Beyond the Borders: Nubian Culture and Cultural Tourism

This post comes from thesis work by Zeina Elcheikh entitled Culture and Tourism in Southern Egypt. The work focused on the role on cultural tourism in preserving cultural identity and the challenges it faces in the cases of ethnic minorities, such as the Nubians.

Nubia and Nubians

Nubia was the name given to the region stretching between the south of Aswan in southern Egypt, and Dongola in central Sudan. Nubians, who have historically lived in Nubia and developed a civilization dating back to 8000 B.C.,’ have long been considered as a distinct population. On a basis of linguistic difference, Nubians have been divided into two main groups: Kenuzi (Matoki) and Fadija (Mahas). Nubians had in their geographical setting, a narrow and intimate relation with the river Nile which was an essential part of their lives, not as being the only source of water, but as the centre of their daily activities (communication, marriage, birth, death etc.) and many other rituals were celebrated in a close association with the River.

Beginning in the 19th century, efforts were made to regulate the flow of water in the Nile. The building of the Old Aswan Dam was proposed in 1898, to retain the flood water of the Nile and to ensure the availability of irrigation water in Egypt downstream from the dam for a longer period. After its completion in 1902, the dam was raised twice, in 1912 and later in 1933. Consequently, the Nubians gradually lost their renowned date palm trees, waterwheels and productive small pieces of land. In 1948, a proposal for a grander dam in Aswan was published and projected year round storage, thus a permanent lake.

A view of Lake Nasser/Nubia from the High Dam in Aswan

A view of Lake Nasser/Nubia from the High Dam in Aswan

After the coup in 1952, the decision to construct the High Dam was taken. The new agreement with the Sudan on the partition of the Nile waters was signed on November 1958, and enabled the construction to start in January 1960. The flow of the river was blocked and the lake began to fill in summer 1964. As a result, a total distance of about 500 kilometres was submerged. Egyptian and Sudanese Nubians living in the flooded area below the dam were forced to sacrifice their homeland for a greater prosperity of their nations as a whole. In those days, and despite the difference in magnitude and efforts, anthropologists and archaeologists were in a fierce battle against time to document and rescue whatever possible of Nubian heritage in its original land, before it became too late.

When the High Dam project was first launched, it became clear that many archaeological sites along the Nile valley would disappear forever beneath the waters downstream. This plight caused Egypt to approach UNESCO in April 1959 and request help in saving the endangered sites and monuments. Although Sudan had less of a share of monuments to lose, it joined the Egyptian call in October 1959. On March 8, 1960, UNESCO made its first general appeal, and the result was the International Campaign to save the monuments of Nubia. However, and while this campaign has been described as the greatest achievement carried out by UNESCO, no such attention was really paid to the fate of Nubians and to their cultural heritage which was strongly connected through history to their original homeland, and which was doomed to be submerged.

The Nubia Museum in Aswan

Nubia Museum in Aswan

Nubia Museum in Aswan

As a consequence of the International Salvage Campaign, and in order to preserve excavated artifacts and significant findings, the construction of a Nubian Museum was planned in Aswan. The aim was to allow present and future generations, as well as the larger international public, to get a better understanding of Nubia’s history. The museum was meant to include an outdoor area for exhibits and activities. It was intended to house some of the most outstanding items discovered in the course of the rescue campaign, and to become a valuable centre of Nubian culture. The call was made by the Director General of the UNESCO in 1982.

The museum was opened to the public on November, 23 1997, and captured the attention of tourists and scholars who want to explore the rich history of Nubia. Moreover, it has become a main attraction in Aswan, not to be missed by any visitor. In 2001, the museum was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The museum’s collections host artifacts excavated during the salvage campaign, from the site which lay now underneath the waters of the Lake Nasser/Nubia. These artifacts range in time from prehistory, Egyptian domination, Christian and Islamic periods. The outdoor area includes a sample of a typical traditional Nubian house, with its architecture and decorations.

"Nubia Submerged" exhibit at the Nubia Museum

“Nubia Submerged” exhibit at the Nubia Museum

The “good old days” in the pre-Dam Old Nubia appear in the section of the diorama at the Nubia Museum in Aswan, with the aim of showcasing Nubians’ culture. However many of the aspects of the Nubians’ daily life, if not all of them, do not exist anymore in the displaced Nubian villages, or at least not in the romanticized image presented in the museum.

On the other hand, and further to the south, the appetite for a more modern representation of Nubian culture in a museum and through cultural tourism appears in the Nubian community-based museum in Wadi Halfa (Sudan).

The community-based Nubian museum of Wadi Halfa

Wadi Halfa is a Nubian border town in northern Sudan, around 60 kilometres to the south of the prominent temples of Abu Simbel. Today, the town is consisted of Nubians who remained in the proximity of their submerged land, in addition to other people from other parts of the Sudan.

The Nubia Museum ethnographic exhibit showing a Koranic school in a village of Old Nubia

The Nubia Museum ethnographic exhibit showing a Koranic school in a village of Old Nubia

Although the reestablishment of the Wadi Halfa Museum was among the tasks to be accomplished following the UNESCO campaign, nothing has been realized. This project has been seen by many as an impetus to enhance the social, cultural and economic development of the town where the museum is the cultural hub. The future museum is intended to go beyond the traditional role museums usually play as memorial places where the past is displayed, to become an interactive spot as a community-based museum to preserve the Nubian culture and to connect Nubians’ past with their present. Unlike the ethnographic exhibits at the Nubia Museum in Aswan, the diorama in Wadi Halfa Museum is intended to offer a more vibrant experience. Therefore, a suggestion of interactive Nubian village (of local mud and traditional building techniques) has been made to enhance the Nubian traditions through actual activities. This interactive Nubian village is envisaged to be composed of several houses meant to host centres for handcrafts, Nubian language, folklore, and traditional culinary arts.

Wadi Halfa Community-based Museum is also believed to play a counterpart role with the Nubia Museum in Aswan. In February 2005, a Protocol of Cooperation was signed between Egypt and the Sudan in the field of cultural heritage, and the museum has also been on the priorities list of the UNESCO mission to Nubia in 2005.

Trans-border cultural tourism

Although in general, international borders are seen as blockades to relations and interaction, the case of the Egyptian-Sudanese borders can been seen differently: in the Nubian context.  It has also been noted that Nubia (either in the Egyptian or the Sudanese part) somehow had an independent status, and showed unresponsiveness to the events in both countries. The current borders between Egyptian Nubia and Sudanese Nubia (between Egypt and the Sudan today) are only political, and were drawn by the British Condominium treaty of 1899. After drawing the borders between Egypt and the Sudan, the glorious civilization developed in the past by Nubians was divided—as the people were themselves divided— into two territories and two peoples. This partition is also visible from a tourism planning viewpoint, due to the different agendas concerning tourism in both countries. Tourism in Sudanese Nubia has not been developed enough, compared to what has happened in Egyptian Nubia.

Speaking about cultural tourism with a focus on Nubian culture, the future Nubian museum of Wadi Halfa could initiate further studies on potential trans-border or cross-border tourism between Egypt and the Sudan. There is already a ferry (for transport and trade rather than tourism) between Aswan and Wadi Halfa, as well as some individually arranged tours. Moreover, informants have shared the same opinion that such concept of trans-border or cross-border cultural tourism is very likely to be promoted, saying that “after all, it is the same culture in two countries”. However, some of the informants (mainly those of the tourism business groups), mentioned the difficulties facing such initiatives, which are mainly: transport infrastructure (roads, cruisers…), administrative difficulties related entry requirements (visa, security clearance …), and added charges (relatively high) for tourists going from Southern Egypt to the Sudan.


Today, Nubians in both countries represent an ethnic minority, compared by many scholars with the case of indigenous American Indians, and associated with accounts on marginalization, enforced assimilation and nostalgia. Emphasizing Nubians being part of Egypt, or Sudan, has been seen by them, mainly the older generations, as a threat to their cultural identity. Gathering all Nubians under the umbrella of one name and one cultural identity to spread the message about their heritage and their traditions strengthens their presence. However, doing so could also be seen as an oversimplification of the Nubian culture diversities, especially when not all of them share the same tragedy caused by the High Dam.

Tourism facilities at the Nubian village of Gharb Soheil

Tourism facilities at the Nubian village of Gharb Soheil

Cultural tourism offers a strong motivation to preserve identity and foster economic development; however, its sustainability depends on how much local community is involved. Taking into account that a tourism-related development cannot always be considered as a panacea to the cultural and socio-economic problems of Nubians, especially with the turbulent political situation in both countries. Suggestions of trans-border cultural tourism, in the wake of the Nubia Museum in Aswan and the future Nubian Museum in Wadi Halfa, open a debate that goes beyond cultural tourism in its simple meaning or scope to other issues at the political level. Anything said about the Nubians’ situation in both countries, is, in addition, sensitive. This is particularly true for the Sudan, where separatism has been experienced in its south, and where a strengthening of the Nubian presence – even if just affecting culture – could be seen as a threat for its north.

The Nubians, who were separated once by political decisions, and those whose homeland was once submerged, could be reunified—even if only notionally—by a sound and sensitive planning of cultural tourism which could create a Nubian journey beyond  the borders and a vibrant image of Nubian culture outside the walls of museums.

Zeina Elcheikh, Syrian architect, holds an M.Sc. from Stuttgart University.She worked with German International Cooperation and the French Institute for the Near East in Syria.In Egypt, she joined the UNESCO office as an intern within the framework of Wadi Halfa Museum project. She is also a member of AiP‘s Advisory Board.


About Adventures in Preservation

Huge fans of the world's architectural heritage, making it a point to seek out historic buildings wherever we travel. Bloggers include co-founder of Adventures in Preservation, a non-profit organizing historic preservation-based volunteer vacations, and AiP interns.
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