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View from Luxor: Three and a half thousand years ago, the Egyptians invented Western architecture. A pilgrimage is essential for all of us. (View).

On a first visit to Luxor, it is impossible to disagree with Herodotus, the earliest tourist to record his journey two and a half millennia ago. He believed that Egypt 'possesses more wonders than any other country, and exhibits works greater than can be described'. The origins of the art of architecture are there. Even now, when the monuments are filled with turgid polyglot swarms of vulgarly clad and sunroasted Westerners, the great temples remain awesome; the statues, however shattered, still convey the might of the Pharaohs; the tombs of the aristocrats touchingly speak of daily life millennia ago. The town grows around the temple on the river, still vestigially connected to another amazing collection of ruins at Karnak, the centre of the Theban Amun-Ra religion.

Nowadays, life for most of the inhabitants of Luxor is a continuous high-pressure campaign to persuade visitors to part with their money. In the 1870s, Amelia Edwards was greeted by a rush of donkeys and donkey-boys, beggars, guides and antiquity dealers ... the children screaming for backshish; the dealers exhibiting strings of imitation scarabs; the donkey-boys vociferating the names and praises of their beasts; all alike regarding us as their lawful prey'. Nothing has changed, except that there are fewer donkeys. Their role is taken by rusting blue and white taxis and elegant caleches: carriages drawn by horses that sometimes look as if they could win the Derby, more often like candidates for the glue pot.

The continuous batter of cringing, whining and over-familiar wheedling is very disagreeable, but it must be much more so for the people who have to grasp their living from the tourists. After 11 September, there are far fewer visitors than usual, and the clamour is presumably louder and more desperate. In this atmosphere of humiliation made aggressive by need, it is not difficult to see how the young can be attracted by fundamentalism, and why there are three policemen with automatic rifles dozing outside McDonald's.

We escaped the row in the calm gardens of the Winter Palace, the 1886 grand hotel, still more or less kept in the condition enjoyed by King Farouk (the country's last monarch) on his January holidays. The gardens are a small piece of English heaven brought down to upper Egypt. Immaculately maintained, they have smooth perfect lawns with proper British grass under palms and exotic tropical species like red silk cotton trees (bombax) with their flaming flowers, huge fiddle-leaf ficus, temple trees (plomenia) and golden balled acacia. Honeysuckle, bougainvillaea and jasmine ramble round the lower trunks over phlox, nasturtium and hollyhocks, all in full bloom in February. Much of the Picturesque structure of the original design has survived into ravishing maturity. But go as soon as possible. The hotel is owned by an international group, which has made some unfortunate changes, and pressure for development of such a large piece of real estate in the middle of town must be very great.

On the other side of the hotel is the terrace, from which you look west over the Nile to sunset on the Theban mountains, into the crumbling parched slopes of which the Pharaohs tunnelled their secret but almost always ravished tombs. Between desert and river is the flood plain. The multi-textured green vigour of the western side with its sugar canc, barley, wheat and cotton defines the meaning of 'lush'. A felucca (traditional broad-bottomed sailing boat) quietly and slowly takes you over to the silence of that shore where pied kingfishers hover like large humming birds over the shallows, elegant white ibis scuttle through the reeds, and camels and buffalo are driven to their immemorial tasks.

Turn round, and you see some of the most hideous hotels in the world on the east bank. The yowling of their musak is revealed in three dimensions. Clearly Egyptian planning works. All the really vile built manifestations of the modern international tourist industry have been clustered together in southern Luxor. But huge river steamers are moored along almost the whole length of the east bank, and because of lack of trade, many never seem to move. Almost all try to evoke the ancient world with regurgitation of ill-digested Pharaonic motifs.

On the whole, curators of the monuments have commendably refrained from the temptation of over-Pharaonization. A sad exception is Hatshepsut's temple on the west side, a simple and noble composition at the foot of the mountain -- essentially terraces connected by ramps. Century-old photographs show the dignified ruin of the memorial to one of ancient Egypt's few female rulers, a building then recently excavated from the sands. Now, the reconstructed temple looks as though it has been sculpted out of cheese processed in Hollywood.

To the south is the Valley of the Nobles, on top of which is the village of Qurna, a haphazard collection of Arab houses clustered over the tombs of some of the most powerful people in the ancient empire. The buildings are owned by families who used to pursue Egypt's oldest continuous profession: tomb robbery. Today, there are few graves left to rob -- or even find -- and the children are forced to mob visitors. They offer pathetic and ugly little home-made dolls. Elders make an income by taxi driving and baksheesh from tomb guardianship.

In the '40s there was an attempt to remove the villagers to a new settlement on the green plain. Hassan Fathy's idealistic village New Gourna (as it was then called, AR February 1970) seems to have been a failure from the start. The villagers naturally did not want to move from their potentially extremely valuable properties on top of the tombs. And Fathy used mud-building techniques common further up the river in Nubia, but they were strange to the intended inhabitants. His buildings (apart from the well-cared-for mosque) are falling to bits, or have been radically altered. No one seems to have had repair skills and, even in a place where it only rains for half an hour in four years, maintenance should have been thought about. The newest part of the settlement, built with concrete frames and fired brick infill -- the true contemporary vernacular -- seems much more successful and durable.

Another idealistic project from the same era was the High Dam at Aswan. Undoubtedly, the barrage has allowed much more land to be irrigated, and many more fed, (No one actually starves in Egypt, but for all the new agricultural land, the country's 68 million people, increasing against all government efforts at well over two per cent a year, still have to rely on massive grain aid from the US.)

The dam has prevented the annual inundation of the Nile valley, which made the ancient civilization possible by spreading fertile mud over the fields. Now there is no more mud, so fecundity has to be achieved with artificial fertilizers, and the land which Herodotus thought was the easiest in the world to cultivate (because the river did most of the work) has become less rich. Nitrate poisoning threatens. Can the Nile become, like the Oxus, a polluted valley with the river dying because it is so exploited? Unlikely, when you see its pewter-shining width at sunset. But a new, ecologically aware programme for the Nile valley is desperately needed -- and not one based on folkloric idealism like Hassan Fathy's heroic but sadly mistaken mirage, nor on the dam's 50 year old macho-technology.

RELATED ARTICLE: May

Designing for educational organizations almost always involves making suggestions about ideal societies for the young, whether the building be a nursery school or a university campus. In May, the AR looks at a wide range of educational buildings from many countries and tries to examine social programme as well as formal and constructional expression.

Few programmes could be more different than the Aula Magna building for Stockholm University by Erskine Tovatt Arkitektkontor (the latest in a series of brilliantly thoughtful buildings for an otherwise rather dowdy campus) and the school at Ladak, built under the Himalayas for poor villagers by Arup Associates. The extension to the University of Odense, Denmark by CUBO Architects shows how careful spatial handling can allow a big institution to grow without becoming anonymous. In Cordoba, Argentina, Miguel Angel Roca uses form and colour to give sense of place to new faculties while, at the Colegio San Pedro in Lima, Peru, Frederick Cooper-Liosa works to the same end with the arid coastal landscape.

In Pasadena, California, the Art Center College of Design has decided to break out of Craig Ellwood's black box and grow into its idyllic site. Hodgetts + Fung's interactive new student building is an attempt to build a greater sense of community. Kister Scheithauer Gross have attempted the same in the very much more mean surroundings of Halle University in eastern Germany.

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Author:Pulford, Carolyn
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Apr 1, 2002
Words:1485
Previous Article:Letters.
Next Article:Winged heroics: A winged bandstand at the De La Warr Pavillion responds to natural forces and the exuberance of its neighbour. (Design Review).
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