With 2016 now upon us, the US cultural heritage community is kicking off a year of celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Meanwhile, almost 6000 miles away, crowds today have assembled at the great Sun Temple of Rameses II to watch shafts of light slowly creep through the Temple’s sanctuary to illuminate its statues of Amun-Re, Re-Herakhte and Rameses himself. Some say that Rameses II had the temple at Abu Simbel carefully angled so that the sun’s rays would align to illuminate its inner sanctum only twice a year on the date of his ascension to the throne (21 February) and his birthday (21 October).
In modern times, tourists assemble twice yearly to witness this spectacular phenomenon, now called the Sun Festival of King Rameses II. This February 22nd, they’ll be joined by international delegations, top Egyptian officials, as well as journalists, photographers and TV presenters from around the world, in order to celebrate the Temple’s golden jubilee. Of course, it’s not the jubilee of the Temple’s construction (which is thought to have occurred between 1290 and 1224 BCE), but rather the 50th anniversary of the Abu Simbel salvage operation. For, in the 1960s and 70s, the temples were famously re-located further up from the shoreline of Lake Nasser, which had threatened to erode its foundations. [As a result of the change in elevation, the sun now strikes a day later than Rameses may have planned].
The relocating of the Sun Temple occurred as part of a massive International Campaign to Salvage the Temples of Nubia which operated from 1960 to 1980, but whose 50th anniversary is being celebrated today. While salvage projects were proceeding across the Nubian desert 50 years ago in the face of rising Nile waters, in Washington at the same time, the US Conference of Mayors was releasing its seminal report With Heritage So Rich. The report issued a clarion call to action to respond to the rising tide of destruction of this nation’s patrimony in the face of highway building, “slum” clearance and sprawl. The result: the enactment 50 years ago this year of the NHPA, the foundation of the current national historic preservation program.
The drafting of With Heritage So Rich was preceded by a search for international precedents to guide the development of a new national approach to historic preservation. Indeed, in 1965 the drafters, known as the Rains Committee, toured 8 European countries to examine other counties’ approaches. Many of these same Americans were involved the Abu Simbel Campaign. Just as With Heritage So Rich birthed a new model of federal historic preservation, the UNESCO Campaign, unprecedented for its time, played a similar role at a global scale. The two proceeded in tandem with international precedents informing the new US model and US preservationists leaving an important stamp on the emerging international cultural order. Also forged in this crucible were ICOMOS and US/ICOMOS (both founded in 1965) and the 1972 World Heritage Convention, which was soon under development.
It is fitting, then, that on this February 22, 2016, as heritage lovers gather along the Nile, the Potomac and many places in between to celebrate the work of the last half-century, that we pause to celebrate the international bonds of heritage that forever have linked both phenomena.
It seems almost unfathomable today that between 1960 and 1980, 24 ancient Egyptian temples were surveyed, dismantled and relocated from their original sites on the banks of the Nile to make way for the rising waters that would flood the Nubian region as a result of the building of the Aswan High Dam. Two groups of temples (the island of Philae and the monoliths of Abu Simbel) were moved only a few hundred yards. Others were rebuilt and grouped on plateaus overlooking the new Lake Nasser. Seven were placed in national museums in Aswan and Khartoum while the last five (including the temple of Dendur, now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York) were sent to western museums as compensation for their efforts.
In all, 50 nations took part in these monumental “salvage” efforts, which cost millions of dollars. Much of the funding was managed by UNESCO via the International Campaign to Salvage the Temples of Nubia. This campaign helped inaugurate a new type of international action and has been called the first example of international cooperation for cultural heritage. Its success played a key role in establishing the safeguarding role of UNESCO. This led to other safeguarding campaigns, such as Venice and its Lagoon (Italy) and even today’s calls for intervention in Syria.
The Nubian Campaign mobilized a who’s who of seminal heritage figures of the day including the heroic French Minister of Cultural Affairs, André Malraux. Professionals on the ground, though, also included a soft-spoken American from Hawaii named Hiroshi Daifuku, who was responsible for UNESCO’s coordinating all archeological investigations in Sudan impacted by the Dam. Daifuku would later become chief of UNESCO Monuments and Sites. In 1983 US/ICOMOS conferred the honor of Fellow upon Dr. Daifuku.