william carruthers: fragments

On Irrigation, Ecology, and Disaggregated Pasts in Nubia

In a recent article, the historian Jennifer L. Derr discusses how the nineteenth and early twentieth century transformation of irrigation in Egypt reassembled bodily experience. As Derr notes, “the shift from basin to perennial irrigation produced new modes of labor, performed according to a different calendar”.[1] Those modes transformed bodies in combination with a transformation of nature: “part and parcel of the [altered] ecologies in which they worked, the bodies of Egyptian cultivator-laborers were also transformed by perennial irrigation, in part through an explosion of bilharzia and hookworm disease”.[2] A shift in ecological temporality constituted “labor-time”, as Derr’s article coins it, in addition to bodily experience of that temporality. Transformations in irrigation practice caused more than this ecological shift, however. Here, I argue that this process helped to constitute notions, ownership, and the physical experience of the past in a manner that paved the way for later, larger, and more notorious interventions in these realms.

Taking place in a period when Britain either occupied, controlled, or had considerable influence over the nominally independent government of the country, the construction of the Aswan Dam (Khazan Aswan) from 1899 to 1902, followed by its heightening from 1907 to 1912 and again from 1929 to 1933, enabled the continuing transformation of Egyptian agriculture to a practice of perennial irrigation in a way that benefited British interests. Simultaneously, the construction of the Aswan Dam also enabled large-scale work in archaeology. Nubia, the region to the south of the new dam, would be flooded, with each step in the construction process raising the level of the deluge. As a result, Nubians were forced to move their villages higher up the sides of the Nile valley or, in some cases, leave the region altogether. But the devastation of human lives was ultimately of less concern to the colonial officials in charge of the dam than the devastation of the multitude of ancient remains that Nubians lived amongst. Egypt’s Survey Department therefore sponsored a series of archaeological surveys in order to record the archaeological sites that would be submerged as a result of the Aswan Dam’s construction.

The work of these surveys, which took place from 1907 to 1911 and 1929 to 1934, unsurprisingly corresponded to a version of the past built on scientific racism. Predominantly excavating cemeteries, the reports related to the surveys are saturated with descriptions of the region’s ancient population that are shot through with racial judgment. For example, the (now notorious) anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith worked on the first of the two surveys, and spent his time organising human remains “with a view to the classification of their distinctive features and the determination of their racial characteristics”.[3] The survey concluded that, at some point in the past, Nubia and Egypt had gone their separate ways, with Nubia’s supposed racial decline a clear cause of this split. The second survey, under the direction of the British archaeologist Walter Emery, continued in this vein, even as the work’s Egyptian anatomist, Ahmed El Batrawi, later contested such modes of thinking in print.[4]

What interests me here, though, is how such scientific racism simultaneously allowed race to become a means of structuring ownership of, and physical connection to, the past at a time when not just British, but also Egyptian elites were invested in “the unity of the Nile Valley” under the aegis of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. This conjunction had certain, obvious effects, particularly in terms of the forced resettlement of the Nubian population in the cause of British-led irrigation work. But the predominance of racial thinking also had other, subtler, effects: ones which would allow the slow disaggregation of Nubians from the Nile valley’s past even after Egyptian independence in 1956. This phenomenon became clear during the second Archaeological Survey of Nubia. During the survey, Walter Emery dealt with labour issues in a way that made clear exactly who any Nubian past could belong to. Some years after the work, Emery wrote that the Nubians were

racially distinct from the Egyptians, being inferior in almost every quality, particularly when it comes to a matter of work. On two or three occasions we attempted to employ them as labourers on the excavations, but their complaints of the heat, the dust and the speed of the work soon compelled us to relinquish the attempt. It was partly for this reason and the lack of man-power that we employed only Egyptian workmen, brought from Upper Egypt, throughout the five years that we worked in Nubia.[5]

Complaints about the obvious bodily discomfort of archaeological labour in the low desert of the Nile valley were not to be taken seriously, and Nubians were accordingly not to be trusted when it came to the survey’s excavations. Consequently, any physical connection of those Nubians to the remains being excavated—and in proximity to which their settlements were located—slowly began to be severed as the survey progressed. No wonder, then, that thirty years later, during the construction of the Aswan High Dam, little attention was paid to how the Nubians who remained in the region felt about the ancient material that was still extant there, even as Egypt itself had achieved independence and, post-Suez, British troops had finally departed the country. Irrigation’s reordering of the Nubian environment ultimately meant that any link to that material had already been cut, at least in the eyes of the officials in charge of the work.

As the High Dam slowly came to fruition, Nubia flooded at a greater scale than ever before. Floodwaters both put an end to any Nubian settlement in the region and also—due to the structure’s size—rose in Sudanese Nubia for the first time, creating a hydro-political border between Egypt and Sudan. During the dam’s construction, the Ford Foundation funded an ethnological survey on the Egyptian side of the Nubian border, and Sudan government officials statistically surveyed various facets of Sudanese Nubian life. At the request of the Egyptian and Sudanese governments, meanwhile, UNESCO promoted a campaign of monument salvage and archaeological survey participated in by a global roster of missions. It was not a campaign that the Nubians themselves were involved in. Materially disaggregated from the region’s past at least thirty years earlier, for the most part everyone involved with organising the work simply ignored Nubian opinions about ruins at the same time as they ignored their opinions about forced migration. Hydropolitics and the rearrangement of Nubian ecologies had helped to constitute this situation.

One account of the campaign illustrates this process of disaggregation particularly well. In Nubian Twilight, the journalist Rex Keating wrote that

an amusing indication of how Nubians feel about their forbears was provided by the Spanish Expedition from Madrid who were digging an early C-group cemetery among the scattered houses of a modern village. Each morning with unfailing regularity an old woman appeared on the dig to lay claim to the property of her ‘ancestors’ as she described these people who died at least 4,000 years ago. She demanded half of all the pots and human remains found, ‘but you can keep the cattle horns’. She could be silenced only by the leader of the expedition, Dr Blanco Y Caro, demanding that she, in return, pay half the cost of running the expedition.[6]

Not to be taken seriously, Nubian opinions were instead considered “amusing”.


As Nubians in the diaspora increasingly demand the right to return, however, I would hazard that their position as punchline to an archaeological joke is likely to shift. Irrigation engineering in Egypt transformed worlds, not to mention the people who lived in them. But, as that history itself shows, transformations can create unintended possibilities, too.

[1] Jennifer L. Derr, 2018, “Labor-Time: Ecological Bodies and Agricultural Labor in 19th– and Early 20th-Century Egypt”, International Journal of Middle East Studies 50, 195–212, p. 199.

[2] Ibid., p. 200.

[3] Grafton Elliot Smith, 1908, “Anatomical Report”. In: Ministry of Finance, Egypt; Survey Department, The Archaeological Survey of Nubia Bulletin No. 1, 25–35, p. 25.

[4] Discussed in William Y. Adams, 1977, Nubia: Corridor to Africa (London: Allen Lane), 92–93. Most pertinent were Ahmed El Batrawi’s two articles on “The Racial History of Egypt and Nubia” published in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1945 (v. 75 (1/2), 81–101) and 1946 (v. 76 (2), 131–156).

[5] Walter Bryan Emery, 1948, Nubian Treasure (London: Methuen), p. 14.

[6] Rex Keating, 1962, Nubian Twilight (London: Rupert Hart-Davis), pp. 90–91.


The Optics of Free Entry

I’ve been thinking about the (literal and figurative) optics of what it means to make museums free to enter. This week, Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities announced that it would make entry to all museums and archaeological sites in the country free on Saturday, 30th June, to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the country’s 2013 ‘revolution’. As PR moves go, it’s fairly easy to read into the Ministry’s motives. The ‘revolution’, whose status as such is widely contested, ultimately brought Egypt’s current President, ʿAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi, to power. The Ministry is buying into the populist rhetoric of his rise, no matter how much al-Sisi’s appeal seems to have worn off. The ‘optics’, as political consultants say, must look good to someone.

Of course, museums have always had a habit of playing into political life in this way, in Egypt and elsewhere. The International Week of Museums, for example, took place from 8–14 October 1956, two and a half months after Nasser announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, and two weeks before Britain, France, and Israel invaded the Canal Zone in an attempt to undo Egypt’s decolonial assertiveness. The celebration, as a section of The Egyptian Cultural Bulletin (Al-Nashra al-Thaqafiyya al-Misriyya, published by Egypt’s Ministry of Education) discussed, was an initiative of UNESCO, enabled by its member states. The week-long festival aimed at creating recognition of the role played by museums not only in “the life of society” (ḥayāt al-mujtamaʿ), but also—and somewhat ironically, given the timing—in “international understanding” (tafāhum al-duwalī).[1] Egyptian institutions enthusiastically took part. And, amongst other events, the Ministry of Education requested from the country’s presidency that museum visitors should be exempted from any admission fee (rasm al-dukhūl).[2]

This exemption created another sort of optical effect: museums filled with crowds of people. Or, as a richly illustrated article in the magazine Akhir Saʿa put it: “‘Sons of the Country’ in the Museums and the Palaces”.[3] The article’s title was itself freighted with meaning connected to Egypt’s ongoing, ‘revolutionary’ remaking under Nasser and the Free Officers. A ‘son of the country’ (ibn al-balad; pl. awlād al-balad) was a term used by the revolutionary regime to refer to to the Egyptian masses in a positive way. As Sawsan el-Messiri noted, “to be a “son of the country” (ibn al-balad) became a matter of pride, whereas to be a son of an aristocrat (ibn al-zawāt), became one of shame”.[4]


Now, those self-same sons of the country filled locations like Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, their presence visibly subverting its colonial and elitist history. So, too, was their presence tangible in the former royal palaces that had been opened to the public, a visual reminder that—even as the Tripartite powers prepared to invade it—the country had definitively entered a new age. Indeed, an article in that November’s Egypt Travel Magazine (printed in French, English, and possibly other European languages) not only pictured one ibn al-balad in Cairo’s ʿAbdin Palace, but also “étudiantes syriennes”,[5] a reminder to the publication’s European audience that Egypt had a concern with wider Arab affairs. The country’s revolution meant it would act in its own interests. Picturing the masses in former royal residences and the museums that had long been directed by foreign functionaries served to underline this point in an optically direct way.

Optics, however, could also tie these same institutions to narratives of progress and developmental improvement that still seem familiar. Akhir Saʿa depicted “‘Sons of the Country’ in the Museums and the Palaces”, but an article in the same issue also discussed the “chaos” or “disorder” (fawḍa) of Egyptian museums, picturing crowded display cases, complaining about the intrusion of sand into museum buildings, and asking “When Will This Chaos End?” The piece gave the Supervisor of Museums in Egypt’s Department of Tourism, Naʿim Sharif, the opportunity to express his opinion about the situation. Illustrating that Egypt’s centre of gravity had not necessarily moved that far from powers like France after all, Sharif had just spent three months on a mission to see work being carried out in museums across Europe: he visited Italy, Belgium, France, Holland, and Switzerland. Tying Egypt’s museums to his newly won “knowledge of contemporary organisation” (maʿrifat al-naẓm al-ḥadītha), he suggested that one solution was to move museum objects to new, regional institutions across the length and breadth of the country, similar to the situation he had witnessed in Italy. Sharif also discussed the employment of new “archaeological technicians” (faniyyīn fi al-āthār) to look after the various types of objects held by Egyptian museums.[6]

History repeats itself. This narrative of modernisation and progress is familiar to anyone who has observed Egypt’s museums in the last couple of decades, albeit that its words have been altered to suit changing modes of development finance. The need to open, and opening of, regional museums has been a constant event, and the development of technical skill in conservation has played a major part in promotion of the Grand Egyptian Museum on the Giza Plateau. Beyond the usual teleologies of ‘innovation’, it seems to churlish to criticse these actions. Still, the vision promoted was popular—or popular with government and international funders—in the Mubarak years, and continues to enjoy currency under al-Sisi. One revolution in museums begat another, very similar one, at the same time as the repressive elements of life under Nasser’s presidency and the presidencies that followed it are amplified under al-Sisi’s regime.

One wonders how turning Egypt’s museums to political advantage in this way might also repeat history. Fawda as a concept has been meaningful in ways beyond its construction as conveniently oppositional to state-led narratives of modernisation. In 2007, a few years before the (other, 2011) revolution that led to Mubarak’s fall, Khaled Youssef and Youssef Chahine’s film, Heya Fawda (It’s Chaos), utilised the word in a way unrelated to museums: to criticise the long-standing corruption of Egypt’s police. The film was contentious, symbolic of social disquiet that ultimately reached fever pitch. But museums are contentious places, too.

[1] Al-Nashra al-Thaqafiyya al-Misriyya 1956, Part 4. Cairo: Wizarat al-Tarbiyya wa-l-Taʿlim, Al-Idara al-ʿAmma li-l-Thaqafa, p. 269.

[2] Ibid., p. 270.

[3] Unknown author, “‘Awlad al-Balad’ fi al-Matahif wa-l-Qusur” (“‘Sons of the Country’ in the Museums and the Palaces”), Akhir Saʿa 1147, 17 October 1956.

[4] Sawsan el-Messiri, 1978. Ibn al-Balad: A Concept of Egyptian Identity. Leiden: Brill, p. 37.

[5] Unknown author, “Brillant Success de la Semaine Mondiale des Musées…!”, Egypt Travel Magazine 28, November 1956.

[6] Unknown author, “Mata Tantaha Hadhihi al-Fawda?” (“When Will This Chaos End?”), Akhir Saʿa 1147, 17 October 1956.


On the Temple of Dendur, Protest, and the Particularities of Universal Heritage

Who controls heritage? On March 10, the temple of Dendur found itself in the news. Disassembled, shipped in pieces from Egypt, and reconstituted in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York during UNESCO’s International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia, the temple was inaugurated in its new residence at the same time as the floodwaters of the Aswan High Dam submerged its former site. Ever since, the structure has stood as a symbol of the universalist notion of world heritage that UNESCO promotes, and which the Nubian campaign itself helped to generate. Last week, however, the temple, which is located in the museum’s Sackler Wing, found itself put to a rather more particular use.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Accompanied by about one hundred other demonstrators, the photographer Nan Goldin staged a protest at the structure against members of the Sackler family who have profited from the sale of the opioid painkiller Oxycontin. Oxycontin is a prescription medication that Goldin herself is overcoming an addiction to, and which has become emblematic of the larger opioid crisis in the United States. Goldin and the other demonstrators threw pill bottles into the temple’s ornamental moat, before lying down and shouting out “Sacklers lie, people die”. The protest wasn’t subtle. But subtlety wasn’t the point.

The temple of Dendur’s presence in the Metropolitan Museum is meant to represent the outcome of humanity working together. But it seems that the structure can also be used to represent what happens when humanity allows itself to splinter or to ignore the plight of other human beings entirely. Goldin’s protest threw this contradiction into sharp perspective. Equally, the event questioned the heritage narratives with which the temple has so often been connected—perhaps inadvertently, given that the protest was directed against the Sackler family and not UNESCO. To a point where the structure’s sheer (over-) familiarity seems to make its use in this way practically redundant, the temple of Dendur has time and again been used as a spectacular backdrop to assert the importance of a particular vision of heritage universalism. It is that vision—and the connotations and occlusions of that spectacle—that I want to talk about here.

In September 2014, then-US Secretary of State John Kerry stood in front of the temple to announce the commencement of airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. Kerry framed the strikes in terms of the destruction of the cultural heritage of Iraqis and Syrians by, he claimed, ISIS themselves: “for the proud people of Iraq and Syria”, he said, “the destruction of their heritage is a purposeful final insult”. Then-Metropolitan Museum director Thomas P. Campbell’s speech at the event employed a rather more universalist sentiment, meanwhile, noting that “cultural heritage and its preservation have a direct link to human understanding”. By striking at Iraq and Syria, Campbell seemed to imply, the US would be doing the world a favour in the same way it did by reconstructing Dendur.

Campbell’s has been a common sentiment in relation to discussions around heritage. It is one in which material things almost—and sometimes do—become promoted as more important than the people who make lives with and around them. More relevant to this case, perhaps, it is also a sentiment in which certain populations time and again only achieve a metonymic form of recognition: one that exists only in relation to what ‘their’ cultural heritage might mean to humanity as a whole. (Kerry’s statement was—in a sense—more careful, although the strength of the link between ISIS and destruction of what are now known as ‘heritage assets’ has been repeatedly sensationalised and weaponised, and the presumption that missiles raining out of the sky would not represent some sort of “final insult” to anyone forced to endure that act seems an odd one.)

It is a strange—and perhaps entirely wrong-headed—position, one which uses material culture to remove a significant degree of agency from those who have lived their lives with it. Think only of the the Nubian population, for instance, who were themselves forced to migrate by the Aswan High Dam’s construction, but who enjoyed as much of a link to the temple of Dendur as anyone else. Moreover, it is a position that, even with the best of intentions, surfaces time and time again in front of the temple of Dendur. In an event held in front of the structure in January this year, the International Council of Museums launched a “red list” of cultural objects from Yemen at risk of trafficking. At the event, in front of “leading cultural and political figures”, Yemen’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Khaled Hussein Mohamed Alyemany, stated that “saving Yemen’s heritage is saving the world’s heritage”. Dendur has come to represent a particular type of universalist heritage, one that gains its relevance from the way in which it recurrently obscures the non-elites connected to it.

That is why Goldin’s protest in front of the temple is so striking. It is a reminder that the universal cannot be extricated from its particular, and in a way that not only offers that particular more power than might otherwise seem to be the case, but also underlines how uncomfortable admitting to that power’s existence and legitimacy can be. When the temple of Dendur was reassembled in the Metropolitan Museum, the work caused some controversy with the New York City public. As David Gissen has discussed, the Sackler Wing formed part of a larger museum expansion project: “a ‘Comprehensive Architectural Plan for the Second Century’ designed for the museum by Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo, and Associates under the managerial supervision of Thomas Hoving”, the museum’s then-director.[1] The problem with the project was that it involved the expansion of the museum further into Central Park: the growth of a city-owned building into a large tranche of city-owned space. The project “was [thus] vigorously criticized on grounds of park ‘encroachment’ and cultural ‘centralization’ and ‘imperialism’”, hardly a good look for an institution which used “themes of preservation and stewardship to argue for the expansion of the museum’s structure”.[2]

Ultimately—as the temple of Dendur’s current situation so obviously indicates—that expansion took place. But the controversy surrounding that act is a reminder that the sort of universalism now represented by the edifice has never been far away from the particularities of its existence, and that those particularities have a habit of coming calling from time to time. Currently, the temple of Dendur is advertised as “an iconic Met space”, one which “Corporate Patrons at the Director’s Circle Level and Nonprofits” are eligible to hire at rates starting at $40,000 ($50,000 if you want to have a function there on a Friday or a Saturday). The Metropolitan Museum is an institution in desperate need of revenue, as its recent decision to charge entry to out-of-state visitors has shown. But is it really surprising—beyond its connection to the Sackler family—that the temple of Dendur now constitutes a credible venue of mass protest as well as of high-end celebration? As a symbol of universal heritage, the structure has always embedded its popular identity within its being, even as the elite—or elitist—connotations of its constitution as heritage obscures that fact. As the Met’s ticket-price decision has fomented debate around who the museum’s public actually is (or should be), the temple’s predicament is therefore one that the institution would do well to think about.

[1] David Gissen, 2009, “The Architectural Production of Nature, Dendur/New York”, Grey Room 34, 58–79, p. 67.

[2] Ibid., p. 68.

Archaeology, Race, and Translation in Egypt

In 1967, Dar Nahdat Misr published an Arabic translation of the book Archaic Egypt, written by the British archaeologist W. B. Emery and originally published in 1961.[1] The book—Misr fi-l-ʿAsr al-ʿAtiq—had been translated by Rashid Muhammad Nawir and Muhammad ʿAli Kamal al-Din, and revised by the archaeologist ʿAbd al-Munim Abu Bakir, formerly Professor and Dean at Cairo University. It was published as part of a series called al-Alf Kitab (The Thousand Books), a translation project undertaken on behalf of Egypt’s Ministry of Higher Education.[2] That the volume was chosen for translation is interesting both due to its content and the era in which it was published.


Archaic Egypt summarised the results of excavations at the site of Saqqara, where Emery had been in charge of work since the interwar period and in which location he had helped to uncover a series of monumental tombs from what is now known as the Early Dynastic period. At the same time, the volume offered an interpretation of these tombs in the context of the formation of the ancient Egyptian state. Emery had gained initial experience at—and undertaken university education in—archaeology at a time when racial theories about the origins of ‘civilisation’ held currency,[3] and Archaic Egypt reflects this background. Citing a 1956 journal article written by the anatomist Douglas Derry (who had previously worked at the tomb of Tutankhamun), the volume—now fairly notoriously—puts forward the idea that pharaonic Egypt had coalesced due to a “horde invasion” promulgated by a “master race … whose skulls are of greater size and whose bodies were larger than those of the natives”.[4] Archaic Egypt, then, is a prominent example of colonial modes of archaeological interpretation continuing into the ‘post’-colonial period.

By 1967, though, such obvious scientific racism was meant to be in the process of becoming a thing of the past. The UNESCO-backed International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia had, starting in 1960, enabled large amounts of archaeological fieldwork to be undertaken in the region(s) of (Egyptian and Sudanese) Nubia, which were due to be submerged by the floodwaters of the new Aswan High Dam. Young archaeologists working in the region questioned ideas about continuous population change “in Nubia and elsewhere”,[5] and new concepts of race—amenable to UNESCO’s own statements on the topic—started to come into currency.[6] Emery’s work, if anything, started to look like a relic of a different, less enlightened age.[7]

Yet still Emery published ideas about a pharaonic, “Dynastic Race” in his own tie-in volume to the Nubian campaign, Egypt in Nubia,[8] and still Archaic Egypt became Misr fi-l-ʿAsr al-ʿAtiq. Thus, the interesting question here—beyond the one of who exactly comprised the book’s readership, which I am unable to answer—is what, exactly, this revised and translated volume contained? This isn’t the place for close textual analysis of the entire book, but suffice to say that the reference to Douglas Derry’s anatomical work survives, as does the interpretation based on it. The book uses the term al-qawm (“nation”) to discuss “the remains of a horde of humanity” (baqāyya ādamiyyat al-qawm) who possessed larger skull and body sizes than “the original population” (al-sukān al-aṣaliyyīn).[9] Simultaneously, the volume details the “main reason” (al-sabbab al-raʾīsī) for the advent of pharaonic Egypt as a “new people invading the Nile Valley” (inna shāban jadīdan qad ghazan al-wādi al-nīl).[10] The translation leaves little doubt about its adherence to Emery’s original.

I conclude this piece here, then, as a cautionary tale. By the late 1960s, concepts of, and practices surrounding, race in archaeology were meant to be changing. In particular, events like UNESCO’s Nubian campaign supposedly mobilised newly trained—and theoretically aware—archaeologists into undertaking massive amounts of fieldwork that took on this process of disciplinary renewal. Yet Misr fi-l-ʿAsr al-ʿAtiq (in addition to Emery’s publications in English) suggest that longstanding ideas surrounding race were far from dead, and their after—or, more likely, continuing—lives therefore need to be examined. It is hard to talk in great detail about the readership of this particular translation. Yet it is clear that this readership existed and that Misr fi-l-ʿAsr al-ʿAtiq had some impact (the copy I saw is covered in underlinings), much as did Archaic Egypt, which was reprinted in paperback into the 1980s and whose theories enjoyed English-language repetition much later than that.[11] It would be worth examining the post-war circulation of such racially dubious archaeological ideas across time, space, and—perhaps most importantly—language in order to further understand the extent to which they continue to have currency.

[1] Walter Bryan Emery, 1967 [1961], Misr fi-l-ʿAsr al-ʿAtiq (Cairo: Dar Nahdat Misr); the English original is Walter Bryan Emery, 1961, Archaic Egypt (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

[2] Menachem Klein, 2003, “Egypt’s Revolutionary Publishing Culture, 1952–1962”, Middle Eastern Studies 39 (2), 149–178, p. 158.

[3] For an example of which see e.g. Henry Reginald Hall, 1923, “The Union of Egypt and the Old Kingdom”, in: J. B. Bury, S. A. Cook and F. E. Adcock (eds), The Cambridge Ancient History: Volume I; Egypt and Babylonia to 1580 B.C. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 257–298.

[4] Walter Bryan Emery, 1984 [1961), Archaic Egypt (Harmondsworth: Penguin), p. 38, pp. 39–40.

[5] William Y. Adams, 1968, “Invasion, Diffusion, Evolution?”, Antiquity 42, 194–215, p. 210.

[6] See e.g. Lucia Allais, 2012, “The Design of the Nubian Desert: Monuments, Mobility, and the Space of Global Culture”, in Aggregate collective (eds), Governing by Design: Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press), 179–215, p. 202.

[7] Pointedly noted in William Y. Adams, 1977, Nubia: Corridor to Africa (London: Allen Lane), p. 93.

[8] Walter Bryan Emery, 1965, Egypt in Nubia (London: Hutchinson), pp. 123–124.

[9] Supra note 1, p. 30.

[10] Ibid., p. 29.

[11] For such a reprinting, see note 4. Meanwhile, David Rohl, 1998, Legend: The Genesis of Civilisation (London: Arrow), pp. 315–316, uses much the same ‘invasion’ argument as Emery at the same time as removing overtly racial terminology from it. Rohl’s volume might well be labelled as ‘pseudo-archaeology’, but such distinctions are not always as clear-cut as their proponents assume and racial connotations remain.

Anti-Colonial Gifts? On Mossadegh and the Ministerial Definition of Egyptian Antiquities

On 20 November 1951, a plane carrying Muhammad Mossadegh, Iranian Prime Minister, touched down in Cairo. Mossadegh had just addressed the United Nations Security Council, to whom he had defended the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. In Egypt, eager to gain (actual, not just nominal) independence from Britain, the press resultingly treated him as a hero. His arrival at Cairo airport indicated the start of what Egyptian newspapers promoted as “Iran days” (ayyam Iran), and his “portrait adorned the front page of every newspaper in the country”.[1]

Notable by his absence at the airport, however, was Egypt’s unpopular Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Nahas of the Wafd party. His non-appearance brought opprobrium from the same newspapers who so happily promoted Mossadegh as an anti-colonial hero, even as Nahas in fact later met Mossadegh at his hotel.[2] Stung by the criticism—and reacting to the considerable positive publicity generated by Mossadegh’s arrival in Cairo—Nahas worked out an Egyptian-Iranian collaboration agreement with his Prime Ministerial counterpart that was signed at the end of his visit to Egypt. Mossadegh was fêted, and a statue was “prepared in his honour at the Royal Faculty of Fine Arts”.[3] Yet contemporary sculpture was not the only material form involved in such Egyptian-Iranian niceties. Now, too, antiquities proved diplomatically useful.

A month after this uptick in Egyptian-Iranian relations, Egypt’s Minister of Education, Taha Hussein, sent a letter to Nahas suggesting that the country send a particular ancient object from the Egyptian Museum to Mossadegh. He reasoned that the piece, a marble vessel dating from the era of Egypt’s Third Dynasty, was dispensable given that there were “many more” (amthāliha kathīr) like it owned by the institution.[4] Using the language of the ‘duplicate’ antiquity, Hussein made it clear that such an object—if available—constituted an appropriate diplomatic gift for Egypt to use in the course of building regional ties. The unpopular Nahas’ position as a regional (and putatively anti-colonial) player, the letter implied, might be strengthened, as might Egypt’s itself.

The request to make a gift of this marble vessel—and it is unclear that the object was ever sent to Iran—was not the first time that Egyptian antiquities had been used in such a way. But what is interesting about this case is the way in which a commodity whose removal from Egypt had been contested for decades was now open to the definitive judgment and decision of Egyptians themselves as to whether its worth was derivative or unique, an irreplaceable part of the country’s patrimony or something that could be exported freely. That October, Law No. 215 regulating antiquities had decreed that their export required the direct approval of the Minister of Education (not merely his French underling, the head of the antiquities service).[5] Almost immediately, it seemed, Taha Hussein seized his chance. On some level, declaring an antiquity a duplicate—a practice of definition which once might have led to the export of ancient objects to collections outside of the country—could now constitute an anti-colonial act. Duplicate standing had suddenly obtained both positive and negative value in a context where the status of antiquities had long been contested.[6]

It is inaccurate, however, to define such mutability as solely anti-colonial (or at least anti-Western). Indeed, a few months after the Egyptian Free Officers’ coup of July 1952 (an event which ultimately led to the end of Britain’s de facto rule over Egypt), the ability to define artefact particularity led to a situation that certainly evades this interpretation. In the months after the group’s Revolutionary Command Council had taken over administration of the country, the new, reform-minded Minister of Education, Ismaʾil al-Qabbani (not himself a Free Officer),[7] wrote a memo noting that, the previous June, the “former Director General of the Antiquities Service”, Étienne Drioton, had seen a small collection of Egyptian antiquities belonging to the Austrian Minister Commissioner in Cairo. One of these antiquities was a black marble statue of a standing person, which the Antiquities Service had been able to prove as stolen from the Egyptian Museum in 1910. Accordingly (and unsurprisingly), the Austrian Minister Commissioner was forced to hand the piece back.

Yet now it seemed that the Antiquities Service wanted to give an artefact held by the Egyptian Museum to the Austrian representative in return for his action; an Old Kingdom statue of a woman excavated at the site of Abu Sir could well be his. And, it seemed, it was permissible to give this object to him at no charge not only because it had the same “value” (thaman)[8] as the artefact he had returned, but also because “there are many other examples like it” (al-wujūd naẓāʾir kathīra la-ha) in the museum.[9] Again, a Minister of Education used the language of duplication. But this time the recipient of this largesse was the representative of a European country (albeit one whose status was liminal; Austria was still under post-war occupation by both the Allied powers and the Soviet Union). If anything, then, the power to define what counted as a duplicate antiquity constituted a strategic diplomatic tool as Egypt moved toward political independence, and not necessarily one that would be used to reward a narrow group of countries.

In the meantime, antiquities were still offered for sale in the Egyptian Museum’s own Salle de vente.[10] But it is the use of this ministerial power of definition that interests me here. A few years later, in late 1955, now-Minister of Education Kamal al-Din Hussein would suggest offering an artefact discovered in the Saqqara Step Pyramid to Zhou Enlai, Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of China. The moment was politically loaded: in May 1956, aggravating problems relating to the country’s relationship with the Western powers, Egypt would officially recognise China’s existence. Meanwhile, the Free Officer’s reasoning for offering the artefact was much the same as in previous cases: he stated that there were many other objects like it held in the Saqqara site magazines (makhāzin).[11] Again, then, the ability to define the singularity (or otherwise) of an antiquity constituted a useful political tool as Egypt gained independence, specific to the moment in which, and the audience for whom, the act of definition took place. And this particular iteration of artefactual-political mutability bears thinking about, I think.

At the end of the decade, UNESCO’s International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia saw an agreement that (at least) fifty percent of objects excavated by any team working in the field could be exported from Egypt, using much the same language of the unique and the duplicate. At the time, this move was presented as an original and enlightened means of organising international archaeological work; a practice of the future whose genealogy rested in much earlier—and to some degree Euro-American dominated—attempts to organise archaeological fieldwork.[12] But Egypt’s actions during its move to independence suggest that the country’s representatives had begun to make use of the possibilities offered by this form of ministerial judgment significantly earlier. It might, then, be wise to understand what possibilities this practice offered in greater detail, particularly as the country started to become tied to the politics and practices of non-alignment.

[1] Lior Sternfeld, 2016, “Iran Days in Egypt: Mosaddeq’s Visit to Cairo in 1951”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 43 (1), 1–20, p. 10.

[2] Ibid., p. 11

[3] Ibid., p. 14

[4] Dar al-Wathaʾiq al-Qawmia, Cairo: 0081–003925; letter from the Egyptian Minister of Education to the Prime Minister, 20 December 1951.

[5] Donald Malcolm Reid, 2015, Contesting Antiquity in Egypt: Archaeologies, Museums, & the Struggle for Identities from World War I to Nasser (Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo press), pp. 352–353.

[6] For instance in the case of the Tutanhamun excavations in the 1920s, for which see Elliott Colla, 2007, Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press).

[7] With thanks to Heba Abd el Gawad.

[8] A word that can also mean “price”, although it is unclear to me whether or not this particular statue would have been offered for sale in the Egyptian Museum’s “Salle de vente”.

[9] Supra note 4: memo from the Egyptian Minister of Education to the Cabinet, 18 November 1952.

[10] For which see e.g. Fredrik Hagen and Kim Ryholt, 2016, The Antiquities Trade in Egypt 1880–1930: The H.O. Lange Papers (Copenhagen: The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters).

[11] Ibid.: letter from the Egyptian Minister of Education to the Prime Minister, 14 September 1955.

[12] For instance in International Museums Office, 1940, Manual on the Technique of Archaeological Excavations (Paris: International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation), a volume based on a 1937 conference held in Cairo which included a significant number of delegates from across the Middle East.

On UNESCO, and its Charred Multilateralism

If you ever do research in UNESCO’s Paris archives, there’s a chance that you’ll come across files that start to crumble in your hand. Their charred pages coming apart under your fingers and dispersing across the reading room desks, these files are survivors of a conflagration that engulfed the organisation’s Paris headquarters in March 1984, apparently the result of arson. The fire, as detailed in this contemporary New York Times report, occurred at a time when the US Congress General Accounting Office was investigating UNESCO for alleged “mismanagement and fraud”. It also took place just before, in the same year, the Reagan administration withdrew from UNESCO altogether; the United Kingdom and Singapore would also withdraw by the end of 1985. Allegations that the fire was planned to destroy files relevant to the Congressional enquiry flew around even as General Accounting Office officials already had copies of relevant documents. It was, to state the obvious, a trying time, and the charred files that remain in Paris act almost as memento mori of the controversies that raged and literally seemed to engulf UNESCO’s complex on the Place Fontenoy.

As I set out later, these crumbling pieces of paper also put events at the organisation over the last week into perspective, and perhaps point to one way forward in terms of addressing them. The US government is now, once again, in the course of withdrawing from UNESCO. Reasons for withdrawal include what the US cites as anti-Israel bias at the organisation. They also, perhaps more pertinently, include America’s massive backlog of annual dues, which have gone unpaid as a result of US legislative opposition to the organisation’s recognition of Palestinian statehood in 2011. UNESCO is in dire financial straits, and American and international commentators are justifiably alarmed. Moreover, the organisation has just endured a bruising battle to elect a new Director General, which saw the ongoing crisis surrounding Qatar play out as Hamad Bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari, that country’s candidate, ended up in a pitched battle with Moushira Khattab of Egypt, one of the countries that has cut diplomatic relations with the Gulf state. The eventual winner of the election, France’s former Culture Minister Audrey Azoulay, seems to have her work cut out to steady UNESCO’s political tiller, no matter how many diplomatic statements are made about the importance of the organisation.

Yet how well do the critics who address the politics of UNESCO actually understand them? Any number of articles discussing the events entangling the organisation this week have made the point that the organisation seems uncontroversial: despite its name (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), all UNESCO really seems to do is nominate and look after world heritage sites. One scholar was quoted as saying that “a lot of UNESCO’s work is quite pointless”; a point in implied contrast, one supposes, to other, less ‘soft’, international organisations. Others have suggested that the organisation was never meant to be political in the first place, implying that UNESCO possesses some sort of natural, neutral state that has only recently been politicised. Naming no names, even the most critical work on UNESCO sometimes seems to share this assumption, an odd state of affairs in terms of an organisation whose multilateralism embeds the practices of geopolitical contestation at the institution’s core. In this context, the US has withdrawn from UNESCO because, by its own legislative logic,[1] it is not getting the leverage it desires within the organisation. By implication, it is also playing a geopolitical game and losing, even as everyone tries to conceal the fact that that game, and the organisational messiness it reveals, exists.

UNESCO needs to reveal its mess. Combing through burnt fragments of files, the organisation’s politics are obvious, the crumbling paper a reminder that UNESCO has always been political. The organisation would do well to put this mess at the forefront of its mission, making clear that one of the things it does (and always has done) is to negotiate a way through the contestations that are part and parcel of work in a multilateral organisation.

Coincidentally, in the context of combatting climate change denial and rebuilding trust in scientists, this week Bruno Latour gave an interview in which he stated that

the second science war has at least freed us of the idea that science and technology can be separated from policy. I have always argued that they can’t be. Science has never been immune to political bias. On issues with huge policy implications, you cannot produce unbiased data. That does not mean you cannot produce good science, but scientists should explicitly state their interests, their values, and what sort of proof will make them change their mind.

UNESCO needs to do the same thing. Its multilateralism is inherently political (geo- or otherwise), and inherently a product of interests, values, judgments, and the mess that people make in reaching agreement about these things. The organisation is far from ‘soft’, and in fact needs to demonstrate that it is a place that nullifies the use of such a dichotomous adjective. UNESCO is an organisation that has carried out actions—not always positive or successful—in the midst, and at the behest of, political controversies. Reworked not only in a way that listens to the constituencies who have a stake in the organisation’s goals, but also in a way that gives those constituencies a say in resolving the controversies that get in the way of achieving them, UNESCO might regenerate itself and its relevance to the world. As a stage for what seems solely like nihilistic international manoeuvring, that relevance will wane. There are ways of communicating the value of multilateral work, even for an organisation as much the target of disdain as UNESCO. The question, I think, is whether UNESCO can or will take them.

[1] UNESCO’s recognition of Palestinian statehood in fact triggered a 1990 US law that halted the payment of America’s dues.

Soil, People, and Visions of Modernisation

What justified the investigation of the past after the Second World War? How do we trace the practices through which this process and the forms of knowledge it created took place? Unsurprisingly (especially given much of the rest of the contents of this blog), tracing where construction projects related to modernisation and development were able to take place constitutes one way of answering these questions, and I address this point in this post. Tracing this work, however, also throws up other questions worth thinking about; questions that are perhaps far more serious in terms of the sort of knowledge about the past that was created in the post-war era.

In August 1953, Jean Verrier, the Secretary General of UNESCO’s Committee on Monuments, Artistic and Historical Sites, and Archaeological Excavations sent out a circular letter addressing “the fact that vestiges of the past which should be known and studied are in increasing danger of being destroyed for ever by various undertakings”.[1] The examples of such undertakings which Verrier gave were, by and large, linked to modernisation, reconstruction and development work taking place across the globe. He mentioned

large-scale industrial and other works, such as electrification, entailing the construction of dams and artificial lakes, and also the clearing of virgin soils for the purpose of cultivation, the construction of roads and aerodromes, of new buildings etc.     

In response, Verrier noted that “it seems reasonable to consider … excavations and research as an integral part of the works in question”. As a result, he asked government archaeological services around the world for examples of such practices in action in order that UNESCO might distribute information about them. By doing so, national antiquities departments would be able to convince organisations carrying out construction works “of the usefulness of the proposed measures and thus help to bring about the general adoption of the system”. So far, perhaps, so unremarkable.

What is interesting about Verrier’s letter, though, is the ways in which it laid claim over the proper way of treating certain quantities, both human and (yes) non-human. The first of these claims related to “the human communities about to be transferred elsewhere or dispersed”, suggesting that studies should be made of them, and linking such work to both ethnology and folklore. Meanwhile, Verrier also noted that “excavations might be carried out for the purpose of enabling any remains of artistic or scientific interest which might be contained in the soil to be studied and collected”. “Virgin soils” had become a quantity that might, in fact, have other identities, linked to the forms of knowledge responsible for them (but not, of course, “the human communities” who lived around them).

There is nothing historically remarkable in these specific claims, the knowledge practices considered proper to their investigation, or the separation of living communities—assumed, one imagines, not to be Western European—from the past. Yet what is interesting here is the ways in which, placed within the Committee’s global purview, the mutability of both human communities and the soil became highly visible, not to mention the connection that it was necessary to make between the two before this mutability could become manifest. Soil, far from being a neutral quantity, could become one laden with value. But that value could be applied only through a particular form of expertise, and only if the people charged with applying it were carefully made separate from the people who lived with it on a daily basis.

Soil could be made to stand for and valorise certain visions of the past through its connection with the tools of modernisation. At the same time, though, the people who lived with that soil had to become remnants of the sorts of pasts constituted by the disciplines of ethnology and folklore, and their dispersal elsewhere (as was so often the case) take on the characteristics of treatment by modernisation, not valorisation by it. What have been the results of this interdependency? How did the non-neutrality of soil and its modern-past hybridity constitute categories and practices relating to people? These seem to me to be questions worth asking, not least because earlier uses of the soil to valorise certain pasts led to other forms of human dispersal.

UNESCO first published its race statement—designed to counter racism and the racial ideologies of Nazi Germany—in 1950, and did so again in 1951. Yet is there really so much difference between connecting soil and people in the way that Verrier’s letter did and earlier, racist efforts to do the same thing? UNESCO’s anti-racism was prominent from the organisation’s start. Yet how much attention was—and has been—paid to understanding the older assumptions that the knowledge practices promoted through the sort of connection to modernisation work prominent in Verrier’s letter might conceal within themselves? I do not want to accuse UNESCO of anything, not least because the organisation was certainly not alone in promoting such work. But it is worth thinking about ways in which pasts that people wished they could forget might still have revealed themselves in the ways that they continued to construct knowledge of the world.

[1] UNESCO archives, folder CA/12/7, 069 (62) AMS (Part 1): “Documentation sur les Peintures et Inscriptions en Haute—Egypte—Programme de Participation”, circular letter signed by Jean Verrier, 13th August, 1953.

Nuclear Monuments: The Gabgaba Project, Operation Plowshare, and the Aswan High Dam

Sometime in late 1962, a Zurich, Switzerland-based organisation known as the International Student Association for Optimum Nile Control (or ISAFONC, the acronym used by the group) distributed a confidential report around the world.[1] A letter attached to the report, the fourth edition of a plan called the Gabgaba Project, noted that such confidentiality was necessary in order to “keep the atmosphere clear for successful forthcoming negotiations by minimizing the political implications which the GABGABA PROJECT creates and with which it is confronted” [original in uppercase]. At the same time, the letter urged recipients to provide “critical commentary” on the project and “to participate with us in its realization”.[2] The report also came attached to another letter addressed from “POB 1070” in Berkeley, CA, noting that the fourth edition of the publication contained “some revisions and additional data based upon constructive criticism and cooperative studies by competent authorities in different disciplines at the University of California” and elsewhere.[3] So what was the Gabgaba Project, and why was such secrecy necessary in relation to it? Who were ISAFONC, and why did they need to make use of “competent authorities” in the United States? The Atomic Energy Commission had a lot to answer for.

At the start of the Gabgaba Project Report, under the dry, technocratic heading of “A Development Plan for the Optimum Utilization and Control of the Nile Water for the Lower Nile Basin”, ISAFONC set out their rationale. “In the winter of 1959/1960”, it seems that

an international group of students at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, met informally for the first time to discuss the Aswan High Dam Project, then just getting under way. As students of Geology, Architecture, Civil Engineering, Mathematics and Political Science, we were impressed by the prospect of a comprehensive attempt to harness the Nile for the service of man, but, as students of the Humanities, we were discouraged at the prospect of the inundation of the Nubian monuments.

As the report noted, “UNESCO had launched an international appeal to preserve the monuments”. But this international group of students was unimpressed by the Parisian organisation’s plans. The report stated that “after close scrutiny of their proposed ‘rescue’ projects”, we concluded that they offered, at best, costly and incomplete alternatives”. A new plan was necessary, one which “would incorporate all the advantages of the Aswan High Dam Project, yet preserve the threatened monuments in their present setting”. Working with professors at the Federal Institute of Technology, the University of Zurich, Oxford and other institutions in Europe, ISAFONC was formed in order to “search for such a bold solution”.[4]

That solution, it turned out, would involve the excavation of a large canal. ISAFONC’s members reasoned that the best way to achieve the aims of the High Dam without flooding the Nubian monuments would be to create a different reservoir elsewhere, away from the parts of the Egyptian and Sudanese Nile Valley that the dam’s construction would submerge. “Consulting the available maps”, ISAFONC thought that “a valley, named Wadi Gabgaba, completely unpopulated and located along the beeline between Abu Hamed in the Sudan and Aswan in the United Arab Republic” should be used for this purpose. The only issue was that “even on those insufficient maps”, there was visible “a long range of hills which closes the valley to the south, making it necessary to cut an unusually long canal into this massive obstacle”. As the report’s authors wistfully noted, “our project seemed to be at a standstill”.[5]


Luckily, “Operation Plowshare” came to the rescue. Operation (or, officially, Project) Plowshare was, as the report put it, “a U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Program designed to harnass [sic] nuclear energy for peaceful purposes”.[6] Plowshare, whose biblical (Isaiah 2:4) reference was not particularly subtle,[7] was organised in order “to redeem the nuclear bomb itself”.[8] Based, from 1957 onwards, at the Commission’s Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at Livermore, CA, and directed by Edward Teller, the so-called father of the hydrogen bomb, Plowshare sought to use (underground) nuclear explosions in order to reconstruct the earth’s geography. As Dan O’Neill has noted, “at its height Plowshare employed 290 people and spent $18 million annually to recast the bomb as a peacetime tool”. “Physicists became public works engineers”, planning nuclear explosions to build canals and harbours and producing films to promote the peaceful benefits of this work.[9] Indeed, connecting this work to the broad region of the world in which Wadi Gabgaba was located, the Suez War of 1956 had helped to influence the foundation of Plowshare, initiating theoretical exercises at Livermore which involved planning to cut a new canal through Israel from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Mediterranean.[10]

The possibility of making use of Plowshare’s schemes at Wadi Gabgaba was therefore quite tempting. Even as work on the High Dam had started, ISAFONC sent a representative “to confer directly with the officials and scientists of the Plowshare Program … at the same time establishing a study center for our project in the United States”. And, as luck would have it, ISAFONC were pleased to announce that “the Operation Plowshare scientists have not only found the project practicable but have even advanced some tentative cost data”. The cost of the proposed work was not only calculable in comparison to the High Dam, but anyone involved with it would also be safe, the Plowshare scientists assuring ISAFONC that underground nuclear explosions meant that “only a fraction of radioactivity” would ever make it to the earth’s surface.[11]

Indeed, in an appendix attached to the report, ISAFONC stated “with authority and determination that the nuclear excavation will neither create an immediate nor a potential hazard, neither for the people living in the Nile Basin nor for the world population at large”. Due to “progress in the development of clean [nuclear] devices”, it seemed, the new canal leading to Wadi Gabgaba “will be ready for operation before one year after zero hour”.[12] Furthermore, the Gabgaba Project would not only eliminate problems with Nile silt discharge that the barrier formed by the High Dam was predicted to create, it would also “permit considerable increase in the output of electricity” above that potentially supplied by the Aswan structure. Moreover—and reading almost as an afterthought in the report’s conclusion—this new plan would also “eliminate the evacuation and resettlement problem of the Aswan High Dam Project”.[13] “Atoms for Peace”, as Eisenhower famously put it, would create a new and different future; not only for anyone interested in Nubia’s ancient monuments, but also for the people of the Nile Valley.

ISAFONC, certain in the utility of their plan, now distributed the report to any number of prominent individuals. Having mobilised the geology of the Nile Valley and the employees of the Atomic Energy Commission, the organisation from Zurich now needed to mobilise other people with presumed influence, attempting to create a global network of interested parties. To do so, ISAFONC provided a list containing the names and addresses of these people and asked recipients to “contact any person [on the list] with whom you have had associations”.[14] Who, then, did ISAFONC perceive to have influence in this situation? Who did they think counted when it came to decision making relating to two newly independent nation-states? Surprisingly, neither Gamal ʿAbd al-Nasser, President of Egypt, nor Ibrahim Abboud, the President of Sudan, were on the list. The Egyptian engineer Hassan Zaki, who was in charge of the construction of the Aswan High Dam, was, however, on it, as was the Free Officer and former Egyptian Vice President ʿAbd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, in addition to the country’s foreign minister, Mahmud Fawzi. Copies were also sent to certain individuals within non-aligned countries, among them the nuclear physicist Homi J. Bhabha, Director of India’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and Sudjarwo Tjondronegoro, Indonesia’s Deputy Foreign Minister. The distribution list for Europe and the USA constituted a much larger group of people, but ISAFONC’s attempt to exploit non-alignment was obvious.[15]

Notably, the organisation also attempted to exploit a surprisingly large number of archaeologists. Many of these individuals were involved, or had a possible interest in, UNESCO’s Nubian preservation campaign, perhaps revealing the key aim around which the Gabgaba Project revolved. Certain archaeologists and philologists were seen to have as much clout as other international figures, although the director of Egypt’s Department of Antiquities, Anwar Shoukry, did not appear on the distribution list at all. François Daumas of the Institut français d’archéologie orientale in Cairo did appear, however, as did Jean Vercoutter, the (in-fact-former) head of the Sudan Antiquities Service. Indeed, other than Alexander Badawy of the University of California, European and American archaeologists and philologists made up the only members of the profession on the distribution list. The first page of the European section, for instance, included Walter Emery of University College London, André Bernard of the University of Paris, Jaroslav Černý of the University of Oxford, and Christiane Descroches Noblecourt of the Louvre. The first page of the American list, meanwhile, included Richard Parker and Otto Neugebauer of Brown, William Stevenson Smith of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and William Kelly Simpson of Yale. Archaeology’s Euro-American power base was as clear as ever.

Other figures on the report’s distribution list constituted a presumed who’s who of post-war politics and science. Amongst these figures were the Egyptian businessman Ahmad Abbud, the Lebanese academic and diplomat Charles Malik, the French economist and diplomat (and ‘founding father’ of the European Union) Jean Monnet, and the Italian lawyer Vittorino Veronese, who had just retired as Director-General of UNESCO. Joining these individuals were the British engineer William Halcrow, and the industrialists Alfried Krupp, Heinrich Thyssen, and Charles Westlake. The physicists Samuel K. Allison, Willard Libby, Francis Perrin, and Victor Weisskopf also featured on the distribution list, as did David Rockefeller, the architect Richard Neutra, the financier and political consultant Bernard Baruch, and Gail Hathaway, consultant to the World Bank, who had approved the institution’s initial (and later cancelled) plans to finance the Aswan High Dam. Given the eventual financing of the High Dam scheme, various Soviet statesmen and scientists also appeared on the distribution list, amongst them the diplomat Iosif Kuzmin, the physicist Alexander Aleksandrov, and Vasili Kuznetsov, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Yet despite the number of apparently influential men to whom the report was sent—of the 225 recipients, the only woman was Christiane Desroches Noblecourt—nothing ever seems to have come of the Gabgaba Project. Project Plowshare’s nuclear excavation programme ended in 1970,[16] and financial support for the work from the US government had been dwindling for years, not only because of negative reactions from potentially affected communities like the Inupiat Eskimo, but also because “there seemed to be little need to trade the enormous risks involved in multiple, high-yield nuclear detonations for the opportunity to correct ‘a slightly flawed planet’”.[17] The Gabgaba Project presumably met a similar fate. Despite coming across the Gabgaba Project Report in multiple archives, I have never seen proof that anyone on the distribution list engaged with the report beyond carefully filing it away and ignoring it. Plowshare projects met resistance from populations like the Inupiat, and the Gabgaba report certainly took care to note that “the nuclear excavation will take place in a completely unpopulated area”.[18] In 1960, however, France had started conducting nuclear tests in the Algerian Sahara, bringing swift protest from Egypt (amongst many other countries). It is hard to see how this situation—one among many other very obvious reasons—would not have made the Gabgaba Project almost completely untenable.

‘Nuclearity’ was not about to take on a positive meaning in Nubia, even in an “unpopulated” (at least by humans) area, and monuments were not about to become nuclear things.[19] That they almost did, though, should make us wonder about who has defined the terms of preservation and why they have felt able to do so. Today, it perhaps seems scarcely credible that a group of students and academics proposed a large series of nuclear explosions in order, amongst other things, to preserve a group of monuments. It seems less credible still that they worked internationally and with an organ of the US government to achieve this aim, and felt certain that the distribution list of individuals to whom they sent their report might have been able to influence its undertaking. Projects fail, and the nuclear excavation of a canal leading to Wadi Gabgaba counts as one such failure. But do all these things these people did. How they managed to do so is worth thinking about.

[1] Researching my current project, I have seen various copies of this report in different archives; I refer here to the copy held at the British Academy in London (Mortimer Wheeler material, box BA 387; with thanks to Karen Syrett of the British Academy for permission to reproduce elements of the report on this blog).

[2] Gabgaba Project Report (4th ed.), attached letter from ISAFONC, Zurich, Switzerland, 25 June 1962.

[3] Ibid., attached letter from ISAFONC, Berkeley, CA, 21 November 1962.

[4] Ibid., p. 1.

[5] Ibid., p. 3.

[6] Ibid., p. 4.

[7] Dan O’Neill, The Firecracker Boys: H-Bombs, Inupiat Eskimos, and the Roots of the Environmental Movement (New York: Basic Books, 2008), p. 27.

[8] Ibid., p. 23.

[9] Ibid., p. 28.

[10] Ibid., p. 24.

[11] Gabgaba Project Report, p. 5.

[12] Ibid., Appendix VI, p. 1.

[13] Ibid., p. 6.

[14] Ibid., attached letter from H. A. Keller and H. B. Cleaveland, 20 December 1962.

[15] Ibid., attached “Distribution Key”.

[16] Dan O’Neill, The Firecracker Boys, p 295.

[17] Ibid., p. 294.

[18] Gabgaba Project Report, Appendix VI, p. 1.

[19] For ‘nuclearity’ see Gabrielle Hecht, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).

Traces of Time

In February 1976, the magazine Al-Ahram al-Iqtisadi published a dual-language, Arabic-English booklet called The High Dam and Its Effects. In a foreword to the volume, Dr. Muhammed ʿAbd al-Qadir Hatim reasoned that the publication was a product of the era of Egypt’s President Anwar al-Sadat, making the self-fulfilling prophecy that “one of the salutary consequences of the Corrective Revolution of May 1971 is the emergence of a tendency towards self-criticism which aims at an objective assessment of the fundamental aspects of national activity past or present”.[1] The booklet contained a report on the Aswan High Dam written for Egypt’s National Council for Production and Economic Affairs (ʿAbd al-Qadir Hatim was the Council’s Supervisor General). The report’s objective was to examine the structure’s “side effects”, which by that point were becoming manifold.


A side-effect is an interesting thing; an unintended consequence which also points to intended limits of order and disorder.[2] Yet such an effect is perhaps even more interesting when considered in Arabic. In the case of The High Dam and Its Effects, the term was rendered not only as al-āthār al-jānibiyya, but also, simply, as āthār: the Arabic title of the book was Al-Sadd al-ʿAli wa-Atharihi.[3] The use of this word is striking because, although a conventional way of expressing the concept, the term also sets forward an ironic double meaning, an unintentional pun. A book about side-effects became the progenitor of side-effects of its own; memories or future echoes which threatened to take material form, because āthār might also be translated as “vestiges”, “traces” or, more specifically, “antiquities”. At the same time that it noted the structure’s unexpected present, the booklet suggested a tear in the High Dam’s essence which made this famously monumental project of high modernism seem less coherent, particularly in the way that it held the fabric of time together.

Why might such a tear matter? The process of building the High Dam had to contend with the region—and the people—located to the structure’s soon-to-be-flooded south: Nubia and the Nubians, whose homes were divided across the Egyptian-Sudanese border. As a result, in Egypt, two major research projects took place, enabling the High Dam to sever certain meaningful connections to its floodwaters’ path. The first was an ethnological campaign, funded by the Ford Foundation, which examined certain aspects of contemporary Nubian life and helped to prepare Egyptian Nubians for migration northwards to Upper Egypt. The second—which also took place in Sudan—was an international salvage campaign, organised through UNESCO, recording and preserving monuments and archaeological sites whose Nubian connections, in the process, went unconsidered. Building the High Dam severed social and material worlds, annulling possible pasts and potential futures in the service of a particular Egyptian utopia comprised of elements such as population management, hydroelectricity and cement.[4]

Now, though, vestiges of these possible worlds returned, ghosts of past and future in the pages of a magazine supplement, notwithstanding that The High Dam and its Effects incontrovertibly constituted a presentist document. The report the booklet contained used the High Dam’s own rubric to measure what had become the technical successes and failures of the structure in order to ensure the furtherance of a particular vision of Egypt. Emphasising this national focus, the Arabic version of the report—unlike the English translation—contains a list of the Egyptian members of the Council for Research on Land and Water Resources (Majlis Bahuth al-Aradi wa-l-Mawarid al-Maʾiyya) in Egypt’s Academy of Science and Technology.[5] Yet the report within the booklet also revealed how these successes and failures helped to constitute new versions of Egyptian past and future, implying the extent to which the structure could never entirely escape the very things that it had attempted to annul: different temporalities, and the material worlds with which they were entangled.

For instance, one outcome of the High Dam’s construction was that the large amount of silt that had previously been deposited in Egypt’s floodplains by the Nile’s annual inundation was now caught up by the structure instead. That silt had previously been used to make mud-brick. Adapting to, and trying to make a virtue—or create another self-fulfilling prophecy—of, what these changed conditions now made possible, The High Dam and its Effects suggested that

the programme incorporated in the 5-year plan (1976-80), and contemplating the establishment of factories for clay and sand brick-making … should be implemented. Modern technological methods of production should be applied … the earlier practice of using silt for building should be done away with.

In less detail, the report also noted that “a substitute should be thought out for the existing practice in villages of using mud … for building purposes”.[6] The High Dam constituted vestiges of the past at the same time as it constituted traces of the future, rearranging the relationship between people and the material which they used to build at the same time as generating new and unexpected temporal patterns.

Simultaneously, the unintentional punning of the report’s title made it clear that other pasts and the futures that might be made with them were never far away. Antiquities excavated in Nubia had been distributed to all the corners of the earth, momentarily severing their connection to the place that they came from and the people who had lived near them. But the connotations of the word āthār suggest the extent to which forgetting this material and the temporalities that it conjured up represents a difficult, if not impossible process. Things—material vestiges of times and places—are mutable enough to be removed from one context and placed into others. Yet there is no guarantee that such moves enjoy permanence and that this mutability might not continue. Nothing—not even the High Dam—is that coherent, and the antiquities excavated during its construction act as antiquities, too, of that very process; puns made material, vestiges tearing at the coherence of the High Dam’s narrative. What power do these vestiges have now? What different stories might they tell, and what different categories might they be placed in? As Nubian calls for a right to return grow, thinking about these questions is necessary and urgent.

[1] Muhammed ʿAbd al-Qadir Hatim (1976), “Foreword” (English version), in: Al-Ahram al-Iqtisadi, Al-Sadd al- al-ʿAli wa-Atharihi/The High Dam and Its Effects, Cairo: Al-Ahram, pp. 2–3.

[2] For the making of such limits, see e.g. On Barak, 2013, On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt, Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 54.

[3] The quote is in the Arabic version of supra note 1, p. 3.

[4] For discussion of some of these elements, see Nancy Reynolds (2013), “Building the Past: Rockscapes and the Aswan High Dam in Egypt”, in: Alan Mikhail (ed.), Water on Sand: Environmental Histories of the Middle East and North Africa, New York: Oxford University Press, 181–205.

[5] Supra note 1, Arabic version, pp. 36–37.

[6] Ibid., English version, p. 39.

Pan-Arabism and Forgotten Pasts

Not all pasts are remembered as well as others. In 1952, the Egyptian archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry published An Archaeological Journey to Yemen (March-May 1947). In the preface to this largely forgotten work,[1] Fakhry notes that “I announced the results of my journey in the Congress of Pan-Arab Archaeologists in Damascus, September, 1947”.[2] This event, taking place just after Syrian independence in 1946, spawned a set of commemorative postage stamps and is itself apparently forgotten, a trace of a post-war pan-Arabism lost to time. Looking through later documents related to archaeology in the Middle East, though, I came across further references to similar congresses, suggesting that this trace might have been rather more substantive, and the process of loss rather more meaningful. Why do we remember some pasts and not others?

This question is important to think about, not least because the agenda of at least one similar meeting addressed its topic in extremely substantive terms. In June 1956, a month before Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, the Cultural Section of the Arab League announced that “the 2nd Congress of Antiquities in the Arab countries will be held in [presumably East] Jerusalem from the 20th to the 31st August 1956”. The meeting was shaping up to be a forum for critical discussion of several important topics relating to the regional past, including a consideration of the resolutions of the Damascus congress “to take cognizance of those that have been applied and those that have not, and the study of obstacles that prevented the application of such resolutions as well as the means to overcome them”.

Beyond the presentation of research papers, the congress was also to address other important topics relating to the formation of pan-Arab archaeology as a distinctive discipline. These topics included “comparison on and standardisation of laws concerning facilitation of exchange” (presumably of antiquities), and the “preparation of a dictionary of Scientific terms of Antiquity”. Moreover, the proposed Jerusalem meeting was primed to discuss “the formation of a permanent committee of Archaeologists under the direction of the Secretariat General of the League”. This committee would help “in establishing contact with Antiquity Committees in the Arab countries and in following up their technical and scientific activities”.

Meanwhile, beyond this rearrangement of Arab archaeological work, the congress would seek to discuss “the establishment of museums for the display of antiquities or specimens which would mark the evolution of civilisations in the Arab countries”, at the same time as ensuring “the conservation of architectural styles prevalent in every Arab country as a symbol of its civilisation”.[3] The Jerusalem congress, it seemed, constituted a means of making the past Arab at a time when leaders like Nasser promoted pan-Arabism as a political ideology, however contentiously. If the future was tied to some form of pan-Arabism, so the past would be, too.

The issue is that the Jerusalem meeting never seemed to take place. A UNESCO document written during the Suez war reveals that, initially (and presumably as a result of events leading up to the conflict), the proposed congress had anyway been delayed until the end of December, hardly an auspicious move.[4] And it is unclear if any sort of congress ever took place. Writing in June 1957, the Egyptian prehistorian and geographer Mustafa Amer wrote to UNESCO’s J. K. Van der Haagen noting that an “archaeological conference” due to take place in Amman that month had also been postponed.[5] It does not seem impossible that Amer was referring to a new location for the delayed Jerusalem event; one at some sort of remove, however entirely, from the centre of regional hostilities. What promoted this further delay, however, is not at all clear from Amer’s letter.

Pan-Arab archaeological utopia—if that is what the proposed Jerusalem congress wished to promote—would have to wait. Until when, of course, I’m not entirely sure. But what this episode suggests is that other narratives of the past are out there, and that we have done an excellent job at forgetting them, whether purposefully or otherwise. In particular, these narratives hint that the familiar ways in which the making of the past has been considered in the post-war era did not have to exist. In making the post-war past, we routinely attribute dominance to the work of international organisations like UNESCO, in addition to Euro-American narratives of what that past might be. But the case of the (indefinitely postponed?) “2nd Congress of Antiquities in the Arab countries” suggests that there is reason to be significantly more cautious about the narratives that we—whether as historians, preservationists or archaeologists—write. Other (national, regional, global) pasts have always been possibilities, in addition to other networks of people who have been prepared to reflect on how to make them. Why have we forgotten about these pasts? And what happens to the narratives we have if we write a history of pasts that never existed, a history of utopias that didn’t happen? It’s something to think about.


[1] The inimitable Donald Reid (2015) of course manages a brief mention in Contesting Antiquity in Egypt: Archaeologies, Museums & the Struggle for Identities from World War I to Nasser. Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press, p. 345.

[2] Ahmed Fakhry (1952), An Archaeological Journey to Yemen (March-May 1947). Cairo: Government Press, p. v.

[3] UNESCO archives, Paris: Folder CA/12/7, 069 (62) AMS, “Documentation sur les Peintures et Inscriptions en Haute-Egypte—Programme de Participation”, part 7; letter to “Mr. Carter”, 2nd November 1956.

[4] Ibid.

[5] UNESCO archives, Paris: Folder CA/12/7, 069 (62) AMS, “Documentation sur les Peintures et Inscriptions en Haute-Egypte—Programme de Participation”, part 8; letter from Amer to Van der Haagen, 30th June 1957.