Saturday, 29 March 2008

The changing face of Luxor

Having spent these past 3 months in Luxor, I was disappointed (and horrified) to witness the rapid changes currently taking place within the city under the guise of modern development. It is unfortunate that the governor of the city believes that in removing beautiful turn of the century mud-brick buildings, and replacing them with ugly pink and orange concrete high-rise blocks, he is helping to modernize and beautify the city. In reality his actions and distorted vision have only helped to speed up the destruction of Luxor's long and rich history, and are slowly creating a city that has become lined with grotesque architecture and is being overrun by unnecessary bazaars. And what a pity that these eye-sores are springing up next to some of the most important ancient monuments in the world. But what else can you expect from a retired army general?

One of the hundreds of houses being pulled down...... fully expose extremely unpleasant buildings such as this one.

Can anything be done to stop him before Luxor is fully transformed into an army resort?


ash-shakkak said...

It's really criminal. And misguided: tourists don't want to see ugly pink cement towers or papyrus bazaars any more than Egyptians do.

Nora Shalaby said...

Of course they don't. and that's exactly the point...not only is Samir Farag (the infamous Governor) destroying the city's history, he's definitely making it less and less appealing for tourists to return to Luxor or even come in the first place. This is not to mention the catastrophe he's created in front of the Karnak temple. The list goes on and on.

Magali said...

Hi Nora,
I'm a French student working on women mobilization in Egypt today. Would it be possible to ask you some questions about it ?
Thank you,

Nicole Hansen said...

Nora-I think we met last month. You were crossing on the ferry with Menna, right?

Honestly, what we need to do is walk into the governor's office and tell him the mistakes he is making to his face. Explain to him why we are qualified to tell him this AND why it truly affects us AND therefore why he should listen to us. He will be so shocked it will make him think at least. If I was there for a longer time I would have no qualms about doing this.

I have almost reached a point where I cannot in good conscience support any sort of project in Luxor that is of benefit to tourists. Not because the projects aimed at tourists are bad (although I agree completely with you on that) but because Egyptians are neglected in the process. In the 6 weeks I was there this year, practically a day did not go by when we lacked either water, electricity, butagaz or a working phone line or more than one. That is unacceptable. How can they do anything for foreign visitors when we have to wait all day to be able to take a shower or wash dishes and rush before sundown to prepare dinner because otherwise we have to do it by candlelight? Basic services for citizens must come first.

I just read yesterday that the Prime Minister plans to spend 7 million pounds developing a Web site devoted to Luxor and it made me so angry. First of all, I worked on the Theban Mapping Project web site and while that cost a lot of money, I can tell you there is no way 7 million pounds is needed to develop a web site about Luxor aimed at tourists. It's a ridiculously huge sum of money.

If he really wants to do something on the Web to support the tourist industry, then he needs to make sure that all of us citizens of Luxor have reliable internet service. The lines in our village are so bad I could barely download email, let alone access the Web, that is when the lines aren't stolen. My husband just called our house today, and found our line had somehow got rerouted to our neighbor's house. Forget DSL, it isn't available at our central. If everyone living and working in Luxor had access to the Web, then they could market tourism related businesses directly to customers and it would be a great boon. But God forbid they should do something that would benefit the average person, that 7 million pounds is better off going into probably some foreign Web development firm's pocket.

And I'm really frightened to find out what this 54 million pound project to light the West Bank involves. What are we going to enjoy-24 hour daylight or something?

Stan Kurowski said...

I hate to have to say something positive about the changes to Luxor in the face of so many negative postings!

But I will pick up on one or two points that have been made. Luxor is definitely going through a period of transition, and the improvements to the city are already making it a far more attractive place. The widening and landscaping of Station Street, for instance makes it a much more pleasant street to shop and walk in, and gives a view directly across the Nile from the refurbished station.

The large paved areas around Luxor temple,are already being used for outdoor events, and are very popular in the evening - one only has to see the number of Egyptian families congregating there - and events like the recently televised concert from there may be the first of many.

It wasn't the governor who 'created' the new frontage to Karnak temple, although his powers were needed to organise the demolitions. The design of the temple precincts is a central government/SCA function - if you visit Kom Ombo, Edfu and Dendera you will see a similar design - large outdoor spaces with new bazaar areas etc. In fact the plaza in front of the temple achieves something not seen for several hundred years - a clear view across the river to Hatshepshut's temple.

As for Nicole's comments about life here - I live on the West Bank, almost in the desert, and have a perfectly acceptable ADSL service, rare power cuts, and no problem with water, as do most of my friends who live here. In fact the new village of El Tarif (for relocated Qurnawis) is always fully lit when we have power cuts a mile or so away!. I would seriously doubt that a delegation of disenchanted ex-pats would have much effect on Samir Faraq, who appears to be single-minded in his desire to develop Luxor into a modern city, rather than the dusty shanty town it once was.

Yes, it is true that local people are suffering much inconvenience from the work going on at the moment, and many dilapidated (but attractive) old buildings are being demolished. But, I recall such things happening in the UK - Manchester Airport's second runway comes to mind, and despite strong protests from the local community, and occupation of the site, it was still built, and many houses demolished. Unfortunately, where ever you are in the world, if the government wants something done, it will be done.

On a final note - take a look sometime at old photos of Luxor and Karnak temples - when houses were built within the temple complexes. During the restorations, the houses were demolished, the population moved, under similar protests as today, no doubt. But, like today's development, it was a one-off. In a few years time, when the developments are completed, the present problems will be seen in the same light

Nora Shalaby said...

Magali: Hi, yes you can email me at

Nicole: Yes, I am Menna's friend. how'd you make the connection?!! Anyways, thank you for your comment! and I must say that I am in agreement with you on most of what you said.

And as for Stan, although it is true that some of the recent developments in Luxor haven't been completely disastrous, (like the renovated train station...etc etc), most are. The huge plazas that have been built in front of the Luxor and Karnak temples have only created false impressions of the city and it's history. Maybe the Luxor temple isn't as bad as that of Karnak, and it might be true that the plaza there has been put to good use. But this huge expanse of empty marbled space that has been installed in front of the Karnak temple is truly a sorry sight. These types of projects are creating a sort of Disney land for the tourists who can now come and visit the monuments without having to interact with any of the local population. The settlements that grew around the temple for hundreds of years after the temple was built and went out of use, are part of the temple and the city's history. The people living around the temple have a right to live where they and their families have lived for years, and it is quite sad that we now opt for removing these 'nuisances' so that we can create an arid and empty plaza in front of the temple, and line it with thousands of repetitive bazaars. Without integrating people into their history, you're creating a city with dead monuments.
And even if prior to this new wave of development, Luxor was a 'shanty town', there are ways to develop it without removing 100-year old buildings that add to the character of the city. Wouldn't it have been more useful and much more aesthetic to renovate and restore these buildings and even turn them into hotels, if that's what's in demand now. But allowing for these buildings to be removed and replacing them with nasty 10 story buildings like the QueensValley and Emilo hotels, is not development in my mind at all. It's destruction.

And now the new plan the Governor of the city is working on, is to remove even more houses, mosques and Churches and dislocate even more people to uncover the avenue of the sphinxes that once connected Luxor to Karnak (even though most of the sphinxes are already destroyed). Of course the avenue will be lined with it's own share of bazaars - 3 whole km. How's that for development?

Nicole Hansen said...

Stan-That's nice that you get basic services where you are, but where we live there are not so many foreigners and not so great services. I did not exaggerate in the slightest about the circumstances where we live-the basics go off A LOT. We are obviously on a different substation for the electric, get our water from a different pumping station, and are on a different central. Just because you have it good doesn't mean that everyone on the West Bank does.

I lived in Cairo-and while water pressure could be a problem living on the 6th floor-the water supply almost never was off completely and electricity went off once every couple months. Phone service was never off.

You are lucky to live in the area of the Gurna central, which by the way, also serves the expat ghetto of Gezira-It makes one wonder why the services in that area are better?

However, the Bairat central is a totally different thing. DSL is simply not available-I have inquired-and our phone lines are dug up by copper thieves every month or two and the whole village can remain without landlines for up to a week until they fix it. While I was there, when the line was working, there was so much noise on the lines so as to render even dial-up internet virtually impossible. I spent a lot of time at Snacktime because I simply did not have functioning internet at home. We also spend a lot of money calling the family there on the phone because the service has gotten so bad they can't just come online and chat with us anymore.

Also, with regards to internet, USAID money was used on developing an overpriced wireless network in Luxor for tourists that as far as I can tell doesn't function and apparently if it is functioning they are now admitting tourists aren't willing to pay the prices they are charging for it. I'm paying taxes here in the US as an American for the alleged development of Egypt and don't even get to enjoy any benefits of that as an Egyptian. How perverse is that?

If these problems were fixed, I might be living in Luxor now, running a business that would help the local economy. But instead, I am here in Chicago, putting the money I earn into the economy here.

I'm quite busy and am not even going to comment on the other issues at this point. One battle at a time.

I never suggested a delegation of disenchanted expats approach Samir Farag. It seems already that too many expats, many of them on nothing more than a tourist visa, already have too much access to that man. What I was suggesting was that those of us who are Egyptian speak to him.

In any case, I discussed these issues with my husband this morning. He told me that one of his lawyer friends once advised him that if you need the government to fix something, you should write a letter to the ministers and other officials responsible for fixing the problem, plus the prime minister and president, and you make it quite clear that the letter is going to all of these people. Those responsible for fixing the problems will rush to fix it before it reaches the prime minister or president. In any case, he is encouraging me to do just this and write a letter about our practically non-existent phone and internet service from the Bairat central. And I intend to do that. So thanks to Nora for speaking up about these sorts of issues because nothing is going to change if we sit silently and passively. I just hope that Nora and others will not simply blog about this sort of thing but approach the officials responsible directly because it is our right to do so and because that is the best way to let them know what is going on-rather than just hope they read a blog post.

Nicole Hansen said...

Nora-I remembered the name Nora and because you said you had been there 3 months I put 2 and 2 together and figured you had been working on the excavation.

Having worked on that excavation though, you saw quite clearly how the lines between the sacred temple area and the local community around it were never distinct like they are trying to make them now. Even when the ancient religion was still being practiced, there was encroachment on the avenue of sphinxes. Even the ancient Egyptian pharaohs themselves weren't so cold and calculating that they prevented that this sort of thing. What is going on now is unprecedented. What went on at Luxor Temple that Stan mentioned was also unprecedented. Previous generations built on top of the past-they did not evict people from their homes.

The truth is, all of Egypt is built on top of antiquities. Luxor is NOT unique in this respect, but the people of Luxor have the bad luck to suffer evictions that most other people in Egypt living on top of antiquities don't have to suffer. This is one of the reasons I think we so desperately need to start programs of true salvage archaeology in Egypt. If people know their land and their homes will be confiscated if there are antiquities underneath them, they will choose to hide and even destroy those antiquities. If they knew, however, that archaeologists would come in and in one month record and recover anything of value on their property, and then hand their property back to them to build on it, then they might be more wiling to cooperate. But as it is now, anyone in Luxor would be smart to stay in a ramshackle building than build a new home even if they want to do so because they risk losing even the land it is built on and instead they will be moved into a crappy government built flat. And Stan, there is not a single crappy government built flat that comes close in quality to the homes that people build for themselves these days in Luxor. The only way you can fairly compensate anyone is to allow them to rebuild their homes when and if they choose to do so on their own land.

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