From Abu Simbel to Abu Mena: The Egyptian origins of world heritage

Universal heritage in the Arab world in grave danger
5 min read
10 January, 2023
UNESCO's World Heritage list consecrates sites or areas of cultural significance. The Arab world's foundational role in human civilisation has meant the region is awash with protected sites, however, a lot of these sites are now at risk of collapse.

Just two months after the end of the Second World War, a battle-wearied London hosted representatives from 44 countries.

That meeting in November 1945 established an organisation tasked with creating and maintaining the "intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind".

This lofty aim was the founding principle of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, otherwise known as UNESCO.

"As of January 2023, 52 properties are listed as in danger, with 21 of those located in the Arab world. For some, the threat is directly tied to war or changing climate conditions. For others, it stems from ill-advised development projects with questionable intentions"

UNESCO’s work in the cultural field was originally, and unsurprisingly, difficult to define. That is until the 1960s when, against the backdrop of the Cold War, an Egyptian infrastructure project funded by the Soviets prompted an international conservation campaign that would change everything.

Abu Simbel

Egypt’s soil evidence of periods of drought and famine dating back millennia and this cyclical occurrence of human suffering prompted Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government to commit to building the Aswan High Dam in 1959.

Though the Dam was an effective shield against drought, the subsequent rise in the water level of the Nile had immediate consequences for the population.

Around 100,000 people were relocated out of the flood zones into newly built compounds with little thought given to uprooting their communities. The water also threatened a part of the regional cultural heritage resulting in a complex rescue operation.

The heritage site in danger was Abu Simbel – twin temples dedicated to Pharoah Ramesses II dating back to the 13th century BCE.

Ruins of the Great Basilica at Abu Mena, New York: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, 2009 [photo credit: Iris Fernandez]
Abu Simbel – Work in Progress [photo credit: Per-Olow Andersen]

From 1964, a team made up of specialists from countries including Italy, Germany and Sweden, began the painstaking process of dividing the temples into large numbered blocks, before reconstructing them on a plateau outside the flood zone.

The process took four years and cost almost $ 385 million (adjusted for inflation) but the temples were saved and in the newly situated Abu Simbel, the idea of consciously preserving world heritage was born.

World Heritage in Danger

Following the rescue of Abu Simbel, a world heritage convention was drawn up and approved by the United Nations. Today there are 1,154 cultural and natural sites enshrined in the UNESCO World Heritage List with only 27 states as yet unrepresented.

The Great Temple at Abu Simbel [photo credit: Diego Delso]
The Great Temple at Abu Simbel [photo credit: Diego Delso]

Russell E. Train, one of the chief proponents of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention envisaged this work as fundamental in developing "a sense of our kinship with one another as part of a single, global community," championing peace and progress.

Even so, there was recognition that social, economic and ecological conditions might jeopardise World Heritage. Accordingly, a provision was included in the Convention to list and protect heritage sites in danger.

When the danger to Abu Simbel was weighed against the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the prevailing mood was that a choice had to be made between development and culture, "between flourishing crops and the traces of a global history".

Despite, or more cynically perhaps because of, the attention and funding granted to such successful projects, governments across the world have continued to prove unable or unwilling to protect their World Heritage sites.

Indeed, as of January 2023, 52 properties are listed as in danger, with 21 of those located in the Arab world. For some, the threat is directly tied to war or changing climate conditions. For others, it stems from ill-advised development projects with questionable intentions.

Abu Mena

There are more than passing similarities between Southern Egypt’s Abu Simbel in the 60s and the newly-threatened Abu Mena in the north.

Abu Mena is made up of a monastery complex and the oldest Christian Church in Egypt, founded on the tomb of the fourth-century martyr Menas, an Egyptian Roman soldier executed c.309ACE for refusing to renounce his faith.

Like Ramesses II’s twin temples, the site combines the godly and the humane and was of immense importance to the native Coptic population and foreign pilgrims alike as a fabled site of healing, until it was razed during the Muslim expansion in the 7th century and its location was lost.

Ruins of the Great Basilica at Abu Mena, New York: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, 2009 [photo credit: Iris Fernandez]
Ruins of the Great Basilica at Abu Mena, New York: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, 2009 [photo credit: Iris Fernandez]

After extensive archaeological expeditions in the 1900s, the foundations of the tomb, basilica and other buildings were rediscovered. In 1979 this resulted in the site being listed as an outstanding example of a building illustrating a significant stage in human history.

However, during an agricultural land reclamation programme – funded this time by the World Bank rather than the USSR – the irrigation infrastructure raised the water table dampening the soil foundations of the site and threatening many of the architectural remains with collapse.

Abu Mena was added to the World Heritage in Danger List in 2001 due in part to the Egyptian government’s lack of a long-term sustainability plan. Twenty years on, a joint project between the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation and the Islamic, Coptic and Jewish Antiquities Department has finally successfully drained the excess water and restored some of the structures.

Baths at Abu Mena [photo credit: Iris Fernandez]
Baths at Abu Mena [photo credit: Iris Fernandez]

Whilst this cooperation no doubt offers some reassurance as to the value of cultural heritage in Egypt, regardless of its origins, the initial sacrifice of the site at the altar of a modernising state can equally be read as a warning for heterogeneous elements of the country’s population.

Furthermore, given the campaigning from the Egyptian government to have the site removed from the In Danger list, and the loss of global interest this will likely precipitate, it would perhaps be wise for Abu Mena to remain listed, at least until the project has been finished and the building work has been supplemented by the curation of museum elements celebrating the site’s Coptic roots. Though we all have a claim to world heritage, it is their heritage first and must not be divorced from its context.

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When Abu Simbel was saved, even besides the paradox of conservation through reconstruction, it is notable that four closely-located temples were removed from Egypt to national museums in countries that had volunteered aid.

Similarly, prior to last year’s concerted effort to save Abu Mena, the martyr’s tomb was filled with sand to buttress the foundations. All of which begs the question: at what cost do we salvage our shared heritage, and can that compensate for the risks with which we endanger it in the first place?

Will Spiers is a policy researcher and writer based in London. Will read history as an undergraduate, then completed a Masters in Political Science at the American University of Beirut