“The people of Gournou [Qurna] are superior to any other Arabs in cunning and deceit, and the most independent of any in Egypt. They boast of being the last that the French had been able to subdue… They never would submit to anyone, either the Mamlukes or the Pasha. They have undergone the most severe punishments and been hunted like wild beasts by every successive government of Egypt.” Giovanni Battista Belzoni, Travels in Egypt and Nubia, 1820.
“Like Shahhat and El Azap, Abd er Rahman and Snake were strong and muscular; in all their movements one detected the athletic and devil-may-care attitudes of youths well aware of their merits. All four had a certain swing of the shoulders, spoke and laughed louder than anyone else, and always looked as if they were on the point of performing some feat that would astonish everybody. When they were together they seemed to habitually be seeking something to fight or something to laugh at. They feared no one and were ashamed of nothing.” Richard Critchfield, Shahhat, An Egyptian, 1978
Qurna, January 2009
Ahmed’s taxi takes me to the edge of the desert in the Theban necropolis. Among the scattered houses are large patches of dark earth and rubble, scars from the recent demolitions. For the past two years bulldozers have been operating in the area, smashing down the mudbrick houses of the Qurnawis. No matter that their ancestors have been on this land for almost 200 years, or that many of the tourists who visit the area enjoy seeing living families among the ancient tombs. They have built their houses illegally, in an ‘archaeological zone’, over and among the relics of the past.
No sooner have I slammed the door of the car than a fat kid is haranguing me. “There are over 600 tombs here, you will not find the one you are looking for without a guide.” But I’ve been here only a year before and I take my chances, the smaller kids snapping at my heels as I make my way up the hill. There, among the mudbrick rubble and scraps of broken furniture I am relieved to see the famous Sennefer Restaurant still standing, the reproduction ancient tomb paintings on its walls brought to life by the morning sun.
But my first stop is the tomb of Sennefer itself, where the genuine paintings still seem as fresh as the day they were painted. Sennefer was Mayor of Thebes and Overseer of the Garden of Amun and would have walked these dusty paths himself during the reign of Amenhotep II. Over three thousand years ago.
The tomb consists of a couple of small underground chambers and the visit is thirsty work. It is soon time to visit the rest stop. On my way back down the hill I am approached by a well-built middle-aged man in a blue-grey galabeya, a white turban somewhat hastily tied around his head. Despite his care-worn appearance I immediately recognize the features of the young man in Critchfield’s book. “Mr Mohamed – how are you?” He does not know me, of course, but his response is that of a seasoned provider of hospitality: “Hello my friend, it is good to see you.”
The man called Snake shows me inside the establishment he has built over the years, much of it with his own hands. In a landscape of limestone dust it is a little oasis of Nubian-blue, every bit as restful as I had heard it described. He calls into the kitchen where his wife works, unseen, and orders mint tea. “So, you are still surviving?” “Yes, just. Most of the houses have been demolished now as you see. I have argued with the government and got more time, insha’allah, but who knows how much longer?” He brings to the table his collection of visitors’ books, going back years. They are full of warm comments from families, couples, single travellers, tour groups and archaeological teams from all over the world, though with a predominance of French, German and Spanish. “They always liked it here” he says, drawing heavily on the stub of a Cleopatra cigarette. “They say good things on the internet and keep coming back.”
We talk a little longer before he leaves me and I assure him that there are many people around the world who are appalled at the manner of the clearances and who are not convinced by the argument of the Supreme Council of Antiquities that the houses by the tombs should all be demolished in the interests of tourism and archaeology. “The government cares nothing for the people who live here now, they are only interested in the past. But they know that for all these years we have been looking after the tombs! Why would we destroy them when they give us our living? The stories they tell about looting and robbing are lies.” Through the open door we hear the sound of a motorcycle pulling up outside and Snake goes out to get the latest news from the Governor’s office in town.
The main room of the restaurant is empty and quiet, the tables and chairs set out neatly for visitors whose numbers are dwindling each month. A glass cabinet full of charming replica antiquities stands against the central pillar, the faces of animals and gods seemingly imploring people to buy them and set them free. Through the panelled front door the light streams in and I can just make out Mohamed’s latest work on what he hopes will become a small front garden. Beyond that, the Temple of Ramesses II, the greater part brought down by a combination of earthquake and human depredation over the course of thirty centuries, but the pillars of its main hall still standing. As I sip my tea the silence I am increasingly aware of is the sound of time.
Outside, Mohamed suggests we have a photograph and calls to a passing French archaeologist. “Hey, pretty girl!” Her look tells me she knows the ways of this legendary man of the mountains and she smiles as she takes my camera. “And afterwards, you take a picture of me and the pretty girl!” As I shake his hand and tell him I hope to see him and his restaurant again next time I visit, he answers my inevitable question. “ When I was young I would run between the Valley of the Kings and the Tombs of the Nobles, selling postcards to the same bus-loads of tourists in both places. I knew every path on these hills and no-one could get across the mountain as quickly as me. All that running meant I was very thin. They called me Snake.”
I had heard much about the dispersal of the people of Qurna, of the demolition teams turning up at the crack of dawn and barely giving people time to leave their houses before the bulldozers moved in, mercilessly tearing down what to them were mudbrick hovels but to the families were familiar and well-loved homes. I had heard the counter-arguments, that no-one should be living in such unsanitary conditions in the 21st century, that the tombs need to be preserved for future generations to discover and enjoy, that tourists should not be harassed by money-grabbing “guides” and their over-insistent children. More than anything, I had heard of the determination of one man to stay in his place on the hillside to the very last; a man who had so far resisted all attempts to lure him to the new concrete village being built on a flattened expanse of desert a mile or so to the east, and in doing so had exposed himself to the intimidation of those who wielded power.
A man they call Snake.