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Volume 27, Number 4July/August 1976

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Last of the Temples

A new setting for Philae—"The Pearl of Egypt"

Written and photographed by Ed Mullis

Eight years ago they rescued Abu Simbel. One year ago they rebuilt Dendur in New York. This year they're saving Philae. Philae was once and rightly called "The Pearl of Egypt." For even amid the historic splendor of the Nile Valley this small island and its monuments were unique. There was a temple to Isis, goddess of fertility and healing, inscriptions vaunting the might of Rome and chapels marking the fourth-century spread of Christianity—14 monuments in all, standing, as someone wrote, "among rustling palms and bright mimosa, and floating on the fast blue currents of the Nile as they swept north to the sea."

Like Abu Simbel and Dendur, and numerous other treasures of ancient Egypt, Philae came to the attention of the Western world 27 years after Napoleon invaded the Nile and dispatched his teams of geographers, engineers, scholars and draftsmen to explore, measure, describe and draw these wonders from the ancient world. The result of their work was the encyclopedic study called Description de /'Egypte (See Aramco World, March-April, 1976), a work which brought the Western world flocking to the Nile.

Many, certainly, brushed past Philae in their eagerness to see the magnificent sandstone figures of Ramses II cut into the cliffs of Abu Simbel some 130 miles upstream. But to some, even then, Philae was the jewel of Egyptian Nubia. Its island setting was unforgettable and its complex of temples, obelisks and inscriptions was incomparable. Philae bore, as one writer put it, "the traces of the different cultures which had flowed across it, as it was later to bear the marks of the tides."

The "tides" that writer noticed were really the currents of the Nile rising and falling seasonally after Great Britain, which had occupied Egypt, constructed the first Aswan Dam in 1902. Built two miles north, or downstream, from Philae, the dam slowed the flow of the mighty river and created an 11-square-mile reservoir. In winter the waters of the reservoir covered the island and the lower half of the monuments but in summer, when the dam was opened for irrigation, the monuments were left high and dry.

These seasonal tides posed no great danger at first. They did wipe out the lush gardens and, later, after the dam and the depth of the reservoir were raised, coat the monuments with silt. But as the British had strengthened the temples' foundations in 1896 before proceeding with the dam, the structures themselves remained intact.

In the 1950's, however, Egypt announced its plans to build the Aswan High Dam four and a half miles south of, or upstream from, Philae. The towering High Dam was a cornerstone in the plans of Gamal Abdul Nasser for the modernization of Egypt; it would provide power for new industries and water to irrigate two million barren acres. But it would also leave Philae trapped between the two dams, raise and lower the level of the old reservoir by 10 feet every day—as water was admitted or drained for power production—and by that action accelerate the erosion of the ancient stone and the destruction of the foundations. Furthermore, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, it heralded the annihilation of the slender length of Nubia, south of the dam. And with Nubia irreplaceable treasures which would vanish forever under the 130-mile body of water to be called Lake Nasser.

To the foresighted Ministry of Culture such a loss was unacceptable and in 1959 the ministry appealed to the world for help. Through the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization—UNESCO—they launched an appeal for financial and technical assistance to save what has been described as a common heritage of mankind.

To sweeten the appeal the ministry shrewdly offered assisting nations the right to archeological digs in Nubia and, as a bonus to the more generous nations, the outright gift of several of the smaller temples.

The response was overwhelming. Professor Adolph Klassins and a team dug for four seasons north of Abu Simbel and the Temple of Taffa now rests in the Rijksmuseum in Leiden, The Netherlands. Dr. Henry G. Fischer, curator of Egyptian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, arranged to move the exquisite Temple of Dendur and reconstruct it in a special glass-enclosed wing in Central Park (See Aramco World, May-June, 1969). Spain moved the Ptolemaic Temple of Daboud to Madrid, and West Germany, which moved the Temple of Kalabsha to a higher site, brought home a Ptolemaic gateway for the Berlin Museum. In all, more than 50 nations contributed to the campaign and 21 temples were saved, including famous Abu Simbel, the two cliff-side temples and four 67-foot seated figures which Ramses II built in the 13th century B.C.

Both the giant figures and the cave-like temples themselves were carefully cut into manageable segments and winched to the top of the cliff 200 feet above in a technically staggering $38-million race against time. But by the time President Nasser dedicated his $1-billion dam the entire job was done. Today Abu Simbel and the four giant figures again sit in majestic repose by the waters of the Nile.

Philae—the last of the 22 temples scheduled for salvation under the UNESCO-sponsored program—presented a quite different problem. Whereas the temples upstream had to be moved before the waters reached them, Philae had to be moved from under the water. Many of Philae's temples, moreover, were carved with precious bas-reliefs which would add immeasurable complications to any plan involving dismantling and reconstruction.

In weighing those problems, experts considered and rejected several proposals: to raise the level of the island itself; to surround it with a permanent dike; to lower the water around the island by building three small dams and isolating it in a secondary lake. Eventually they settled on the ambitious project now being implemented at an estimated cost of $18 million. They decided to build a cofferdam—a temporary, watertight enclosure—around Philae, pump out the water, move all the monuments to a nearby island reshaped to resemble the original, and re-erect them there.

It was by no means a simple task. Moving the temples involved 40,000 separate building stones weighing between three and 27 tons each. Nevertheless, in December 1971 the project got underway. Engineers began to drive 50-foot interlocking steel-sheet piles deep into the riverbed to form twin belts of steel around the island, 40 feet apart and a half-mile in diameter. This phase—the first—required 6,000 tons of steel and took nearly two years to complete. When the piles were in place the 40-foot channel between the steel walls was filled with sand from quarries about three miles away; the sand was mixed with water and pumped as slurry through a floating pipeline to the temple site and hosed into the channel. As the slurry forced the water out—and then dried out itself—a dike of steel and sand was created, leaving the island and its monuments in a tranquil pool inside. When the cofferdam was finished they began to pump the water out; gradually the mud-coated temples emerged into the sun and an army of workmen began to cart away accumulations of silt that in some places were more than six feet deep.

Phase three brought a regiment of archeologists, architects, photographers and draftsmen onto both Philae and the island of Agilkia, the new site, 1,000 feet away. Using an advanced technique known as photogrammetry—primarily, high-precision cameras aligned in pairs to produce three-dimensional views—technicians turned out geometrically accurate line drawings for the reconstruction phase. That done, a firm of Italian specialists began the exacting task of numbering and dismantling the 40,000 stones in the monuments. Started in September 1975, the dismantling and transport of the stones is expected to be completed early next year.

In the meantime the nearby island of Agilkia was being transformed. Behind dozens of giant bulldozers an army of 4,500 men from the Aswan High Dam Company worked three shifts a day to clear 750,000 tons of granite dynamited from the sun-bleached ledges of the island and then dump it in the river. This fill—some 12 million cubic feet—is being dumped along the shoreline of the island according to a precise plan of landscaping that will duplicate the shape, size, height and contours of Philae. This phase was scheduled for completion this summer but re-erection of some temples had begun even before the dust—or mud—settled.

Meanwhile, UNESCO was also at work—trying to raise another $6 million to add to the $12 million already given or pledged. Altogether 24 nations have contributed substantial sums, including $2 million from the United States and $1.6 million from the Soviet Union. Another $1.6 million came from the proceeds of the Tutankhamen Exhibition in London (See Aramco World, September-October, 1972), and the World Food Program contributed the equivalent of nearly $5 million in food rations to the workers and their families. UNESCO itself is selling a "Philae Medal." Struck in gold, silver and bronze, the medal commemorates a campaign that will not only save "The Pearl of Egypt" but, when the mammoth job is completed two years from now, provide it with a new setting worthy of the old.

Ed Mullis has covered East Africa and the Middle East as a free-lance photojournalist and television cameraman.

This article appeared on pages 16-23 of the July/August 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1976 images.