The New Nubia Museum in Aswan

reviewed by O.E. Kaper


After lengthy preparations which involved great numbers of people and organisations, the new Nubia Museum has been built. It was formally opened by president Mubarak of Egypt on 23 November 1997, but some parts of the building will only be in operation at a later date. The new museum is of major significance for Egyptian archaeology, for tourism in Egypt, and last (but not least) for the Nubian people.

The museum is set on a hill in the cataract region, just beyond the Cataract Hotel, surrounded by a garden with views of the surrounding landscape. The building itself is already spectacular, even beautiful. It was designed by Dr Mahmud el-Hakim, who was responsible for the design of the Luxor Museum of Ancient Egyptian Art, which opened in 1975. Its exterior is decorated in simple forms, entirely executed in the local Nubian sandstone and suggesting Nubian temple walls. A decorative band of stones in a zigzag pattern imitates the mudbrick courses of Nubian house architecture. Different architects were responsible for the garden and the interior of the building, respectively.

The exhibition inside the museum is arranged in chronological order, devoting equal space to the different eras of Nubian history. The museum is devoted to the Egyptian part of Nubia, or Lower Nubia, which was entirely drowned by the waters of Lake Nasser, after the building of the Aswan dam. The country no longer exists, but as a result of systematic archaeological surveys and excavations, many objects and even entire monuments were saved. Several museums in foreign countries have in recent years devoted displays to the history of Nubia, such as the British Museum and the museums of Boston and Toronto. Now, finally, Egypt itself has amassed the largest exhibition of all in Aswan, surrendering to the present-day Nubians their history. The success of the museum with the local Nubian population is demonstrated daily by the hundreds of Nubian visitors to the museum, many of whom now live in the region of Aswan. In fact, the museum has been designed to be more than just an art collection and an historical display. On the grounds of the building, two theatres have been added, and a gallery has been included for showing contemporary work by Nubian artists. A library is to be housed in it as well, stimulating the academic study of the Nubian past.

The display cases of the museum contain over 2000 items, all of which are well lit and labelled in state-of-the-art show cases. Efforts have been made to evoke the original surroundings of the exhibits, which are lost, through the regular insertion of scale models of buildings from the historical periods represented. At the start of the exhibition, a large model of the Egyptian Nile Valley indicates the large number of Egyptian temples which once stood along the Nubian Nile.

It is entirely fitting that the centrepiece of the entire display should be a colossal statue of Rameses II, which once formed part of the rock temple of Gerf Hussein. Many of the unique Nubian temples were saved during the international campaign organized by UNESCO in the 1960s, and the remains of several of these temples were donated by Egypt to the foreign participants in this campaign. Standing there dwarfed by the colossal statue of Rameses, one is reminded of the sad fact that many more monuments have had to be sacrificed. The temple of Gerf Hussein is one of the pharaonic style temples which could not be saved, and today only this colossus and some odd fragments of sculpture and relief remain. These pieces make, to my mind, a dramatic statement about the scale of the sacrifice which Egypt made by building the High Dam at Aswan in the attempt to secure for itself a prosperous future. Likewise, only a few fragments of the chapel of Horemheb at Abu Oda survive, and only one of the original four decorated rock chapels from Qasr Ibrim were included in the museum (the largest shrine, of Usersatet, from the reign of Amenophis II). The remaining three chapels had to be abandoned at the base of the cliff, where they had been carved some 3500 years ago.

The museum presents the history of Nubia in the terms coined for the history of Egypt. The terms Old, Middle, and New Kingdom are used throughout, which is rather artificial but it has the advantage, apart from being familiar terms of reference for the visitor, of highlighting the intimate association of the Nubian culture with the Egyptian. The museum displays highlight these connections specifically. For instance, it includes a copy of the famous wooden tomb model of a group of Nubian archers in the Cairo Museum, which was found in Asyut in Middle Egypt, and which attests to the presence of Nubian soldiers in Middle Kingdom Egypt.

The history of the town of Aswan itself has also been incorporated into the museum's displays, and for good reason. The border town of Aswan has always stood under the influence of both cultures, as is evidenced, for instance, by the Middle Kingdom coffin of Heqata (formerly kept in the Egyptian Museum), who was a Nubian buried in Aswan in the Egyptian fashion. Other, purely Egyptian artefacts from Aswan are also shown here, such as the powerful statues from the Heqa-ib chapel and a head of Nectanebo II found on Elephantine Island.

Another period which is represented in the collection, for obvious reasons, is the Egyptian Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, during which the Nubians ruled over Egypt. A number of masterpieces have been selected dating from this period, both from the southern capital of Napata (Sudan) and from the area of Luxor. Thus, we see the 'dream stela' of Tanutamun from Gebel Barkal, and the beautiful statues of Harwa and of Horemakhet from Karnak.

As state above, the emphasis in the collection lies on the region of Lower Nubia. The visitor is first introduced to the large collection of prehistoric material, with its beautiful flint tools and rock carvings (petroglyphs). Part of the latter collection has been effectively displayed inside an artificial cave in the garden of the museum. Unfortunately, these pieces have been excluded from the otherwise excellent labelling, and the numbers and places of origin of the individual pieces are not clear.

The A-Group and C-Group cultures are introduced mainly through the effective use of text panels in the display. These cultures represent the original indigenous way of life of the Nubians before the Egyptian influence became pervasive. The Egyptians colonized the region and built massive defence systems during the Middle Kingdom at its southern border in the Second Cataract. A model of the fortress of Buhen suggests the large scale of these structures of mudbrick, of which none could be saved from inundation. Otherwise, only a small selection of objects, mainly ceramics, is shown, as well as a reconstructed A-Group burial.

The most extensive temple building in the region dates to the New Kingdom, and this remains the best known feature of Lower Nubia. Recently, a number of cruise ships have started to traverse Lake Nasser between Aswan and Abu Simbel in order to allow visits to the temples which have been relocated along the shores of the lake. In the museum, the subject of temple building is addressed by the fragments saved from the sites of Gerf Hussein, Qasr Ibrim, and Abu Oda, already mentioned, as well as by the contents of a small solar chapel which formed part of the Great Temple at Abu Simbel. These items, a shrine with statues, two obelisks, and four baboon statues, were brought to Cairo after their discovery in 1909. Unfortunately, and here we touch on a flaw of the new museum display, the exhibition has opted for an artistic rather than a historical display, so that the individual pieces are not grouped as they were originally intended but as separate items, and, worse still, in entirely artificial groupings. The baboon statues, which originally stood on top of the solar altar of the chapel, have now been displayed at the base of one of the two obelisks from the same chapel, in the manner of the baboons at the base of the Luxor obelisks. This is an unacceptable piece of falsification on the part of the museum. Elsewhere, the chronological order of the objects in the museum has been sacrificed in favour of a more modern visual arrangement. The Kerma ceramics (four vessels) are displayed in the New Kingdom hall together with ceramics from Napata, Meroë, as well as the C-Group culture.

Many of the statues in the museum are displayed without protective cases, but fortunately, these are all out of reach. The labelling is effective, with much additional information provided in separate text panels on the walls, in both Arabic and English. For children, the objects themselves will certainly capture the imagination: for instance, the exotic royal burial equipment from Ballana, which was formerly kept in the Cairo Museum. The horse trappings and jewellery from these tombs continue the tradition of blending the Egyptian and African artistic styles which already characterises the earlier Meroitic culture. The Meroitic culture was centred in Sudanese Nubia, and this important historical phase has, as a consequence, received only scant attention in the current museum display. Only some of the famous decorated ceramics from this period are shown and some of the characteristic funerary statues known as ba-birds.

The Christian and Islamic periods are represented in a small number of well chosen objects. The delicate church frescos from Abdallah Nirqi have been transferred here from the Coptic Museum in Cairo. The Islamic display includes some stunning textiles from the fourteenth century AD, found at Gebel Adda and Qasr el-Wizz. These are followed by a lengthy description on a series of text panels describing the building of the High Dam. Separate text panels are devoted to the ensuing international rescue campaign which has yielded so many of the pieces in the museum.

The final section of the museum's tour through Nubian history is an ethnographic one. The contemporary Nubian folklore is presented here in a series of life-size dioramas which represent scenes from village life. During my visits to the museum, the Nubian visitors were much attracted by this display, which elicited many remarks of recognition.

In the near future, a cafeteria is due to open inside the building. A bookshop is already functioning, but strangely enough, no books on Nubian culture are offered for sale, but only the run-of-the-mill books on Egyptian antiquities. There is a brief colour catalogue of the museum with photographs of some of the highlights. The storerooms of the museum are said to contain another 3000 objects, which are, of course, only to be studied by specialist visitors. The staff of the museum, which is mostly Nubian, numbers about a hundred people and is under the direction of Dr Sabri Abd el-Aziz, and the chief conservator Ossama Abd el-Wareth.

I highly recommend the museum to all who visit Egypt. It is worth a detour to Aswan especially to see it. Reserve at least three hours for your visit, and do not miss the beautiful garden, which also contains some stone antiquities of various kinds. A few Fatimid tombs which were already present on the hill have been restored and are incorporated in the garden. The opening hours are 9 am to 1 pm and 5 pm to 9 pm in winter, and until 10 pm in summer. The tickets (full price) are 20 Egyptian pounds.

Copyright © O.E. Kaper 1998


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