The Nubians," Mr. Safwat said, "selected the new settlement area themselves, mainly because some of their people had settled there earlier, after the two elevations of the old dam. We try to give as few orders as possible.
"We built a model home in Aswân and invited the Nubians to look it over and suggest improvements," he went on. "We try not to forget the human side. It isn't easy to leave the land where one has been rooted for thousands of years, as unshakably as the temples of the Pharaohs. Any Nubian with questions or problems always finds my door open."
"But won't the Nubians in Kôm Ombo perish?" I asked, thinking that the unique Nubian way of life will surely be lost in the cultural Diaspora of their new surroundings.
"Perish?" echoed the resettlement official. "Isn't that a harsh word? The Nubians will probably intermarry, and change their old ways. That cannot be helped. After all, in Kôm Ombo they will be only 24 hours from the city of Cairo."
I visited the settlement area of Kôm Ombo, an arc of land lying east of the Nile, an hour's drive north of Aswân. Here new villages will bear the names of the 40 old village districts of Egyptian Nubia, in the same north-to-south sequence. But the Nubians who now occupy 400 miles of valley, counting both shore lines, will have to content themselves in the Kôm Ombo area with only 40 miles.
U.A.R. Prepares New Homeland
Near the north end of the new settlement area I saw the construction of the first accommodations in what will someday be called New Dâbûd. The architectural diversity of the present villages of the Dâbûd District, and the spaciousness of its houses and courtyards, will not be found in New Dâbûd. Although the Nubians will be able to color the outside walls and make alterations as they please, the cramped and the standardized and the prefabricated will triumph.
Expense is one reason; initial resettlement expenses are estimated to be more than half the cost of salvaging Abu Simbil. But the overriding factor is time. Sixteen thousand houses must be ready when the major exodus begins this month. Another 9,000 dwellings are planned for those who own houses in Nubia but don't live there continuously. The move is to be completed before the water starts to rise in August, 1964.
In Kôm Ombo, the government hopes, the Nubians will turn to sugar-cane farming and part-time work in factories. Officials predict that the Nubians will improve their lot economically; too, the government expects that this highly individualistic minority will at last be integrated into the nation.
The Nubians vary in their attitudes toward Kôm Ombo. Many women await the move eagerly, lured by the well-stocked market there, with its gossip and news. But the reality of relocation may bring a shock. When the palm shoots of Nubia were collected for replanting in the Kôm Ombo area, women cried over the young trees lined up for shipment as if these had been their dead children.
The men tend to be more reserved. They call the windows in the model house in Aswân too low, and the walls not high enough; they object to the ventilation ducts in the front wall, and the absence of a roof over the summer living room. They always give the same reason: thieves will climb in. By conjuring up thieves-and they think the area north of the First Cataract swarms with them—Nubians crystallize their fears of the future.
Many Nubians told me that, of course, they are going to Kôm Ombo only temporarily. Certainly they will find a way to return to Nubia. Most of them imparted this intention confidentially, and they were always astonished when I said that the government, too, was counting on their return. For the shores of the new reservoir are to be colonized.
As the lake creeps south, its ebb and flow will spread fertile Nile mud over the desert, creating much more arable land than it is swallowing. This land-building will not cease when the lake fills up sometime after 1975. Once a century the waters will reach a high of 597 feet above sea level; every 30 years they will sink to 482 feet.
Thus, 300,000 new acres—in addition to the hundreds of thousands made irrigable by the High Dam—will be ready for settlers in the next ten years or so. By then, say the resettlement officials in Cairo, there will be nothing to prevent the Nubians from returning to their old homeland. They will be welcomed. And in deciding between two equally qualified candidates, preference will be given the Nubian.
But the Nubians who are going to Kôm Ombo today may by then hardly exist any more. They will be Egyptians.