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Drowned, but triumphant
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 13 - 12 - 2001

The Nubia Museum in Aswan has been awarded the prestigious International Aga Khan Award for Architecture, writes Nevine El-Aref
Barely 30 years ago, an ancient culture and the land in which it was based was submerged by the rising waters of Lake Nasser. Only its people survived -- moved en masse to new locations in Upper Egypt and Sudan. This culture has been preserved in one of Egypt's newest museums, Aswan's Nubia Museum, which has been chosen from among 427 projects submitted to the jury in the current cycle for an Aga Khan Award for Architecture (see Box). The museum was one of nine to receive the prize.
"It is a great honour for Egypt and the Egyptians to win such an outstanding award," said Gaballa Ali Gaballa, general secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), who described the museum as unique in the Mediterranean basin and one which served both a cultural and social function. "It is the crown of the 1960s salvage operations in Nubia, which demonstrated an ideal cooperation between all the nations of the world," he added.
The need for a museum to house objects salvaged from the doomed land became apparent at the beginning of UNESCO's salvage operation in the 1960s, and a contract for a museum to be built in Aswan, Egypt's border province with Nubia, was signed in 1967. However, the project took time to get off the ground, and actual construction began only in the mid-1980s when the Egyptian government asked UNESCO to help launch the project.
The plans were drawn up by the late Egyptian architect Mahmoud El-Hakim, who designed the delightful antiquities museum in Luxor. The building, inspired by a combination of Nubian and ancient Egyptian architecture, is surrounded by stepped terraces built to harmonise with the rocky nature of the area. The museum itself meshes with its surroundings and stands at a low elevation so as not to distort the physical panorama. The traditional Nubian style is clearly reflected in the design of the façade, the door and windows, and especially in the vaulted main entrance, a feature which dates from prehistoric times and survives in Nubian houses today.
As the waters of Lake Nasser rose behind the High Dam, 50,000 Egyptian Nubians were rehoused in the Kom Ombo area of Egypt north of Aswan in villages built by the government, while 53,000 Sudanese Nubians were moved further away from their original homeland to Khasm Al- Girba on the Atbara River, more than 1,000 kilometres south of Wadi Halfa. It was planned that the Nubia museum would not only display salvaged artefacts representing an endangered -- even lost -- culture, but would provide a living memory of Nubia and its heritage. The museum emphasises the relationship that has linked Egypt and Nubia throughout history.
The museum is on two floors, with a low mezzanine to enhance the interior. An eight-metre- long model of the Nile Valley shows all the temples of Nubia in their original and now inundated locations, along with the sites where they were reconstructed.
A massive flight of stairs leads down from street level to the entrance. A focal point of interest is an eight-metre-high Nubian sandstone statue of Ramses II, released from storage after 27 years; this comes from a pillar of the temple which stood at the edge of the Nile in Gerf Hussein.
The museum houses more than 3,000 items excavated from various sites in Nubia, both during the salvage operation in the 1960s and from earlier excavations carried out since the turn of the 20th century. The museum's greatest attraction is the royal collection discovered in Ballana, near Abu Simbel, by the British archaeologist Walter Emery in 1931. This was an intact royal burial of members of the Nobodai tribe, and includes a massive silver crown found resting on the head of a king along with the quartz, crystal and jasper beads adorning his neck. This collection was formerly in the Egyptian Museum. Objects brought from the Coptic Museum in Cairo include 10th- century wall paintings salvaged from the Church of Abdallah Nirgi and unique icons from the church at Qasr Ibraim; while pieces in the Islamic section include tapestries and texts.
The low-impact interior of the museum, the lighting and the individual vistas at strategic positions encourage an organised, uninterrupted flow of visitors, preventing any doubling back and getting in the way of the people behind. Extra interest is provided by the beautifully- rendered historical placards placed at appropriate positions, which give clear and accurate texts describing each phase of Nubia's long history and the vicissitudes of its culture.
The section on ethnography includes model reconstructions of the distinctive domestic architecture of Nubia and reveals every aspect of life, including hand-painted decorations and woven baskets. Models of individuals carrying out household, social, and agricultural activities bring the "ancient way" to life for members of the younger generation who might otherwise have no knowledge of the life of their parents and grandparents. There is even a painting of the Post Boat which used to stop at each of the 46 districts of Nubia en route from Shallal to Wadi Halfa, south of Aswan, in the early 20th century.
The Nubia Museum won the Aga Khan award not only for its distinctive architectural style and the high quality of its construction material, but for its superb landscaping and its preservation of a way of life and culture of a whole land. "Winning such an award was no easy task," Zahi Hawass, director-general of the Giza plateau and Bahariya oasis and a member of the Award Master Jury, told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that the Nubia Museum faced strong competition.
"It is also recognised under the scheme set up by the Regional Cultural Centre of Museum Conservation and Museology for Arab countries and Africa, another standpoint that won recognition from the jury," Hawass said.
The grounds of the museum, which lies in a historic area at the southern entrance of the town, east of the Old Cataract Hotel, are homogeneous with the surrounding environment.
Leila Stino of Sites International Landscape Architects, who landscaped the site, said that planning a rocky slope of sandstone and granite, overlooking the ancient quarry on one side and the Fatimid cemetery on the other, was a real challenge. "It took two years of studying the environment and considering all possibilities before we came up with the present design. The outdoors had to complement the museum itself," she said.
On display in the grounds are 80 items from the Egyptian and Coptic museums; 22 rock drawings from various sites in Nubia and 26 objects saved from the Kalabsha and Sebu'a areas. There is a prehistoric cave with replicas of primitive drawings of animals, and a watercourse and lakes running beside the Nubian house irrigate traditional Nubian plants. Performances of Nubian folk music and dance are performed in an open-air amphitheatre.
There are also examples of the distinctive paintings which once adorned Nubian houses, as well as images of Nubia and the projects which have taken place there since the initial threat from the construction of the first barrage at Aswan, the Aswan Dam, and its subsequent heightening, which successively obscured the culture of Nubia even while providing modern technology to feed Egypt's ever-increasing population. In the museum garden, too, are 62 projected slides by the late Abdel-Fattah Eid, and publications by foreign missions which have excavated in Nubia. Also in the garden are graphics covering topics ranging from the now- submerged mines in southern Nubia, through the type of grave known as C-group, the Egyptian fortresses at the Second Cataract and the decline of Egyptian influence in Nubia and Kush (Sudan).
One of the purposes of the Nubia Museum was to record Nubian heritage and stress Nubian identity and pride. In this it has been a resounding success. The museum compound, planned as a cultural and civil centre with facilities for scholars, includes halls for anthropological and ethnological studies and a reference library. It is filled with Nubians from all walks of life, who proudly show their heritage to their children, all brought up and educated in Egypt. Groups of schoolchildren visit at weekends.
This worthy prize, the Aga Khan Award, will be shared by the Nubia Museum, the Supreme Council of Antiquities, late architect Mahmoud El-Hakim, and the Arab Bureau and Sites International Landscape Architects.
AGA Khan Award for Architecture
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture was established in 1977 by his Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shi'a Ismaili Muslims. The aim was to enhance the understanding and appreciation of Islamic culture as expressed through architecture; the method was to seek out and recognise examples of architectural excellence. The judges looked at aspects as varied as contemporary design, social housing, community improvement, development, restoration, re-use and conservation, as well as landscaping and environmental issues. The Aga Khan Award seeks to identify and encourage building concepts which successfully address the needs and aspirations of societies in which Muslims have a significant presence.
The selection puts an emphasis on architecture which not only provides for people's physical, social, and economic needs, but also stimulates and responds to their cultural and spiritual expectations.
Particular attention is given to schemes that use local resources and appropriate technology in an innovative way and to projects likely to inspire similar efforts elsewhere.
The award is organised around a calendar spanning a three-year cycle, and is governed by a Steering Committee chaired by the Aga Khan. Prizes totalling up to $500,000 -- the largest architectural award in the world -- are presented every three years to projects selected by an independent Master Jury.
The Aga Khan Award has completed continuous cycles of activity since 1977, and documentation has been compiled on over 6,000 building projects located throughout the world. To date, the Master Juries have identified 75 projects to receive awards. The Eighth Award Cycle covers the period from 1999 to 2001.
Of the large number of candidates for the latest Aga Khan Award, only 35 projects were reviewed by a team of experts on site. Complex issues were discussed, one key concern being how each design was used to enhance living conditions within diverse Muslim communities or societies. Issues of environmental sustainability, social equality, culture, historical identity and human dignity were considered. Particular attention was paid to projects which encouraged underprivileged communities, helping them improve conditions by increasing productivity while, at the same time, developing environmental awareness. Sharing access to modern culture and communication was also taken into account, as was epitomised by the selection of the SOS children's village in Aqaba, Jordan, as one of the winners.
Another of this year's winners was the Ait Iktel project in Abadou, Morocco. This architectural example, simple yet reliable, was planned to improve local facilities and thus help reverse the constant flow of migration with its concomitant depletion of local human resources and deterioration of the environment.
Some projects, like the Barefoot Architects' University in India, the Olbia Social Centre in Antalya, Turkey, and the Nubia Museum in Egypt, have met educational needs such as preserving an ancient heritage. Others again, like the Kahere Eila Poultry Farming School at Koliagbe, Guinea, provide instruction in techniques of animal husbandry aimed at enriching diet and nutrition.
According to the jury statement, another issue that had to be addressed was the context of architecture in the role of tourism in modern economies -- tourism that respected the environment and introduced local culture within the theme of construction, as is seen in the Datai Hotel in Pulau Langkawi, Malaysia.
Projects which secure the future of historical buildings through restoration and conversion to serve a functional purpose was also a consideration, as was the creation of new parks for urban communities such as in Begh Ferdowsi in Tehran, Iran.
Egyptian representatives attended the celebration held in Aleppo citadel in Syria in honour of the nine winners. Attendees enjoyed a musical evening in which the entertainment was centred on the Great Silk Road. Musical ensembles performed a series of programmes featuring various communities along the route.
The Silk Road -- in its heyday from the second century BC to the 15th century, by which time silk production had reached Europe -- ran from Xian in China to Venice and Lyon, passing through Tyre in Lebanon.
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