I remember learning in high school geography class of the peril faced by the ancient Egyptian temple of Abu Simbel, which had stood since the reign of the pharaohs. Rising water behind Egypt’s Aswan Dam threatened to submerge the four enormous seated figures and the tomb they protected, so UNESCO—the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization—had organized an international effort to dismantle and relocate the temple to high ground. My classmates and I tossed our quarters in milk cartons in faraway La Mesa, California, doing our part to save a part of the world’s history.
That memory added to my anticipation when I found myself journeying to see the temple 40 years later, on a brilliant January morning early in 2008.
The monument doesn’t disappoint. Even the busloads of other tourists don’t detract from its grandeur. I walked a few hundred yards away, where I could be alone to reflect and take a few whimsical photos.
What I hadn’t remembered was the plight of the people who lived in that valley with Abu Simbel. They too had to be relocated, leaving their villages behind. They were the Nubians.
Dr. Hala Kh. Nassar, a professor of Arabic literature at Yale, and a guide on our tour, directed me to a slim volume by Haggag Hassan Oddoul, titled Nights of Musk: Stories from Old Nubia. I bought it at the Aswan airport and read it on the flight home. It brought tears to my eyes.
We told ourselves that we would have to be patient. The women too would have to be patient. The flood season was approaching, and as you may or may not know, the flood season is nothing more than the long, broad river’s manhood overflowing his banks with the water of life. It mounts the land, and plants are born and udders grow fat.
The progress of the Aswan dam and the subsequent loss of Nubian villages reminds us that monumental technological advance often comes with a high human price. The Suez Canal, opened in 1869, led to the bankruptcy of Egypt and British occupation (see Zachary Karabell's marvelous history, Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal. And one can only imagine the human cost, so many years ago, of building the Pyramids of Giza.
If there were poets of Giza who sang of the struggle to build those wonders, they are lost to us. Fortunately, we still have today not only the monumental Aswan Dam, but the poets of modern Arabic literature who tell the human story.