Can you tell us how the idea of saving the Ramesse II temples was born?
«In 1954, it was decided to build the Aswan High Dam and thus to create a huge artificial lake covering the Upper Nile Valley from Aswan in Egypt to the Dal Cataract in Sudan - a culturally extremely rich area, known as “Nubia” since antiquity.
Five years later, in 1959, the Egyptian and the Sudanese governments independently requested UNESCO to assist them in protecting and rescuing the endangered monuments and sites.
In November that year, the 55th session of the Executive Board adopted the principle of an appeal for an international cooperation to assist the two governments. It authorized studies in preparation of the work for the safeguarding of Abu Simbel and the archaeological investigation of the sites in Sudanese Nubia - to be undertaken as a matter of urgency.
In 1960, the Director-General of UNESCO launched an appeal to its Member States to launch an International Campaign for the safeguarding of Nubia monuments. The result was the excavation and recording of hundreds of sites, the recovery of thousands of objects and the salvage and relocation of a number of important temples to higher grounds, the most famous of them being the temples of Abu Simbel and Philae. Ended on 10 March 1980, the campaign had achieved spectacular success».
Why was it so important to guarantee the preservation of Abu Simbel?
«The archaeological area of Abu Simbel is of outstanding value for all humanity. It contains magnificent monuments such as the Temple of Ramesse II at Abu Simbel and the Sanctuary of Isis at Philae that had to absolutely be saved from the rising waters of the Nile.
The most famous of the monuments affected by the Aswan High Dam Project was the temple complex on the island of Philae. Dating mostly from the Greco-Roman period, the sanctuary sacred to the Egyptian goddess Isis was later transformed into a church (540 AD). There however were many more monuments threatened by the construction of the dam in Egypt and Sudan.
The Monuments of Nubia were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1979».
UNESCO launched an international call for action in 1960. What was the reaction?
«If it appears obvious today that the Abu Simbel temples had to be saved from destruction, at the time why the temples should have been rescued from waters was scarcely questioned. Much interest was focused on the spectacular rescue operation. Many people had queried whether the campaign was worthwhile and if the money should not have been directed towards initiatives regarding poverty».
What was UNESCO’s role in terms of operational activities carried out during the rescue of the temples?
«In the International Campaign, UNESCO played the role of a coordinator and intermediary between the donor States and the Egyptian and Sudanese governments. The organization facilitated their efforts to save the cultural heritage of Nubia. The Executive Committee of the International Campaign was created in 1960 and a Trust Fund was established.
As a follow-up to the successful completion of the campaign, the International Campaign for the Establishment of the Nubia Museum in Aswan and the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Cairo was launched in 1982».
Why is it said that the Abu Simbel temple rescue was the “international campaign that revolutionized the approach to world heritage protection”?
«This international campaign was unique in UNESCO’s history in the 1960s. It was based on the simple idea, but revolutionary one, of world heritage; in other words, the world hosts cultural and natural heritage of universal values, which humanity must protect together, as its indivisible and non-renewable legacy.
Hence, saving the temples of Egypt and dismantling stone by stone the Abu Simbel temple in the early 1960s was a first recognition of this idea. The construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt drew unprecedented international attention to the protection of cultural heritage. At that time, many people thought they had to choose between culture and development, between flourishing crops and the traces of a glorious history. UNESCO had demonstrated that it can be both».
Is there any other similar example around the world of such a large international mobilization to save cultural heritage?
«There are many more examples of international mobilization efforts. Borobudur, Carthage, Angkor Vat, Venice to name a few. All these campaigns were focused on protection and safeguarding dimensions».
Abu Simbel is an incredible example of international cooperation. Is this even more important today, at a time when many governments opt for an isolationist foreign policy?
«UNESCO moderates the international debate on the protection of cultural heritage and acts as a catalyst in the international cooperation. The Organization has recently appealed for mobilization of the international community in favour of Timbuktu, Bagdad, Aleppo and Mosul (Revive the Spirit of Mosul).
UNESCO is recognized by the UN Security Council as the main international promoter and coordinator of several resolutions adopted in New York, placing our Organization at the heart of the international response to intentional destruction and cultural genocide».
The destruction of the World Heritage site of Palmyra in Syria shocked public opinion around the world. What are the risks that historic and artistic heritage sites are facing today? Why is it so important to protect them?
«A turning point was reached in the 1990s, with the intentional destruction of cultural heritage. Dubrovnik, Sarajevo and the destruction of the Mostar Bridge in November 1993 were determinant for a change in UNESCO’s action.
Since the safeguarding of exceptional world heritage monument pertains to humanity in its entirety, the Organization adopted a holistic approach within the frame of which all kinds of heritage are involved. It is not a monument that is threatened or destroyed, it is a cultural and religious identity, which is being eradicated.
We must build on the power of such heritage as a source of identity and cohesion at a time of change. This is why UNESCO is so firmly committed to safeguarding and promoting cultural and natural heritage, in all its forms – tangible, intangible and documentary. At a time of unprecedented ‘cultural cleansing,’ cultural eradication and cultural looting, protecting heritage must be an integral part of all peace building».