Scotsabroad's Weblog

April 15, 2010

Luxor Revisited

Filed under: Holidays — scotsabroad @ 1:00 pm

In the Rough Guide, it mentions that not every visitor to Luxor has been unequivocally impressed by its ancient monuments: during the filming of Death on the Nile, Hollywood icon Bette Davis famously remarked that,  “In my day we’d have built all this at the studio – and better.”

It goes on to say, In a sense she had a point (in 1978) the temple would have been half hidden by ramshackle bazaars and downtown was a mess.

The first time Shona and I visited Luxor was in December 1993. At the end of our stay, we couldn’t have agreed, or disagreed, with this description. Most of our time was spent lazing around the Movenpick Resort, with the odd journey to town, to shop in the bazaar and visit Karnak Temple. I have a photograph from back then showing the Karnak Temple skyline that includes a building crane. The crane, if not the same one, still shares the skyline. We even failed to visit Luxor Temple or cross the river to the West Bank. 

Changed days. Since returning to Egypt, I have run the marathon a couple of times and we have just returned from our third family holiday to Luxor. We have noticed significant changes to the East and West Banks on each of these visits, as well as hearing stronger, and more conflicting, opinions about these changes from local people. This visit was the first time we had actually noticed the incredible amount of tourists visiting the ancient monuments. Indeed, our visit to The Valley of the Kings was horrendous. Our ticket entitled us to visit three tombs but we eventually manged only two. Tourists in their thousands filled the valley and the narrow passageways, having queued outside in the heat for a long time. The odour inside the tombs was indescribable, the heat and the amount of people oppressive, as we all tried to descend into the small burial chambers. There is now a photography ban on the whole site – is this to speed up tourist traffic? Anthony Sattin (journalist, travel writer and author of The Pharoah’s Shadow, a great book) wrote in the Sunday Times back in 2007, that 8000 tourists a day are bused in from the Red Sea resorts alone. This does not include the thousands arriving on the multitude of cruise ships from Aswan, often quadruple-parking along the corniche, while constantly belching diesel fumes on to the town. A visit to Hatshepsut was abandoned as the busloads rumbled in.

In the past visitors were taken across the Nile the traditional way, but the ferries could not cope with the ever-increasing number of tourists. A bridge was built 10 miles out of town in 2005, allowing tour buses access to the West Bank. However, this just seems to have increased the number of tour buses crossing to the West Bank each day and it seems their itineraries are all very much the same. No one has the imagination to stagger visits and timings to each of the ancient monuments. A flyover under construction near the bridge, suggests the priority continues to be road access to the West Bank from the airport, luxury cruise ship docks and five-star hotels. What these tourists experience as they are bused around Luxor, what they get to see on route and how much they actually benefit the local population, is causing the most controversy.

The village of Gurna,  near the Valley of the Kings, was demolished. The reason given was water seepage from the village damaging surrounding tombs. Other homes have been bulldozed, considered eyesores. The Times of Malta puts forward another reason saying, already the bazzar has been cleared out, thousands of homes have been demolished in a push to transform the site of the ancient capital Thebes into a huge open air museum. The Grand Plan for 2030 is one of golf courses, five star hotels and a marina. The figurehead behind the changes, if not the plan,  is Samir Farig, a former Egyptian General and manager of the Cairo Opera House, who now heads the billion dollar plan to reinvent Luxor. We experienced his influence first hand, as our felucca was ordered in to the bank by the river police, as the man’s dahabiyya sailed past – pulled by a tug. According to the Malta Times he says, we have just cleaned the houses, cleaned the streets. You’ll never find a clean city like Luxor now in Egypt. 

One of the biggest projects is recovering the whole 2.7 km long Avenue of Sphinxes that once linked Luxor and Karnak Temples. In the few thousand years since, just a few roads, buildings and livelihoods have been built on top. “So stirs a mini-life amid the debris of a life that was far grander” wrote Flaubert. This project has the backing, manpower and funding from UNESCO but the enormous progress already made has, perhaps, been the work of bulldozers and a disregard for anything historically non-pharonic. Officials are quoted as saying, the houses are not historically significant and uprooted owners are compensated  from between 75000 and 500000 EGP – or a free flat out of town. When the French wanted to remove (yes, remove) an obelisk , and archeologists excavate the temple  in the nineteenth century, they had to pay compensation for the demolition of scores of homes, writes the Rough Guide. The sphinxes are there under the ground they say. Others argue many of the 600 or so sphinxes are beyond restoration.

Back on the West Bank, a lot of work was being carried out, and statues erected, behind the Colossi of Memnon in what was the mortuary  temple of Amenophis III. An archeological park in the making.

Sanctuary from the crowds came from familiar places such as Medinet Habu, the Temple of Ramses III, and Deir el-Medina, the workers village. However, lets not be too hasty in condemning the Egyptian authorities. Anyone who has visited Luxor, since Napoleon’s troops first got a glimpse of Luxor Temple in 1799, responding to the sheer magnitude of the place by spontaneously presenting arms, has been responsible for, and contributes towards, the current changes. So what if I use the National Ferry and stay in a family run hotel on the West Bank. Most visitors come to experience the ancient monuments. The authorities are trying to juggle massive numbers of visitors like us, local people, security – while in the world’s spotlight and with 85% of the town’s income coming from tourism.

Turath – Egypt’s Heritage Review magazine (issue 6) says, Looks like Luxor, Egypt may soon feel about as genuine as Luxor, Las Vegas. The city has been losing its non-pharonic heritage left, right and center. The concern is about the destruction of colonial houses along the East Bank waterfront. Like Las Vegas, Luxor (Egypt) is a holiday destination where visitors often want to suspend reality. There has been little mention in all of this controversy, of the big sex tourism trade in Luxor, that meets the needs of lonely women and homosexual men. Indeed, everything can be bought in Luxor, from a genuine ancient artefact to a finger of hashish, offered to us just off the corniche. Supply and demand.

The Egyptian authorities might get a lot of things wrong. The French and the British made some awful mistakes in the past – not to mention theft on a grand scale from Luxor itself. If the rest of the world in their glass houses want to throw stones – some countries need to replace the ones  they  plundered from Luxor in the past. Or maybe the argument that stolen artefacts are for the whole world to share in their present location will continue. Then, who cares what happens to Luxor when so much of its ancient heritage has been displaced? There does not seem to be the same international outcry about Cairo, as the city’s own Belle Epoque and Mamluke architecture slowly disintegrates, and the Pyramid site is altered significantly.

Maybe Bette Davis, if she could return to Luxor now, would approve of the Grand Plan as an attempt to create a huge open air pharaonic film set and Hollywood standard facilities for its stars. Luxor does have a habit of mixing up reality and make-believe. You get the feeling the place, and the people, will survive. Will the crane still be there on our next visit?


1 Comment »

  1. what a fascinating analysis, very much a case of the tourism that kills, glad we visited in the cool of the year

    Comment by ianandlinda — April 16, 2010 @ 6:14 am | Reply

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