Destruction of Egyptian Cultural Heritage: Environmental Population

The one thing that has always kept Egypt constantly thriving is also the one thing that can hurt it the most: the Nile. This river has the ability to sustain life while simultaneously being able to destroy the past. Archaeologists have been locked in a constant struggle for ages trying to protect and preserve archeological sites threatened by the watery powerhouse. This is a massive subject to cover; therefore, this paper will specifically focus on the effects caused by the building of the dam at Aswan.

There are some very important questions to be considered on this topic. Why is cultural heritage being destroyed by the Nile, why specifically the Aswan Dam? As a result, what of significance has been lost? What, if anything can be recovered? What is being done today to prevent any further annihilation of archeological sites surrounding the dam?

Why does this matter? Because of the building of the Aswan Dam, numerous sites were about to be compromised and as a result some of them were dismantled, transported to a new location, and then reassembled for permanent residence. This massive effort also aided in the discovery of sites that may have never been found if not for the Nubian campaign held by UNESCO. Since the effort for removal and preservation was so expansive, there was an impact on the development of different, new, and improved archaeological field methods.

One of the main focuses of this rescue effort was the two temples of Ramses II at Abu Simbel. The carved temple itself and four colossal statues of the pharaoh were sawed into huge blocks and reconstructed on higher ground. The smaller temple, four statues of Ramses II, and two of Nefertiti were subject to the same process.

Another site that was removed from its original location was the temple complex on Philae Island.  This site was a little more complicated because it was submerged by the construction of the first Aswan Dam and had to be fortified and the water pumped out before the relocation to Agilkyia Island could begin.

Equally as important as the temples of Ramses II and the complex on Philae Island is the site of Qasr Ibrim in Lower Nubia. Why? Because it is the ONLY ancient settlement not forced underwater by the forming of Laker Nasser during the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Even so, it is not entirely safe forever as some of the site has been affected by high lake levels in the recent past.

This was an effort of rescue archaeology and was the first large-scale effort to do so anywhere in the world. Such a process was increasingly used into the 20th century because of the growing danger caused by population expansion and economic development.

Hopefully this paper will bring home the thought that Egypt’s cultural heritage is still important and must be saved at all costs. The Nile has done wonders for Egyptian society and life but it cannot be allowed to simply destroy significant archaeological sites without an effort to prevent the damage.


Bard, Kathryn. (2008). An Introduction to the Archeology of Ancient Egypt. Malden: Blackwell.

Egypt’s Cultural Heritage under Threat of Destruction. Egyptian Cultural Heritage Organisation. Retrieved from

Hassan, Fekri. (2007). The Aswan High Dam and the International Rescue Nubia Campaign. New York, NY: Springer.

Neher, Kelly. (2005). Assessing the Impact of the Aswan High Dam on Archeological Monuments in Egypt. University of Wisconsin.

Neville, Tove. (1960). Past Threatened by Aswan Dam. Washington, D.C.

Who Should Own the Past?

Something that struck me this week, both in our class lecture and in the readings, is the appropriation of ancient Egyptian cultural heritage.  Why is it that European and American cities have large collections of ancient Egyptian artifacts, texts, monumental architecture, and human remains?  Why are these items not in Egyptian museums or cultural centers?

As Hassan (2010) carefully details, Egypt has been a cultural reference point for Europeans since initial encounters between the two regions.  Egyptian wisdom, ideology, and culture were emphasized and glamorized by early European visitors and have since been transformed and incorporated into Western culture.  Renaissance and colonial European scientists, artists, and intellectuals were indoctrinated with the belief that their history was linked to Egypt’s; therefore, they had legitimate claims to Egyptian antiquities.

But who owns the past?  Who should own the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian obelisks, and statues of Rameses II?  “Paris, London, and later New York,” as Hassan (2010) notes, “could not have become world cities without Egyptian obelisks” (p. 265).  Rome also acquired an Egyptian obelisk and has henceforth been known as the “eternal city” due to its collection of archaeological collections.  However, should international cities retain these cultural artifacts?

I have visited the Egyptian wings of numerous international museums and have always been struck by the vastness of the collection.  I am aware that some artifacts were presented as gifts by the Egyptian government to other nations, but what about the artifacts that were “stolen” during Egyptian expeditions of the 18th and 19th centuries?  Should these items of Egyptian cultural heritage still reside in foreign (and former colonial) countries, or should they be returned to their rightful place of origin?  Does Egypt want them back and do they have a place to store and/or display such treasures?  These are difficult questions to answer, and perhaps they are addressed in literature I have not read, but it seems like an interesting debate.