Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 February 2008
Issue No. 883
Features
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Vindicating Qurna

Historic Qurna on the Theban necropolis is no more, but the reputation of its inhabitants as bandits and thieves lingers on and the site lacks attention, says Jill Kamil

Click to view caption
Qurna before and after resettlement of most of its population

The Supreme Council of Antiquities has achieved its goal. It has evicted what it regards as squatters (in fact 10,000 long- standing residents) from an area known as Sheikh Abdel-Qurna, one of Luxor's most important archaeological sites, where they lived over and among the tombs of the nobles. Apart from a few of the most decorative and brightly-decorated mud-brick houses, most of the homes belonging to the people, known as Qurnawis, have been demolished.

Speaking on the occasion of the opening of the new community for the displaced residents in December 2006, Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, expressed delight at their relocation and mentioned that the tombs could now be adequately protected. The foreign press picked up on this and justified the demolition of the houses by propagating a myth that the Qurnawis were thieves who traditionally pillaged artefacts to sell to tourists and who had done terrible damage to the tombs.

The accusation is not deserved, and Al-Ahram Weekly wants to set that record put straight. To quote Egyptologist Nicole Hanson, who said in a paper presented at the Egyptologists' Electronic Forum some time ago, "Our Egyptological predecessors of the 19th century were just as involved in this trade (i.e. the pillaging of monuments) as the Qurnawis."

Hanson spoke with passion. She pointed out that the negative perception of the Luxor west bank population was an outcome of European and Egyptology-induced labour relations, and that "Qurnawi incorporation into a global system includes the international demand for antiquities, the vagaries of economic downturns, and the steady stream of archaeologically- focussed foreign tourists largely ignorant about contemporary Egyptians." She claimed that racist remarks about the Qurnawis were hypocritical and should be ended, and added that the label "west bank bandits" was an attribution contradicted by historical and anthropological research. On the contrary, recent studies of unexcavated tombs in Qurna revealed that some were inhabited by local craft producers making of fake antiquities for tourists through to the 1990s.

Hanson indicated that, with each generation of archaeologists, methods and technology had emerged that made it possible to recover more and more information about the past. That methodology and technology, however, did not exist in theory or in practice in the 19th century. Champollion himself was involved in illicit antiquity dealings with the residents of Qurna while was working on 'Belzoni's Tomb. "If such things happened today, yes we might be right to criticise it because now we practise archaeology in a totally different way," Hanson said,

Qurnawis have lived among the tombs of the nobles for some 200 years, not for the purpose of pillaging the tombs but to provide a service to late 18th and early 19th-century Egyptologists, who employed them to excavate the tombs of the nobles. These, unlike the royal tombs which were burial places, were for loyal and trusted subordinates: the Pharaoh's chief vizier, treasurer, or keeper of the vineyards, and were funerary rooms and burial chambers combined. Decorated with scenes of everyday life, they shed a flood of light on life and times in the New Kingdom in 1567-1320 BC.

With the help of the Qurnawis, the tomb of Nakht, scribe of the granaries under Thutmose IV, was released from the encroaching sand. They also played a part in the uncovering of the tomb of Userhet, royal scribe in the reign of Amenhotep II, and the even more famous tombs of Rekhmire, an outstanding vizier in the reign of Thutmose III, Sennufer, overseer of the gardens of Amun under Amenhotep II, and Menna, which has some of the most beautiful representations to be found of harvest, feasts and hobbies.

If the workmen from these tombs settled in Qurna, close on the heels of archaeological excavation came tourists in search of culture and souvenirs -- real or fake. To cater to demand the Qurnawis started to produce forgeries -- or fakes if you like, because these "antikas" so closely resembled the original that it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference. They frequently set up temporary workshops in undecorated tombs to produce them, which accounts for the fact that fakes have sometimes been found in an archaeological setting, much to the confusion of scholars.

John Gardner Wilkinson and other early Egyptologists described art and craft production on the Theban necropolis on sale to tourists, and let it be added that Egyptologists themselves were not averse to filling their museums in Europe with sections of decorated walls.

Back in the 18th century Charles Sonnini, the first visitor to the necropolis to make reference to " banditti " residing in Qurna, yet acknowledged that in their antiquities' dealings with him they displayed "as much integrity and fairness as if they had been the most honest people in the world". He remarked, however, on the desolation of the place and the poor living standards of the people, adding incidentally that he was in no personal danger. Sonnini, and others like him, branded the Qurnawis as thieves and robbers for no other reason than that they were poor and looked forbidding. Unfortunately this reputation clung to them and was repeated by Europeans ad nauseam until it caught on with Egyptians. These are racist remarks, and they are also hypocritical. As Hanson remarked, "Our Egyptological predecessors of the 19th century were just as involved in this trade, but at the other end. If the Qurnawis were 'bandits' then we need to call the Egyptologists of those days the 'kingpins' for whom the Qurnawis did the dirty work."

When the bureau of the World Heritage Committee met back in August 2001 to consider reports from a mission to Qurna, it recommended that the Egyptian authorities freeze the ongoing "unplanned demolition" of houses at the village of Qurna and requested technical assistance from the World Heritage Fund to prepare a management plan for the site. This stressed the need to reduce the population of the village of Qurna, ensure a decent standard of life to residents who wished to stay on as official wardens of the site, and "enhance and protect the traditional character of the urban environment from the present chaotic development." The bureau furthermore recommended the preparation of a plan to determine archaeological areas of Qurna which should be explored and protected, and study the conditions required to allow some residents to continue living in that part of the village where houses were allowed to remain.

It cannot be sure how carefully these recommendations were followed. What is on record is that six years later the Luxor authorities ordered the demolition of all the mud brick houses in the village. "In just five minutes," it was reported by Agence France Presse on 3 December 2006, "under the deafening roar of bulldozer engines, three long- abandoned houses were the first to go..." It was a stage-managed affair that included a fashion show of children who paraded in ancient Egyptian costumes to the beat of drums. Suited government officials were on hand to give enthusiastic speeches in front of the television cameras.

Some "3,500 families will leave for a better life. It's the most important resettlement operation since the rescue of Abu Simbel in Nubia some 40 years ago," announced Luxor's governor Samir Farag, while Hassan Amer, an Egyptologist and Cairo University professor who was born in a village south of Qurna, was not so optimistic. "They will turn Qurna into a city of the dead without caring much for the living and their history," he said.

The residents of Qurna have resisted interference for more than half a century, and despite all efforts to move them they have refused to budge. "They turned up their noses when different destinations were offered," government officials noted, accusing them of resisting eviction because they wanted to remain on site in order to continue to pillage the tombs. In fact, what has not been understood, or ever acknowledged, is that Qurnawis are of Arab stock, not fellahin who are tillers of the soil. When Hassan Fathy's "ideal village" was built for them on the floodplain, they refused to live in it because it was on agricultural land, not at the edge of the desert where they felt they rightfully belonged.

New Qurna is located at the edge of the desert, but the relocated villagers are now far from the steady flow of tourists from whom they have traditionally made a living. They are, in fact, as much a part of the urban fabric of the Theban necropolis as the tombs they once excavated. So strange that even the few Qurnawis who have been allowed to remain on in their brightly painted houses to cater to the tourist tourists are still not able to shake off the lingering, unjustified reputation as grave robbers and thieves -- and neither, by the way, have those who have been forcefully settled further north. "It is time that we accept the state of the antiquities trade in the 19th century for what it was -- a very early form of archaeology", Hanson said.

The Weekly heartily agrees. Let us put an end to those said stories that are still perpetrated by official guides, and in guide-books, and accept that the Qurnawis form part of a larger and more complicated picture.

As for the site of Qurna itself, there is no sign of the official wardens recommended by the World Heritage Committee. No apparent steps have been taken to "enhance and protect the traditional character of the urban environment". And as for "the preparation of a plan to determine archaeological areas which should be explored and protected," ... well, not even the rubble from the demolished houses has been cleared from historical Qurna.

For additional reading, see Caroline Simpson's presentation at the American Research Centre in Egypt: Caroline@forbury.demon.co.uk.

The city of the dead

THE THEBAN necropolis, the so-called "City of the Dead", was not always as lifeless as we see it today. At one time there were dwellings for the priests and stables for sacrificial animals beside each mortuary temple. Nearby were guardhouses and granaries, each with its superintendent. Surrounding or in front of each temple were lakes, groves and beautifully laid-out gardens. Beside the mortuary temples were also large palaces where the Pharaohs took up temporary residence, to supervise the progress of their monuments, and there was a large community of labourers and craftsmen, all skilled workers, who resided on the necropolis and were engaged in the work of decorating the royal tombs. Down the ages different communities of people who resided in the necropolis have been a part of a living fabric -- even the Qurnawis.

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