All Americans alive during the 1960s remember President John F Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Most Americans from that time also remember Abu Simbel, the dramatic, ancient pharaonic temple threatened by the rising waters blocked by the new Aswan High Dam.
It’s worth remembering that it was Jackie Kennedy who provided crucial support for the mammoth rescue project. Without her help, Abu Simbel might have been lost.
No one questioned that the temple must be saved. UNESCO developed a marvelous plan to cut the huge monument into 1,423 stone blocks and move it 200 meters (219 yards) north and 63 meters (207 feet) higher, just above the estimated level of Lake Nasser, the vast inland sea that would be created by the new dam.
But who would pay? As a developing country, Egypt could not shoulder the burden alone. Other countries could contribute, but only one country–the United States of America–truly had the resources for this monumental rescue effort.
No matter how much wealth there is, it is never enough. Many legitimate, worthwhile projects compete for funds. What Abu Simbel needed was an advocate, someone who recognized the temple for the irreplaceable world art treasure that it was.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, already famous for her grace, refinement, and sensitivity to the arts, saw the need to work for the salvation of Abu Simbel. It was she who urged Congress to allocate $10 million for the rescue effort (a sum roughly equivalent to $100 million today). It was an enormous amount of money, but she saw that America must step up to the challenge of saving this treasure of worldwide importance for all time.
The rescue funds were approved by Congress and the temple was saved.
In appreciation for her efforts, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser presented the First Lady and the president with a 4000-year-old Egyptian statue (which is now preserved in the John F Kennedy Library & Museum in Boston).
President Nasser wanted also to give a gift of thanks to the people of the United States for their valuable support. He asked Mrs Kennedy to choose an appropriate monument. She suggested the small Temple of Dendur (c. 15 BC), and the gift was readily approved. The temple was brought to the United States in 1965 and installed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967.
Times change, leaders come and go, but some acts of support and generosity are remembered through the decades.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy loved Egypt, and Egypt still loves her.
For more background information about the process involved in bringing this project to fruition, check out “An Adventure in Democracy”, a website by the Baruch College of the City University of New York where they are processing a collection of papers belonging to the New York Bureau of Municipal Research. There you will find a post with papers relating to Jackie Kennedy and the saving of the temples.