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Who is UNESCO really for?

26 September 2022

From the October 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

On 16 November 1972, the 17th General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), adopted the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, popularly known as the World Heritage Convention. Coming into force in 1975 after its adoption by 20 States Parties, and with its first listings – among them Aachen Cathedral in West Germany and the Island of Gorée in Senegal – arriving in 1978, the convention this year reaches its 50th anniversary with countries clamouring to have their properties placed on it.

Despite its apparent success in driving global headlines and tourism (think of Angkor in Cambodia, added to the World Heritage List in 1992, or Venice), the convention and the organisation from which it sprang have nevertheless been subjected to intellectual, political, and financial attacks. This year, UNESCO has launched a programme of conferences and ‘dialogues’ on the convention’s future called ‘The Next 50: World Heritage as a source of resilience, humanity and innovation’. Beyond such utopian rhetoric, however, what are the issues that the World Heritage Convention needs to address, and how likely are the organisation and its member states to help it do so?

One event remains central to World Heritage mythology: UNESCO’s International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia, which took place from 1960 until 1980, and which the organisation promotes as fundamental to its convention’s development. Launched as Egypt began construction of the Aswan High Dam under the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the campaign aimed to ensure the recording and preservation of ancient structures and archaeological sites due to be submerged by the dam’s floodwaters. Located in the cross-border region of Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia, among those places were the temples of Ramses II and Nefertari at Abu Simbel and the Greco-Roman temple complex on the island of Philae (‘the pearl of the Nile’), just south of Aswan.

However, in looking to raise the profile of its campaign UNESCO failed to appreciate the social destruction precipitated by the High Dam project and its precursors. Remains were – and are – nothing without people, and the people of Nubia had been treated badly for quite some time.

Under the British occupation of Egypt (‘the veiled protectorate’), which started in 1882, an earlier Aswan Dam had been built from 1898 until 1902 ten kilometres to the north of what would become the site of the High Dam; the height of the structure was later raised from 1907 to 1912, and then raised once again from 1929 until 1933 (Britain, meanwhile, had granted Egypt nominal independence in 1922). That earlier dam-building had three main outcomes. The first was the submersion of the part of Nubia that stretched from just south of Aswan to the Egyptian-Sudanese border at Wadi Halfa (the existence at that time of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan rendering that boundary somewhat porous). The second was the partial flooding of the ancient temples and archaeological sites that UNESCO’s project would later work to preserve; meaning that, from 1907 to 1911, and again from 1929 to 1934, Egypt’s French-run government antiquities service sponsored archaeological missions that surveyed and excavated the sites marked for flooding. The third, but certainly not final, result was the partial submersion of the homes and land of the Nubian population, who were thereby forced to move to higher ground and, in some cases, emigrate north to Cairo and Alexandria to work in domestic service.

Aswan High Dam construction

The construction of the Aswan High Dam began in 1960, prompting UNESCO’s campaign to save Nubian monuments. Photo: Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

Built with Soviet assistance after Britain, the United States and the World Bank had pulled funding, the High Dam was embedded in the post- (and Cold) War rhetoric of modernisation and technological development. By causing floods that reached both higher and further than its predecessor, the High Dam pushed the destruction of everyday life to a new level. By the time it had reached capacity in 1976, its reservoir stretched some 170 kilometres south of Wadi Halfa to the Nile cataract at Dal.

At the same time, the region of Nubia now lay in two independent countries: the 1956 Tripartite Aggression (the Suez crisis) having brought to an end the presence of British troops in Egypt, with Sudan gaining independence the same year. And from pharaonic-era temples to Nubian villages, the High Dam’s flood confined everything to a watery grave. That included Wadi Halfa, some of whose inhabitants refused to move, eventually prompting the construction of a ‘new’ Wadi Halfa by the Sudanese government on higher ground (but only in 1970, long after the High Dam’s flood had begun in 1964).

UNESCO, which had already backed a centre in Cairo dedicated to documenting ancient Egyptian tombs and temples saw a chance to act. So, too, did the Egyptian and Sudanese governments, who were eager to bring in more outside development funding. The resulting preservation campaign – UNESCO acting as intermediary rather than providing financing – witnessed an influx of archaeologists, architects, and other experts descend upon Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia from around the world; even as many of the people involved in the work were from North America or Western Europe, some teams came to Nubia from the Warsaw Pact and non-aligned countries such as India. Global interest, however, did not lead to preoccupation with everything on the Nubian ground. As Jean Thomas, the director of UNESCO’s Department of Cultural Activities, reportedly said, his organisation’s interest – and therefore that of this ‘global’ campaign – related to monuments and not to men.

The preamble to UNESCO’s constitution famously states that, ‘since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed’. Perhaps, then, the words of Jean Thomas may appear surprising. Yet UNESCO’s campaign in fact drew on the years of colonial-era excavation work in Nubia that had already taken place, leaving the project open to criticism. The same criticisms might equally be applied to the World Heritage Convention itself, which has long worn its Eurocentric concerns on its sleeve.

Previous excavations of Nubia had created a vision of the region as if viewed from the deck of one of the numerous steamboats that had navigated its waters since the colonial era. For archaeologists no less than tourists and colonial officials, Nubia offered a spectacle of desolation, where the villages of a population viewed as racially inferior were dotted along riverbanks giving way to the desert. Simultaneously, these villages played second fiddle to the semi-submerged ancient ruins located in and around them: ruins that suggested the glories of a Nile-side civilisation once present, long gone, but now ripe for revival by Europeans. While Nubians themselves were continually forced to move away from these sites, it was these opaquely ‘ancient’ remains that became the Nubia UNESCO campaigned to preserve.

Workmen lowering one of the heads of the four colossi of Ramses II on to its new site in October 1966. The monument was relocated from Abu Simbel due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Photo: AP/Shutterstock

The Nubians – who, if nothing else, formed a strong collective identity through their endurance of flooding – thus found themselves subject to state-led resettlement schemes on both sides of the Egyptian-Sudanese border, alongside a small, functionalist anthropological survey in Sudan and a similar, much larger ‘ethnological survey’ in Egypt, sponsored by the Ford Foundation and based at the American University in Cairo. Nothing of contemporary Nubian life, reduced to being the object of applied anthropology and development rhetoric, seemed to fit with UNESCO’s heritage remit.

More recently, the organisation (at the prompting, somewhat ironically, of anthropologists) has sought to address its treatment of people, one outcome of which was the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. This sought to address forms of heritage beyond the monumental: ‘traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors’, including the material culture associated with them. The work inspired by the convention, however, has often left something to be desired.

One outcome of the Nubian campaign was the opening in 1997 of the Nubia Museum in Aswan, which not only displays archaeo- logical objects, but also dioramas of Nubian life before the High Dam’s existence. As the anthropologist Elizabeth Smith discusses in the collection Cairo Cosmopolitan (2009), however, one member of a Nubian committee formed to consult on those displays said that Egyptian government officials didn’t listen to a word he said.

Nor has the organisation been able to make the actions of its member states consistent. Even when (ancient) Nubian sites became an inevitable early listing on the World Heritage List in 1979, their position in this new pantheon was only partial. Set down alongside various other Egyptian sites, the ‘Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae’ accounted for only one half of the region that the Nubian campaign had set out to preserve. Nothing on the Sudanese side of the Nubian border was listed, a reminder that UNESCO’s new heritage instrument was dependent on the actions of its member states. Unlike Egypt, where official enthusiasm for promoting monument-based mass tourism continued to grow, and where Anwar al-Sadat’s presidency was relatively stable (despite the ‘bread intifada’ of 1977, and despite its notorious denouement), Sudan had faced political instability under the 1969–85 prime ministership and presidency of Ja‘far al-Numayri that perhaps made the listing of its Nubian monuments less likely; the country’s first World Heritage property – ‘Gebel Barkal and the Sites of the Napatan Region’ – arrived as late as 2003.

What UNESCO’s member states do matters more than what UNESCO itself says, a situation that has come into dramatic focus only this year. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the member states of the World Heritage Committee argued about whether its planned 45th session should happen in the Russian city of Kazan. The geopolitical splits at UNESCO became clear for all to see, with indefinite postponement of the session being the ultimate, inconclusive response. UNESCO’s leverage over its member states is partial, its secretariat’s influence as inconsistent as the organisation’s funding. In 1984, during the Reagan administration, the United States – which provided something like a fifth to a quarter of the organisation’s operational budget – left UNESCO amid claims that the institution had become a hotbed of anti-Western activity. Rejoining in 2002, the country cut its funding in 2011 after member states voted to grant Palestine full membership; by the time it formally departed again during the Trump administration in 2017, the United States owed $542 million in dues.

Yet the biggest question remains what, or who, World Heritage is actually for. In relation to Nubia, it is Nubians themselves – in Egypt, Sudan and the wider diaspora – who have taken on the mantle of protecting their own heritage. In 2019, one long-standing organisation, the Cairo-based Association for Nubian Heritage, became a consultative body to the International Governmental Committee for UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage pro- gramme. Other groups and individuals also work independently to promote aspects of Nubian heritage, among them the Nubia Initiative NGO (‘Leveraging art & academia to protect, preserve and promote #Nubia, #NubianHeritage and #NubianLanguage’, as its Twitter bio states). If, as UNESCO has it, World Heritage needs to be a ‘source of resilience, humanity and innovation’, it is to such initiatives that it needs to turn. If anyone has been resilient and innovative, it is people like the Nubians. Perhaps, then – if they want to – they might also show UNESCO the humanity that was elided as World Heritage developed.

From the October 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.