Museum keeps Egypt’s threatened Nubian civilisation alive
Aswan - At a time when Egypt’s Nubian minority is calling for greater cultural conservation, Aswan’s Nubia Museum is one of the few places where Nubian culture is being showcased and celebrated.
The Nubians, an ethno-linguistic group indigenous to a region comprising southern Egypt and northern Sudan, make up one of Egypt’s forgotten minorities. Nubian language, history and culture are not taught in Egyptian schools and many people warn that future generations of Nubians could lose their native culture.
Nubians in Egypt faced several waves of displacement in the 20th century: The building of the Aswan Dam by the British in 1902, development projects in 1912 and 1933, and the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1964 and the creation of Lake Nasser.
However, the Nubia Museum, in Egypt’s southernmost province of Aswan, is a treasure-trove of Nubian history. The three-storey building houses some of the most important artefacts of Nubian civilisation.
“The Nubia Museum is an important place because it keeps the civilisation of the Nubians, which has been threatened since their relocation from southern Egypt, alive,” said museum Director Osama Abdel Wareth. “Its contents are the best evidence of the greatness of these people.”
The museum was opened in 1997 and won the 2001 Aga Khan Award for architecture. Built on grounds totalling 50,000 sq. metres, the museum itself, 7,000 sq. metres, sits atop a steep cliff overlooking the Nile River. The building’s narrow windows provide a natural coolness compared to the stifling heat outside.
The museum exhibits rare pieces from ancient and modern Nubia. It is divided into 17 sections, each of which showcases a phase of Nubian history.
“The museum is the Nubians’ window into their own history,” said Awad Hassan, a researcher into Nubian history. “It collects some artefacts that would have been [scattered] in different places now, at best, and totally lost, at worst.”
There are more than 5,000 artefacts in the museum, spanning pre-historic times to the Kingdom of Kush to Christian Nubia and Islamic Nubia.
The museum houses what is believed to be the oldest solar calendar, which dates back more than 13,000 years. There is also ancient jewellery, pottery, statues, mummies and a host of Islamic and Coptic artefacts.
The basement of the museum is a beehive of activity, with antiquity students and restoration experts repairing and restoring ancient artefacts. Visiting researchers are a common sight as academics from across the world work in the museum documenting Nubian history.
The museum library takes a place of pride on the ground floor. It contains ancient manuscripts from throughout Egypt’s history. Not far outside the library, the museum exhibits different types of rock-hewn tombs, a form of burial chamber common in Nubia.
Many of the artefacts were recovered from Lake Nasser and suffered water damage during years of being submerged. International antiquities teams dispatched by UNESCO trawled the High Dam reservoir to recover artefacts from ancient temples and historical sites.
Few of those who lived in the ancient Nubian villages in southern Egypt before the construction of the High Dam are alive but their children and grandchildren are turning the museum into their own mecca, coming to see the artistry of their ancestors.
Enas Gamal, a Nubian housewife in her early 40s from Cairo, said she was thrilled to visit the museum.
“I first heard about this museum from a group of friends who visited it as part of a tour in Aswan a few years ago but when I came here myself, I discovered that all the beautiful words my friends said about the place were an understatement compared to the beauty I saw inside,” Gamal said.