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Lost Roman Treasure

Damming the Past
by Greg Berberian and Lexi Krock

 

Lost Roman Treasure homepage

Sites:  Egypt  | Portugal | Iraq | India | China | Turkey

Buried once by the sands of time, untold numbers of archeological sites, some ranking in importance with Turkey's Zeugma, now face another more destructive burial, this time by waters and silt from newly built reservoirs. Other sites have already been lost in this manner, while a precious few have been saved. Here, learn about six of the largest dam projects of the past half century—one completed, another abandoned, and four now underway—that have posed threats to nearby archeological treasures.

Egypt: Ancient temples rescued at Abu Simbel
During his rule in Egypt from about 1290 to 1224 B.C., Pharaoh Ramses II commissioned dozens of statues of himself. Among these, the twin temples at Abu Simbel are his most spectacular self tributes. Located in Nubia near Egypt's border with Sudan, the Great Temple at Abu Simbel features four 75-foot-tall statues of Ramses. Next to it is a smaller temple, which Ramses dedicated to his wife, Nefertari. Artisans carved the monuments into a sandstone cliff, which stood at a bend in the Nile as if to mark the entrance to the Land of the Pharaohs. Builders aligned the temple so that twice a year—once on Ramses' birthday and once on the anniversary of his ascension to the throne—the rays of the rising sun pierce the temple and illuminate four seated statues within.

In the 1960s, construction began on the Aswan High Dam, which would create the largest artificial lake in the world, Lake Nasser, and flood the temples at Abu Simbel. To save the monuments from inundation, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and a team of German engineers spent four years in the mid-1960s painstakingly relocating the temples to a spot 198 feet above their original footprint and 825 feet inland. After dismantling the temples piece by piece, the relocation teams reassembled them in the same configuration and orientation. They also constructed an artificial mountainside around them in order to retain their cliff-carved appearance. After the completion of the dam in 1970 and the rise of Lake Nasser, the salvaged temples lay 66 feet from the new lake's shoreline.

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Today, the Great Temple at Abu Simbel sits at a safe vantage near the edge of Lake Nasser.

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