The Controversy at Qurna
by Jane Akshar
Notation: Jane Akshar, operates Flats in Luxor, a member of the AETBI, that offers flats for lease as well as local tours of the Luxor region. She also operates our Luxor News Blog. A subject much under discussion in Luxor at the moment is the controversial compulsory move of the villages of Qurna from their ancestral homes. Over a hundred years ago the picturesque village of Qurna was an established fact on the hillside on the West Bank.
Mud brick houses intermingled with tombs of the Pharaonic era. The villages derived a livelihood from living among the tombs exactly as they do now. Then, it was illicit activities that provided them with food on the table and nowadays it is the more mundane world of the tourists requiring services like guides, souvenirs and refreshments.
The houses form a picturesque backdrop to the West Bank. But all that is under threat. The government is trying to move them from the site claiming that they damage the tombs. Well certainly some damage has been done, especially in the past, but to evict a man from the house of his family for generations and deprive him of his livelihood seems to be a drastic way of protecting them.
The proposal is to move every person and demolish all the houses. This controversial action is much debated. Firstly, is this actually going to protect the tombs or will it actually leave them more exposed to danger when they are on a deserted hillside?
Some of the people are deeply unhappy about the move and may fight the government. This could be disastrous as some of them may even risk their lives to defend the homes that their grandfathers were born in.
The alternatives being offered seem meager in the extreme. For example, one man and his brother with a combined family of 21 are being offered three rooms, the largest being three meters by three meters or about 12 square feet. This new village is a considerable distance from the old village where the tourists go and there are no new jobs being offered with the move.
Some, like the famous Mohammed Snake of the Sennefer Coffee House, have invested heavily in building property. He has a charming small hotel and refreshment house near the tomb of Sennefer. This small hotel has 10 rooms, single, double and triple rooms with ensuite bathrooms. The rooftop has fantastic views over the entire
necropolis and as he surveys the vast track of unexcavated land in front of him he puzzles over the decisions not to dig there first before tearing down his hotel. This hotel is his only means of earning a living and when it is pulled down he will have nothing. He disputes the accusation of tomb damage pointing out that he has a cesspit that is emptied once a week and does no damage to the tombs whatsoever.
He speaks with passion about his lack of freedom and inability to present his case to anyone. He loves the heritage of pharaonic Egypt and wants to protect it. He talks of working hand in hand with authorities to preserve the monuments, but doubts the motives of the faceless bureaucrats sitting in their air conditioned offices that have never smelled the wind blowing across the sun kissed Theban Hills and who have no connection with the people.
But then there were the other voices speaking in the area. Archaeologists who felt that the tombs ought to get priority over the living Egyptians. Great concern is expressed about the damage water and sewage do to the tombs. Peter Piccoine, who is conducting an important survey of the Theban necropolis, spoke of the need to move the people in order to properly map the area and protect the tombs. Roland Tefnin is currently excavating TT96, which is the tomb that was underneath one of the demolished houses. There are no easy answers here, some people are on the side of the Egyptologists, others on the side of the locals. One wishes that a solution could be found that respects both sides. One that allows the village to continue to give services to the tourists, for both ancient and modern Egypt to be part of the tourist scene, for people to be able to have some say and rights in their future. Could the authorities only remove houses that were on tombs, could not drainage and sewage faculties be built so that some homes could stay? One does wonder exactly how much water damage is actually done being as the houses are not supplied with running water. It is also interesting to note that apparently UNESCO does not support this move.
The move is scheduled for April 15th or 20th, but if Dr Zahi Hawass was convinced of a need to review the situation, or the Governor of Luxor, Dr Samir Farag, maybe an alternative could be found. These men can be contacted by Dr Zahi Hawass email, or Dr Samir Farag fax +20 95 2387067. The last word must go to Mohammed Snake as he told the story of a man stricken with Pharaohs revenge while visiting the tombs. Mohammed realized what had happened and put his considerable bulk in front of the man so his dignity would be preserved and once they were alone took him into his house, let him have a shower and lent him clothing so he could continue his tour. Whilst he did so, Mohammed's wife washed the clothes and had them ready for him at the end of the day when he went back to his hotel. Who will look after people like him if they drive me away? Photographs provided by Diane Koskie.