Saturday, July 2, 2011

Christiane Desroches Nobelcourt Saved Egyptian Antiquities from Aswan Flooding

Obituary from the
6:21PM BST 01 Jul 2011

Christiane Desroches Noblecourt

Christiane Desroches Noblecourt, who died on June 23 [2011] aged 97, was a French Egyptologist and played a critical role in one of archaeology's most breathtaking feats – the wholesale relocation of many spectacular ancient temples due to be flooded by the Aswan High Dam.

The project to rescue the Nubian sites got under way in 1959, after the governments of Egypt and Sudan appealed for international help in moving them away from the vast reservoir that was to be created by the dam. Despite the Cold War tensions of the day, 50 nations responded.

Christiane Desroches Noblecourt, a passionate Egyptologist who had overcome the sexual discrimination of the pre-war era to establish herself as a leading expert on the treasures of the pharaohs, had already identified 32 sites that were threatened by the rising waters.

Having alerted Nasser and his government to the crisis, she promised to liaise with Unesco, based in Paris, to coordinate the uniquely ambitious rescue operation. Working with the newly appointed Unesco director, René Maheu, and the Egyptian Minister for Culture, Sarwat Okacha, Christiane Desroches Noblecourt began a race against time to save as much as possible before the temples and their secrets were inundated for ever deep beneath the Aswan reservoir.

Their greatest concern was Abu Simbel, the monument erected by Rameses the Great around 1250BC to glorify himself and his queen, Nefertari. The complex, covered in magnificent carvings, was guarded by four 20-metre high statues of Rameses sculpted directly into a mountainside. Attempting to shift it seemed impossible.

There were other problems, too. The temple had been located specifically so that, twice a year, the rays of the sun would penetrate its depths and illuminate statues of the gods Amun-Ra and the falcon-headed Ra-Horakhty, while leaving the god of the underworld, Ptah, shrouded in darkness.

Some suggested building a barrage around the site, but this was abandoned when it became clear that, despite lying 180 miles south of Aswan, the temple would be submerged beneath 60 metres of water following the dam's construction.

The only option was to saw it into pieces, and rebuild it, like a vast Lego set. So, after assembling huge teams of workers in the sparsely populated region, an eight-year effort began to slice 1,042 blocks, some weighing 20 tonnes, from the mountainside and reassemble them 90 metres higher on an artificially created mound. Today, Abu Simbel remains one of Egypt's most celebrated sites, though the sun's rays now strike Amun-Ra a day later than they used to.

Other sites proved equally challenging. The temple of Kalabsha features several immaculate relief carvings and was the second-largest site to be relocated. The German team in charge of saving it dismantled it stone by stone, and moved them almost 30 miles, near to Aswan.

On the island of Philae, 104 metres above sea level and home to a vast archaeological complex, the new dam was having a different, if equally destructive, effect. The problem was that the island had been submerged, by and large safely, by an earlier dam. But the Aswan High dam was to lower the waters at Philae, partially revealing the island's marvels. It was forecast that fluctuations in the reservoir between 102 and 110 metres above sea level would create a tidal effect that would soon sweep the ancient buildings away.

To save them, a ring of steel was built around the island, with the remaining water pumped out. After cleaning, each structure was dismantled into tens of thousands of bricks, and relocated on higher ground.

Perhaps the trickiest rescue of all, however, was that overseen by the French themselves at Amada, where three pharaohs, including Amenhotep II, had created one of Egypt's most richly-decorated sites – a temple covered with brightly-coloured, painted reliefs. It was evident to Christiane Desroches Noblecourt that block-by-block dismantling that had been successful at other sites would destroy the reliefs at Amada.

Instead the temple was encased in a superstructure and hewn from the desert floor in its entirety. This vast relic was then placed on three railway lines, and rolled gently away to safety, two miles distant, over a period of six months. Such was the slowness of its progress that, as the temple inched forward, the rails left behind were lifted up and placed in front of it again.

Eventually, the principal treasures of the region were saved. For Christiane Desroches Noblecourt it was a personal triumph. For Egypt it was an archaeological necessity. For Unesco, however, the mammoth project had sown the idea that certain monuments were not the property of individual countries, but of humanity itself, as "world heritage" sites. Four years after the Nubian temples were saved, the UN introduced a convention protecting such sites. Today 187 countries have ratified it, with 35 campaigns currently under way to save monuments considered "endangered".

Christiane Desroches was born on November 17 1913 in Paris, to intellectual parents who encouraged her to learn and widen her horizons. Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922 and, as a child, Christiane was fascinated by the treasures of the pharaohs. Her grandfather often took her to the obelisk at Place de la Concorde to inspect the hieroglyphs inscribed upon it.

After she left the lycée, her father wanted Christiane to study 18th-century drawings but, she said, "that bored me stiff". So instead he took her to see the director of the Louvre, who recommended a course in hieroglyphics run by a Father Drioton. Signing up to the course, as well as for lessons in archaeology and philology, Christiane Desroches completed a thesis at the Ecole du Louvre, and was then appointed to the department of Egyptian antiquities at the museum.

From there she left for the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo (IFAO) where, as a woman in her mid-20s, she was unwelcome. "I had encountered a certain amount of misogyny at the Louvre," she said later. "But nothing like at the IFAO. The men there didn't want to share the library or even the dining room with me; they said I would collapse and die in the field. The director of the school then dispatched me to a particularly tough site, at Edfou, south of Luxor." In 1938 she became the first Frenchwoman to lead a dig.

But war soon intervened, and Christiane Desroches returned to Paris. There she was approached by Jean Cassou, former director of the Museum of Modern Art, who asked her cryptically "if I listened to the radio". This she took to be a reference to the BBC, and soon she joined Cassou in the Resistance – performing mundane, but potentially fatal, courier missions, as well as hiding those on the run.

In December 1940 she was arrested, at which point she claimed to have shouted at her interrogators for putting their boots on the table while questioning her. She was released, and in 1942 married a childhood friend, with whom four years later she had a son.

After the war Christiane Desroches Noblecourt's settled family life disinclined her to return to the field, but following Nasser's coup in 1952 a great deal of Egypt's archaeological service was thrown into chaos. In 1954 she was asked to return by the French culture ministry and set up the Centre for Documentation of Scientific Research in Cairo, training a new generation of Egyptian archaeologists.

"We made them learn about and understand the monuments," she said. "We concentrated on the Nubian temples as I learned that they were about to be submerged under the waters of the Aswan dam that was still then at the planning stage."

But just as Christiane Desroches Noblecourt realised the gravity of the situation, Nasser privatised the Suez Canal, prompting the invasion by Israeli, French and British forces. She was forced to evacuate as relations between Egypt and France collapsed. Such was her stature, however, that soon she was sent a telegram inviting her to return – one of the few Westerners tolerated after the crisis.

By 1959 the dam project was well under way, and Sarwat Okacha approached Christiane Desroches Noblecourt, complaining that Egypt would be forced to sell the ancient temples to foreign buyers. Having proposed that they organise a rescue plan through Unesco, she promised help in the name of France.

On her return to Paris, however, she discovered that this promise was most unwelcome. At the Elysée palace, she was confronted by President Charles de Gaulle, famous for his quick temper. "How dare you engage France in this without the authorisation of my government?" he shouted at her.

After reflecting for a moment, she replied: "And you, did you demand the authorisation of Pétain's government on June 18 1940? No! You judged the circumstances required you to take a stand. Well, that's what I've done." Weeks later she had the funding she needed.

She was reunited with de Gaulle eight years later, when the Egyptian government, partly as a gesture of thanks for Christiane Desroches Noblecourt's efforts, allowed the treasures of Tutankhamen to be exhibited in Paris. It was the first time a substantial number of pieces of the treasure had been displayed in Europe. "The English weren't pleased," she recalled. "They had discovered the treasure in 1922, and then a French woman had the temerity to exhibit it in her country. But they had forgotten that England had refused to help save the Nubian temples."

Christiane Desroches Noblecourt was allotted 20 minutes to guide de Gaulle around the exhibition. But he peppered her with questions and after that time they were still only in the second room, at which point he instructed his principal secretary to allot another hour to the visit. Of particular interest, apparently, was the ancient symbolism of the scarab, or dung beetle.

In later life Christiane Desroches Noblecourt lived in a richly-decorated apartment in Paris. But she never added an Egyptian object to the furnishings: "Everybody would think I'd stolen it from some tomb." When not making field trips, she worked on one of the host of books that she wrote on ancient Egypt, publishing well into her 90s. The Fabulous Heritage of Egypt was a bestseller as recently as 2005.

A tiny, driven woman, Christiane Desroches Noblecourt received many awards, and was appointed Grand Officer of the Légion d'honneur in 2005. Her husband predeceased her.

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