Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 -19 May 2004
Issue No. 690
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Day of counting the memories

The desolation of the Mountain and of its people awes, dares and invites. Fatemah Farag revisits Gurna

photos: Sherif Sonbol Click to view caption
Clockwise from top: Gurna today; Golo and his mural; wall paintings of the Ancient Egyptians at Deir Al-Medineh photos: Sherif Sonbol

"Continuing a 4,000-year tradition of wall paintings in the region, Golo, the international cartoonist, will launch the recently completed Gurna Mural on the outside walls of the exhibition venue, Gurna Discovery, situated in the Nobles Tombs of ancient Thebes," read the invitation.

At 5pm on the scheduled date of the launch, blasted by a dry, relentless heat, a handful of people gathered outside the small mud house in which the Gurna Discovery group meets. The police ordered the event to be postponed till the next day.

Welcome to the villages of the mountain.

Gurna is comprised of some 12 villages embedded in the mountains of Luxor's West Bank. It is an integral part of the Theban Necropolis, a UNESCO-designated World Cultural Heritage Site. The people that inhabit these villages have had an extraordinarily complex relationship with their ancient heritage. This relationship was immortalised in Shadi Abdel-Salam's epic film, Al-Mumia (Night of Counting the Years), in which a young villager faces a dilemma, either to follow his ancestors' ways and sell Pharaonic treasures from the tombs known only to his family, or to give away the secret that feeds his village and hand the treasures over to the government.

The robed people of Gurna continue to carry the heavy weight of the past into their modern-day lives. They work as craftsmen, tourist guides, drivers and guards. Their lives are inextricably linked to the tombs and temples of the ancient inhabitants of the area and to the rapidly expanding tourism industry.

"The mural shows the different stages in the development of the area," explains Golo. "On the left are depictions of Pharaonic times; at the centre is Robert Hay, a British artist who drew detailed sketches of Gurna in the 1820s and 1830s; and on the right is today with the tourists and the people."

And while most visitors to the West Bank are most interested in the Pharaonic era -- depicted on the left side of the wall -- those who choose to visit Gurna itself are fascinated by today's thriving culture and the recent history of the area. Golo is obviously one of these. "I have been living here for four years. The drawing of the tombs, however, shows an understanding of life in this area 3,000 years ago," explained Golo who thinks that it is as important to appreciate and preserve life in the villages today.

"When I first came here I was struck by the magic, the spirituality, if you will, of these houses in the mountain," explains Avril, a British woman who came to Gurna four years ago. "I was on a cruise ship and was invited to come and see an orphanage in this area run by the tourism company. Since then I have spent half of each year here teaching at the orphanage," she added.

Caroline Simpson also first came to Gurna when on a tour. Today she is the head of Gurna Discovery, a group which is dedicated to preserving the recent history of the Gurnawis and which is currently hosting an exhibition of copies of Hay's drawings obtained from the British Museum, including two amazing 180-degree panoramas of the area in the 1820s.

"I head an urban studies centre in Canterbury which is concerned with the connection between past and present, especially with [the study of] historical background which is fairly recent," explained Simpson.

And so while everyone, including the Gurnawis themselves, is preoccupied with the history of the ancients, Simpson is keen to highlight the recent history of Gurna, starting with Hay's sketches. She pulls out a black and white photograph she purchased at a flea market in London last summer showing two Bedouin girls in front of a well. Behind them the desert and mountains can be seen. "I knew that picture was taken here and I brought it back and we went out to find where that exact spot is. And we found it," she recounts triumphantly showing me the place on a Hay sketch. The drawing is as good a map as walking outside and standing at the spot myself.

Abdu Abdel-Rasoul works with Simpson on her project. "We had a tattered copy of a photograph of a house amongst my grandfather's things. I took it to Caroline and we found the house," he recounts. It turned out to be the house of Giovanni d'Athenasi, built around 1815. We step outside the door and Simpson points out the remains of the house. "Yanni worked for British explorers excavating and collecting for them at a time when the process of excavation was unrestricted. The house is very important to the history of Egyptology in the area," she explained. They are hoping to raise funds for its renovation.

But the problem of Gurna extends beyond preserving a few historic landmarks. "Everything is changing," says Golo. "When I first came there was no electricity, there were not so many tourists and their [the Gurnawis] way of life was different. They [authorities] say the problem is the people who live here. But I think the police themselves make more problems," he added.

To preserve and develop Gurna, Simpson refers to recent UNESCO guidelines relating to indigenous people's right to life within world heritage sites, and suggests that Gurnawis take more of a managerial role in developing the tourism industry of the area. "The people of these mountains and their life is really as important as any other part of this historical area. The relationship of Gurna with the mountain is crucial. UNESCO could help us develop in a non-Mickey Mouse fashion," said Simpson.

The past 10 years have piled the pressures high on the shoulders of the people of Gurna. Floods threatened the positioning of certain homes. After the Hatchepsut massacre of 1997, mass tourism took over, and tourists were no longer given the opportunity to walk across Gurna. Meanwhile, the security situation has become very oppresive. In 1994, forcible attempts by the government to evict people resulted in four dead. Many have left since.

But there are still many who are keen to preserve life in the mountain, and who take a strong interest in activity in the area. "When I was painting the wall the kids would come to watch me and people would pass by and express interest," says Golo. "Women will come in groups with their kids to look at the pictures of the exhibit and will identify the house of so-and-so and the house of hajj X and so on," said Simpson.

"It is important for people to understand our history, that of Gurna," said Abdel-Rasoul. He added that it is crucial "to know how these mountains came to be inhabited. It is a history we have learned from our forefathers, a history we have kept to ourselves."

In 1998, I interviewed his paternal uncle Badawi Mohamed Abdel-Rasoul, one of the village elders. He died last year, but looking at his children one remembers the words with which he broke our silence as we stood and contemplated the mountains: "Memories do not die."

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