Lynn Meskell


On her book A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace

Cover Interview of February 06, 2019

A close-up

I would like readers to look closely at UNESCO’s high-profile Nubian Monuments Campaign, coming as it did right after the disastrous Suez crisis. In the twilight of empire, during just over a week in late 1956, Britain and France followed Israel in invading Egypt. The three nations colluded to wrest the Suez Canal from Egyptian control and remove Gamal Abdel Nasser from power. With the major powers again poised on the brink of war and set against the backdrop of the Cold War, Arab nationalism, and Arab–Israeli tensions, UNESCO attempted its most monumental project of global cooperation. The Rescue of the Nubian Monuments and Sites (1959-1980) fully realized UNESCO’s central message of world citizenship from its very bedrock. It paired the ideals of the liberal imperialist past and its cultural particularism embodied in ancient Egypt with UNESCO’s own inherently Western promise of a new scientific, technocratic, postnational future.

So much has been written about UNESCO’s Nubian Monuments Campaign over the years: from the heroism and humanism promoted by the agency’s own vast propaganda machine to the competing narratives of national saviors, whether French or American; from Nubia as a theater for the Cold War right down to individual accounts by technocrats, bureaucrats, and archaeologists. Therefore, it would seem that there is little new to say. Yet if one recenters UNESCO’s foundational utopian promise, couples it with its technocratic counterpart, international assistance, then adds the challenge of a one-world archaeology focused on the greatest civilization of the ancient world, we might produce a new slant on a future in ruins.