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Luxor: the largest open-air museum in the world.


BEFORE THE SUN begins to shed its light--and ridiculous heat--over the many wonders across Luxor, the city's residents are busy preparing for the day ahead. Tourism is their livelihood, involving many thousands of foreign visitors annually to the city that is home to 25% of the world's ancient sites.

On most days, Mahmoud will have opened his small souvenir shop on the East Bank of the Nile--home to the famed Karnak and Luxor temples--as early as 5am, depending on the season and the heat. Although business, he says, has been improving, he and many of Luxor's 200,000 residents are frustrated with the Egyptian government's plans for major redevelopment of the area.

"It needed to be done," the head of Luxor Antiquities at the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Mansour Boreik, argues. "It is always difficult to get Egyptians to change but if this work isn't done, Luxor could disappear."

Luxor is probably Egypt's second most famous city after Cairo, with its assortment of ancient temples, tombs and museums. Ramses II, believed to be the Pharaoh of Old Testament lore, lived here 3,000 years ago. But all is not well in the 21st-century land of the Nile.

Many Egyptians living on the West Bank of the Nile--home to famous sites including the Valley of the Kings and Hatshepsut's Temple--have been forced to relocate, despite having lived in the same place for generations.

"Yes, people are going to have to move," Boreik agrees, "but the media and the world, must understand that this is to preserve the history of the place. People have lived on top of ancient monuments and sites for decades; now we need to start excavating and making the area more accessible."

The idea behind the move is to recreate the New Kingdom, depicting Egypt's last Pharaonic era, where the West Bank of Luxor was home to the magnificent tombs of kings and nobles. Kept secret for fear of grave robbers, for years average citizens were not allowed the freedom to cross from their living quarters on the East Bank and even today only single-sail feluccas and a bridge link Luxor's East and West Banks. Archaeologists observe that even the ancient tomb workers were blindfolded during their transport to the West Bank, to ensure they did not know their exact location.

Many 21st-century Egyptians feel the current government is doing the same thing as those ancient kings by forcing them to stay away from the West Bank. But, the government insists, the reasoning behind today's development has nothing to do with restricting freedom of movement and everything to do with facilitating tourism, Egypt's largest source of income.

But even for those who make a living from the tourist hoards, the recent development has proved to a bitter pill to swallow. "The government forced me, my family and my friends to leave our homes for this project," says Mahmoud, "but they did not give us proper compensation for the move."

He claims that an extended family that occupied an entire building was relocated to a single flat with various members of several generations forced to live in a single dwelling.

"It is unfair; families that previously lived in comfort in their own surroundings are now forced to live together, with often ten or more people in one flat," adds Mahmoud.

The Supreme Council of Luxor aims to develop the West Bank into "the largest open-air museum in the world," at a cost to the Egyptian government of around 1.2bn Egyptian pounds ($200m) to cover all renovations, including restructuring of the famed temples at Karnak and Luxor, as well as the construction of a new bazaar area for shopping opportunities.

The project, says the council, will help increase tourism in a manner that respects Egyptian heritage and the past without infringing too much on the residents of Luxor.

"Tourism is the main investment in Luxor, because the city contains almost one third of the world's archeological sites as well as being blessed with a temperate climate all year round," the council said.

But for Mahmoud and others like him, while the initial prospect of the open-air museum was met with optimism, especially considering that the vast majority of their annual earnings come from tourism, the honeymoon period was short-lived after relocation began.

"Yes, at first we were all optimistic that this would increase our profits and make Luxor the number one place for tourism. But we have changed our minds because of what has since happened to people here." The council refused to comment on individual situations, insisting that "full compensation is being given to residents on the West Bank in the relocation process."

The Egyptian government believes the prospects of a greater future will outweigh any of the initial negatives expressed by residents like Mahmoud. Dr Samir Farag, president of the Supreme Council of Luxor, said development is the beginning of an overall strategy to make Luxor a unique and modern tourism destination.

"These projects have been implemented within the overall development project plan for the development of Luxor, carried out by a scientific study on build ing a futuristic vision in cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and with the participation of all concerned with culture, heritage and tourism in Egypt," noted Dr Farag.

Luxor-based tour guide and Egyptologist, Ahmed--who asked not to have his full name revealed--said that the cost of flats on the East Bank, where a majority of the city's residents currently live, have skyrocketed. "While I definitely believe in the idea of recreating our ancient past," the graduate of Cairo University's Egyptology department began, "there needs to be a method of maintaining affordable prices that allow residents to maintain their lifestyle."

What tourists see is an ancient city inhabited by the descendants of the builders of a magnificent civilisation. But the very real concerns of local people are frequently masked in the hustle to acquire trinkets as nostalgic reminders of a vacation spent in distant past. The idea of recreating the ancient past in a manner similar to the Pharaohs' is bold and inspiring, but residents of Luxor hope that during the process the government will--as they remember the Egyptians of more than 5,000 years ago--spare a thought for the families of Luxor trying to sustain a living in the city today.


JOSEPH MAYTON reports from Egypt
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Title Annotation:MOSAIC
Author:Mayton, Joseph
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Nov 1, 2008
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