Friday, July 10, 2015

The Ancient Kingdoms Of The Nile and the doomed monuments of Nubia

Walter A. Fairservis Jr.
New American Library
United States of America
Third Edition

    'It has been over a year since the first major appeal was made by UNESCO for concrete help in saving the monuments of Nubia from the waters which are bound to engulf them when the new dam, Sadd-el-Aali, is built. In that time scholars, institutions, and many private organizations have responded nobly to the challenge. At this time the valley of the Nile is alive with archaeological enterprise as men face up to what is, in reality, an overwhelming task: several dozen major temples to save, thousands of inscriptions and graffiti to record, untold numbers of cemeteries, town mounds, and crumbled churches to excavate, acres to map archaeologically.'

Mr. Fairservis opens his book with a geological view of the world's evolution with particular attention paid to Africa. As he journey's down the great river through forbidding landscapes in some places chocked with grasses where tribes can graze their cattle. Places where the mighty Nile thins out into marshes and of which many past explorers have become stuck and died.

Places where men like Sir Samuel Baker, an important mid-nineteenth century visitor who recorded in his diary many agonizing months with his party cutting their way through the mud and weeds so that they could pull the boats forward a couple of hundred yards in a day, if lucky. Having left the marshes the river becomes navigable again as it heads north to parched desert regions that receive little water till the White Nile meets up to the greater Blue Nile.

The author moves on to the climactic changes that have affected the world and the evolution of its creatures. The carving out of the Nile valley over endless years produced a series of plateaus. In the latter of which prehistoric tools can be found with proper context, these can show the development of the forms used and improved upon.

     'In 1924, the English Governor of Fung province in the Sudan had his house near the Blue Nile at Singa. He found in the river bed a fossilized human skull which is now generally accepted as representing a proto-Bushman. Not directly associated with this skull but deriving from strata of apparently equivalent age some thirty miles away (Abu Hugar) are a body of stone tools collected by Arkell. These tools, though primitive, are not as old as the handaxe-pebble tool industries but seem to be related to one of the aspects of the Levalloisian flake tool tradition.'

The approach of Mr. Fairservis has brought to his book at times is deeply intellectual which may not be a good thing for the young as well as those escapist readers looking for romance. Here the author presents what is to be lost of the millions of years of evolution and the early development of civilization in this region of the great North African people and the cultures they left strewn about the landscape.

For me, this is a brilliantly refreshing look at what has long been lost to Lake Nasser including the mud brick four-thousand-year-old Middle Kingdom forts which secured Egypt's interests controlling the goods of Nubia for Egypt. The exploration of these forts became of immediate interest to men like the late great Egyptologist Walter B. Emery whose excavations brought to light papyrus documents at Buhen.

     'Of great future interest are the torn-up papyri found under the stairway of the so-called Commander's house which are apparently dispatches to Buhen from Egypt. The potential of the Buhen excavations because of the well-preserved ruins is enormous if these finds of papyri are in any way indicative of what is to come. One shudders to think what will be lost if these fortress towns are not thoroughly excavated before the final floods which extinguish them.'

There are a few sections of black and white photographs displaying artifacts and paintings which highlight the authors points. One of my favorites is a piece of art created by G. A. Hoskins in 1833 of the ruins of a fortress at Semna. We are recounted the glories of the Middle Kingdom made possible partly by the reclamation of the fertile Fayum depression and the effective governing of Nubia inclusive of its resources by Egyptian nobles using cruel and traditional local methods.

Soon the power of the great kings of the Middle Kingdom passes into feuding local nomarchs who divide the two lands among themselves. This leaves a weakened state vulnerable to a gradual take-over by nomads from the north known as the Hyksos. These kings dominated Lower and Middle Egypt though the princes of Thebes maintain control of Upper Egypt.

It is the princes of Egypt's Seventeenth Dynasty that challenge the Hyksos King Apophis with the last two of the Theban princes dying before Ahmosis conquered the Hyksos driving them from Egypt and establishing the Eighteenth Dynasty and the period of the New Kingdom. The kings of this dynasty were warriors who kept expanding the borders to the north and south, with King Thutmosis III bringing the Egyptian empire to its greatest extent supplying the king, the priests of Amun and the nobility with enormous foreign tribute.

This pre-eminent family of rulers finally comes apart with the heretic king Akhenaton who rejects the old pantheon of gods for a solar deity called the Aton. This king leaves Thebes for a site in Middle Egypt where he neglects his duty of pacifying the Border States, and in a little over a decade slowly the empire of Thutmosis III falls away. When Akhenaton's reign ends it is the boy King Tutankhamun who restores the temples of the old gods and moves his court to Memphis.

At Tutankhamun's death, the noble line of Thutmoside kings comes to an end bringing an old man quickly followed by the general Horemhab to the throne to rule Egypt and install the Nineteenth Dynasty kings. The first three pharaohs of this dynasty bring back some of the lost glory with the great Pharaoh Ramses II spending most of the dynasty sitting on the throne. Mr. Fairservis writes about the structures built by these kings and in particular the monuments of Nubia that will be swallowed by water when the Aswan dam is complete.

     'The cliff temple of Derr is the fourth of those erected by Ramses in order from Elephantine (the First Catarac). Badly ruined, the structures that lay before the cliff entrance have now largely disappeared.'  'This temple was dedicated to the sun-god Re but there are numerous ruined reliefs depicting the usual wars of Ramses. The temple is apparently doomed, as its ruined condition precludes wholesale salvage, though portions of the reliefs will undoubtedly be removed.'

Of the fourteen temples in the path of the rising water, it is the temples of Abu Simbel that are deemed as the top priority in saving. Two plans are in the works for these temples which include either a coffer dam with a one hundred foot wall to close off the bay containing the temples or to cut them into blocks and raise them block by block to higher ground.

A series of mostly short reigning and ineffective rulers brings the period of the empire to an end once more dividing power between rulers for Upper Egypt and others in Lower Egypt both claiming to rule both lands. Egypt is now occupied by both native and foreign rulers, who although occupiers respected and continue to revere Egyptian traditions. The Kingdom of Kush rose from the south as an already Egyptianized peoples who's ruler's made up Egypt's Twenty-Fifth Dynasty.

The next several hundred years are spent repelling the Persians, and being subject to Persian dynasties until Alexander the great won control of Egypt. Alexander's general Ptolemy Soter declared himself pharaoh of Egypt and founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty. The Ptolemaic pharaohs ruled as Greeks from Alexandria but again respected Egyptian customs and were prolific restorers and builders of temples.

These temples are among the best surviving monuments of the ancient world and include the temple of Edfu, arguably the best preserved, but also temples at Dendera. Kom Ombo as well as Esna. The authors concern turns to the island of Philae where Ptolemaic rulers followed the tradition started by the Thirtieth Dynasty King Nectanebo II by adding to the structures on the island, building a temple to Isis. The death of Cleopatra brought an end to the Ptolemy's. Roman Emperors that followed added to the various temples including the Kiosk built by Trajan, known today as "The Pharaohs Bed".

Mr. Fairservis is dismayed by the flooding that before the building of the high dam took place between December and August when the island and much of its temples sank beneath the waters of the Nile. These regular events have left the monuments doomed if the funds to save the sacred buildings are not to be found.

In the seventh century of the common era, after the fall of the Roman empire, Islam swept through Egypt and the Sudan converting the Christian population and destroying their churches. This situation remained until the beginning of the nineteenth century when England wrestled control of Egypt from the French.

The Sudan had always been treacherous for Europeans to control including a Mahdist uprising in the 1880's to the early 1890's which culminated in the death of the Governor-General of Sudan by the Mahdi. The author finishes his book with a recalling of the efforts to record and retrieve the archaeology when the dam was erected in 1902 and raised a number of times over the course of the twentieth century.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book though not for the young; the reader will find themselves a fascinating history that has been told of a time when modernization left Nubia's monuments to the mercy of economics, time and the great waters of the Nile. Today many of these sites are now lost and forgotten beneath the dam’s lake but the rescue of much material will for years have value to archaeologists in the study. Still yet many of the great temples stand on dry ground commemorating not only the ancient pharaohs who ordered them but the mass of humanity from all over the world who came together to rescue the monuments of Nubia.

No comments: