ABU SIMBEL, Egypt — On a rocky hill overlooking Lake Nasser, the Great Temple of Ramses II, which had been threatened with destruction, rises over the lost land of Nubia as testimony to the ingenuity and vanity of man.
The temple, nearly 100 feet tall and more than 3,200 years old, is regarded by archeologists and tourists alike as one of the most magnificent monuments of the ancient world. Hand-hewn into the rock, it is guarded by four towering statues of the Pharaoh Ramses.
Ramses built the temple to honor himself, and he appears wearing the double crown that symbolizes the unification of lower and upper Egypt.
Beneath this temple and a smaller temple nearby, which commemorates Ramses's wife, Nefertari, stretches the 320-mile-long Lake Nasser, created by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, completed in 1970. And gone forever under this largest man-made lake in the world is the ancient empire of Nubia.
The Nubians, whose home was the biblical land of Kush, lived for thousands of years in the narrow valley reaching from Aswan 175 miles south to Sudan. They lived in mud houses with facades of colored plates, spoke their own language, had their own culture and warred on the pharoahs.
Respected by Egyptians for their cleanliness, honesty and industriousness, the 100,000 people of Nubia were resettled involuntarily by the Egyptian government of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s to escape the lake's rising waters. Half went to Kom Ombo, 50 miles downstream on the Nile, and half went to a place called Kasham el Girba in Sudan.
The Egyptian government spent vast sums providing them with schools, hospitals and health clinics. They were given reclaimed farmland and new housing. But their homeland now lies forever beneath the lake. Nubia no longer exists as a land and, eventually, anthropologists say, it may also die as a culture.
"I speak English and Arabic, but not Nubian," said Abdel Nasser, a Nubian guide at Abu Simbel, one of Egypt's most popular tourist sites. "The language isn't taught any more in the schools. Our culture is slowly fading away."
Integrated Into Egypt
In Cairo, thousands of Nubians work as domestic servants, and they still speak of the area around Abu Simbel as "our country." But their integration into Egyptian villages, their access to Egyptian television and schools and their dependence on the government for social services have nudged them increasingly into the mainstream of Egyptian society.
Ironically, as Egyptian historian Jill Kamil has written, it is precisely because of Nubia's disappearance that historians and scientists now know more about the land than they do about most of Egypt's other archaeological sites, including even Luxor's famous Valley of the Kings.
As the High Dam was being built with the help of Soviet engineers in the 1960s, the entire area was subjected to massive surveys by scores of international engineers, architects, photographers, artists, restorers, archaeologists, anthropologists and historians. And the most ambitious salvage effort the world had ever known was carried out to save the monuments of Nubia.
Between 1960 and 1980, under the auspices of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 47 countries saved and relocated, at a cost of $42 million, 23 temples and shrines. Some were cut into blocks and hauled up hills to safety on rails. Others were moved, piece by piece, by cranes to be reassembled at other sites. The temple of Hatshepsut was carted off in 28 trucks to the Sudanese Museum in Khartoum.
Ramses's and Nefertari's temples presented particular problems because they had been cut into solid stone. Under the direction of Swedish engineers, they were sawed into more than 1,000 blocks and reassembled here on a man-made hill that is 96 feet higher than where they originally stood. The Abu Simbel project was completed in 1968.