“We have decided to demolish most of the old buildings above the tombs to remove the sight pollution, but we did choose to preserve 25 of them in order to keep a record of the history and heritage of the village.”
“A recent mission to Luxor from the UNESCO World Heritage Committee and ICOMOS, organizations that should be dedicated to the welfare of historic monuments, expressed concern for the modern village of Qurna, even though we have selected 25 of the most historically important homes in the village for preservation in addition to our work to offer a better life to the villagers. I would like to raise the question to the world of what more we can do?”
Zahi Hawass, head of the pre-revolutionary Supreme Council for Antiquities. Most of the historic buildings in Qurna, including the house of the antiquities agent Yanni Athenasi who operated at the time of Belzoni, were demolished by 2010.
New Qurna, October 2011
It is growing dark when Emad picks me and P up from the mooring point by the Nile near our apartment at Ramlah. The evening is still warm and we don’t mind that he’s late because it means he’s been out on a job with the minibus and more than anything in post-revolutionary Egypt the main imperative is to have work. Snake’s son and his English wife Tracey made the move back to Luxor earlier in the year, and just before New Qurna we take a turn-off into the village of Gbawy where they proudly show us their simple house on an unpaved street. ‘The lack of tarmac is a good thing because it means that lads can’t race through the narrow streets on their motorbikes’ says Emad with his father’s famous toothy grin.
A few minutes later we pull up in front of the building I had first seen just under a year ago. Since then the front has been decorated and work on the second storey is well under way. As always, Snake meets us like friends and P is touched by his Egyptian usage of ‘madame’ when referring to her. After looking briefly at the changes downstairs, and the pictures from the old place that have been put up proudly on presentation boards, we follow Emad onto the roof. We take our place at a single table set out with four chairs in the gathering darkness and enjoy the cool breeze coming from the Theban hills that we can just make out in the distance. Snake comes up last with the old visitors’ books and some photos, pulls up another chair and joins us for a while. The talk is mainly of the events of the previous two years. The emotions are still raw and I notice that Snake cannot look at the pictures directly. For Emad the main emotion is a barely-suppressed anger and on reflection I regret that by agreeing to look through the photos I unwittingly open a lingering wound.
As ever, the food cooked by Snake’s (invisible) wife is simple but excellent local fare, on this occasion served by Emad’s brother Hamdy, a good-looking man with the familiar glint in his eye. We are also joined by their young brother Fahres, the little boy I had met the previous year. Quite apart from the demolition of most of the houses, much has changed in Qurna in the generation that separates older and younger brothers. Whilst Emad and Hamdy made their playground among the hills above the village and the tombs that riddle them, Fahres spends his time in the new internet café playing a game that in Arabic he calls ‘Car Thief’, better known in the west as Grand Theft Auto or GTA. For now, the west has caught up with the traditional society of Upper Egypt. But following the successes of the Muslim Brotherhood in the elections of 2012 – for how much longer?
After a memorable evening under the stars we say our farewell to the man who has himself been a part of the history of this ancient land. Before leaving we pose for a photograph, another small step in the establishment of a history for the new restaurant. As the minibus pulls out onto the dusty track I feel privileged to have been taken into the confidence of this man and his family, a man whose ancestors gave such a warm and unexpected welcome to Giovanni Belzoni almost two hundred years previously in their humble dwellings among the tombs.
Postscript: The New Sennefer Guest House and Restaurant on the west bank at Luxor is now open for business. You can follow developments on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
You can find out more about the former villages of Qurna from the website of the now defunct Qurna Discovery Exhibition.