One of the aspects that made the Middle Nile Valley attractive for Pharaonic Egypt was the gold that could be found in some of its stretches. The legends around the Nubian gold were so strong that later on, it was suggested that the term Nubia stemmed from the Egyptian term “nbw” which means “gold”. This has proved, however, wrong in more recent times, although there is no doubt that the Egyptians were looking indeed for “nbw” in Nubia!
One of the areas where such activities were very dense was the region of Wawat, traditionally identified with the stretch of the river between the First and the Second Cataract – while the land of Kush was centered on the region upstream of the Third Cataract. Let us note that already during the Middle Kingdom, Sai was identified as Shaat in Egyptian texts, which became Shaye in Meroitic and SAY in Greek, Coptic and Old Nubian texts. According to Rilly, this makes Sai the toponym with the longest continuity in the Middle Nile Valley – at least 4000 years! Nevertheless, we would not venture to connect the ancient Wawat with the modern village of Wawa (right opposite the temple of Soleb), although it is in the heart of the gold rush that is taking place in Northern Sudan the last two years!
When we last traveled along the Middle Nile in 2010, the search for gold was taking place in the regions north of Atbara and Berber, more precisely the rather isolated areas of the Fifth Cataract and the far ends of the Fourth Cataract region that remained beyond the limits of the artificial lake formed by the Merowe Dam. We had thought then that it was the discovery of gold mining and washing activities in the areas inspected archaeologically in the frame of the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project that attracted the attention of modern Sudanese to this potential source for easy and big profit.
Earlier, it has been the Eastern Desert that was the focus of such activities, since the gold mines there almost never stopped functioning. In fact, the story of the Arab adventurer Al Omari who invaded Sudan in the 9th century and put under his control both the Eastern Desert and parts of the Fourth Cataract auriferous region, might only have increased the attraction of the Sudanese of today to this region, in order to start searching for bits and bites of gold along the river banks or in the desert, using other times traditional means and other times high-tech equipment to locate and extract/exploit the precious metal.
Back then, we thought that the craze would pass. That it was just a means for making the people forget the rest of the problems of the country (civil wars, local uprisings, dam building, financial instability, political censorship etc.). These problems, however, were never solved and after the separation of South Sudan from the rest of the country, the conditions for the simple people only became worse. With the oil revenues seemingly lost for the north, there were only two ways out from the crisis for the Sudanese government: further dam building and a hunt for gold wherever it could be found. That the price for gold on the global market now is record high has only fueled the search for gold further.
It goes without saying that one can not look for gold anywhere. One needs to have some first hint, obtain the necessary permissions, and overcome the local reactions that most times are negative to such exploits in their neighborhood, since they damage the environment directly by the destruction of soil and rocks, and indirectly by the chemical processes that are involved with the exploitation of the gold ores. And of course, the large numbers of gold miners that more often than not come to the places of gold resources can easily destabilize the social equilibrium, the traditions, the morals, the life style etc.
We therefore truly believe that it is not accidental that gold mining is nowadays centered in the Third Cataract region, threatened by the construction of both the Dal and the Kajbar dams. Especially in the latter case, where the new asphalt road linking the Dongola reach with Wadi Halfa passes so far away from the settlements as if to threaten their future existence by neglect…
Neglect. This is a crucial notion. It is the neglect of the government towards the traditional communities of Nubia, the Fourth and the Fifth Cataracts. It is the neglect of the international community toward what is happening in these areas. And now it is the neglect of the local people for their own land too. On Sai, we were told this year that it is extremely difficult to find workers to cultivate the fields and so, they are left fallow.
In one such unworked field, less than 20 meters away from the borders of the so-called Cathedral site on Sai Island, the electricity company built the cement bases for the pylon that will bring electricity to Sai, as if there was no other place on an island of 12 kilometers of length and 5,5 of width…
And in this little distance between the future pylon and the site, a Medieval grave was opened and destroyed… When the robbers were arrested after being chased in the area of another illegal dig they had performed, they admitted it: “we were looking for treasures, but there was nothing there”. They were released the next morning, and I bet you that they still roam some rocky area of the Nubian Cataracts looking for gold, in geological ore or through human lore, having lost any interest – or even possibility – in gaining a life with other, decent, means…