The folder was easy to overlook — tucked away unobtrusively in the Gulick alphabetical files N-O. Even the title was a snooze: Nubian Monuments (Egypt) 1962-1963. But therein lay a tale worthy of Indiana Jones.
Camelot was still young, with the Kennedy Administration still reeling from the debacle of the Bay of Pigs and soon to be embroiled in the Cuban missile crisis. In the volatile middle east, the United Arab Republic — Egypt and Syria under Gamal Abdel Nasser, until Syria seceded in 1961 — was building a dam on the Nile at Aswan that would flood two massive rock temples dating from the 13th century B.C.
The cry went up: save the doomed temples of Abu Simbel! Not surprisingly for a world authority in public administration who had recently consulted with the Shah of Persia on a sweeping Iranian development project, Luther Gulick was soon on a plane to the U.A.R. to advise on the practicalities and financing of a rescue plan.
Upon his return he reached out to the First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, who had just opened the traveling King Tut exhibit in Washington.
Alas, Mrs. Kennedy had no time to meet, her social secretary wrote Gulick, but would be glad to hear more by letter.
Gulick followed up a few weeks later, expressing the hope “I might persuade you and your Lady to take a quick ‘unofficial’ trip to the Upper Nile to see the Nubian monuments before they are drowned, and that such a trip would help the President decide how America can take a more direct interest in the exploratory work and in the salvage efforts which are now needed.” (JFK had already vowed to help and later went to Congress for $10 million, equivalent to about $77 million today).
Gulick kept in touch with the Egyptians and American officials. Of course, 1962 being a Congressional election year, politics was a factor. Would American taxpayers stand for shelling out millions for an Arab regime hostile to the U.S. and Israel?
How hostile? Well take a look at this map in the Sinai brochure Gulick picked up.
Notice anything? No Israel. Only “Palestine.”
But Gulick kept up his efforts to save the temples.
The Peabody Museum at Harvard also saluted Gulick’s efforts.
By the way, take note of that name Edmundo Lassalle in the first paragraph. He’s worthy of a whole book of his own — in fact there is a biography of the dashing cultural diplomat who had fought in the Spanish Civil War, worked for Nelson Rockefeller and Walt Disney, married a German princess linked to Hitler, and later two heiresses, and ended up taking his own life.
Here’s Lassalle’s confidential 1961 memo to the director of the Peabody on the machinations behind Congressional efforts to round up money to save Abu Simbel.
Note that Leontyne Price was offering to donate 1,000 albums of her Aida to raise money to move the temples.
And Jackie? Because of Gulick’s pleas or not, she ended up a key ally in the campaign to save Abu Simbel, which was ultimately raised above the waters. In recognition, Nasser presented her a memorable gift for the people of the U.S. — the Temple of Dendur, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.