It is always good to remember that Africa led the first global cultural action to protect the world’s cultural heritage in the last century through the International Campaign for the Safeguarding of the Nubian Monuments that revolutionised the world’s approach to cultural cooperation.
In 1954, the decision to build the Aswan High Dam was taken by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in order to capture floodwater during the rainy seasons and release it during times of drought. This would guarantee a constant, regulated flow of water that would help farmers to irrigate their crops all year round, as well as generate enormous amounts of electrical power.
More than 10 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity are generated by the dam every year, since it was also built as a hydroelectric dam that would provide electricity in significant amounts.
The construction of the High Dam led to the creation of a huge artificial lake, Lake Nasser, stretching over 300 miles of country south of the First Cataract of the Nile. This is an area that is extremely rich in archeological remains, which meant that the construction of the dam was an unprecedent archaeological emergency. Would all these remains be lost under the waters of the new lake?
At that time, many people in Egypt, Sudan, and around the world thought that the challenge was very great and that they would have to choose between cultural heritage and economic development, since actions recommended for the salvaging of the monuments would be far greater than anything undertaken before.
The challenge was unprecedented, and it arose in a field without a tradition of cooperation. Archaeologists in particular have also traditionally been insular individuals.
However, in 1959 the Egyptian and the Sudanese Governments requested the UN cultural agency UNESCO to assist them in protecting and rescuing the endangered monuments and sites. One year later, then UNESCO director-general Vittorino Veronese launched a historic international appeal, inviting both archaeological research and financial contributions, with exactly this in mind.
He did so after having engaged in long discussions with unforgettable figures such as André Malraux, the then French minister of culture, Tharwat Okasha, the then Egyptian minister of culture, René Maheu, director-general of UNESCO from 1961 to 1974, and Christiane Desroches Noblecourt, a French Egyptologist, and her Egyptian interlocutor, secretary-general of antiquities Gamaleddin Mokhtar.
“It is not easy to choose between the heritage of the past and the present well-being of a people living in need in the shadow of one of history’s most splendid legacies. It is not easy to choose between temples and crops,” it was said at the time.
This was the first time that a UN agency, in this case UNESCO, created right after World War II, was called upon to rescue part of the world’s shared heritage, to preserve something that was in danger of being lost, and to bring to light yet undiscovered archaeological wealth.
The appeal resulted in unprecedent international emergency actions on the ground that included the excavation and surveying of hundreds of sites, the recovering of thousands of objects, and the relocation of many important temples to higher ground, among them the Temples of Ramses II and Nefertari at Abu Simbel and the monuments on the Island of Philae.
Although there were technical difficulties and a public lack of interest when the appeal was first launched, along with a weak reaction from individuals and nonchalance on the part of archaeologists who are not accustomed to shifting their leisurely pace of work and rushing to meet a deadline, the campaign was a spectacular worldwide success.
It has been recognised as the most successful international appeal carried out by UNESCO for the rescue of the world’s cultural heritage. The name and image of UNESCO are still associated with it in the collective memory of humanity.
The success of the campaign also drew global attention to the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, popularly known as the World Heritage Convention, which was adopted in November 1972 at the 17th UNESCO General Conference.
Cultural struggles and the battle for hearts and minds have always been of great importance in managing the aftermath of armed conflicts and wars. After World War II, one of the tasks of researchers in the domain of culture was to remind contemporary audiences that there were lessons to be learnt from the past.
On the African continent, president Nasser decided to create a government portfolio for Culture and National Guidance in 1958 and appointed Tharwat Okasha, a politician but also an incredibly cultured man, to take it. Okasha spoke several languages, allowing him to have extraordinary access to the world’s different cultures. He is considered to be the most prominent minister of culture in Africa’s modern history and one of the great promoters of culture on the continent.
Born in 1921, Okasha grew up in Egypt and travelled quite early to Europe, where he studied in France and received a PhD in literature from the Sorbonne University in Paris in the 1960s. After a brilliant diplomatic career as ambassador of Egypt in Rome and military attaché in Paris, he was appointed a minister in one of the first cabinets after the 1952 Revolution in Egypt.
During his two ministerial mandates, from 1958 to 1962 and from 1966 to 1970, Okasha created a solid platform of cultural institutions that covered the whole of Egypt. At the same time, he worked on an international level to promote Egyptian culture in Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Most of the cultural institutions he founded are still considered to be landmarks, and they include the Supreme Council for Culture and the Arts, the Egyptian Book Organisation, the National Theatre, the network of Cultural Palaces, and most importantly, the Arts Academy in Cairo. The Popular Culture Authority (established in 1945 under the name of the Popular University under the earlier monarchical regime) sought to collect and refine folk heritage and develop folk arts, thus giving birth to the Reda Troup for Folk Dance.
“Take these stories to earth and give them to the humans; they will be eternally grateful to you,” says the sky god Nyame in West African folklore, referring to magical things called “stories.” The myth of Nyame is testimony of every society’s need to craft and share history and stories and to enjoy the richness of culture.
Today, the African countries should be inspired by their rich literature and wisdom, using this to engage their young populations and putting them in the driver’s seat towards a brighter future instead of wasting time and energy competing on topics that are animated by unhealthy spirits and could overshadow the beautiful days to come.
The writer is a member of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Relations Committee, and researcher at the French National Research Centre CNRS-Sorbonne University in Paris.