The Karnak development project will soon be officially inaugurated by President Hosni Mubarak, Nevine El-Aref
Even in ruins, Karnak Temples remain a spectacular sight. Within the temples enclosure is a cluster of enormous pylons, splendid sanctuaries, awe-inspiring chapels and soaring obelisks, forming a vast open-air exhibition of history set in stone. It reflects not only the extravagant life of ancient Egyptians but their distinguished civilisation.
Recent visitors to the Karnak complex, however, will be faced with a slightly different scene. The temple forefront, which was, for decades, a stage for encroachment, chaos and grime and a parking lot for cars, buses, carriages, carts and peddlers, has been transformed into one of the most beautiful areas of the Upper Egyptian town of Luxor.
Serenity and divinity is overwhelming present, and a visitor can not only admire Egypt's Pharaonic history but can go even further to watch feluccas sailing on the Nile and can cross the river to see Hatshepsut's Deir Al-Bahari Temple and the Valleys of the Kings and Queens on the west bank.
The LE85-million Karnak development project has been implemented in collaboration with the Luxor City Council (LCC) and is now almost in place. "Now, Karnak is back to its ancient glory and respect," Culture Minister Farouk Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly. Following 18 months of studies and field work, all infringements on the archaeological site have been removed, clearing a plot for further excavation to uncover more of the temples' archaeological story, especially the ancient harbour and canal that once connected the temples to the Nile. According to an old map, ancient Egyptians used this canal to gain access to the west bank at a position corresponding to the Hatshepsut Temple, which was built on the same axis.
In the meantime, bazaars neighbouring the temple walls have been removed to what was formerly the Luxor stadium on the Nile Corniche. The vacated area has been transformed into a one-storey commercial zone with a vast parking area along with a visitor centre, built in the same colonial style as George Legrain's house -- now demolished -- to provide visitors with all the information they need about the history of Karnak and what lays within its enclose walls. A memorabilia gallery to commemorate the early French archaeologists who worked at Karnak, such as Auguste Mariette, Gaston Maspero and Georges Legrain, is also set up, telling the stories of these explorers through photographs taken during excavation and restoration as well as copies of their publications and correspondence.
"Returning the ambiance of the Karnak Temples to their original glory was not an easy task," Samir Farag, head of LCC, said. "To implement the project perfectly we had not only to confront the neighbouring residents and bazaar owners, who refused to be relocated, but also French archaeologists and UNESCO who opposed the demolishing of Legrain's dig house."
The local residents and shopkeepers proved easier to placate than the French. The problem was soon solved with compensation packages totalling LE17 million. Meanwhile, rumours spread before the implementation of the project played a major role, fanning the tension between the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and the French mission of the Centre Franco-Egyptien D'Étude des Temples de Karnak (CFEETK). The rumour that came up at their 2007 annual meeting was that the Karnak development project approved by both the SCA and LCC would be an environmental disaster for Karnak.
The project, its detractors said, would destroy the context of the Karnak Temples, and in its attempts to prevent further encroachment had opted for cosmetic solutions. A proposed two-metre wide concrete wall to be built around the temple, violating archaeological layers and creating a ring over the remains of five temples from the time of Akhenaten, almost dividing them in two areas, came in for special criticism, as did uprooting trees planted on the temple's northern side. It was also reported that both the SCA and LCC had agreed for a marina to be established, and that a 129,000-square-metre space between the temple and the Nile bank would be cleared, involving the demolition of bazaars, residential houses, the French mission's dig house and the wooden house built for French Egyptologist Georges Legrain. There were also rumours that the development project included a commercial centre comprising restaurants, a shopping mall and a parking area.
The counter-campaign against both the SCA and LCC was led by Shahira Mehrez, a specialist in Islamic art, who sent a four-page report to UNESCO, accompanied by photographs, criticising the project. In the report, Mehrez argued that the isometric views of the project were misleading, since they ignored the differences in the level of the temple and the projected road. Nor, she said, had the project considered what the view would be like once the buildings had been demolished. In response to the report Francesco Bandarin, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, wrote to SCA Secretary-General Zahi Hawass suggesting that alternative solutions be sought and threatening to remove Karnak from the World Heritage List should the project go ahead as planned.
Hawass described Bandarin's letter not only as a personal insult, but an insult to all Egyptians. In his reply, Hawass said Bandarin had based his conclusions on conjecture and gossip, and he forwarded a detailed report on the planned project. Afterwards the plan was agreed by all the parties concerned.
Hawass told the Weekly that the project had corrected earlier mistakes made in Karnak's modern history. Legrain's house, shops, bazaars and mission dig- houses built on the temple forefront stood over a New Kingdom harbour and canal connecting Karnak to Hatshepsut's temple on the west bank, and hid that and more of the temple's archaeological evidence, Hawass said.
Parallel with the implementation of the Karnak development project, the SCA carried out comprehensive excavations on the temple forefront that Hawass described as an endeavour to decipher the secrets of the temples' history. Such work led Egyptologists to reconsider the history and plan of the temples. It uncovered a Ptolemaic ceremonial bath, a private ramp built for the 25th-Dynasty Pharaoh Taharqa, a large number of bronze coins, an ancient dock and the remains of a wall that once protected the temples of Karnak from the rising Nile flood. At night, the temples now have a more dramatic aspect with a special cool-lighting system, installed to illuminate their main features.
The development project for Luxor has already seen several improvements, among them the restoration of the avenue of ram-headed sphinxes that once connected the temples of Luxor and Karnak. A major excavation and reconstruction project is being carried out there by an SCA archaeological team to reconstruct the avenue in Luxor and remove any encroachments on the important historical site. As many as 1,200 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 the Weekly that since the project began three 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. Now a tourist can experience walking from Karnak to Luxor Temple through the avenue of sphinxes, except for a few metres still in progress.
Future plans for Luxor extend beyond the walls of Karnak. An open-air museum is planned. The extended modern section of the Winter Palace Hotel has been demolished in an attempt to preserve the town's 19th-century architectural style. The extension will be rebuilt in a similar style to the main building.
The ferry-shaped edifice of the International Rowing Club has been also built on the Luxor Corniche in order to resurrect Luxor's international rowing competition, which stopped 15 years ago. Farag said the three-storey building would be equipped with rowing machines. A state-of-the-art dock for tourist vessels is in operation so boats can moor there instead of docking along the town Nile Corniche and destroying the Nile view from its eastern bank.
On the west bank, a major development has taken place. A-one-storey visitor centre has been built by the SCA at the foot of the Valley of the Kings, built and equipped with a Japanese government gift of $2.5 million. The centre's director Mustafa Waziri says it will provide visitors with all the information necessary about the Valley of the Kings and its 27 royal tombs. Maps hang on the walls, and it contains a huge model of the valley and its causeways and corridors.
Two plaza screens show a film about the boy king Tutankhamun and the story behind the find, and how its discoverer, Howard Carter, took the tomb's treasures from Luxor to the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square.
All the residents of the old Gurna village -- built on top of the ancient Tombs of the Nobles -- were relocated to the New Gurna at Al-Taref three kilometres from their former homes. With a budget of LE180 million provided by five ministries and governmental bodies, New Gurna 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.
New Gurna has better houses, with the basic necessities of living that were missing from the old village. 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. A few houses in Old Gurna will still in situ in an attempt to give visitors a view of how it was. Excavations that took place underneath the houses of Old Gurna after it was demolished have so far revealed five more nobles' tombs.
These are not all the improvements required for Luxor, and there is still much on the plan waiting for the budget for implementation.