The development plan for Luxor
The width of the Nile Corniche boulevard in Luxor is to double as part of a development plan that is now steaming ahead at full speed, says Jill Kamil
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Clockwise from top: the Sphinx Avenue continues on the other side of the mosque; tour vessels will have a new dock; horse-drawn carriages will increase in number; Luxor residents will be relocated
Egyptologists and concerned Luxor residents regard it as a terrible loss of historical 19th-century buildings and other structures on the town's riverside esplanade, but several such landmarks are being demolished to make way for increased traffic between the two major temples on the east bank. Meanwhile letters have been flying back and forth on Internet blogs.
"If the current plan is implemented, this zone will be at the expense of buildings, and gardens in front of buildings, including those of a military club, a mosque, a Coptic Catholic rest house, and Chicago House garden. Can a less radical plan not be drawn up?" writes one anxious party.
"I thought that tourism was to be moved out of Luxor city centre to permit better conservation of Theban monuments. Now we hear that the whole area between Karnak to the north and Al-Tod, the site of a Graeco-Roman temple to the south, are to become part of a tourist zone. What's happening?" bemoans another.
"Tourists visit Luxor not only for grand monuments alone but also to interact with the people. Once tour groups are told to eat in only tour-approved restaurants in a designed tourist zone, and make their purchases only at tour- approved shops, they will miss out on the very spirit of Luxor, its people, that we have come to know and love", laments a third.
From a fourth comes an expression of grief: "The apparent policy of tour operators is to cocoon visitors so that they only go to certain venues and do not have much chance to wander around the town... One gets the impression that the master plan for Luxor is driven by foreign shopping-centre designers...Luxor has its own character, so why paint all buildings on the main roads in the town the same colour and insist on crass standard shop signs? Is it the intention of the Egyptian authorities to make Luxor look like a Disney version of an Egyptian town?"
On 8 October, an e-mail addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org effectively put an end to all speculation. It read: "Good morning All! From scenic and hot Luxor! The following is the link to the Luxor Master Plan for all to peruse. It is old, but I believe it is still the plan, having seen no amendments or changes. As you will see, the Corniche plan is part of a much greater plan -- pros and cons of which will be great fodder!"
The link referred to was that of Abt Associates Incorporated's "Comprehensive Development Plan for the City of Luxor, Egypt", drawn up in 1999, "prepared for the Ministry of Housing Utilities and Urban Communities and the UNDP-sponsored Abt Associates". I clocked on to the site, and the Executive Summary of a 20-year plan made sorrowful reading. The stated objective of this "applied consulting firm with more than three decades of experience assisting governments in development and revitalisation plans (and) recommends strategies ... is to establish and carry out a work plan for environmentally sustainable tourism development that also benefits the local population."
There you have it -- tourism. That's what it's all about. What is historically important unfortunately counts for little in political and economic terms in contemporary Egypt, because tourism is one of the three top foreign-currency earners and weighs too heavily against the protection of archaeological sites. Anyway, it is difficult to differentiate between what appears an unnecessarily ambitious archaeological undertaking, and its part of a comprehensive development plan for the city of Luxor.
I refer to the decision to excavate and restore the Avenue of Sphinxes linking Luxor and Karnak temples with view to "improving the touristic experience, increasing the vitality of the city centre, and forming the centrepiece of an Open Museum". Back in 1997 no one realised that it was part of a comprehensive plan that would require the demolition of housing, commercial, government and religious buildings intruding on the buried avenue, and include the phased relocation of Luxor residents. Nor did they realise that it would be a pedestrian thoroughfare and that the Nile boulevard would be widened to accommodate tourist buses transporting tens of thousands of tourists to Karnak daily.
Today, 10 years down the line, we finally read the fine print and realise the full extent of what many call a "catastrophe". As the sandstone sphinxes (some 1,200 of them) continue to be unearthed, we realise that the housing of hundreds of residents are being demolished and they themselves relocated. The project includes "landscaping and enhancing the area with the provision of visitor amenities", and "modification" of street layout. A clear statement of intention. So why are we surprised?
The LE85-million Karnak Development Project, duly approved by the Ministry of Culture, has been implemented in collaboration with Luxor City Council (LCC) and the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), and, despite the fanning of tension between the latter and the French mission of the Centre Franco-Egyptian D'Étude des Temples de Karnak (CFEETK) on the question of preserving the historical house of George Legrain (which has anyway been demolished); and provoking strong Egyptian and foreign opposition from people of various disciplines alarmed by the flattening of bazaars and the evacuation of the people in surrounding villages, all to no avail. The vacated area in front of Karnak Temple has already been transformed into a vast tiled area that will become Karnak's commercial zone with parking area. And as for Luxor Temple, the area that was formerly occupied by the Amoun and Hussein restaurants and shops to the east is now an unpaved parking area for horse carriages, tour buses and taxis.
Peter Allingham, manager of Ancient World Tours, wrote: "I am distressed to see the 'sanitisation' of towns such as Aswan and Luxor for the mass tourist market. Our passengers truly loved the old byways of the old markets, now destroyed and replaced with nothing better than a cheap paved open air mall with all the character of, well, bland and cheap malls all over the world. To me, this sort of thing is cultural and social vandalism and to be deeply regretted. I'm afraid this is a living example of Hutber's Law, 'Improvement means deterioration'".
Strangely, the plan to develop Luxor as a museum devoid of population is without any understanding of an ancient society where urban communities surrounded temples. There were dwellings for the priests and stables for the sacrificial animals. Nearby were the guardhouses and granaries with its superintendent. Surrounding or in front of each temple were lakes and groves, and beautifully laid-out gardens. Luxor and Karnak Temples once had their communities of labourers and craftsmen, artists, painters and draughtsmen. They were living communities. To transfer today's inhabitants to the fringes of the city is ruthless.
What do tourists themselves feel about being segregated into tourist areas, asks Peter Allingham, who provides the answer: "Again and again," he writes, "our passengers tell us that they love the interaction with Egyptians who aren't trying to flog them tat. These opportunities are diminishing fast. Tourist areas will have a detrimental effect on all concerned, particularly in these times where cross cultural contact and understanding is so vital. The authorities in Luxor should take a very deep breath and slow down, otherwise the baby will be hurled out with the bathwater."
The plan to increase the size of Luxor ten-fold is frightening. Is it too late to do anything about it? In the last couple of months the grand Nile Corniche near Karnak has already been expanded, and down will come buildings and gardens in its path, even as far south as Al-Tod -- where a gigantic new marina city is being built which will accommodate 250 tour boats. We hear that work is already in progress there.
The rate at which the Luxor Development Plan is moving ahead suggests that it must be earmarked for some grand opening at an auspicious date, and what comes to mind is Revolution Day 2009, on 23 July. This is just a guess, but the fact that a high-ranking delegation went to Luxor to inspect Karnak Temple forefront this month ( Al-Ahram Weekly 16 October 2008), where it was announced that the Karnak development project will soon be officially inaugurated by President Hosni Mubarak, suggests this date, or even earlier.
There is a very real reason why the project is top priority. Tourism is growing. Tens of thousands of visitors arrive in Luxor daily. Groups are bussed in from Hurghada for daily tours, and the Nile Corniche simply cannot accommodate the hundreds of rambling tour busses.
Some e-mail correspondents suggested lobbying through UNESCO to stop the widening of the road and the resulting destruction of 19th-century buildings and gardens. But the truth is that UNESCO relies on its local representatives, in this case the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and Luxor City Council (LCC). Bear in mind that the latter is under the guidance of the SCA, which itself forms a part of the Ministry of Culture, which in turn is subject to realising the policy objective of the government -- which is tourism -- and you have the whole picture.
In Egypt, decisions made at the highest level are considered final. They tend to overrule the views of all lower strata of power and opinion. So the truth is that preservation of what is historically important in the development of Egyptology, or the preservation of historical, vernacular or cultural landscapes, generally count for little in political and economic terms.