Egyptologists and other experts gathered in Italy on Monday February 4th to mark the successful campaign to save ancient Egyptian temples from being submerged by the High Dam project 50 years ago and some of cultural sites facing similar threats now.
The international campaign that saved the temples of Abu Simbel during the construction of the Aswan High Dam was remembered in Turin as an unprecedented engineering achievement and a turning point that made the preservation of cultural treasures a responsibility of the whole world.
But experts at the Monday event pointed to the ongoing dam construction in Sudan and Ethiopia, which means the job of protecting Nubian culture is not finished.
The director of Turin's Egyptian Museum, Christian Greco, noted that time pressure was the reason behind the focus on saving major monuments in a modernizing Egypt half a century ago.
Recording and salvaging settlements and domestic artefacts received less emphasis, and many were lost underwater when the dam across the Nile River was completed and its reservoir lake appeared, she said.
"Unfortunately, we know that these traces, above all of pre-history before mummies, were lost under the waters of Lake Nasser," Greco said. "It also needs to be a lesson for the future because there are still great challenges."
In 1960, the United Nations' cultural agency, UNESCO, called on the international community to save the temples of Amu Simbel, an ancient gateway to Pharaonic Egypt, dedicated to Ramses II and his wife Nefertiti.
Marble cutters from Carrara in central Italy, engaged by an Italian construction company that now goes by the name Salini Impregilo, led the job of breaking down the imposing sandstone temples into 1,070 blocks that were subsequently moved to higher ground, and the temples reconstructed and positioned as ancient architects intended: allowing the sun to shine on the end wall two days each year.
More than 113 countries responded with funds or expertise.
Ana Luiza Thompson-Flores, director of UNESCO's office in Venice, said it was debated at the time whether the $36 million earmarked for the temples' preservation would have been better spent on initiatives such as ending poverty.
But Thompson-Flores said the global response ultimately "was the birth of the recognition that there were aspects of this world, whether monuments or landscapes, that actually have a recognized outstanding universal value for humanity."