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. 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”. 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. 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”.
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”.
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”. Plowshare, whose biblical (Isaiah 2:4) reference was not particularly subtle, was organised in order “to redeem the nuclear bomb itself”. 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. 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.
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.
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”. 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”. “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”. 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.
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, 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’”. 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”. 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. 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.
 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).
 Gabgaba Project Report (4th ed.), attached letter from ISAFONC, Zurich, Switzerland, 25 June 1962.
 Ibid., attached letter from ISAFONC, Berkeley, CA, 21 November 1962.
 Ibid., p. 1.
 Ibid., p. 3.
 Ibid., p. 4.
 Dan O’Neill, The Firecracker Boys: H-Bombs, Inupiat Eskimos, and the Roots of the Environmental Movement (New York: Basic Books, 2008), p. 27.
 Ibid., p. 23.
 Ibid., p. 28.
 Ibid., p. 24.
 Gabgaba Project Report, p. 5.
 Ibid., Appendix VI, p. 1.
 Ibid., p. 6.
 Ibid., attached letter from H. A. Keller and H. B. Cleaveland, 20 December 1962.
 Ibid., attached “Distribution Key”.
 Dan O’Neill, The Firecracker Boys, p 295.
 Ibid., p. 294.
 Gabgaba Project Report, Appendix VI, p. 1.
 For ‘nuclearity’ see Gabrielle Hecht, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).