Home | News    Tuesday 31 May 2005

MEROWE DAM - A race against time to save Sudan’s past from progress

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By Marc Lacey, The New York Times

MAY 30, 2005 — On the Upper Nile, Sudan Far north of Khartoum, where modern steel bridges cross this legendary river, the architecture goes way back in time: thousand-year-old temples, towering pyramids, elaborate cities from civilizations that lived and died and were then buried by the surging sand.

Workers excavating an ancient church near the Nile’s fourth cataract, where a $1.8 billion dam is to be built. (NYT).

The uncovering of these ancient wonders has proceeded slowly, but steadily over the past century as archaeologists have sifted through the earth for clues of the great Nilotic cultures that once flourished in Sudan.

That methodical search has picked up in pace of late. In fact, it has turned into a frenzied relic hunt.

Archaeology is not a field that one associates with haste. What has lasted thousands of years will be there tomorrow or next month or next year. But that is not true along some stretches of this riverbank, where construction crews are beginning to arrive, and some fear ancient treasures may be lost forever.

Sudan is preparing to build a giant dam at the Nile’s fourth cataract, a point where rocks interrupt the river’s flow, and white water swirls. The project risks submerging some of Sudan’s lofty past even as it promises to be a foundation for the future.

The Nile is and always has been everything to Sudan. Without it, livestock would die of thirst, agricultural land would dry up and the people, too, would surely perish. The river is more than the country’s lifeblood, though. The Nile offers beauty, stark contrast to the harsh desert climate that creeps southward, as well as pride to a country that often feels the rest of the world is ganging up on it.

A boat trip up the Nile, near the sixth and final cataract, finds a Sudan of chirping birds, unknown islands, fishermen plucking perch after perch from its depths. There are no signs of the conflicts that have so divided this country.

The new dam, which is to produce 1,250 megawatts of electricity, is expected to cost an estimated $1.8 billion. Once it is finished in 2008, the Merowe Dam is intended to roughly double Sudan’s power supply and help irrigate land that is now barely arable. Sudan’s leaders see it as a symbol of the country’s future.

"Our battle against poverty starts from here," President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan said in March during a visit to the dam site, 345 kilometers, or 215 miles, north of Khartoum.

But modernization comes with a price. The dam, which experts say is the largest hydropower project under development in Africa, is expected to create a sprawling 160-kilometer-long lake that will displace 50,000 people who live in villages along the river.

Also to be submerged are some of Sudan’s ancient sites, where archaeologists are working feverishly to find what they can while they still can. The affected locations, according to government scientists, include the noted towns and cemeteries from the Pharaonic period and the Napato-Meroitic era, which stretched from 900 B.C. to A.D. 350, at Gebel Barkal, the post-Meroitic tumuli, or grave mounds, of Zuma and the Christian monastery of Ghazali, among others.

"No archaeologist in his life wants to do rescue excavation," said Dr. Salah Ahmed, director of field work for the Sudanese government’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums. "We want to excavate gradually over generations, not in a hurry."

The accelerated excavation is taking place not just along the riverbank. Eight transmission lines will fan out from the dam for more than 1,600 kilometers. Irrigation ditches are going in along the Nile. All these efforts will mean that construction crews from China, France, Germany and Switzerland will soon be crisscrossing the desert and possibly treading on historically significant sites.

So vast is the area that must be dug that the Sudanese government has sent out requests to archaeologists around the world for assistance. If the outside scientists can secure financing to do responsible digging at the ancient sites, the government will agree to give the archaeologists some of the relics for museums back home.

That is why Polish, German, American and British archaeologists, among others, are now focusing their attention on one area of northern Sudan, where the Nile twists and turns like an S and where who knows what is buried underground.

Criticism of the dam remains fierce, particularly among outside environmental groups.

The International Rivers Network and the Corner House published a report last week that complained that displaced residents were being resettled to areas with far less fertile soil.

"The re-settlers were promised free services such as water, electricity and fertilizer for a two-year transition period, but are being cheated out of most of these services," the groups charged.

The groups also say that the environmental effect of the project has never been properly assessed and that a proper plan for handling the cultural heritage of the area is lacking.

With building now under way, Ahmed said he had accepted that the energy needs of the country required the dam’s construction. Most areas of Sudan rely on generators to keep the lights on. Dreams of turning the country into an industrial giant are hamstrung by the country’s limited power.

The work is already producing surprising results, according to Ahmed, who has devoted his career to the area. Before the hurried digging began, many archaeologists did not consider this particular stretch of the Nile to be a major settlement site. But the ancient buildings, tombs, pots and other finds are proving that wrong, he said.

"This dam has a negative side, but it also has a positive side," Ahmed said. "This area has been ignored by archaeologists. It has never been surveyed properly. We are mostly relying on surveys from British occupation. We’re learning that the area is far more interesting than anybody thought."

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The Sudan Tribune editorial team.

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