See, old river, the men who will carry these giants far away from your waters

29 March 2018


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On 8 March  1960, UNESCO inaugurated its international campaign to safeguard the monuments of Nubia. André Malraux, who was French Minister of State for Cultural Affairs at the time,  presided the over the ceremony at UNESCO Headquarters. His speech was published in the Courier of May 1960. Here are some excerpts.  

At their highest expression, Egyptian conventions were designed to mediate between ephemeral men and the controlling stars. It is an art that consecrates night.

That is what we all must feel before the Sphinx at Gizeh, as I remember doing last time I saw it at twilight. I thought then, how the second, furthermost pyramid enfolds the view, and how it makes this colossal deathmask seem like the guardian of some trap set to lure the heaving desert and the darkness. This is the hour when the oldest fashioned forms recapture the soft murmur with which the desert echoes the timeless devotions of the East; the hour when they restore to Ufe these places where the gods were heard; when they banish the immensity of chaos and order the stars which seemingly emerge from night simply to gravitate round them.

In such a way, during three thousand years, Egyptian art translated the temporal into the eternal.

Let there be no misapprehension about this today: it is not as a witness to the past that it moves us, nor as what used to be called beauty. "Beauty" has become one of our age's most potent mysteries, the inexplicable quality which brings the Egyptian masterpieces into communion with the statues of our own cathedrals, or the Aztec temples, or the Indian and Chinese grottoes; with the paintings of Cézanne and Van Gogh, with the greatest dead and the greatest living artists; with, in short, the whole treasury of the first world civilization.

This is an immense regeneration, of which our own Renaissance will soon seem a diffident prefiguring. For the first time, men have discovered a universal language of art. We feel its influence acutely, even if we only partly understand its nature. This tremendous storehouse of art, of which we are now becoming conscious, draws its force no doubt from its being the most signal victory of human effort over death. [...]

The emotion we share with the creators of these granite statues is not even one of love, nor a common feeling for death nor even, perhaps, a similar way of looking at their work; yet before their work, the accents of anonymous sculptors forgotten during two thousand years seem to us as much untouched by the succession of empires as the accents of mother love. [...]

One could not too highly praise your [Mr. Director-General of UNESCO] having conceived a plan so magnificent and so precise in its boldness one might say, a kind of Tennessee Valley Authority of archaeology. [...]

Your appeal is historic, not because it proposes to save the temples of Nubia, but because through it the first world civilization publicly proclaims the world's art as its indivisible heritage. In days when the West believed its cultural heritage had its source in Athens, it could nonetheless look on with equanimity while the Acropolis crumbled away.

The slow flood of the Nile has reflected the melancholy caravans of the Bible, the armies of Cambyses and Alexander, the knights of Byzantium and Islam, the soldiers of Napoleon. No doubt when the sand-storm blows across it, its ancient memory no longer distinguishes the brilliant notes of Rameses's triumph from the pathetic dust that settles again in the wake of defeated armies. And when the sand is scattered again, the Nile is once more alone with its sculpted mountains, its colossal effigies whose motionless reflection has for so long been part of its echo of eternity.

But see, old river, whose floods allowed astrologers to fix the most ancient date in history, men are coming now, from all parts of the world, who will carry these giants far away from your life-giving, destructive waters. Let the night fall, and you will reflect again the stars under which Isis accomplished her funeral rites, the star of Rameses. But the humblest worker come to rescue the statues of Isis and Rameses will tell you something you have always known but never heard from men before: that there is only one action over which indifferent stars and unchanging, murmurous rivers have no sway: it is the action of a man who snatches something from death.

André Malraux