In the valley below lies the shattered visage of Pharaoh Ramses II, whose "frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command," inspired one of the most famous poems of the Romantic era in British literature.
"Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" wrote Percy Shelley, imagining the words of the dead Pharaoh after visiting the site in 1817. The poem is a cautionary reminder of the fleeting nature of both authority and art.
Now, in order to save what is left of other magnificent works in the Valleys of the Kings, Queens, and Nobles, Egyptian officials have vowed to cleanse a tribe of former Bedouins from homes and hovels perched atop the tombs of Ramses' relatives.
The plight of the 10,000 Qurnawi highlights a growing international dilemma: How can modern man balance the rights of the inhabitants of cultural-heritage sites with the world's interest in preserving them for generations to come? From middle-class North American suburbs set on top of Indian burial grounds to Bedouins who live atop Queen Nefertiti's tomb, the problems are similar, say archaeologists and human rights activists.
"Our priority has to be to preserve the treasures in the ground below, but, at the same time, respect the citizens who live above them," says American archaeologist and Egyptologist Kent Weeks.
The Pharaonic tombs contain wall paintings that tell us much about ancient Egyptian life as well as human nature.
The government, in its campaign to clear the hills, is accusing the tribesmen of burrowing for hidden treasures, harassing tourists, and dumping human waste into the tombs.
But the tribesmen, who used stone chisels and kitchen knives to help corner a band of Islamic terrorists after the brutal massacre of 58 foreign tourists in 1997, are pleading with the international community to save their ancestral homes.
They deny the charges and accuse the local police of brutal tactics, including using bulldozers to demolish their homes in the early morning hours.
Officials have long accused the Qurnawi of squatting above the tombs and stealing precious cultural heirlooms. Beginning in the 18th century, European archaeologists as well as corrupt antiquities dealers employed the tribesman to plunder the tombs and their artifacts. But despite constant tensions between tribesmen and central authorities, tenacious villagers held onto their valuable hillside plots. Frenchman Vivant Denon, a writer present during the 18th century Napoleonic conquest of the tombs, described a clash with the Qurnawi as akin to a "war against gnomes."
But increasing European tourism and the world's growing appreciation of the tombs beneath the homes of the Qurnawi have sparked a fresh call for their ouster.
"Egypt is working with the entire international community to preserve these sites'&#310;" says Ahmed Nouby, a government official coordinating efforts to persuade the Qurnawi to leave peacefully. "They say they inherited the land from their forefathers but their forefathers, were squatting on public property."
Mr. Nouby praised the Qurnawi for helping the government in its battle against Islamic terrorists in 1997. He also says that he had personally protested against the government's brutal tactics two years ago when he witnessed a local policeman gun down four unarmed Qurnawi in a dispute over building rights. But he said that the relocation of the village two miles north of the valley is "for their own good."
"Their constant harassment of foreigners with phony artifacts and petitions to 'buy, buy, buy' is not good for the image of Egypt'&#310;" he insists. "Besides, they dig in the ground for artifacts like moles at night when nobody is keeping an eye on them."
The Egyptian government has already built a modern village, a new mosque, and a tourist bazaar for the villagers farther up the Nile River where tests have shown there are no Pharaonic tombs. Nouby claimed that, despite continued vows by Qurnawi elders that they will not leave, 48 families signed contracts to move last month.
Foreign archaeologists and long-time residents of Luxor are split on how best to save the tombs and help the Qurnawi.
Dr. Weeks, who surprised the archaeological world in 1995 with discoveries of the tomb of the sons of Ramses, says, "They should be moved as long as they are given decent homes and amenities." Several of Weeks's loyal tomb excavators are Qurnawi, who, he says, comprise four clans of Yemeni and Saudi Bedouins who used Luxor, better known as Thebes, as a camp on their caravan route between Africa and the Mideast.
"It is really only a question of money and proper plumbing," says French Egyptologist Alain Fouquet Abrial. "If you build a system that protects the tombs, you've also got to pay to maintain it."
For centuries, the inhabitants here used donkeys to transport water to their homes. That water, when used up, seeps into the soil and down into the tombs, destroying precious paintings that have survived thousands of years. Efforts by sympathetic foreigners to push through government projects that would provide proper sewage systems have been cold-shouldered by Egyptian antiquities officials.
A spokesman for the Qurnawi, Mohamed Abdel Salam Ahamed, defended his tribe's right to live and work in the hills. "We are the guardians of these tombs, and the proof of that is how we hunted down the terrorists who attacked foreign tourists in 1997'&#310;" says Mr. Ahamed. "What would the police have done without us? Now they say they have no use for us."
Ahamed, whose grandfather worked as a laborer with the British Egyptologist Howard Carter when he uncovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, looks warily down the hill at the ruins of the temple of Ramses II and sighs: "We have every reason to defend these tombs since they are our livelihood."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society