Daily News  :: North Africa

Egyptian squatters out, tourists in

Published: 04-DEC-06

Luxor - A 50-year-old battle to evict squatters from one of Egypt's most renowned archaeological sites, the West Bank of Luxor, has finally been settled when authorities began demolitions.

The fate of Qurna's 10 000 residents was sealed when authorities gave the demolition order for the mud-brick houses erected over ancient Egyptian tombs on the Theban Hills that had become a tourist attraction in their own right.

In just 15 minutes and under the deafening roar of bulldozer engines, three long-abandoned houses were the first to go.

The stage-managed affair included a fashion-show of children parading ancient Egyptian costumes to the beats of epic drums, and enthusiastic speeches by officials for the television cameras.

"Three thousand five hundred families will leave for a better life. It's the most important resettlement operation since the rescue of Abu Simbel in Nubia some 40 years ago," said Luxor's governor Samir Farag.

Squatters had erected mud-brick houses over the ancient royal necropolis in Luxor, that over the decades had turned into fully functioning villages, much to the ire of the authorities.

The controversial resettlement seeks to relocate the residents to purpose-built villages leaving the vast heritage site to archaeologists and tourists.

"The fact that archaeology is re-gaining its rights here is the dream of my life," said Egypt's head of antiquities Zahi Hawass.

"Hidden treasures are there. Terrible damage has been done to the tombs of Qurna," he said, accusing the squatters of pillaging the remains for memento-hungry tourists.

As the demolition began, one resident cursed from the roof of his house. Others were resigned to their fate. Others simply stood in mournful silence.

"Yes we are sad, and what we've been offered is too far away, too expensive, we are very poor," said local shopkeeper Mohammed al-Konsil dressed in a traditional long robe as he stood amid the rubble.

In contrast with a similar resettlement operation 10 years ago which left four people dead, Saturday's eviction proceeded without major incident.

"We've been looking to end this matter for the past 100 years," said Housing Minister Ahmed Maghrabi.

"Our success today comes from the fact that the citizens were part of the planning process. They are happy to go to a new village with all the modern comforts," he said of the project which cost $30mn.

"I was born in this tomb," said Hassan Amer, as he pointed to a 50m2 limestone vault in Qurna Marai, a village of some 1 000 residents south of Qurna.

"They will turn (Qurna) into a city of the dead without caring much for the living and their history," said the Egyptologist and Cairo University professor.

The residents will be relocated to New Qurna-Taref, built in the desert further north. At a later stage, others will be moved to another New Qurna on agricultural land in the south, but neither can match Qurna's brightly painted mud-brick buildings.

The murals on the houses, hotels and cafes of the village have turned Qurna into a heritage sight in its own right, where modern craft weaves through ancient mysteries below the ground.

According to Maghrabi, 30 of Qurna's prettier buildings will be conserved under an agreement with Unesco, though Farag says only 15 will remain.

"The problem is that the idea of cultural landscape is not taken into account," said renowned Egyptologist Naguib Amin.

"There must be serious contemplation as to the management of the sites in Luxor and elsewhere," he said. Sapa-AFP

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