French mistress of the Nile
Nubia will always remember the French Egyptologist Christiane Desroches Noblecourt who dedicated her life to help safeguard the ancient heritage of Egypt, writes Hussein Bassir
More than 50 years have passed since the Egyptian request to the UN cultural organisation UNESCO to launch an international campaign to safeguard the monuments of Nubia by the late Tharwat Okasha, a former minister of culture.
The campaign successfully resulted in saving the unique monuments of Nubia from being submerged under the waters of Lake Nasser created by the Aswan High Dam. Among the helpers of this amazing project was the French Egyptologist Christiane Desroches Noblecourt, who passed away in June 2011.
Noblecourt was the most important French woman Egyptologist of the last century. She was born on 17 November 1913 in Paris. When the British Egyptologist Howard Carter made his legendary discovery of the tomb of the golden pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922, the young Christiane decided to become an Egyptologist. The Egyptologist Étienne Drioton encouraged her in taking this step, and she joined the Ancient Egyptian Department at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
As a result, she was the first woman to be a fellow of the prestigious Institut français d'archéologie orientale and was also the first woman to lead an archaeological excavation in Egypt in the late 1930s. During World War II, she joined the French Resistance and helped to hide the Louvre's Egyptian treasures in free regions of occupied France.
In 1954, when the then president of Egypt Gamal Abdel-Nasser decided to start building the High Dam at Aswan, the construction helped promote the name of Noblecourt among others and led her to achieve her most significant contributions to saving the monuments of Egypt in ancient Nubia.
The antiquities of Nubia were under threat of being lost forever under the waters of Lake Nasser. Among these monuments were the famous Temples of Abu Simbel, Philae, Kalabsha, Wadi al-Sabua, Dakka, and Derr. UNESCO asked Noblecourt, as curator of the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Department at the Louvre, to make a list of all the archaeological sites in ancient Nubia that were under threat so that they could be saved by funds raised from the international community.
The International Campaign to Save the Nubian Monuments carried out remarkable studies of the region, registering monuments, making excavations, and relocating existing monuments away from the rising waters to higher locations. Fifty countries contributed funds to save the monuments, and more than 14 temples were moved. Excavations took place at sites that were under threat of being lost under the water.
Noblecourt also organised an exhibition on the golden pharaoh Tutankhamun at the Louvre Museum in Paris in 1967. As a result, Nasser awarded her the Egyptian Republic Medal Second Class in 1968. There then followed exhibitions on Ramses II in 1976 and Amenhotep III in 1993. Among Noblecourt's many publications are books written both alone and with others, including Toutânkhamon: vie et mort d'un pharaon, Le petit temple d'Abou Simbel, Le grand Pharaon Ramsès II et son temps, La momie de Ramsès II, Ramsès II, la véritable histoire, Le secret des temples de la Nubie, and Le secret des découvertes.
Noblecourt received many prestigious awards from France, Egypt, and other countries during her long career, including the Grand Cross of the Légion d'honneur, Officer of the Ordre national du Mérite, Médaille de la Résistance, Commander of the Ordre des Palmes Académiques, Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Grand Officer of the Order of the Liberation of Egypt, Gold Medal of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the Silver Medal of UNESCO, the Vermeil Medal of the City of Paris, Great Gold Medal of the Society for Encouraging Progress, and Silver Medal of the Academy of Architecture.
Christiane Desroches Noblecourt passed away at the age of 97 in 2011. She has been greatly missed. But her efforts to save the antiquities of Nubia will be eternally remembered.