The Relocation of Abu Simbel: Political, Technological, and Cultural Implications
[A term paper by Allison Miller]
On January 14th, 1964 the New York Times published a photograph of the Soviet and Egyptian presidents, Khrushchev and Nasser, hurling rocks into the Nile celebrating the start of the construction of the Aswan High Dam. This was to be one of the largest rock-filled dams ever built, rivaling the size of even the pyramids. It would require 56 million cubic yards of material, enough to build 17 pyramids the size of Khufu. It was designed to tame the annual flooding of the Nile, rendering entire stretches of desert fertile. In addition to creating a more consistent economic and agricultural climate, It would also bring power to the city of Cairo, ushering in a new era of technological modernity for the country of Egypt.
The 1960’s marked a period of the Cold War that was characterized with extreme technical sophistication. The Aswan High Dam became a critical playing card in the superpower rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. During this time, President Nasser used the dam as a bargaining chip to receive support from both countries (Allais). Through a series of political skirmishes involving arms purchases and the Suez crisis, American funding for the project was eventually reneged. Therefore the dam was built entirely with Soviet money and expertise (Mexico). “Suspended in mid air, the stones of the dam were carriers of a political force that could stop not only the flow of the Nile, but Western channels of influence in the Middle East,” says Lucia Allais, an assistant professor of history and theory of architecture at Princeton University. Khrushchev himself declared his intentions to “drown capitalism” on the entire African continent. Western sources criticized this takeover as a “monopolization of the Nile” and accused Nasser of building himself a pyramid. In response, Nasser embraced the comparison, stating that Egypt’s modern publics works were as equally grandiose as the pyramids but inherently more useful, more human, and a shortcut to the future (Allais).
Stung by a series of foreign policy defeats, the United States and Britain publicized the dam as an environmental and social disaster. The massive lake forming upstream of the dam would cover just under 2,000 square miles, flooding many villages along the Nile and displacing over 52,000 people. Furthermore, many ancient monuments, temples, tombs, fortresses, and other relics would be submerged. They began concentrating their efforts on mitigating the ensuing archaeological damage. The dam became a veritable “iron curtain” with Soviet engineers operating dam construction downstream, while western archaeologists and engineers worked to salvage the ancient monuments upstream (Allais).
This spurred the beginning of a huge international (more accurately, Western) campaign to save the temples and monuments that would be inundated with three trillion cubic feet of Nile water. The largest and arguably, the most important of these monuments is Abu Simbel (MacQuitty).
The temple complex of Abu Simbel is situated about 230 kilometers southwest of Aswan. It is comprised of two temples, carved out of the mountainside during the reign of Rameses II in the 13th century BC. The largest depicts four seated colossi of Rameses guarding the entrance, each weighing 1,200 tons. The interior is made up of a series of grand halls with side rooms for storage and an inner sanctuary. The axis of the temple was positioned by the ancient Egyptian architects in such a way that twice a year, on February and October 23rd, the rays of the sun would penetrate to the inner sanctuary and illuminate the sculptures on the back wall. The figures of Rameses and the two sun gods, Re-Horakhte and Amen-Re, are bathed in light on these days while Theban god of darkness, Ptah, symbolically stays in darkness. The smaller temple is dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Queen Nefertari, the chief consort of Rameses. Its facade consists of four statues of Rameses and two of Nefertari (MacQuitty).
The question of how to move the colossi became the subject of an international engineering competition in which teams proposed elaborate, technologically complex schemes to save the monuments from the rising waters. Preserving the integrity of monument was of first priority. The criterion included preserving the relationship between the object and its site, the aesthetics of the monument, its material properties, structural properties, and place-making logic (Allais).
The Italian scheme, one of the first to be accepted for consideration, pays homage to the Italian notion of preservation in painting that distinguishes the skin of the painting from the structure behind it (Allais). The plan involved cutting away the rocks around the temple and encasing it in a reinforced concrete box. This would protect the monument while the whole structure is lifted by 650 synchronized jacks a sixteenth of an inch at a time. Next, prefabricated concrete pillars would be placed under the box and the jacks prepared to complete the next cycle. This plan would preserve the material wholeness and structural integrity of the monument. However, it was not chosen because of the large expense. The weight of the box and the temple together was estimated to be 250,000 tons making the total cost of the project 66 million dollars(MacQuitty).
The French proposed to reconstruct the landscape around the temples by building an elliptical dam which would encircle the temples. In this way, the technology used to endanger the monument would also be used to save it. The dam would be 25 meters high and 533 meters long. Its height would obstruct the light from reaching the inner sanctuary. Therefore, in the attempt to save the integrity of the site’s context, this solution actually destroyed it. An additional drawback is the constant maintenance that would be required to pump out unwanted water which elevated the cost to 82 million dollars (MacQuitty).
An additional French proposal was conceived by a military engineer but was never fully realized. Inspired by ship cleaning technology, he proposed that the temple be floated up to its new site on enormous buoys in a giant bathtub-like construct. This use of modern hydraulics would appeal to the ancient Egyptian who also used the Nile to transport heavy cargo (Allais).
A British film producer, William MacQuitty produced perhaps the most fanciful and idiosyncratic scheme. It provoked much conversation and captured international imagination, but was never taken seriously by the selection committee. In his proposal, the temples are left underwater. They would be surrounded by a thin membrane dam which, using filters, would purify the muddy Nile water thereby submerging the temples in a crystal clear aquarium. With the water level on both sides equal, the uniform pressure allows for a minimally enforced and less costly membrane. MacQuitty was an avid scuba diver and believed in the value of underwater perception, which acted like a magnifying glass. In his proposal, it is the visitors, not the monument which are encased in tunnels, bubbles, and shafts. Running through the dam are two passages which contain reinforced glass windows through which the visitor can observe the colossi at different angles. Powerful electric lights reproduce the rising and setting sun. Additional passages beneath the temple floors emerge into reinforced glass chambers from which the interior of the temple can be seen. Finally, chemicals would be pumped into the water which harden and preserve the sandstone. The idea was turned into a formal proposal by architects Maxwell Fry, Jane Drew, and civil engineer Ove Arup. MacQuitty argued that the temples would be far safer underwater than on land, where sandstorms can erode the fine carvings. One last merit to this proposal is its reversibility. Perhaps one day, nuclear power will surpass electrical power and the Aswan High Dam will be dismantled, the reservoir drained. At this point, the monuments would return to their original state, without ever having been dismantled (MacQuitty).
The winning proposal was the Swedish Scheme by the Swedish engineering firm Vattenbyggnadsbyran (VBB). It was selected partially because of its cost efficiency, and also its relatively quick execution. Time was of the essence since the flooding Nile waters were fast approaching. The plan first required the construction of a temporary coffer dam to keep the water out while this process was taking place. Then, the temple was cut by hand into manageable pieces, numbering about 11,050 and weighing as much as 33 tons each (Gerster). These were then stored in a nearby warehouse and reassembled 120 meters laterally and 60 meters up from its original location. Finally, a giant concrete dome was constructed above the temple at its new location to provide structural reinforcement to the temple’s newly fragmented state. The dome also supported the temple ceiling slabs which were hung from its grid-like structure. This dome was poured in more than 300 sections, and supports as much as 55 tons per square yard. Modern conveniences like lighting and ventilation were later installed to account for the influx of tourism. The entire cost was about 40 million US dollars (Gerster).
The plan was accepted under a secret bilateral agreement between the United States, Sweden, and Egypt. It was only adopted by UNESCO under pressure from the United States who asserted that cutting was the only alternative to flooding. UNESCO says, “We are immensely repulsed at the thought of recommending a project that leads to the cutting and fragmenting of these precious monuments in any way possible, even if they can be reconstituted on another site” (Allais).
The dismantling and reassembly of the ancient temples began on November 16, 1963 when the United Arab Republic signed a contract with Joint Venture Abu Simbel. This consortium of international construction companies from Milan, Paris, Essen, Stockholm, and Cairo were all overseen by VBB, the general manager. While the mountain was being excavated, the temples were covered in 5,000 truckloads of sand to protect them from falling debris.
The precision in which the delicate sandstone was cut was of the utmost importance. Skilled workers made fine cuts into the stone of a maximum of 6 millimeters wide. Any decorated surface was applied with a coating of synthetic resin to guard against crumbling except on the saw line. On the sculptured side of the slab the cuts were made only an inch deep, then holes were drilled, into which steel pins were driven in. Then on the opposite side, which had been excavated down to within 80 centimeters of the block, wider cuts were made in coordination with the steel pins. Once cut loose from the mountain, derricks hoisted the slabs onto low-bed trailers which moved them to the main storage yard. While in storage, the slabs were inspected and treated with cement for cracks and fissures.
The strength in this scheme lied in its use of local labor. The relatively simple process of cutting allowed for local labor to be utilized instead of specialized foreign labor which would have been necessary with a more complex scheme. In this way, the project became a technological bridge between Egypt and participating western countries in a time where their relations were otherwise strained (Allais).
During this massive construction project, the desert was crowded with an international community of archaeologists, engineers, and workmen. A bustling town sprung up out of the desert complete with a hospital, police station, two stores, a bakery, and a water purification plant. A harbor for supply boats and an airstrip were also built to accommodate the influx of people and materials. Settlements for the archaeologists, engineers, clerical employees, and 50 European and Egyptian families with 46 children were built. Languages spoken at Abu Simbel included Arabic, English, German, Italian, Swedish, French, and Danish.
As demonstrated by the international cooperation involved in the relocation of Abu Simbel, the notion of “global heritage” has become one of increasing value. This is partly because of our changing conceptions of history. While we still recognize a particular cultural group’s ownership of its heritage, its importance to the rest of the world has become more significant. Especially in the case of Abu Simbel, this interest in heritage lies not in the object’s monetary value, but in its cultural and historical value.
The cultural diversity of the earth is becoming increasingly considered a resource like oil or gas. Despite the political motivations and economic challenges, the relocation of Abu Simbel materialized because of a genuine global interest in preserving the material culture of ancient Egypt. I believe this trend will extend toward future preservation projects and like Abu Simbel, will create bridges across time, culture, and people.
Allais, Lucia. “Integrities: The International Salvage of Abu Simbel.” Lecture. Alteration. KTH School of Architecture, Stokholm. YouTube. KTH School of Architecture, 9 Sept. 2011. Web. 20 Apr. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch? v=SR3bBkE4ICg>.
Gerster, Georg. “Saving the Ancient Temples at Abu Simbel.” National Geographic (1966): 694-742. Print.
Gerster, Georg. “Abu Simbel’s Ancient Temples Reborn.” National Geographic 135.5 (1969): 724-44. Print.
MacQuitty, William. Abu Simbel. New York: Putnam, 1965. Print.
Mexico. Third World Center for Water Management. Los Clubes, Atizapan, Estado De Mexico. Hydropolitics and Impacts of the High Aswan Dam. APP Advisory Panel on Water Management, Mar. 2004. Web. 2 May 2012. <http://www.app-wm.org/