Nubians will be displaced from ancient seat by lake built for dam
Far away from the war that has flared up again in Darfur in western Sudan, Nubian peasants in the Fourth Cataract of the Nile in northern Sudan are coming to terms with the fact that their centuries-old way of life is coming to an end soon.
Workers excavating an ancient church near the Nile’s fourth cataract, where a $1.8 billion dam is to be built. (NYT).
"Until the Chinese actually moved into Merowe a few years ago, we all thought that all government talk about a dam was just a joke. But now we have to accept that it is becoming reality and we all have to go within the next years," Ali Yousif Ali (47), the spokesman for the hamlet of ed Doma said.
The Merowe Dam Administration in Khartoum finally gave The Irish Times - through the intervention of Dr Salah Mohamed Ahmed, field director of the National Commission for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) - permission to visit the area over Christmas. Living conditions for the peasants on the Nile bank in the Nubian desert and the numerous islands on the Nile are still very much as they were 2000 years ago.
Even though the Sudanese authorities are concerned about another region of strong opposition to the Khartoum government, Dr Salah said it was important to show the world the groundbreaking results of the archaeological salvage campaign in the Fourth Cataract area. This is the home of the civilisations of ancient Kush and medieval Christian Nubia.
The area in the big S-bend of the middle Nile in northern Sudan will be inundated by a 174km (108 mile) lake after the completion in 2008 of a dam under construction above the modern town of Merowe.
The $1.8 billion (1.52 billion) Merowe Dam, designed by Lahmeyer International of Germany and built by CCMD of China, is to produce 1,250 megawatts of electricity and provide water for the irrigation of the potentially very fertile Dongola reach of the Nile valley. It is understood that 5,000 of the 17,000 Chinese in Sudan work on the Merowe Dam, the remainder working in the burgeoning Sudanese oil industry.
It is the biggest project of its kind since the construction of the Aswan High Dam in southern Egypt in the 1960s. And it is just as controversial - not only because important archaeological sites will disappear under water, but also because of the resettlement of 49,000 local people who have lived for centuries along the banks of the Nile, tilling their small fields.
The memory of the traumatic resettlement of Nubian people in Egypt and northern Sudan as a result of the new Aswan High Dam is still fresh. Local people are anxious to secure strong guarantees for compensation from the Sudanese government for the loss of their family farms. They also want back-up to start new lives in the resettlement areas on four locations outside the inundated area.
Recently, villagers in the area held a number of meetings with Merowe Dam Administration that have been described as heated. "We have to accept that the dam is for the greater benefit of Sudan, but we want cast-iron guarantees that the government honour its promise to us," said Ali Yousif.
He explained that the people were unhappy with the impression that the dam administration was positioning itself between the people and the government in Khartoum, making direct contact impossible. The government was already so far away, he said.
Ali Yousif stressed that they wanted better relations with government and had rejected approaches from Sudan’s notorious Islamist politician Dr Hassan al-Turabi.
"We don’t want anything to do with people stirring up trouble for their own reasons," he said.
The lessons of the resettlement of Sudanese Nubians from the Wadi Halfa area on the border with Egypt in the 1960s had been learned, said Muawla Mohamad Salih Elbager, environmental affairs director of the Merowe Dam Administration.
The resettlement areas are closer to the original homeland than in the 1960s, and each family would be given a farm of six feddan (a feddan is roughly 200sq m or 656sq ft).
But land on the banks of the Nile is much better than irrigated land in the desert, said Ali Yousif, who farms a plot of two feddan under a grove of date palms in changing rotation between summer and winter. Especially good date palms - his main cash crop - are slow to mature.
At the moment, ed Doma was the home also of the archaeological mission of the British-Museum-based Sudan Archaeological Research Society.
One advantage of the building of the dam is that he was beginning to learn more about his own history, said Ali Yousif, who described his wife Melka ("queen" in Arabic) and their nine children as "pure Manasir", a local Arabised Nubian tribe. "I did not know our forefathers had been Christians," he said.
Dr Derek Welsby of the archaeological research society explained that the Fourth Cataract was far from a backwater as had been long assumed - it had been outside the major old caravan routes. Instead, it had seen continuous human habitation since Mesolithic times and covered all major northern Sudanese civilisations from the first kingdom of Kush (the so-called Kerma culture, between 2500 and 1500 BC) to the Christian Nubian kingdom of Makuria in the Middle Ages.
In the desolate but strangely beautiful landscape of the Fourth Cataract, it is not unusual to come across large burial sites from the Kerma period, those from the transition period between pagan antiquity and the Middle Ages, and Christian cemeteries, all close to each other, while the nearby rocks are covered by drawings from all periods.
It was a hard life to farm in the Fourth Cataract and probably there were better opportunities in the new villages for his children. But Ali Yousif will miss feeling the breeze from the Nile in the shade of the date groves that he, his father and his grandfather had tended and planted.