|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
19 - 25 April 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Fit for kingsFayza Hassan goes south, and finds life on the other side of the river is out of this world
In his book Shahhat, An Egyptian, Richard Critchfield writes: "Across from the town, on the Western bank of the Nile, in desert foothills two miles inland over a flat green plain, can be found almost a dozen separate assemblies of enormous mortuary temples and more than four hundred excavated tombs -- what was once the Theban City of the Dead. The furthest reach of this, two miles inland along a steep, twisting road through soaring limestone cliffs in the Libyan Desert, is the desolate Valley of the Kings, where the pharaohs had their secret tombs. The mile-wide necropolis falls mostly within the present-day village of Qurna, inhabited by the descendants of Horobat warriors, who arrived to settle there in the thirteenth century as tomb robbers, an occupation many still follow."
Robert Hay clad à la turque (from Jason Thompson, Sir Gardner Wilkinson and His Circle, University of Texas Press, 1992); main photos: the village of Qurna and its inhabitants, sketched in 1820 by Robert Hay (British Library Manuscript Collection)
"Shall we stay at the Marsam?" asked my daughter as we were planning our trip to attend the Third Festival of Sufi Music in Qurna. "It used to belong to Ali Abdel-Rassoul, the famous tomb robber." Nothing could have pleased me more. Unfortunately it was not to be, the Marsam being fully booked for the festival. Alternative accommodation nearby was arranged, but this proved so disastrous that we escaped to the east bank the next day, seeking more state-of-the-art amenities, albeit in less romantic surroundings. But we had been hooked on the west bank, its lush green fields hemmed in by the desert, its majestic palm trees dotting the landscape around Madinet Habu, which appeared to be sternly watching the dawn of yet another century. The air was the purest we had breathed in years, filled with the buzzing of bees and the chirping of birds, the droning silence only broken by the periodical departure and arrival of little donkey carts, loaded with water tanks and driven at top speed by young boys busy hauling fresh water to the village perched higher up on the hills. But more than anything else, we were curious about Qurna's lifestyle.
The intriguing mixture of foreigners and Qurnawis that seemed to form the settled community was worthy of observation, to say the least, but on that first morning, the magic of the place was too strong to allow any investigative tendency to follow its normal course. The hot hours of sunshine were spent drifting from the uncovered patio of our infamous hotel to the shady garden surrounding the Marsam and to Mohamed Abdel-Ilah's charming dining room, where home-style meals were served. It was whispered that Abdel-Ilah, who hosted the festival's French organisers in his private quarters, knew many secrets both about the hidden life of present-day Qurnawis and the dubious practices of their tomb-robbing ancestors. A tall and handsome middle-aged man, his aspect and demeanour brought to mind the Bedouin of the desert rather than the peasants of the fertile plains.
Through yet another tree-shaded garden, one reached the long and narrow room that served as indoor restaurant, furnished with traditional wooden benches rendered more comfortable to the fragile bones of foreign visitors by the addition of thin cushions in gay colours. On the walls, several reproductions of Pharaonic artefacts were displayed. Above the door, the article published in Al-Ahram Weekly at the time of the first Sufi festival had pride of place in its golden frame. From this lofty position, a pensive Abdel-Ilah seemed to be contemplating our group.
Photographer Randa Shaath, who was there at the time of the first Sufi manifestation, noticed that one of the pictures that had appeared in the article was covered by a piece of shiny black plastic, possibly the negative of a photograph. "It is the picture of his wife," she whispered. Abdel-Ilah did not miss the exchange as he hovered over his clients, bringing more bread and numerous plates of home-made cheese. "Anyone for French fries?" he asked, before leaning over Randa to explain: "A number of my relatives from the countryside have come for the festival. They are not as open-minded as we are. They would not understand that I allowed my wife to be photographed. As soon as they go, I will remove the cover."
The last night of the open-air Sufi festival attracted all Qurna and, as the zikr progressed to its paroxysm, I marveled at the heterogeneous assembly of spectators, the many foreigners (several of whom had gone native), the Westernised Egyptians suddenly parading their Egyptianness for the occasion, and the indigenous Qurnawis aspiring to a change in status, swaying together and bonding in the obsessive rhythm of Sheikh El-Dishnawi's madihs and mawwals.
We returned the following week, to take a better look at the village of Sheikh Abdel-Qurna (Abed El-Qurna, the worshipper of Qurna), whose mausoleum I had caught sight of uphill, in the distance.
For centuries, the villagers have lived in and on the Tombs of the Nobles in the Valley of the Kings. The Qurnawis believed the tombs belonged to them and felt free to do with them as they wished. They worked and lived in the "grottos" and, if they happened to find buried objects, they did not hesitate to sell them to passing tourists. Noticing the appetite of foreigners for artefacts, they went digging for more and this became their central occupation. They had a reputation of not welcoming strangers who went looting in the hills themselves, however.
In 1737, the Danish explorer Frederick Norden found his way to Qurna and managed to enter a number of tombs before being chased away by the inhabitants. He was followed by Richard Pococke, who had better introductions to the local authorities and was thus officially escorted around the west bank. James Bruce made it to the Valley of the Kings in 1769, just in time to witness the governor of Girga, Osman Bey, attempt to rid the area of the Qurnawis living in the tombs. The bey sent troops to remove the people forcibly, then set fire to the tombs. This happened during the days when the residents had not yet acquired the talent of endearing themselves to foreign visitors; would-be explorers and self-appointed archaeologists rejoiced at the government initiative. "Following no trade, having no taste for agriculture, and like the savage animals of the barren mountains near which they live, appearing to employ themselves solely in rapine, their aspect was not a little terrific," is how they were described by C S Sonnini, a French naturalist who came to Qurna around 1776.
In time, the Qurnawis became less hostile and although Giovanni Belzoni described them as "superior to any Arabs in cunning and deceit and the most independent of any in Egypt," they could stop neither Henry Salt, the British consul, nor Bernardino Drovetti, the French consul, from plundering the tombs of Qurna at will. Vivian recounted that when Salt appointed Giovanni d'Athanasiou as his agent in Thebes, the latter took up residence in Qurna and, "in addition to seeking out choice antiquities to pilfer, served as guide and escort to the hundreds of people now flocking to Egypt."
The flow never decreased: "By the beginning of the nineteenth century the tombs and all other Egyptian monuments had undergone a long litany of abuse. In addition to the daily wear and tear of residents (including Europeans), they were burned several times, and most tragically wall paintings were often cut from the walls and left in broken heaps on the floor. Beginning in 1805 every traveller with the least bit of spunk was on the way to Egypt and with dig permits acquired from Mohamed Ali, were anxious to try their luck in Qurna... Because the tombs of the nobles were so accessible, they were easily victimized. It is a wonder any of the tombs have survived to the present time."
I remembered this passage from Father of Rivers, Cassandra Vivian's "traveller's companion to the Nile Valley," as we followed Doctor Boutros down into Ramose's unfinished tomb. Dr Boutros is a legend in his own right here; he has lived in Qurna for almost 20 years, attending to the population's health and sharing in their lives. Anthony Sattin made his acquaintance and wrote about him in The Pharaoh's Shadow: "Boutros, the local doctor, came for dinner at the house the following evening. He was a complex cultured man who spoke good English and French, could hold his own in a conversation about the latest films or exhibitions in London and New York, although he clearly hadn't seen them, and who held strong opinions about everything from the price and quality of the local Stella beer to American cultural imperialism. It occurred to me that the local doctor would know better than anyone else what went on in the village." Boutros is certainly privy to many a Qurnawi's intimate life, but he was not taking us down the shallow steps to gossip about the unusual family arrangements that seemed the current practice in the village; rather, he wanted to show us the beauty of the unfinished reliefs on the walls of his favourite tomb-chapel.
Ramose was a vizier and governor of Thebes towards the end of Amenhotep III's reign and the beginning of Akhnaten's. The tomb we were about to visit had been constructed for him by his brother Amenhotpe, chief of works at Memphis, which may account for the unusual quality of the workmanship, explained Boutros. Robert Mond had cleared and restored the tomb for the University of Liverpool, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Department of Antiquities. The chapel, however, was never finished, probably because Ramose died suddenly, the doctor commented as we passed into the inner hall with its splendid rock-cut columns; the central ones were broken, their huge stumps gleaming in the shadows. The reliefs on the wall depicted Ramose in the role of vizier, standing with his wife before offerings to the old god, then alone in an incomplete panel worshipping Aton; finally, Boutros pointed to a funeral procession, enjoining us to admire the design's refinement. What appeared to be pencil marks and measurements at the bottom of the walls confirmed that the work had been abruptly interrupted. Only one panel, high up near the ceiling to the left, displayed wonderfully vivid colours.
Voices were calling us, and we emerged regretfully, the sun's rays blinding us after the restful semi-darkness of the chapel.
clockwise from top: the tombs in the mountains at Qurna today; Madinet Habu, temple of Ramses III (from Les Beaux Pays, Athaud, 1956); life in the tombs in the 19th century (from Sir Gardner...); Beit Al-Omda with dancers awaiting their turn; view from modern Qurna; Dr Boutros at the opening of Beit Al-Omda
We had come to attend the opening of Beit Al-Omda, celebrated with an exhibition entitled "Qurna Discovery: Life on the Theban Hills, 1826 -- the remarkable paintings of Robert Hay." The exhibition, coordinated by archeologist Caroline Simpson, was attended by Dr Michelle Brown, curator of illuminated manuscripts at the British Library. We had stopped at Mohamed Abdel-Ilah's restaurant beforehand for some of his tasty vegetables and rice (not to mention the inimitable French fries), and he had given us directions: take the communal taxi to the Ramesseum and you will find Beit Al-Omda on the square opposite. We climbed into the back of the modified Suzuki van and sat next to fat women in milayas who insisted on treating us like foreigners, moving to offer us the best places and noisily helping us inform the driver that we were going to the "Ramesseou." As we arrived, we saw people who had braved the scorching sun and chosen to walk the short distance, heading towards the little square where the festivities were about to begin. There was no time to give the Ramesseum more than a perfunctory look and make a secret promise to return.
The press information blurb stated that "A collection of panoramic drawings of early 19th-century tomb dwellers in Thebes, which have remained unpublished and largely unseen, are to go on show at Qurna in Southern Egypt, where they were originally drawn. The images by British artist and explorer Robert Hay are from an extensive manuscript archive of his drawings, watercolours, notes and diaries held by the British Library in London."
I had met Simpson in Cairo at a concert by George Kazazian, and she had immediately begun describing her efforts to organise the new museum in Qurna. She had visited the village in 1985 and had been living there for long stretches of time, returning to England only occasionally for her research and visiting Cairo sporadically to marshal the authorities' support for her project. I had thought at the time that this project would go the way of many others, its organisers losing momentum somewhere along the line, defeated by the infinite number of bureaucratic hurdles placed in the way of any creative endeavour. Yet there she was, busily presiding over the opening ceremony, welcoming the officials and the numerous guests who took turns entering Beit Al-Omda to see the refurbished walls hung with large strips of panorama drawings "made with the aid of a camera Lucida, a portable device with prisms that enables exact drawings to be made of scenes and objects."
Hay, better known in Egypt for his watercolours and lithographs, was a Scotsman who arrived in Egypt in 1824, aged 25. Independently wealthy, he employed a team of architects to record the monuments, art and artefacts of Egypt. Hay lived in Qurna for extend periods. He produced over 60 volumes of drawings, paintings, plans, notebooks and diaries, the Hay Manuscripts, which were never published and are now at the British Library in London. They show tombs, temples and wall paintings in a less deteriorated and damaged state than they appear at present.
Light streamed down from a skylight, illuminating the small irregular main room of the house with its newly painted walls. Workers on a ladder were busy with last minute adjustments. In the back, a restored wooden banister led to the upper floor. To the left, a smaller room displayed more detailed sketches of the Qurnawis' life among the tombs. The sudden silence outside heralded the beginning of speeches and I hurried out, hoping to find a place on one of the benches that lined the square. As the representative of Luxor's governor began reading from his notes, I looked around. There were Timothy Mitchell, Lila Abu Lughud and their two beautiful children; cartoonist Golo and his companion, Edith, who makes beautiful clothes with fabric woven by hand following an age-old method; a few permanent French inhabitants; a group of German tourists; a large assembly of Qurnawis, and the group of formal officials recognisable from their proper suits and ties.
Michelle Brown was chatting with a foreign gentleman, perhaps an archaeologist. Boutros was making fun, sotto voce, of the archaeologists at Chicago House, their "uniform" and the way they spend years photographing monuments before tracing over every detail, whereupon they dip the touched-up image in a solvent solution that melts away the photographed background. Vivian in Father of Rivers offers a more rational explanation of their activities: "The Chicago House [located on the west bank]... is the Egyptian headquarters of the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. The oldest continuously operating American Egyptological expedition in Egypt, the Epigraphic Survey is on site in Luxor for six months a year, from October 15 through April 15. Working since 1924, the Chicago House research team's primary responsibility is the documentation of the great New Kingdom religious structures of the Luxor area... Surprisingly, most of these fragile temples and tombs have not yet been completely recorded. Combining the skills of photographers, artists, Egyptologists, conservators and architects, the Epigraphic Survey publishes photographs, plans, and precise facsimile drawings of the scenes and inscriptions on the monuments in its care. Although it does not do actual excavation, Chicago House plays an important role in the international effort to salvage the cultural heritage of Egypt and of mankind as a whole."
"Zeitoun is here," someone whispered, pointing to a tall man whose white hair and sunburned complexion were quite striking. Carrying a small girl in his arms, he made his way as unobtrusively as possible towards the back, where they settled on the steps of the curio shop abutting Beit El-Omda.
I had never met Zeitoun, but remembered what Sattin had written about him: "Zeitoun was a product of the Levant. His family were famous traders before and after World War II at the time of the last king, Farouk. In the aftermath of the revolution... Zeitoun's family fled to Lebanon and France... He was the first of his family to return to Egypt. While studying architecture in London, Zeitoun was influenced by the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy. Fathy had led a revival in mudbrick architecture. Zeitoun and David, an American friend who had studied with him in Beirut and was at the time working in Egypt, decided to build themselves a house. It was to be a showpiece, an experiment to see how far they could push Fathy's principles of mudbrick architecture. The answer, they discovered, was very far indeed."
Sattin had stayed at Zeitoun's house when he came to Qurna looking for traces of ancient fertility rituals. "Zeitoun's house," he wrote, "was on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor. A large mudbrick villa fronted by palm trees, it was built in Egyptian style, by which I mean like a fortress, with few openings on the ground floor. But while other houses in the hamlet had flat roofs laid over palm trunk beams, Zeitoun's house was covered by large domes, which made it look like something out of an Orientalist's dream. The fact that it stood between desert and fields, beneath the holy Theban mountains, beside the great temple of Medinet Habu, added to the fantasy."
As I mulled over Zeitoun's decision to settle permanently in Qurna, the sun had settled, the speeches come to an end and Caroline had ushered in the musicians and dancers. The nayy and the mizmar whined and a couple of Qurnawi men took their place in the middle of an imaginary circle, brandishing sticks and thumping their feet, urged on by their foreign wives. How long would they be permitted to retain their relaxed lifestyle? I wondered. "In the twentieth century," writes Vivian, "the Egyptian government felt it was time to move the Qurnawy from their cliff-side perches. In 1948 it commissioned the soon to be famous architect Hassan Fathi to design a community for villagers. Fathi undertook the task as a sacred mission, presenting to the villagers a mudbrick village, complete with a mosque, khan (bazaar), outdoor theater, exhibition hall, school, and individual houses. Named New Qurna, it was an experiment that applied age-old techniques of design and construction to build a community that worked with its environment."
The Qurnawis, however, were not impressed, and the village remained a show-piece empty of occupants, while the villagers remained rooted to their cliffs. They were, understandably, attached to their homes and their ancient way of life. The battle still goes on. Under the title "British Library Drawings Go Back to Egyptian Roots," one can read in the pamphlets Michelle Brown was handing out to visitors at the new museum: "Over the last fifty years there have been various schemes for relocating the Qurnawi. Recently they have often been under threat of eviction from the tomb areas, with governmental plans to re-house them in purpose built modern housing away from the tombs." Siding with the villagers, Dr Nawal Hassan, director of the Centre for Egyptian Civilisation Studies in Cairo, joined her voice to the many defenders of the original Qurna and, commenting about the museum opening, observed: "The display of the history of Qurna, situated in a World Heritage Site, connects the Qurnawi to their own heritage, and contributes to the cultural survival of a unique people."
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