The Building of the First Aswan Dam and the Inundation of Lower Nubia:

Images from the Collections of the Kelsey Museum

The Nile River is the main artery for Egypt and Nubia: the present course of the river, traceable to at least 25,000 years ago, is a determining factor of the topography of the region. In a relatively rainless region, it is only because of the river's annual flood that these areas became habitable and airable.

The yearly flood of the Nile is caused by late summer rains in the plateau region of Ethiopia, which in turn swell the tributaries of the Nile. At the peak of the flood, the volume of the river's flow increases by as much as sixteenfold. Variable amounts of rainfall to Ethiopia cause stunning differences in the amount of flooding seen farther down the course of the Nile. In a "lean year," such as 1913-1914, 12 billion cubic meters of flood water swelled the river. A "fat year," such as 1878-79, saw the level of the river increase by 155 billion cubic meters of water.

At the turn of the century, agricultural production was being outstripped by the growth of the population in Egypt and the Sudan: the Nile had to be controlled if there was to be agricultural stability along its banks. Harnessing the power of the Nile would also yield the hydroelectric power necessary for industry. To the increasingly industrial societies of the region, the choice was clear. In 1899, construction of the first Aswan Dam was begun. Completed in 1902, its height was raised in subsequent building campaigns of 1907-12 and 1929-34. Even with these renovations, the first, or "Low," dam proved to have an inadaquate reservior area. In the event of extreme flooding, it would be necessary to open the sluices of the dam to relieve the water pressure against it, flooding the areas thought to be protected. A second dam was necessary at Aswan, and in the early 1950s, designs began to be drawn for what was to become the High Dam as Aswan. With the signing of the Nile Water Agreement by Egypt and the Sudan in November of 1959, work began on the second Aswan dam.

The bulding of the High Dam at Aswan would have grave implications. Much of Lower Nubia would be submerged under the reservior created by the dam, destroying momuments and archaeological sites from the First to the Third Cataracts of the Nile River. Ambitious rescue operations were begun in 1960, after an appeal was issued by Vittorino Veronese, the then Director-General of UNESCO.(United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Three stages of operations were necessary: survey of the area, excavation of archaeological sites, and the final movement of as many endangered monuments as was possible.

Twenty monuments from the Egyptian part of Nubia and four monuments from the Sudan were dismantled, relocated and re-erected. Many others were identified during the survey, and were documented before their subsequent inundation. Special permits were issued by the Egyptian and Sudanese governments for archaeological excavations conducted by multinational teams of researchers, including those from the University of Pennsylvania. In the end, however, time ran out. It became clear that it would not be possible to document many of the sites of Lower Nubia completely, and that much of the information which careful archaeological excavation can yield would be lost forever.

The Photographs:

Many of these photographs depict the building of the first Aswan Dam at the turn of the century. Others depict the canals and sluices of the dam shortly after construction. In several cases, the photographs were acquired from the Publication Department of the United States Department of Agriculture, while the source of the remaining photographs is unknown.

West Channel Masonry Looking East (from westernmost area of the dam)
April 30, 1901
D.S. George, photographer

KM 61.7.679b

Navigation Channel
July 10, 1901
D.S. George, photographer

KM 61.7.675

From the West Bank Looking East
October 1, 1901
D.S. George, photographer

KM 61.7.678

Cast Iron Lining for Sluices Being Put in Place
D.S. George, photographer

KM 61.7.679a

Western End of the Aswan Dam from Downstream
January 7, 1902
Photographer unknown

KM 61.7.677

High Level Sluice, South Side of Dam
March 12, 1900
D.S. George, photographer

KM 61.7.680

View from the Headgate of the Menifia Canal Looking North
Photographer unknown

KM 61.7.682

Lateral Headgate of the Menufia Canal
Photographer unknown

KM 61.7.681a

Headgate and Lock of the Menufia Canal
Photographer unknown

KM 61.7.681b

Damietta Barrage from the Eastern Bank of the Nile
Bonfils, photographer

KM 61.7.674a

The Rosetta Barrage from the West Bank of the Nile
Photographer unknown

KM 61.7.674b

View of Philae Island and Temples from the South
Before 1899
Photographer unknown

KM 61.7.616

This view shows Philae before the completion of the first Aswan Dam.

The Partially Inundated Temples of the Philae
After 1902
Photographer unknown

KM 61.7.1225

The Kiosk of Trajan is in the foreground, while the Temple of Isis is at the right rear. The reservior of the first Aswan Dam flooded the complex for much of each year.
The Great Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel
Photographer unknown

KM 61.7.619

The Nile can be seen in the background of this photograph. After the building of the first Aswan Dam, the reservoir waters could at times reach the feet of the seated figures.