The Archaeological Site of Luxor Becomes an Amusement Park

Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the antique city of Thebes is an important historical location Renamed Luxor in modern times, it has recently undergone profound changes associated with both new archaeological discoveries and an ambitious policy of touristic development.

Luxor, 25 November 2021. Official opening ceremony of the Avenue of the Sphinxes
Khaled Desouki/AFP

Among the mythical cities, the Egyptian Kingdom of Thebes enjoys pride of place, along with Babylon, Alexandria, and Persepolis. In Pharaonic times it was called Waset, ‘the sceptre’ or ‘the powerful’ signifying explicitly that in the heyday of that it was the power centre. As for its present-day name – Luxor – it is a legacy of the Romans, known civilisation that has had the habit of setting up camps in conquered countries, castra (‘the camps’) which produced here, in the transposition to Arabic, Al Qusur, ‘the palaces.’ An exceptionally rich site, Luxor has long been one of the main stop-offs on ‘the tour of Egypt’ but in the last few years it has experienced extensive transformations in order to accommodate mass tourism. This mutation has gone hand in hand with the commodification of the country’s archaeological and cultural heritage.

When the tourist trade becomes an industry

To cope with an increasingly worrying economic situation, the Egyptian authorities hope to attract 30 million tourists annually by 2030 (as against 11.6 today), thanks to private and foreign investments. In Luxor they have undertaken the construction of ambitious facilities as part of the project dubbed ‘Luxor 2030.’ Huge car parks disfigure the approaches to the sites with their rows of coaches chartered by the hotels and travel agencies; the highways have been widened, equipped with lamp-posts and, of course, surveillance cams (that do not work): laid out in neat rows, the souvenir shops must buy a licence from a commercial company managed by the army which has tightened its grip on the archaeological sites and cash in on their operations.

The configuration and the spirit of these places have undergone a total metamorphosis. Today most of the visitors drive across the Nile via one of the bridges so that use of the ancient ferry boats is now mostly restricted to the local inhabitants. With Covid-19 currently on the decline, the cruise ships are back in huge numbers. Some are outdated, however, and fail to provide the required safety and health guarantees. On the West Bank, swarms of hot-air balloons take off at the crack of dawn over the Theban Hills despite the frequent accidents. In a mineral, artificialised landscape tourist coaches make their rounds with their scheduled stops clocked to the second. Foreign tourists must be made to spend a maximum amount of money in the shortest possible time.

The pastoral calm on the banks of the Nile and the little coloured houses that used to brighten up the outskirts of the big cities are only a vague memory today. The villagers of Gourma, suspected of carrying on with the looting activities responsible for the scandalous reputation of some of their forebears and accused of annoying tourists, were forcibly removed from their homes and rehoused in new towns located on the periphery. Like all the local population, they were left to fend for themselves at a time of economic crisis and runaway inflation. There are more and more cases of malnutrition and anaemia, increasing numbers of children have dropped out of school and the word ‘stress’ has been added to people’s vocabulary. Given this deeply distressful situation, the Muslim Broterhood has reappeared, taking charge of the health centres, and paying children’s school fees. Not only are they making up for the government’s disengagement but also for the bringing to heel of the NGOs which since 2019 can hardly operate at all; the authorities, who accuse the Brotherhood of just about every wrongdoing and have repressed it violently since 2013, now turn a blind eye.

The second focus of the ‘showcasing’ of Luxor concerns the scenarisation of the ruins, as though these were not dramatic enough in themselves. We are a far cry from the son et lumière shows of old. To inaugurate the vast project of restoring the processional walkway nearly 3 km long between Kanak and Luxor, with its 1,200 ram’s headed sphinxes (the god Amun’s sacred animal), a long procession was organised in 2021. It was modelled after the mummies’ parade, another spectacular Cairo-based event having mobilised enormous resources in April of that same year, the idea being to reproduce, with thousands of extras, the famous Feast of Opet at which the god Amun came to visit the temple of Luxor on board his sacred barque.

Prestigious sites may also be privatised. In October 2022, the high fashion house of Stefano Ricci celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a model display on the steps of Queen Hatchepsout’s temple at Deir Al-Bahari before 350 guests flown in from all over the world in private jets – exactly one month before the International Conference on Climate Change (called ‘COP 27’) held at Sharm El-Sheikh – but never mind the carbon footprint…

Luxury tourism is one of the major focuses of Cairo’s policy in hopes of drawing big-spending visitors. Zaji Hawas, who wears an Indian Jones type hat, makes no bones about it: privatisation of the country’s heritage is a good thing for Egypt. And the choice of Deir Al-Bahari was anything but neutral: as he reminds us, the idea was to show that the country was safe again, to expunge on the very place where it occurred the memory of the terrible 1997 terrorist attack1. For $21,000 it is possible to party in the ruins of the temple of Ramses the Third at Medinet Habu where liquor and cocaine are freely available. These excesses are kept carefully under wraps even while Westerners and their corrupt mores are castigated, accused of perverting Muslim societies with their ‘promotion’ of homosexuality and their utterly inapptptiate emancipation of women. But conspiracy theory yields before the dollar king.

Among all this incoherence, it is worth referring once again to the sad fate of Gourma village, conceived by architect Hassan Fathy. Built at the end of the 1940s, next to a stretch of left-bank farmland, on raw earth and based on traditional architecture, the very pure structures composing it have been abandoned for many years. The most recent cracks in the mosque’s walls have been repaired with cement. Yet the Egyptian authorities never miss a chance to present the author of Architecture for the Poor as a national celebrity2.

Move fast with large resources

To facilitate the spectacles, tourist circuits and private parties, certain architectural elements are moved with no concern for scientific data or conservation imperatives. What is important is to come up with something, and practical, as quickly as possible. So, there will be no qualms about pouring concrete on the floor of some antique monument to make it easier for visitors to get around, especially merrymakers wearing high heels. Wealthy foundations increasingly take precedence over the older archaeological missions which can no longer meet the requirements of the Supreme Council of Egyptian Antiquities. To deliver an excavation permit, renewable each year, the Council will resort to blackmail: you have to rebuild this or that structure, felt to be a profitable attraction, when the budget for the campaign had not allowed for the additional expense. Similarly, from now on the blocks used by the stone carvers in charge of reconstruction will have to be paid for. It is not for nothing that the ministry responsible for this activity is now in charge of ‘archaeology and tourism’ or if archaeologist Khaled Al-Enani had to step down in 2022 to make way for a former banker.

A never-ending tale of grandeur and decadence

Strictly speaking, the name Luxor applies to the city located on the east bank of the Nile, 700 km South of Cairo. For simplicity’s sake, it has been extended to cover the whole touristic complex on both banks of the river. On the east bank lay the modern city and the major sites of Karnak and Luxor; on the west bank beyond the farming towns by the water, the Libycal hills begin. This magical place, called the ‘Theban Mountain’ is where the burial grounds of the kings, the queens and the high dignitaries of the New Empire 1500-1000 BC. are located, not far from the temples built by several kings from that same period. The earliest written evocations of Thebes refer to a town on the right bank of the Nile where people worship a minor God named Amun and more fervently the god of war, Montou. At a time of political turbulence, the princes of Thebes broke free and managed to become the rulers of a reunified nation, in particular thanks to their location halfway up the Egyptian course of the Nile.

The Egyptian expansion towards Western Asia and Nubia enabled them to accumulate wealth which would ultimately make the city the world’s largest treasure house and transform it into a huge collection of prestigious constructions. Amun was celebrated there because he was deemed responsible for the city’s victories over its enemies. Closely associated with the political power at the head of an economic empire, the clergy came ultimately to be seen as a threat to the reigning dynasty. It was as much his wish to escape this tutelage as it was his veneration of the solar disk that led Akhenaten, the ‘heretic Pharao’ to advocate the worship of a rival god, Aton, and establish a new capital in Middle-Egypt. An attempt at emancipation which was quickly repressed and did not survive him.

At the end of the Ramesside era, the kings’ authority and prestige began to wane and their tombs were desecrated; palace squabbles and social unrest grew frequently. Thebes was supplanted by the Delta cities whence the new sovereigns originated.

A gigantic open-air museum

The city of Thebes stood on the right bank and occupied the 3 km of land separating the temples of Luxor and Karnak. Invaded by sand, the monuments have long suffered from the ravages of time, but also from dismantling to satisfy the needs of new constructions, in particular the sugar mills built as part of the modernisation of the country at the behest of Mohamed Ali, nineteenth-century viceroy of Egypt. To avoid their inevitable disappearance, the latter issued a decree in 1835 providing for the protection of the monuments of antiquity; in 1858, he created a Department of Antiquities, headed by the Frenchman Auguste Mariette who went about cleaning the sand from the temples.

Karnak is a huge cultural complex. Its most famous component is the hypostyle hall with its 134 monumental pillars which still show traces of polychromy: the papyrus flowers atop them open onto the central aisle, lit by the rays of the sun; on the other side, plunged in darkness, they are closed. James Bond, alias Roger Moore, was nearly crushed to death here by a block of stone dislodged by an ill-intentioned giant (The Spy Who Loved Me).

The smaller temple of Luxor is mostly known for its incomplete pair of obelisks, the other embellishing the Place de la Concorde in Paris since 25 October 1836. This gift from the Viceroy of Egypt - 25 metres tall and weighing 254 tons – had cost so many efforts in the shipping and so much cold sweat during its erection that France finally declared (but not until 2009!) that it no longer intended to collect the second obelisk. In exchange, Egypt was gratified with a clock which had long given up telling the hour, but which still graces the Mohamed Ali mosque in the Citadel of Saladin.

Discoveries that overturn received ideas

During the months when the heat is bearable, the site of the ancient city of Thebes is a veritable hive of activity where many foreign missions are at work having formed joint ventures with Egyptian partners. The French have an historical involvement with Kanak where they have since the origin borne the brunt of the explorations, studies, and rehabilitation work, and where the Franco-Egyptian Centre for the Study of the Temples of Karnak (CFEETK) is located. The US is also present there, also, very recently, the Chinese who are making their debuts in archaeology as in many other areas.

The left bank has witnessed over recent years considerable changes. Already endowed with remarkable sites, recent diggings have brought to light new trouvailles. Seriously damaged by the older floods of the Nile, by earthquakes and by the removal of stones for use on other structures, the temple of Amenophis the third. was long represented solely by the Colossi of Memnon which guard its entrance; the levelling and vestiges that have now been revealed convey a better sense of the structure’s impressive dimensions.

In the Ramesseum, the work of reconstituting has brought to light shops, workshops, kitchens and even one of those schools called ‘houses of life’ where artists and scribes were taught with ‘exercise books’ on shards of pottery. These discoveries have brought about changes in our perceptions by revealing that the left bank was not solely devoted to the worship of the dead as has been claimed for so long, but also had its economic centres and spaces for the affirmation of the Pharaoh’s temporal power. Reduced for too long to their funereal function the ‘million-year temples’ were in fact primarily sites for the celebration of the cult of royalty, functioning during the Pharaoh’s lifetime, who honoured them with his visits, dwelling in apartments specially prepared for him.

The intense activity which must have enlivened the place is also evidenced in the village which housed the craftsmen in charge of building and decorating the royal tombs at DeirA Al-Medinah. Aside from the organisation of the strictly planned and scrupulously logged tasks, epigraphic sources have revealed details of daily life and fascinating minutes of trial proceedings. Like that of a man accused of having taken advantage of the absence of their husbands, away on a construction project several days long, to abuse of their wives, or that of a worker, acquitted after having been induced for a theft of tools – an offence which was even more serious as metal was a rarity. Ironically enough, excavations uncovered the stolen tools beneath the ruins of his house… A very cold case indeed…

117 November 1997, Islamic terrorists massacred on this archaeological site 58 foreign tourists and 4 Egyptians.

2Hassan Fathy wrote of his vision of architecture and his experience at Gurma in this famous book translated into several languages, including English: Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976)