This is not a religious article depicting biblical or Islamic facts…but a recent history of the Nubians, whose lands were inundated not by natural forces, but the human hand, for the sake of ‘progress’.
This first happened in Nubia in 1933, when the Aswan Dam was elevated for the second time and all the villages of Nubia were submerged. At that time, the Egyptian government had allotted the relatively trivial sum of L.E. 750,000 as an indemnity to the Nubians for the 35,000 houses which were to be destroyed. Finally, the Nubians accepted the government’s offer with reluctance and started building just one year before their houses were submerged. No two houses were the same and each was more beautiful than the last; each village created its own character.
The Nubians’ natural talent for aesthetical rural housing constructions inherited from their ancestors, became a study for masters in architecture, such as the renowned Architect Hassan Fathy and his followers. Fathy stated that the Nubians managed construction from scratch, mainly because they retained a roofing technique in mud brick, using vaults and domes, which had been passed down to them from their forefathers.
The earliest example of this technique was found by Garstang, in his excavations at Bayt Khalaf, in Minia. The buildings dated back to the 3rd dynasty. Later examples are the Necropolis of Giza and in the granaries of Ramesseum at Luxor, dating from the 6th and 19th dynasties respectively. In the Ptolemaic necropolis of Hermopolis at Tuna El-Gabal, such vaults were used to carry staircases, and in the early Christian period, there is a compound of 250 shrines, built in mud and roofed in vaults and domes – all in the same material. Most shrines built in this fashion at Bagawat in the Kharga Oasis around the 4th century, are still standing.
From the Islamic period, we have examples in which the same technique is applied in a most elaborate and sophisticated way, as the tombs found in the Fatimid Necropolis at Aswan, dating from the 10rh century.
Unfortunately, the Egyptian peasant abandoned this technique, except in Nubia, where it has prevailed. If it were not for this technique, which allowed Nubians to use mud brick for roofing their houses in 1934, it would have been impossible for them to rebuild so cheaply and in such a short time. Moreover, the Nubians’ roofing technique allowed them to display their artistic and architectural capabilities, in designing their houses.
Nubian vernacular (local traditional) architecture continued to be ignored by the rest of the world, until 1963 when the region was to be flooded for the third time. (The first was after the British built the original dam at Aswan in 1898, known then as the “khazan”. The second time was when the dam was elevated in 1933, and the third time was the construction of the High Dam itself in 1964.)
As the antiquities in Nubia were to be submerged, the world tried to save them, particularly the temple of Abu Simbel. The acting Minister of Culture, Dr. Tharwat Okasha, invited 20 artists and architects to visit the region before it disappeared. The Nile steamer “Dakka” was put at their disposal for that purpose, but the guests chose to visit the villages rather than the antiquities. Consequently, this visit was merely one of reconnaissance – too limited to make any proper record of Nubian vernacular architecture. It needed a more comprehensive survey in which measured drawings would be made of the architectural styles of the different regions of Nubia, namely the Kanuz, the Arab (Mahas) and the Nubi.
Architect Hassan Fathy was then commissioned by the Ministry of Culture to design the Higher Institute of Social Anthropology, which was to include an open-air museum and in which the architecture of the different regions of the country was to be represented. Nubia, he quoted, was given priority due to it being on the verge of disappearance. “We now had the opportunity of recording its architecture in a thorough and comprehensive way. But, this was all that was done officially to record Nubia’s peculiarly beautiful architecture,” he said.
Two of Hassan Fathy’s students and followers, literally followed ‘the master’ but without the allotted steamer. Instead, they took the journey (in 1963) without realizing that they were travelling the same way as the ancestors of the Nubians: a 300kms trek on foot from Aswan to Abu Simbel upstream, then they hand-built a raft which floated them downstream! In ancient Egyptian murals, boats sailing upstream from Abydos to Thebes, are shown to have sails, using the prevailing northerly winds. But boats going downstream from Thebes to Abydos, are depicted with oars and no sails, to show that they were going against the current. Together with Architect Hassan Fathy, the group comprised of only two social anthropologists and three architects. The big steamer could have accommodated 20 more passengers, if they wanted.
Dr. Omar El-Hakim was one of the students and followers. He said that the Nubian relocation should be an example for future rural redevelopment and settlement procedures, highlighting the significance of vernacular architecture in resettlement projects. “The people must be consulted about and included in the process of building their own environment.”
The Nubian experience with its inherited techniques should continue to prevail, as it is an architectural style appropriate to Egypt’s habitat, environment and the needs of the communities they serve, as well as a less costly yet more realistic alternative to contracting for mass-produced housing with its expensive new technology.
Nubia is gone, for the progress of Egypt, but the Nubians still exist! They are scattered around Egypt, mainly neglected and living in slum areas. It is not their fault that their land was taken away from them. In front of the AUC in a simple club above a well-known restaurant, we sometimes hear their drums and songs from the street, bemoaning their destiny. They deserve to earn a decent living, but the majority find jobs only as porters.