Viewing the treasure chest
Culture and archaeology were top priority during President Mubarak's Luxor tour this week. Nevine El-Aref
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Mubarak at the Valley of the Kings' visitor centre listening to Hosni's explanation; a limestone sphinx found lying on sand
The Upper Egyptian city of Luxor caught this week's headlines as President Hosni Mubarak, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and a score of ministers embarked on a tour last Sunday to inspect the most recent development projects undertaken there, as well as inaugurating a number of historical, cultural, archaeological and tourist sites, as well as service zones for Luxor residents and tourists.
The tour was within the context of President Mubarak's programme to improve services for Egyptians, as well as develop and promote tourist projects which will in turn provide more job opportunities and upgrade local incomes.
President Mubarak, known to have an interest in archaeology and culture, stopped in Luxor, the first stop of his official tour of Egyptian governorates and towns. Home to a third of Egypt's monuments, Luxor is the country's most important tourist destination.
President Mubarak began his visit with a tour of the town's east bank. He first inaugurated the Mubarak Historical Centre, which has been established by the Luxor Supreme City Council (LSCC) in collaboration with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to display Egypt's cultural and natural heritage from the ancient Egyptian times right through the Coptic and Islamic eras. The centre is a smaller version of the CULTNAT, Institute's Smart Village in Cairo which, since its establishment six years ago, has devoted itself to the documentation of Egypt's heritage. The centre in Luxor demonstrates Egypt's historical span through the screening of a two-hour-long "Culturama", which displays a variety of cultural exhibitions and activities, using state-of- the-art technology on a 180-degree interactive screen. Records of Egypt's architectural, natural, archaeological and folkloric heritages are also on show.
"The new technology has made it possible to see Egypt in a way that we never imagined before; to see our country as it was thousands of years ago," said Fathi Saleh, director of CULTNAT, as he guided the president through the centre. "This collaboration has produced the means to make Egyptian cultural heritage known worldwide, not just the era of the pharaohs, but our entire heritage."
Samir Farag, head of LSCC, expects that the centre will extend the number of tourist nights in Luxor by a further night to give them time to absorb all the information currently available. This would also afford toursts the opportunity to make the most of their holiday, and learn more about Egypt's historical treasures as well as the traditions of its earlier inhabitants.
The president's second stop was at the avenue of ram-headed sphinxes that once connected the temples of Luxor and Karnak. A major excavation project is being carried out there by an archaeological team of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) to reconstruct the avenue in Luxor and remove any encroachments on the important historical site. A thousand sphinxes originally faced each other across the avenue, through which official and religious processions passed for centuries.
Mansour Boreyak, director of the Luxor monuments, told Al-Ahram Weekly that since the project began two years ago, no fewer than 60 of the limestone sphinxes had been unearthed, along with a unique quartzite religious stela of Bakenkhunsu, the high priest of Amun-Re. The latter not only illustrates the growing power of the priesthood during the New Kingdom, but also the changes which occured historical concepts of the 20th Dynasty, especially the facts and figures relating to its founder, Pharaoh Setnakhte. It also adjusts the history of the 20th Dynasty and reveals more about the life of Bakenkhunsu.
Culture Minister Farouk Hosni guided President Mubarak to Karnak Temple to show him the latest developments on the east side of Luxor Temple, which was damaged by encroachments. Shanty houses, bazaars and rubbish dumps had accumulated there over time, along with a small public garden. It had been described as a dormant bomb waiting to explode. The lack of a proper drainage system in the shanty housing areas near the temple and the high quantity of water used to cultivate the greenery have affected the walls of the temple, with water table leaked towards it. After all the encroachment had been removed, Hosni said, Luxor Temple's eastern gate, neighbouring the Al-Haggag Mosque, and a small Coptic church were revealed for the first time, providing visitors with a different angle to view the temple. "Train passengers will now be able to admire the huge colossi of Luxor Temple as they step out of the station," Hosni told the Weekly. The station has been upgraded with a budget of LE200 million.
President Mubarak also stopped at Karnak Temple to check on work being undertaken in the temple's front area and its surroundings. This project, which was launched in May last year, aims at protecting the monument from non- stop infringements as well as restoring the temple's ambiance to its former glory. It will remove all encroachment from the forefront of the temple in an attempt to allow excavation work to uncover the ancient harbour and a canal that was once connected to the Nile. According to ancient maps, the Egyptians used a canal to gain access across to the Nile to the West Bank in a position corresponding to Hatshepsut's Deir Al-Bahari Temple, which was built on the same axis.
According to the SCA, the trees which now grow there will be preserved, and a row of Acacia and Ficus will be planted to separate the temple from the road beside it. The bazaars beside the temple walls will be moved to what was previously the Luxor stadium on the Nile Corniche. The vacated area will be transformed into an underground commercial zone with a vast parking area, along with a visitor centre, built in similar colonial style to the house of the archaeologist George Legrain's, to provide visitors with the information they need about Karnak and its history. A memorabilia hall to commemorate the early French archaeologists who worked at Karnak, such as Auguste Mariette, Gaston Maspero, Legrain and others, will be established. It will show photographs of the archaeologists in action at Karnak Temple, or cleaning the objects they had found. Their biographies and books will also be on display.
After sailing for almost 25 minutes across the Nile, the president reached Luxor's west bank where he paid a visit to some of the families that were relocated two months ago from the village of Old Gurna, which local residents had constructed on top of the ancient Tombs of the Nobles. They have now been moved to New Gurna at Al-Taref, three kilometres away from their former homes.
With a budget of LE180 million provided by five ministries and governmental bodies, New Gurna, or Al-Taref, has been extended and follows a similar design to the original Gurna, but with improved facilities and services. Six hundred houses are now home to a large number of Old Gurna families, while 150 other houses are waiting for the rest. Pieces of land have been handed to some families who owned houses in Old Gurna but were not living in them.
Nabawiya El-Girani, a widow and single mother, thanked President Mubarak for her "great new house". She said the 150-square-metre house, with about 80 square metres of room space and the rest an open court, was roomy enough for her and her daughter.
New Gurna has better houses, with the basic necessities of living that were missing from the old village. "The government prohibited the installation of modern plumbing and sewage systems in an effort to preserve the ancient tombs underneath, so we had to bring drinking water uphill on donkeys or on our heads," Girani said.
New Gurna has a youth centre, two schools, a hospital, a modern market, a police station and a telephone and post office, a cultural centre with a small cinema, a children's playground and a football field. The streets are wider than in the old village, and the houses are equipped with running water and are connected to the Luxor sewage system.
Dawi Mohamed Ahmed, who owned a workshop making alabaster vases and statuettes in Old Gurna, said that he did not want to move at first, because this would make him lose his customers. However, when the head of LSCC announced that the workshops would have to move but the shops could stay, he was encouraged.
Still on the West Bank, President Mubarak headed towards the Valley of the Kings to inaugurate the newly- established visitor centre. The-one-storey edifice has been built by the SCA in collaboration with the Japanese government with a grant of $2.5 million offered by JAICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency).
Mustafa Waziri, director of the centre, said it would provide visitors with all the information necessary about the Valley of the Kings and its 27 royal tombs. Maps hang on the walls and there is a huge model of the valley and its causeways and corridors.
Two plaza screens show a unique film about the boy king Tutankhamun and the story behind its discovery and how its discoverer, Howard Carter, took the tomb's treasures from Luxor to the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square.
Abdel-Hamid Qutub, head of the SCA's engineering department, said the centre was supplied with another service building to serve all the tourists at the Valley of the Kings. It included a cafeteria to seat 400 in one time, 56 bazaars, and a parking lot with a capacity for 100 buses, 50 microbuses and 50 private cars and taxis. There is also a book shop. The Taftaf wagons (small train) used to transport visitors in and out of the Valley of the Kings have been developed, with a special path has been determined for them. Electricity is being used to operate the Taftaf instead of gas, in an attempt to reduce pollution.
Within three months, Waziri said, a project will be submitted to safeguard the royal tombs in the valley, especially those close to the ticket kiosks or near the gate. As the ticket to the Valley of the Kings allows only three tombs to be visited out of nine tombs that open to visitors every six months according to a rotation system, the new plan will suggest three visitor routes, each including three tombs; one near and two away from the valley.
"This will provide the opportunity for visitors to see as many tombs as they can, especially as tour guides always choose the closest tombs and never venture far inside the valley's hill," Waziri said. He added that before drawing up the plan, he had met the head of the tour guides syndicate and the Egyptian Tourists Authority in order to take note of their suggestions and requirements.