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Words by Tina Palaić

The Nubia Campaign: International Salvation of Cultural Heritage During the 1960’s

Co-Author Marko Frelih

Due to extreme environmental events, more and more heritage sites around the world are increasingly in need of rescue interventions. Such endeavors may include collaboration of foreign scholars and institutions, governments, organizational infrastructures and sources of funding. An organization that has oftentimes played the role of supporting such international salvation is UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Its first collaborative international rescue intervention, called the Nubia Campaign, took place in Egypt and Sudan after a political decision of the Egyptian government to build the Aswan High Dam on the River Nile. In this text, we will introduce the Yugoslav share in this undertaking, as well as challenge some of its outcomes.

Remains of the 8th century church in Abdallah Nirqi. Photo: Miha Pirnat, archive SEM

 The Aswan High Dam on the River Nile

The River Nile has always been important for Egypt’s welfare. It has continuously been regulated since the middle of the 19th century to exploit its advantages. The first Aswan dam was constructed between 1889 and 1902, and after that it has twice been enlarged. The idea of a new dam arose in 1946 when the existing one was insufficient to hold back the water of Nile floods. The construction of the Aswan High Dam, which was built between 1960 and 1971, was placed in Egypt’s vision of the country’s development. As Fekri A. Hassan (2007) writes, the Aswan dam was extremely important in enabling Egypt to meet its demands for water, energy and land, as well as in safeguarding it against the droughts and high floods in the following decades.

Before the Egyptian government started to build the dam, 40,000 Nubians were resettled and several active measures to safeguard the monuments in this area were undertaken. The International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia was launched in 1960 by UNESCO, which was seen by Egyptians as a trustworthy institution and as an alternative to Western organizations. Within the campaign, 40 archeological projects were conducted and 22 monuments rescued. UNESCO and the Egyptian government established the Nubian Museum at Aswan and the Egyptian Civilization Museum in Cairo to exhibit artifacts from the excavations (WHC, UNESCO 2009).

A Christian church in Wadi es-Sebua, that was relocated in order to save it from the rising waters of the river Nile. Photo: Miha Pirnat, archive SEM

The Yugoslav collaboration in saving the monuments

Due to the good relations between Egypt and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia after World War II, and later in the frame of the Non-Aligned Movement which connected the two countries in many spheres, Yugoslavia was engaged in the salvaging efforts in Nubia. In 1960, the Yugoslav federal government established a National Committee for the Realization of the Ancient Nubian Monuments Preservation. The Yugoslav collaboration in these efforts was carried out between October 1963 and May 1964 by The Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of Yugoslavia from Belgrade. The team of four experts, three being painters and conservators and one chemical engineer, spent almost eight months in southern Egypt and northern Sudan. The landscape and monuments have been extensively documented by Slovene Miha Pirnat who created a valuable photo archive. He also systematically photographed the work of the team members on all locations and thus managed to preserve the work methodology (Frelih 2016).

Miha Pirnat, a Slovene expert, working on a frescoe in the 11th century Christian church known as Sheik Abd El-Ghadir. Photo: Miha Pirnat, archive SEM

The Yugoslav team participated in salvaging efforts at four locations. Those were the Christian church in a former temple of Amun of Ramesses II in Wadi es-Sebua (the Valley of the Lions); underground chapel of Horemheb, known as Abu Hodah, entirely carved into the bedrock; the 8th century church in Abdallah Nirqi; and the 11th century Christian church known as Sheik Abd El-Ghadir, approximately 10 kilometers south of Wadi Halfa. All four monuments kept Christian frescoes that were endangered due to expected floods and, in one case, due to the cracking walls – a process which began after archeologists removed sand from the church interior. The responsibility of the Yugoslav team was to remove, conserve and prepare the frescoes for transportation to Egyptian museums, where many of them can be seen today (Frelih 2016).

Challenging outcomes of the campaign

Thanks to UNESCO, many institutions from member states participated in the Nubia Campaign. However, this collaboration also had its dark side, as international collaborators demanded half of the finds for museums in their respective countries. It is very likely that many found this opportunity as an additional encouragement to join the project, and this campaign surely increased the interest in Egyptology and stimulated its development. Today, several Nubian temples are in foreign locations, and many artifacts are kept by museums worldwide. Fekri A. Hassan (2007) claims that the practice of taking Nubian artifacts out of the countries not only robbed Egypt and the Sudan of valuable heritage items but also led to the partition of collections, as well as undermining their integrity. He suggests that participant countries should have negotiated study loans and encouraged international exhibitions funded by the campaign. In his opinion, the income based on international exhibitions should have been used to sustain further capacity-building and salvage of other monuments threatened by the aftermath of the dam.

A fresco, depicting Christ Pantocrator in the 8th century church in Abdallah Nirqi. Photo: Miha Pirnat, archive SEM

Yugoslavia did not participate in this interaction, as there were no such demands from the Yugoslav side and only few Nubian artifacts were transported to the country. They were given as gifts to President Tito and the political elite, as well as donated to the National Museum in Belgrade (Frelih 2016). Those artifacts were displayed together with older acquisitions of Egyptian artifacts (kept in the National Museum of Slovenia, Slovene Ethnographic Museum, and Regional Museums from Maribor and Ptuj) at the exhibition “Monuments of the Ancient Egypt” organized in 1974 in Ljubljana. The initiative for the exhibition came from archeologist and Egyptologist Bernarda Perc, whose initial idea was to bring artifacts from Egypt to exhibit them at the exhibition in Ljubljana. Although she had good relations with several museum professionals and faculty professors in Egypt, the exhibition never happened. She made acquaintances in Egypt during her studies in Cairo between 1959 and 1961, for which she gained the Egyptian government’s scholarship. In 1968, she also finished her PhD studies in Egyptology in München with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s scholarship (Perc 1974). Bernarda Perc initiated and organized an international scientific symposium entitled The Problems of the Ancient Egypt (Perc 1978), which took place in Ljubljana and Zagreb in 1978. With her death in 1983, the attempts to strengthen Egyptology in Slovenia gradually decreased, and the field is, today, discussed on an even smaller scale.

However, important attempts have recently been made to research and interpret Egyptian collections in Slovene museums, which resulted in some extraordinary exhibitions. The Slovene Ethnographic Museum presented the exhibition “The Magic of Amulets”, authored by Curator Marko Frelih (Frelih and Zdravič Polič 2014). The exhibition introduced the tradition of magic amulets from the times of the Pharaohs onwards, with an emphasis on the collection of Egyptian amulets obtained by Slovene collectors in the 19th century. The National Museum of Slovenia presented the exhibition “Coptic Textiles from the Collection of the National Museum of Slovenia” (Ciglenečki et al. 2019), which exhibited 53 textiles made by Copts – the Christian population in Egypt. They testify to the wide variety of decorations adorning tunics, shawls, and upholstery from the 3rd century to the period following the Arab conquest of Egypt in the late 7th century. Both research projects and exhibitions were made in strong collaboration with foreign experts who also contributed scientific chapters in corresponding publications. Slovene museum curators wish to ensure the continuation of such international and interdisciplinary collaboration to strengthen the interpretations of Egyptian collections in Slovene museums.


Ciglenečki, Jan et al., eds., 2019, Koptske tkanine iz zbirke Narodnega muzeja Slovenije. / Coptic textiles from the collection of the National Museum of Slovenia. Ljubljana: National Museum of Slovenia.

Frelih, Marko, 2016, Above the Cataracts: Slovenian Perspective of Ancient Nubia between 19th and 20th Centuries. In: Egypt and Austria X: visualizing the Orient: Central Europe and the Near East in the 19th and 20th Century. Adéla Jůnová Macková, Lucie Storchová in Libor Jůn, eds. Prague: Academy of Performing Arts, Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts, 145-152.

Frelih, Marko and Nina Zdravič Polič, eds., 2014, Magija amuletov. / The Magic of Amulets. Ljubljana: Slovene Ethnographic Museum.

Hassan, Fekri A., 2007, The Aswan High Dam and the International Rescue Nubia Campaign. African Archaeological Review 24 (3-4): 73–94.

Perc, Bernarda, 1974, Spomeniki starega Egipta: razstava v Arkadah. Ljubljana: Narodni muzej.

Perc, Bernarda, ed., 1978, Mednarodni znanstveni simpozij "Problemi starega Egipta" (Ljubljana, Zagreb). Ljubljana: Slovensko orientalistično društvo.

WHC, UNESCO, 2009, 50th anniversary of Nubia Campaign.