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Town Atop Antiquities Must Move

The Egyptian village of Gourna squats inconveniently on the tombs of royalty

By Sarah GauchSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 1993



LUXOR, EGYPT

FROM a distance, Gourna could almost be a typical Egyptian village of painted mud-brick houses. But behind many of the tilting, cracked facades, way in the back, lurks a jagged, blackened cave, a Pharaonic tomb carved out of the rock 4,000 years ago.

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This cavernous room has large holes in its walls, tunnels that some say are as long as two miles. Others say these narrow, dark passageways connect all the houses.

For many years, Gourna's residents were grave robbers. The villagers live in a long cluster of homes between Luxor's Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, where the elaborate tombs of King Tutankhamen, Ramses II, and Queen Nefertari are located. The village has existed for centuries virtually on top of hundreds of ancient Pharaonic tombs on Luxor's West Bank, 720 miles south of Cairo.

The Egyptian government has been trying to move this village of 20,000 residents for nearly 40 years, as the expanding population began to threaten preservation of the ancient tombs and the monuments associated with them. But there were never enough funds. Only a few dozen families have been successfully relocated to a nearby village built in the mid-1900s.

The people desperately cling to Gourna. When they exhausted the tombs' treasures 20 years ago, the villagers turned to tourism for their income. Today they live off the bus convoys packed with camera-happy foreigners, who arrive each day to see the burial places of kings, queens, and nobles.

The Gournis can sell a fake Pharaonic statue to the most astute expert. Tourists visiting Gourna's elaborately painted alabaster shops are soon tromping up the steep, hot desert hills in search of mummy torsos. Even the children will run for yards after foreigners, waving their homemade dolls.

The Egyptian government says it has a sure-fire plan to relocate the Gournis: It will move the villagers to Taref, a new village nearly two miles away. The government will fund the town's construction with the help of international organizations. The people are being consulted to determine their needs, according to the government. Bazaars will also be built, so villagers can continue to earn a living.

"We are planning to build a new village for these people," says Lux-or's Gov. Mohamed Essat El-Sayed. "When there are alternative houses, there will be no reason for them not to move. Then we can force them to relocate."

While the Gournis have fought relocation in the past, today they seem resigned to moving. "We don't want to leave, but we will go. We have to go, because the government wants it," says a sculptor of Pharaonic replicas and the father of seven children.

The government has made life difficult for these people. The houses have no water or electricity. Women and children take heavy donkey-driven metal containers down the mountain to get water and then push and pull them back up the hill every day.

If the government decides that any house or construction is too close to the monuments, the building is destroyed. This year officials tore down 16 houses.

The government's most important reason for moving the Gournis is that expansion of the village means increased problems for the monuments. Sewage, water, and salts seep into the antiquities, eroding their foundations.