“I have never polluted the Nile,” the spirit of ancient Egyptians chanted when they pleaded for admittance to the Afterlife. These words, which greet visitors as they step inside the newly opened Nile Museum in Aswan, come from the Book of the Dead, the name by which Egyptologists denote the book of prayers that accompanied the deceased into Eternity; the name ancient Egyptians used was the Book of Emerging into the Daylight.
“The words ring true from ancient times and represent the message we wish to convey,” Hisham Farghali, Director of Museum, told Watani.
I was not the only one representing Watani that day. With me were my husband and two daughters aged nine and four. We were generously hosted by Mr Farghali, who was keen to guide us through.
The museum, the brainchild of Mr Farghali, is located on a 146,000 square metre plot of land on high ground east of the Aswan High Dam. Construction started 12 years ago, in 2004, as a document centre for the Aswan High Dam and the older Aswan Dam which was constructed at the outset of the 20th century. Mr Farghali was appointed director in August 2014. He spotted the huge potential the large land and museum held, and proposed the idea of a Nile museum to Hossam Moghazi, Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources, who enthusiastically approved it. The museum opened last January, coinciding with Aswan’s national day and the anniversary of the opening of the High Dam in January 1971.
A journey 6,853km long
During the first few days since it opened, the museum received 19,189 visitors. Run by the Ministry of Irrigation which allocated EGP82 million for the project, the new museum tells the story of the River Nile.
To maintain the idea of Egypt’s ties with the other nations sharing the Nile, the 11 flags of the Nile countries greet visitors at the entrance of the museum. Eleven water-drop spheres bear their names: Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt.
On entering the extensive grounds we passed through an oasis of palms to a large model of the three-storey museum. An innovative model depicts the Nile’s journey from source to mouth, a journey that spans close to 6,900 kilometres. The water flows under arches from upper to lower levels, symbolising the route of the Nile waters from its source in Uganda in the south to the Nile Delta in Egypt and into the Mediterranean. Models of African wildlife including the gazelle, giraffe, elephant and lion grace the banks of the southern Nile. A number of basins host live crocodiles. The sea is depicted by a fountain which hosts a map of the Nile and marks the countries on its banks.
Six statues honour Hapi, the ancient Egyptian Nile god, depicting him protected by the Nile beasts, the hippopotamus and crocodile, as the ancients believed. Hapi holds high the ‘Nile Document’ that gave the river his protection in modern times.
The Nile in ancient and modern times
We entered a gallery named Arouss al-Neel, Bride of the Nile. It displays a depiction of the ancient Egyptian legend of the sacrifice of a mermaid to the Nile during the flood season to ensure that the flood would be good, neither too high nor too low, and that the soil would later yield abundant crops.
If Egyptians looked to gods to secure an adequate annual inundation in ancient times, they have in modern times resorted to engineering and technological prowess. The next gallery in the museum is devoted, aptly, to the Aswan High Dam which stores water in the dam upstream reservoir, Lake Nasser, to allow for perennial irrigation of the fields and to save Egypt from too-high injurious floods and too-low floods that result in drought.
The High Dam was built with Russian expertise and cooperation. A large model of the dam dominates the gallery, with graphics illustrating the various stages of its construction, as well as the medals given by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser to the top ranking engineers who took part in this construction. There are also samples of granite rock representing the geological elements of the High Dam, and the detonation device used in 1964 to divert the course of the river in order to construct the dam. Another model depicts the phases of the buiding of the Aswan High Dam. In one room are examples of land survey equipment from the time of the construction of the dam in the 1960s.
Outside is a sculpture commemorating the workers who lost their lives during the dam construction.
The museum features the development of irrigation in Egypt since the era of Muhammad Ali Pasha in the 19th century. It was then that Egypt started adopting modern irrigation methods after centuries of age-old time-honoured practices.
A gallery is dedicated to the projects on the river, and the individuals behind them. It begins with Ali Pasha Mubarak, the first Egyptian Minister of Public Works, who came to office in 1869. An audio system relates in several languages his achievements, from the management of the Delta Barrage north of Cairo to his many adjustments of the irrigation system, including the digging of numerous canals in Egypt’s Nile Valley and Delta to carry the Nile water to deprived areas. Mubarak is depicted standing by his original desk which is now among the museum’s acquisitions. At the end of the gallery is a depiction of the current Irrigation Minister Hossam Moghazy explaining the recent plans to reclaim 1.5 million feddans of desert.
Another room displays tools and equipment used since the time of Muhammad Ali Pasha, such as the tool used by King Fouad I when he laid the foundation stone of the Nag Hammadi barrage in 1928.There are also portrayals of Nile-related industries such as papyrus, pottery, and cane work, as well as descriptions of the Nilometer in its various stages. Terminologies and definitions are also explained: siphons, barrages and aqueducts. All descriptions of exhibits are in Arabic and English.
One display showcases the recent Nile Document, written in Arabic and pledging a campaign to save the River Nile. The museum possesses three copies of this document signed by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi; al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb; and Pope Tawadros II. The document pledges to preserve the River Nile as a source of life and blessing to all who live on its banks.
“I had a vision of a boat sailing the Nile downstream from south to north,” Mr Farghali said. “I imagined it would make so many stops; at each stop they would be gathering local traditional souvenirs and artefacts. They would sail on uninterrupted till Aswan where they would have to disembark owing to the dam barrier there. They would unload the heritage trove they picked all over the way.” This trove, Mr Farghali explains, would make the seed for a museum collection that would depict the identity of the peoples living on the Nile banks.
The vision, and the museum which materialises it, are clear evidence that Egyptians are keen to foster closer ties with the other countries in the Nile Basin. Sections are allocated within the museum for the eleven riparian countries to exhibit their Nile-related heritage. Uganda and South Sudan have already made contributions; in the same gallery they both showcase artefacts produced by the locals and representing the Nile’s impact on their customs and daily life. According to Mr Farghali, more exhibits are expected to arrive from other upstream countries.
“The Nile Museum is testament to the cooperation between the Nile River basin States, and shows the great potential of tourism in the development of our individual countries,” says Dr Maria Mutagamba, the Ugandan Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities. She says Uganda’s display in the museum is a permanent connection to the country where the world’s longest river, the Nile, begins its journey.
Library and panorama
The museum boasts an aquarium in one of its galleries, which hosts specimens of the various fishes living in the Nile waters.
On the third floor is a library designed to house thousands of books and documents as well as Internet and archiving facilities. The shelves are designed to be opened as if moved by a waterwheel. “Anyone who wishes to contribute by giving us historical books to enrich our library is most welcome to do so,” Mr Farghali said.
From the library terrace overlooking the blossoming gardens of the museum, visitors can see a panorama of everyday traditional farming life in Egypt; there are models of peasants doing their work using the saqya (waterwheel), the tanbour (Archimedes screw) and shaduf (lever) for irrigation, while a woman peasant bakes bread in front of her house. From above we could also see a wall inspired by the sour magra al-oyoun, the south Cairo aqueduct built in 1169 by Sultan Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty.
The large museum grounds will eventually house other facilities such as a motel, a business centre, coffee shops and a convention hall aiming at attracting conference tourism. Aswan was once a major international conference centre; President Anwar al-Sadat, President of Egypt in 1970 – 1981, regularly visited Aswan in the winter months and met Arab and foreign leaders there.
Touch of beauty
My daughters were enchanted by the museum. There are several interactive activities including touchscreens where they learned more about the Nile, its inhabitants and African wildlife. Two cartoon characters: ‘Timo’, a crocodile, and ‘Firo’, a hippopotamus, interact with the children through videos that teach them how to keep the Nile water unpolluted.
Alongside the rich Nile history there is an aesthetic side to the museum. Before we left we viewed paintings by several generations of Egyptian artists, “generously loaned to us by the Ministry of Culture from among its acquisitions,” Mr Farghali explained. Among the more than 60 works is an acrylic of Nile Houses by Ahmed Abdel-Gawad; an oil painting, Nubian Inspiration by Abdel-Wahab Mursi; Labour by Muhammad Omar; and Wagdy Habashy’s Nile Bride… Ambiguity of Life. This last painting left my daughters in ecstatic thrill since the painter was none other than their own grandfather.
The story of the Nile Museum in Aswan has not come to an end. According to Mr Farghali, it will soon be equipped to make it friendly to persons with disability; and it is open to additions, enhancements, and contributions from all Nile Basin countries. As long as life teems and develops on the banks of the Nile, the museum will evolve in parallel.
30 March 2016