Valley of the bulldozers: Death on the Nile

In the shadow of one of the ancient world's most famous sites, a small community is being destroyed. Peter Popham reports from Qurna on the village for whom archaeology spelled disaster

Tuesday 20 March 2007 01:00 GMT

This stony hill on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor is a good vantage point from which to view the world's inequities. Every day more than 5,000 tourists pass this site on the way to the Valley of the Kings, most of them in tour buses, the great majority from the rich countries. It's like watching huge gold bars on wheels, an endless succession of them.

Yet even though the lives of these villagers have always revolved around the tourists, they have practically nothing to show for it. And now even the little they have is about to be taken away.

On this hill of beige-coloured rubble, beyond the Nile's broad, emerald margin of sugar cane and wheat, where the desert suddenly begins, the souvenir-sellers watch the coaches sail past on their way to the famous sites. Then one coach pulls up, or a taxi or a mini bus, and the tourists file out, because there is something to see in the bowels of this hill, for those determined to do Luxor properly: The tomb of the Pharaoh Rumose of the 18th dynasty. And the small children and youths who live here, including Shoeb, 15, (whowears a red baseball cap) and Abdul, 25, (in a yellow baseball cap) are on them like gentle jackals before they can reach the tomb: "What your country?" they mutter into the tourists' ears, "buy this carved head, buy this relief, come and see my gallery, buy later then, I give you good price ..."

The visitors pad over the broken rocks to their subterranean goal, looking neither right or left. Or perhaps they take a glance at their surroundings, and one glance is enough to assure them that there is nothing to detain them here, besides the grave furniture of Rumose. Nothing beautiful, nothing valuable, nothing very old. But in fact if they were to stop and stare, they would see that the scenery is arresting. We are in the village of Qurna, and it is now in the process of being broken to bits around its residents' ears.

Shoeb lives with his parents and 10 brothers and sisters in a house at the top of the village. His father is an artist; a distant uncle was Abdul Rasul, the Egyptian who laboured with the archaeologist Howard Carter on uncovering these tombs, and who is credited with discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun. Tourists whom Shoeb manages to snare are brought up to the little carpeted reception room at the top of the house looking down to the Colossi and the Nile, its walls covered in cheerful frescoes painted by his father, and given tea and shown the knick-knacks.

Shoeb is friendly and quick with a dazzling smile; thanks to his daily banter with the visitors he has picked up a remarkable fluency in English. "What's the point in going to school?" he asks rhetorically as we trudge over the rocks towards his home. "They don't pay and you don't learn. Here in the village I get money and I learn too ..."

We walk past house after house that has been either erased altogether so only the foundation stones remain, or battered, flattened, pulverised, as if a petulant giant has let fly with a mallet. Shoeb's neighbours' homes have all gone, broken into pieces. The wreckage lies right outside their front door.

Slowly Qurna is being erased from the map. The process began last December after the Luxor authorities ordered the demolition of all the village's mud brick houses. "In just five minutes," reported Agence France Presse on 3 December, "and under the deafening roar of bulldozer engines, three long-abandoned houses were the first to go ... The stage-managed affair included a fashion show of children parading in ancient Egyptian costumes to the beat of epic drums and enthusiastic speeches by officials for the television cameras. Three thousand five hundred families will leave for a better life..."

The eviction was the culmination of a process that began nearly 60 years ago, before Egypt became independent. The tomb of Rumose is only one of about100 tombs, the so-called "Tombs of the Nobles", sunk deep into this hillside. But because of the village of Qurna, the archaeologists couldn't get at them. Even worse, the villagers were not beyond plundering the tombs over which they perched, quietly removing items of sensational importance for discreet, expert visitors. So in 1948, the authorities decided that the village had to go. And to make the move more palatable, they hired a celebrated Egyptian architect, Hassan Fathi, to build a new village for them. Dr Fathi was a pioneer of what he called "architecture of the poor": the idea of building with the same cheap, readily available building materials used by the poor since the time of the pharaohs, principally sun-baked mud bricks, and creating with them homes of simple dignity and elegance. The village he built for the people of Qurna still exists, a mile or so towards the Nile, past the twin Colossi of Memnon. It includes the long abandoned home he built for himself, its dome of whitewashed mud bricks pierced by round holes to admit air and light.

But the people of Qurna did not buy it. Some moved there, but many dug in their heels and stayed put. The reason was simple. In Qurna, thanks to the steady flow of tourists, they could make a living. New Qurna might be pretty and shady (and surrounded by green fields, unlike the harsh rubble around the present village) but there was no indication of what they could do there to make ends meet. The villagers had no desire to take the gamble.

The authorities did not give up. As the decades passed, the tourist trade grew and grew and frustrated archaeologists anxious to get inside the Hill of the Nobles and document what was in these tombs grew old and retired and died. But still the villagers refused to yield. Two more destinations were offered them; they turned up their noses at both, for the same reason as before. The struggle to move them grew bitter. During the last attempt, 10years ago, four villagers died resisting eviction. The bad publicity forced the government to shelve the idea once again.

But this time around it's really happening: the villagers have been given no choice in the matter. They can agree to move to the new homes that are being built for them or they can refuse. Hundreds of those who have signed agreements have already moved, and their old homes have been torn down. But those that refuse will lose their homes anyway and if they decline what the government is offering to the bitter end, they will simply have the sky for a roof.

So now the village is at a desperate, terminal juncture. They still bound down to the car park when the tourists arrive, and smile and chatter and attempt to part them from some of their cash. But they know the end is near. It looks like a village that has been bombed from the air, and for the residents that's how it is beginning to feel.

Shoeb and Abdul took me to see one of the homes that are still intact. It consists of two underground caverns, a long-emptied tomb that generations ago was turned into a troglodytic residence. While I was looking around this low-ceilinged, rudimentary dwelling, a cave with mains electricity, its owner, Kheled, turned up.

"I was born here," he said "and my great-great-grandfather before Napoleon's time was born here. For generations my family have been artists working in alabaster and limestone, making objects and selling them to the tourists. The village is 500 years old." How, I asked, could living in a cave be preferable to living in any house at all? "The dark is not a problem," he insisted. "It's cool in summer and warm in winter. If you send me away to the new place it's dusty, there are no trees, it's very hot in the summer. And without money you can live there?"

The latest attempt to create a New Qurna, four miles north-east of the present village, was inaugurated by President Hosni Mubarak in January.

"The President was welcomed at the new town by cheering crowds," reported Egypt's State Information Service, "grateful for being offered the chance to lead a new life at a new place, that addresses all their needs." In addition to 3,000 housing plots, 750 already completed, the new town has, according to the report, "a large shopping mall, two schools, a clinic, a police station, a centre for youths, a communications centre..." Abdul in the yellow baseball cap took me to look at his new home in New Qurna. You drive past the cheerfully decorated knick-knack workshops where Kheled's relatives have laboured for generations - all to be swept away, along with the village houses - and when the road curves towards the Valley of the Kings we keep going north, for mile after mile, until eventually a large blue sign announces "Qurna al-Jadida", New Qurna.

It looks like a bungalow colony in a cheap seaside resort. The semi-detached units laid out in long, straight avenues are made of breeze blocks sprayed with beige-coloured stucco. Though less than a year old, large cracks are already appearing in the exterior walls, which the residents cover with plaster. There are 10 people in Abdul's family but their new home has only two bedrooms: the parents sleep in one, four children in the other, while the rest make do with mattresses spread on the living room floor.

Outside the pocket kitchen there is a tiny walled garden, inhabited by two cows and ducks and chickens. Because this is a model, modern town, they are forbidden to take their animals out of the garden - even supposing there were anywhere for them to graze. And one other ban hits the family hard - no donkeys! All the poor people of Luxor's west bank get around on donkey carts. The price of modernity is doing without. Now they have to walk everywhere.

Abdul walks the four miles back to old Qurna every morning because that's where the tourists are, that's where the work is. At New Qurna, the government has thought of every modern amenity except the one that makes life possible - livelihood. "Now I can still make money because the workshops are still here, the tourists still come to old Qurna," reasons Abdul. "But when the workshops have been knocked down and all the houses are gone, then what will we do?" For the authorities, the important thing is that the villagers will be far away. Once they are all gone, they will take the hill in hand as they have taken in hand the Valley of the Kings nearby, with its smart new reception centre and its handful of souvenir sellers marshalled into a line of kiosks and drilled in manners. But in Qurna, because of its unique recent history, things will be a little different. It has been decided that 30 of the village houses will be preserved for posterity. Perhaps Shoeb's will be among them. Of course no one will live in them. And the people of Qurna, what will become of them? They will be off the map.

And if any returning visitors wonder where they have all gone, they will have left no trace and the question will fade unanswered. Because the concern of the tourist business is not the living but the dead, and the longer they have been dead, the better.

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