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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Friendship and the Nile - Al-Ahram Weekly

Friendship and the Nile

The new Nile Museum in Aswan is dedicated to all the countries of the Nile Valley, writes Nader Habib

When Hesham Farghali speaks of the Nile Museum in Aswan, which opened on 10 January, he tends to be effusive.

"Imagine a boat sailing down the Nile and going through each of the countries it passes through from south to north. People are getting off the boat to buy souvenirs from each of the countries they pass through until they reach the Aswan High Dam. They get off there and compare all the things they have collected," Farghali said, indicating something of the range of items the new museum offers.

Back in 2004, when construction of the museum first began, the museum was to be dedicated to the Aswan Dam and the Aswan High Dam. But by August 2014, when Farghali became director of the museum, the focus of the museum had shifted. A decision was taken to dedicate the new museum to friendship with all the Nile River countries.

"When Irrigation Minister Hossam Maghazi came to visit us in Aswan, we discussed the large size of the museum, at 46,000 square metres. The country was greatly interested in forging closer ties with the African countries," Farghali said.

"And so I proposed that the museum be called the Nile Valley Museum, later shortened to the Nile Museum." Shortly after the minister's visit, a consultancy office in Cairo was commissioned to come up with a design, and work on the museum started on 24 December 2014.

Farghali had been dreaming of creating a museum dedicated to the Nile Valley, and the new Nile Museum has made his dreams come true. The museum, located on a promontory on the east side of the Aswan Dam, is run by the Ministry of Irrigation.

"We set up flag masts for the flags of all the Nile Valley countries at the entrance to the new museum," Farghali said. To stress the idea of Nile Valley ties, the museum also commissioned a special piece of site-specific artwork to display just outside the entrance. This consists of eleven balls shaped like water drops and bearing the names of all the Nile Valley countries.

The museum has three large exhibition halls. After entering its extensive grounds, visitors pass through a palm tree oasis and a large model of the museum, showing its main buildings, visitor centre and other facilities.

According to Farghali, part of the museum's grounds will be offered to private investors to create a motel, a business centre, restaurants and an open-air theatre. To attract conference tourism, a large auditorium is also planned.

Aswan was once a major international conference centre, Farghali said. "President Anwar Al-Sadat used to come to Aswan in the winter to meet Arab and foreign leaders. His visits stimulated business in the city. I wanted a new conference facility to be part of the project to build on Aswan's reputation as the perfect place to host international conferences," he said.

Also in the museum grounds is a section honouring the ancient Egyptian Nile deity Hapi. Six statues representing the god are arranged adjacent to the palm tree oasis. Nearby is a water feature symbolising the course of the Nile, from its source to the Nile Delta. Inside a fountain there is a map showing the eleven Nile Valley nations, with Hapi offering his protection. The composition is enhanced by images of crocodiles and other river creatures.

Then there is a walkway surrounded by displays of giraffes, elephants and lions, as well as projections showing films about African landscapes. A hall named the Nile Bride offers an account of the myth of the sacrifice of a beautiful girl to the Nile during the flood season in ancient times.

In one of the wings of the new museum there is a large model of the High Dam surrounded by graphics illustrating various stages of its construction and visitors can hear recordings of the speeches of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Another model shows the earlier Aswan Dam.

In the Nile Valley Hall, visitors are treated to a diorama of the life and work of the first Egyptian minister of public works, Ali Pasha Mubarak, who came to office in 1869. Graphics illustrate some of the construction work completed under the aegis of this exceptional 19th-century minister. In another display, Irrigation Minister Hossam Maghazi can be seen explaining recent plans to reclaim 1.5 million feddans of desert land.

Selected exhibits from South Sudan and Uganda are already on show in glass display cases, and more exhibits are expected to arrive soon from other upstream nations. In one room, rare land survey equipment from the time of the construction of the Aswan Dam is displayed. An extensive library designed to accommodate tens of thousands of books, as well as Internet and archiving facilities, has a beautiful terrace overlooking the lush grounds of the museum.

From the library terrace, visitors can watch a diorama of traditional farming in Egypt, showing peasants going about their work and daily life and using the saqya (waterwheel), the tanbura (Archimedes screw) and shaduf (lever) for irrigation.

Two aquariums have been set up: one to display river fish and another for crocodiles. Children visiting the museum can use interactive touchscreens to learn more about the Nile, its inhabitants and African wildlife. Designers were commissioned to create two cartoon characters —Timo, a crocodile, and Firo, a hippopotamus — to interact with children on the touchscreens.

"I hope relations between us and our African brothers will improve. This museum should serve as a family house where we can all meet and resolve our problems and exchange ideas and information," Farghali said.

"Egypt is a land of peace, and it has never thought of harming others. We are not against development plans in Africa. On the contrary, we support them," Farghali added. "We must preserve the water of the Nile and not pollute a river that belongs to all of us."

Leaving the museum, visitors can read, emblazoned on its main gate, the words: "I have never polluted the Nile." This phrase, the words of an ancient Egyptian, expresses the message of this extraordinary new museum.

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