William Carruthers, Flooded Pasts: UNESCO, Nubia, and the Recolonization of Archaeology (Cornell University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

William Carruthers (WC): Many years ago, I trained and worked in archaeology, including in Egypt. I spent large parts of 2005 to 2008 in the country, where I also studied Arabic. I became interested in how contemporary archaeological and heritage practices there—at the time dominated by then Secretary General of the Supreme Council for Antiquities, Zahi Hawass—reflected earlier, colonial-era ones. Although I had initially intended to pursue a PhD in archaeology, I then ultimately studied for one in the history of science, returning to Egypt to carry out research. A major interest in that work, which ultimately saw the light of day as articles, was the era of post-war decolonization, and how archaeology connected with it (or not). As the territory of what became the Arab Republic of Egypt emerged from various forms of British rule and Egyptian monarchy, I wanted to know how that process impacted upon archaeology, a field that had been dominated by Euro-Americans (and whose major official institution, the Egyptian Antiquities Service, had been run entirely by French men). My PhD (“Egyptology, Archaeology and the Making of Revolutionary Egypt, c. 1925–1958”) concentrated on this history, thinking through how legislative changes made after Britain’s declaration of nominal Egyptian independence, then events after the Free Officer’s coup of July 1952, transformed the fields of archaeology and Egyptology on—and in—the ground. Flooded Pasts is the logical next step to my earlier work, both chronologically and thematically.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

WC: The book revolves around, but is not limited to, a major event in the development of what became World Heritage, at least in UNESCO’s—and, put bluntly, many other people’s—telling. UNESCO promotes its International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia, which took place in the adjoining regions of Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia from 1960 until 1980, as central to the development of the 1972 World Heritage Convention. The campaign—to a large, but not total, extent staffed by teams from the Euro-American institutions who had long excavated in Egypt—sought to preserve and record ancient temples and archaeological sites in Nubia. Those sites were due to be flooded by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, which, despite having been planned many years earlier, became a centerpiece of Nasser-era modernization plans. Among them the temples at Abu Simbel and Philae, the monuments on the Egyptian—but not Sudanese—side of the Nubian border were listed as part of the second tranche of World Heritage sites in 1979, and today Nubian temples are located around the world: “gifts-in-return” for financial contributions to UNESCO’s project, perhaps most famous among them the temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The World Heritage Convention, meanwhile, remains the major international piece of legislation in the heritage arena, and at the time of writing has been ratified by 194 States Parties. Oddly, however, beyond an official history published in the 1980s, there has never been a book-length, critical treatment of the Nubian campaign, nor have the articles and book chapters written about the event really addressed it in terms of the “local” (which is to say Egyptian and Sudanese) perspective, let alone the Nubian one.

Flooded Pasts discusses how, in combination with the politics of irrigation and development, UNESCO’s Nubian campaign built on and transformed colonial-era archaeological understandings of Nubia as a region of picturesque ruination: a place filled with ancient, Nile-side ruins, and not a place where people—Nubians—lived. During the early decades of the twentieth century (and before and after the British declaration of nominal Egyptian independence in 1922), the building and heightening of the original Aswan Dam had, to increasingly destructive levels, flooded Nubian settlements on the Egyptian side of the Nubian border. These settlements were located alongside the many ancient ruins located in the region, which were also increasingly submerged. Eventually receiving some compensation from the Egyptian government, Nubia’s population were forced to move their homes higher up the Nile’s banks, and many Nubians moved to Cairo and Alexandria to work in domestic service. Meanwhile, Egypt’s antiquities service launched two archaeological surveys directed by colonial officials that sought to record ancient sites before they were flooded. This process, I argue, made it much easier to separate an ancient Nubian past from the region’s present: one dominated by a territorially novel kingdom of Egypt whose permanence was extrapolated backwards in time.

Accordingly, as Egypt and Sudan signed the Nile Waters Agreement of 1959 and confirmed the impending construction of the High Dam, that process precipitated a continuation of earlier archaeological work in the form of UNESCO’s Nubian campaign. Now, though, flooding occurred to a level where local Nubian relocation became impossible, and the deluge entered newly independent Sudan. This situation meant that UNESCO’s project sought to record a fossilized version of ancient Nubia on an even greater scale than had previously been the case. Simultaneously, separate “ethnological” surveys either side of the newly hardened Egyptian-Sudanese border prepared for the relocation of the now-separated Nubian population to new, government-planned settlements elsewhere (the Egyptian survey was supported by the Ford Foundation and based at the American University in Cairo; the Sudanese one was supported by the Sudan Antiquities Service). Even in the face of Nubian demonstrations—particularly strong in Wadi Halfa in the very north of Sudan—this forced, state-backed process of migration made the job of archaeological survey easier, constituting further representations of the desolate desert dotted by ancient monuments that earlier work had made possible. That those monuments—and that “desert”—clearly had a far more complex history was a fact elided by most involved. To a great extent, too, that elision continues, even as the Nubian diaspora has in recent years become much more vocal about its plight.

Flooded Pasts addresses these issues, moving from detailed discussion of the genealogy of archaeological survey and irrigation along the Nile (Chapter 1) to the rise of documentary and archival practices in supporting such work (Chapter 2), and then onto discussions of UNESCO’s Nubian campaign as it took place in Egypt (Chapter 3) and Sudan (Chapter 4). Later chapters then detail how the campaign’s practices dovetailed with the forced migration of the Nubians (Chapter 5), in addition to geopolitical non-alignment and pan-Arabism (Chapter 6). The final chapter (Chapter 7) details the consequences of this history today. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

WC: As I discussed earlier, the book is in many ways a logical continuation of my PhD research. As an author, though, I tried to let myself feel less constrained by discipline: I wrote as a historian, but also with less critical distance from the disciplines I am writing about than I think some historians of science have traditionally represented themselves as enjoying. I think it is obvious that my biography is in this work, in other words, and—given the histories at hand—that I have a clear critical and ethical imperative to write both that way and in a way that privileges one issue in particular: there is no doubt that the Nubian campaign, and the Nubian archaeological surveys before it, affected tens of thousands of lives for the worse. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

WC: I would hope that Flooded Pasts enjoys a readership beyond the academic, not least because issues around heritage—what it is, who has a say in it, how its governance operates—have become so salient in the last few years: whether in the wake of the revolutions in the Middle East in 2011 or, more recently, Black Lives Matter. There has been a growing amount of work on the histories of archaeology and heritage—and a corresponding amount of discussion around what it might mean to decolonize those fields—yet it strikes me that little of it has addressed the period in which formal, post-war decolonization took place. That is not necessarily to draw a correspondence between that historical process and decolonization or decolonial thought as it is being discussed today, but rather to highlight that I am not sure such discussions can take place without thinking about what, exactly, the era of post-war decolonization wrought: on people, and on the knowledge created about them. Thinking through that period, I hope that Flooded Pasts both helps to historicize those discussions further, and also engages the wider audiences interested in heritage with how vital the histories at hand are: whether for understanding heritage as it exists and is practiced today, or for understanding the world that heritage has wrought, often in very material ways.

More pressingly, then, I hope that the book catalyzes discussion around the lives of contemporary Nubians and the relationship of archaeology and heritage with them. Nubian calls for a right to return have become increasingly prominent, particularly as recent political events in both Egypt and Sudan have, however fleetingly, offered a space for such calls to be made. Flooded Pasts helps clarify the historical basis of those calls, and also proffers the questions of whether archaeology can—or should—make amends. In the book, I suggest a possible way forward for archaeological institutions revolving around the voluminous archives that they created due to the Nubian campaign. Any such work, however, should clearly be dependent on the agreement of Nubians themselves, who have not previously had any stake in what happens to the material collected during the project and who should clearly direct that work now.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 1, pp. 29-32)

[…] the Egyptian constitution was promulgated in 1923, replaced by a different document in 1930, and reverted to the original 1923 document in 1935 as Egypt and Britain struggled over the future of the (semicolonial) country. For British diplomatic agents in Cairo, controlling access to the corridor provided by the Suez Canal justified such interventions.

Suez was of paramount importance to Britain, as control of the Canal’s water meant control of the Nile’s water, too. Continuing the Mehmed Ali dynasty’s irrigation policies, Evelyn Baring (Lord Cromer), Britain’s agent and consul-general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, viewed the Nile as central to Egyptian financial and political stability. British officials, whose knowledge of Nile irrigation was often based on their work in India and not on well-developed local practices, agreed: viewing control and development of the river’s waters as essential to Britain’s position in Egypt. Every year at the end of summer came the Nile’s annual inundation, whose unpredictable height set the basis for the rest of the agricultural year. The development of the river to enable controlled perennial irrigation would, however, produce a stronger cotton crop, not only helping to pay down Egyptian debt, but also (they presumed) enhancing Britain’s ability to mollify Egyptian protests about control of the Suez Canal. More widely, this perception of the shared importance of river and canal helped constitute what Terje Tvedt has characterized as the “British Nile imperial system,” the work of actors throughout the country’s empire whose activities helped to turn the Nile and its tributaries into a “political and hydrological planning unit” geared toward British imperial interests.

As Tvedt notes, from 1882 until 1956, “a strong and close alliance between [British] water engineers and Nile strategists . . . financed large and small waterworks” the length of the river, from the Egyptian Delta to Lake Victoria. That system included the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, established through a power-sharing (“condominium”) agreement in 1899. Britain hoarded most of the power in the country, helping to mesh its territory within the realm of British imperial hydro-politics. The agreement also, however, built on older notions that control over Sudan constituted an Egyptian national priority, notions whose resonances continued to manifest themselves at the time of UNESCO’s Nubian campaign. Ottoman-Egyptian rule (the so-called Turkiyya) had first been instituted in Sudan in 1821 under Mehmed Ali, ostensibly creating a territory united with Cairo-controlled Nubia, situated to Sudan’s north (the regions of Lower and Upper Nubia, as they became known, straddling a porous Egyptian-Sudanese border at Wadi Halfa). It would only be later in the century that Egypt managed to extend effective administrative authority over Lower Nubia. But in the meantime (and into the twentieth century), Egyptians conflated the predominantly black populations of Nubia and Sudan not only as one, but also as natural objects of their rule. Whether Nubian or Sudanese, people from these regions constituted “al-barbari, or the Nubian, whose color, customs, and accent Egyptian writers sketched out in numerous essays, dialogues, and stories.” These often disparaging representations presaged not only the ease with which the Egyptian government’s archaeological surveys began to record and define the Nubian past in the first half of the twentieth century, but also the way in which UNESCO’s Nubian campaign would itself often seem to be an Egypto-centric affair. The identity of a distinct Nubian region would develop due to such survey work, but the intervention that produced that development was made considerably simpler by Egypt’s pejorative relationship with the areas to, and sometimes within, its south.

Sometimes, however, those areas struck back. In 1881, a revolt against the Turkiyya led to the establishment of what became known as the Mahdiyya over much of Sudan. During the uprising, the mystic shaykh Muhammad Ahmad Ibn ʿAbd Allah (the Mahdi) and his followers used the momentary power vacuum that the revolt established to foment a political-religious uprising and establish a revolutionary state. Initially, attempts to overcome the Mahdiyya were unsuccessful: in the process of one such venture, the Mahdi’s followers killed the British general Charles Gordon in Khartoum in 1885. From 1896 to 1899, however, British and Egyptian troops led by Kitchener undertook a military campaign that hastened the Mahdiyya’s end. Consequently, Egypt and Britain established the 1899 condominium agreement that gave both countries sovereignty over Sudan’s territory. Britain now felt free to undertake projects like the construction of the Sennar Dam and the development of the Gezira Scheme, a massive irrigation project. But this “triangulated conquest,” as Eve Troutt Powell has characterized it, meant that, as plans for the High Dam developed, Egypt’s relationship with Sudan often seemed much like the one that Britain had established with it.

In Egypt, many of the British engineers and strategists whose irrigation work preceded this development found themselves concentrated in the Ministry of Public Works. Lord Cromer’s interest in their projects ensured that—even as some of those officials expressed ambivalence toward him—the institution enjoyed exceptional power. For example, ministerial officers enjoyed control over many of the ancient Nile-side remains in the country: Egypt’s (French-run, but often British-staffed) Antiquities Service was in the ministry’s portfolio until 1929, when it joined the Ministry of Education. As their hydrological plans developed, so these officials grappled with ruins dispersed throughout the country: including in Nubia, whose pharaonic and Graeco-Roman temples—many of which had later been converted for Christian use—enjoyed significant fame.

To enable partial perennial irrigation of Egyptian land, the ministry began building the Aswan Dam. The dam’s construction led to partial submersion of the area to its south where the structure’s reservoir formed. (Egyptian) Nubia flooded, an event that not only began to threaten ancient remains in the region in an unprecedented manner, but also led to the forced resettlement of the population living there. As Nicholas Hopkins and Sohair Mehanna note, “the Nubians living in the valley were forced to adjust to this variation either by moving farther up the sides of the valley or to a new location altogether,” often Cairo, where many took up work in domestic service.

Water made Nubia—and Nubians—contingent, subjects of circumstance. It also made them and the region in which they lived more visible. This situation ultimately resulted in a series of government-sponsored archaeological surveys and preservationist interventions as construction of the various stages of the Aswan Dam progressed and even as official treatment of the Nubians themselves was considerably less magnanimous. The constitution of Nubia as an object of archaeological enquiry did not occur immediately, however. Nubia became contingent due to water, but water itself only ever constituted a circumstantial threat to ancient ruins. Overcoming such contingency shaped the values attributed to those remains and the people who lived among them.

From Flooded Pasts: UNESCO, Nubia, and the Recolonization of Archaeology, by William Carruthers, published by Cornell University Press. Copyright (c) 2022 by William Carruthers. Used by permission of the publisher.