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International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia

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Biga Temple Pylon Gate The International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia was the relocation of 22 monuments in Lower Nubia, in Southern Egypt and northern Sudan, between 1960 and 1980. The success of the project, in particular the creation of a coalition of 50 countries behind the project, led to the creation of the World Heritage Convention in 1972, and thus to the modern system of World Heritage Sites.

The project began as a result of the building of the Aswan Dam, at the Nile's first cataract (shallow rapids), a location which defined the traditional boundary of Ancient Egypt and Nubia. The building of the dam was to result in the creation of Lake Nasser, which would submerge the banks of the Nile along its entire 479 km (298 mi) length south of the dam - flooding the entire area of historical Lower Nubia. Vittorino Veronese, director general of UNESCO described it in 1960: "It is not easy to choose between a heritage of the past and the present well-being of a people, living in need in the shadow of one of history's most splendid legacies, it is not easy to choose between temples and crops."

It was described in the UNESCO Courier as "the greatest archaeological rescue operation of all time".

In April 1979, the monuments were inscribed on the World Heritage List as the Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae, as one of the second group of properties added to the list (the first 12 had been added in 1978).

Table of contents
  1. Overview
  2. Description and contributions
  3. Timeline
  4. World Heritage Site
  5. Bibliography


In 1959, an international donations campaign was launched by Egypt and Sudan to save the monuments of Lower Nubia: the southernmost relics of the Ancient Egyptian civilization were under threat from the impending creation of Lake Nasser, that was about to result from the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

The number of relocated monuments have been stated as 22 or 24 depending on how an individual site is defined. Only one archaeological site in Lower Nubia, Qasr Ibrim, remains in its original location and above water; previously a cliff-top settlement, it was transformed into an island. The relocated sites can be grouped as follows: The list of relocated monuments is as follows:

Description and contributions

Abu Simbel

One scheme to save the Abu Simbel temples was based on an idea by William MacQuitty to build a clear freshwater dam around the temples, with the water inside kept at the same height as the Nile. There were to be underwater viewing chambers. In 1962 the idea was made into a proposal by architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry and civil engineer Ove Arup. They considered that raising the temples ignored the effect of erosion of the sandstone by desert winds. However, the proposal, though acknowledged to be extremely elegant, was rejected.

The salvage of the Abu Simbel temples began in 1964 by a multinational team of archeologists, engineers and skilled heavy equipment operators working together under the UNESCO banner; it cost some US$40 million at the time (equal to $300 million in 2017 dollars). Between 1964 and 1968, the entire site was carefully cut into large blocks (up to 30 tons, averaging 20 tons), dismantled, lifted and reassembled in a new location 65 metres higher and 200 metres back from the river, in one of the greatest challenges of archaeological engineering in history. Some structures were even saved from under the waters of Lake Nasser.


In 1902, the Aswan Low Dam was completed on the Nile River by the British. This threatened to submerge many ancient landmarks, including the temple complex of Philae. The height of the dam was raised twice, from 1907 to 1912 and from 1929 to 1934, and the island of Philae was nearly always flooded. In fact, the only times that the complex was not underwater was when the dam's sluices were open from July to October. During this period it was proposed that the temples be relocated, piece by piece, to nearby islands, such as Bigeh or Elephantine. However, the temples' foundations and other architectural supporting structures were strengthened instead. Although the buildings were physically secure, the island's attractive vegetation and the colors of the temples' reliefs were washed away. Also, the bricks of the Philae temples soon became encrusted with silt and other debris carried by the Nile. With each inundation the situation worsened and in the 1960s the island was submerged up to a third of the buildings all year round.

The work began in 1972, and in 1974 a large coffer dam was built, constructed of two rows of steel plates between which a 1 million cubic metres (35 million cubic feet) of sand was tipped. Any water that seeped through was pumped away. Next the monuments were cleaned and measured, by using photogrammetry, a method that enables the exact reconstruction of the original size of the building blocks that were used by the ancients. Then every building was dismantled into about 40,000 units from 2 to 25 tons, and then transported to the nearby Island of Agilkia, situated on higher ground some 500 metres (1,600 ft) away. Foundations of the Philae monuments were ready on Agilkia by April 1977, and the transfer itself took place between 1977 and 1980.

Individual Egyptian campaigns

In addition to participating directly in the high profile salvage operations of Abu Simbel and Philae, the Egyptian Antiquities Organization carried out the rescue of many smaller temples and monuments alone using their own financial and technical means. As early as 1960 Egypt had started to rescue the temples of Taffa, Debod and Qertassi, followed by Dakka and Maharraqa in 1961 and Dendur in 1962. The temples of Wadi es-Sebua and Beit el Wali and the rock tomb of Pennut at Aniba were moved in 1964 with the support of a US grant, whilst the subsequent re-erection was carried out with Egyptian resources. The Temple of Derr was rescued in 1965, and the temples of Gerf Husein, the chapel of Abu Oda (cut out of rock), the chapels of Qasr Ibrim (the rest of which has remained in situ), and many rock inscriptions and drawings, were also saved.

West German operation at Kalabsha

Early in the campaign, the West German authorities offered to dismantle and re-erect the Temple of Kalabsha, the largest temple in all of Lower Nubia, with costs paid by West Germany. Germany's interest in making a significant contribution stemmed from its Egyptological heritage, including Lepsius' milestone work Denkmäler aus Ägypten und Äthiopien, as more specifically the work of Franz Christian Gau who had documented Kalabsha as early as 1819.

French operation at Amada

In addition to the work of French archaeologists at Abu Simbel, the French government provided significant technical and financial support for the removal of the Temple of Amada. Amada was considered "one of the most distinctive and best preserved examples of the art of the 18th dynasty."

Wider archaeological campaign

Given the impending flooding of a wide area, Egypt and Sudan encouraged archaeological teams from across the world to carry out work as broadly as possible. Approximately 40 teams from across the world came to the region, to explore an area of approximately 500 km in length.

In addition to the relocation operations, many countries participated in excavation and preservation work. Some of this work took place at the CEDAE (Centre d'Étude et de Documentation sur l'Ancienne Égypte, in English the Documentation and Study Centre for the History of the Art and Civilization of Ancient Egypt), founded in Cairo in 1955 to coordinate the academic efforts: Financial contributions

The table below summarizes the contributions towards the project by the global coalition of nations. The vast majority of these contributions funded the operations at Abu Simbel and Philae.


A timeline of the key dates of the campaign is shown below:

World Heritage Site

In April 1979, the monuments were inscribed on the World Heritage List as the "Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae". The inscribed area includes ten sites, five of which were relocated (all south of the city of Aswan), and five of which remain in their original position (near to the city of Aswan):

Relocated sites, south of the Aswan Low Dam Sites in their original location, north of the Aswan Low Dam - although these five sites are grouped within the "Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae", they are neither Nubian, nor between Abu Simbel and Philae

UNESCO publications Other publications

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