A man stands at a podium as he presents the slides on the screen to the right of him.
Lecturer in Heritage Studies at the University of Essex Dr. William Carruthers speaks at an event titled “Creating Nubia: How Colonialism, Tourism, and Archaeology Made a Region, a Past, and a People” in the Hatcher Gallery Thursday night. Jenna Hickey/Daily. Buy this photo.

Attendees gathered in the Hatcher Library Gallery Thursday, to the tunes of famous Nubian musician Hamza El Din, for a talk from William Carruthers, lecturer in heritage studies at the University of Essex. The event, titled “Creating Nubia: How Colonialism, Tourism, and Archeology Made a Region, a Past, and a People”, was presented by the University of Michigan’s Department of Anthropology. During his talk, Carruthers spoke on the construction of the Aswan High Dam and its subsequent impact on Nubian people living in and near Aswan, Egypt.

The lecture event was part of the U-M Humanities Collaboratory’s Narrating Nubia: The Social Lives of Heritage project, an ongoing project aiming to decolonize harmful archaeology practices in Nubia and spread awareness of Nubian history and culture.

Former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser approved the dam as part of his plan to rapidly industrialize the country, intending to extend irrigation to places it had not previously reached. The dam also enabled human control over the Nile River’s perennial floods for the first time.

Carruthers began the lecture by sharing the story of the Aswan High Dam’s construction, explaining how the Egyptian government ignored the voices of Nubian people throughout the planning and building of the Dam. Carruthers said the dam’s construction and eventual completion in 1970 caused the displacement of both Egyptian and Sudanese Nubians, as well as the complete submersion of Lower Nubia under Lake Nasser. He spoke on how the Egyptian government capitalized off the aftermath of the dam’s construction through tourism.

“Meanwhile, the Egyptian government sponsored a series of archeological surveys that constituted an image of Nubia as one of picturesque flooded ruin,” Carruthers said. “The view from the decks of tourist boats (enabled) a predictable focus on the ancient temples still partially standing in the region.” 

In an interview with The Michigan Daily before the event, Carruthers spoke on the evolution of modern heritage and how its history in racialized, colonial archaeology should alter the way archaeology as a discipline is viewed.

During his lecture, Carruthers drew from many concepts he discusses in his book, “Flooded Pasts: UNESCO, Nubia, and the Recolonization of Archaeology,” which covers the history of Nubia, as well as the impact of and political campaigns surrounding the Aswan Dam. Carruthers said though archeological findings are often colonized by the victors of historical conflict, actively decolonizing the history behind archeological findings can uncover the truth. Carruthers quoted Elizabeth Leake, a professor of Diplomatic History at Tufts University, in his lecture when describing the lack of decolonization in archeological findings.

“‘As a scholar whose work is rooted in histories of decolonization, I’m struck by the fact that decolonization is a historical phenomenon that’s currently conspicuously absent,’” Carruthers said. “‘There is little discussion or reflection on the processes of Empire and its ending, even though these are historical forces that have been absolutely crucial to the world we live in today.’”

Yasmin Moll, principal director of the Narrating Nubia project at the U-M Humanities Collaboratory, spoke on how the dam’s construction impacted people, including her family.

“Because of the lack of economic opportunities and investment you have a huge kind of migration across the Arab world, particularly in the Gulf,” Moll said. “So a lot of my family, you know, the menfolk would be living most of the year in Saudi Arabia … returning to the villages in a seasonal way.”

Rackham student Nesrien Hamid is a coordinator for the project’s workshop and exhibition and spoke with The Daily about the Aswan Dam’s impact and what she learned through organizing the workshop and exhibition. Hamid said modernization projects like the Aswan Dam can negatively impact minority groups when they are not involved or considered during the creation of projects.

“There was so much excitement, up until even today about building the Aswan Dam,” Hamid said. “But people were so enamored of these grand modernization projects, they weren’t thinking about their consequences. They certainly weren’t thinking about the consequences for what is a minority within the country.”

The James and Anne Duderstadt Center is also hosting a Narrating Nubia art exhibit, which will remain open until Oct. 27 and include presentations on archaeology in Sudan, the filming of an animated movie and more.

Daily News Contributors Tanner Ellis and Emma Gilmore can be reached at etanner@umich.edu and emmagilm@umich.edu.