Town Atop Antiquities Must Move

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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"The major problem with Gourna is the increase in the number of houses. This village existed since Pharaonic times, but in the last 10 years the people have been building more and more houses," says Mohamed el-Saghir, director general of Luxor's antiquities.

Gourna's presence also prevents further excavation of tombs located beneath it. Dr. El-Saghir estimates that the village is covering twice the 420 tombs already known to exist on the West Bank of the Nile. While it is likely that the Gournis' grave-robbing days are over, officials still accuse them of smuggling antiquities.

The government also says Gourna spoils the area's historic panorama. The houses are of different shapes and colors. Some are in disrepair and unpainted, exposing the mud brick. Others have brightly colored paintings of peasant scenes, Pharaonic gods, or the Islamic holy shrine of Mecca covering their walls.

Finally, officials fear that Gourna hurts tourism in the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens. With Egypt's tourist sector one of the main hard-currency earners at $3 billion per year, officials cannot ignore this problem.

Besides the concern that they will be unable to make a living, the Gournis have other reasons for wanting to stay. They say they are afraid the new town will be cramped and uncomfortable.

"We don't like the new village. It's not like here. Here, there's space. There, it's like a box," says Sayed Ibrahim Aly, the guard at a Western archaeological institute. Villagers claim that the new houses have only three rooms, not enough space for their large families, and no yards for them to keep animals, bake bread, or store wood.

Another reason some villagers want to remain is the fear that the government will excavate their homes, find Pharaonic antiquities, and prosecute them.

"Under my home are tombs," says Rajab, a taxicab driver. "I have to look after my tombs, because if the government finds them there will be problems."

From the roof of their home, one family points to the hillside where they say many more tombs and probably more treasures, unknown to the government, are buried.

"If there are fish in the sea there are mummies in Gourna," says one.

Despite the best intentions, it is doubtful the government can move the residents of Gourna any time soon. Money is still a problem. El-Sayed hopes to persuade the United States Agency for International Development that some of the $25 million pledged recently for preserving the Egyptian monuments should go toward relocating Gourna. He estimates that it will cost $15 million just to build Taref's infrastructure.

The Gourna situation is not unique in Egypt, where an exploding population of 58 million cannot help but build on top of the pervasive Pharaonic monuments.

Officials are trying to move the people of Nazlet El-Simman, located at the feet of the great Sphinx and the pyramids just outside Cairo, to a desert plot three miles away. The Egyptian government also hopes to relocate people in the city of Luxor who are living on top of the Avenue of the Sphinx between the Luxor and Karnak Temples to a plot of land four miles away.

Like the Gourna relocation, however, these plans have been largely unsuccessful.

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