The Greatest Clash in Egyptian Archaeology May Be Fading, But Anger Lives On

After 200 years, the sad story of Qurna, a so-called ‘village of looters’, is coming to a close

Statue of Memnon in the westbank in Luxor and in the background gurna of Maraai
Statue of Memnon in the westbank in Luxor, with the community of Qurna in the background. Roger Anis

Om Ahmed has a lovely view, but no one to share it with.

All of her neighbors have gone, their houses slowly crumbling in the stiff Nile breeze. Most of the surrounding buildings have already been destroyed. Except for the workers excavating a tomb beneath her and the occasional lost tourist or nosy desert fox, this talkative old lady seldom sees another soul. “It’s very lonely,” she says. “You can’t imagine how lonely.”

And yet Ahmed, a sprightly woman in her late 60s, won’t abandon her home. Not now, not ever, she insists. As one of the few remaining inhabitants of the Egyptian community of Qurna, she’s intent on dying where she was born. If nothing else, she’s keen to drag out one of the most contentious chapters in archaeology a little longer. “We are victims of one of the great injustices,” she says, angrily gesticulating at the police post at the foot of the hill. “They took our houses. They took our culture. They took our way of life. This is unforgivable.”

Om Ahmed one of the few remaining inhabitants of Qurna Maraai
Om Ahmed is one of the few remaining inhabitants of Qurna. Roger Anis

Ever since the earliest days of organized antiquities excavation in Egypt, some 200 plus years ago, archaeologists and government officials have fixated on Qurna, Om Ahmed’s once sizable village. Strung across the low arid hills of the Nile’s west bank, among the tombs of the Theban Necropolis and across from Luxor, it stood at the heart of one of the world’s largest concentrations of historic treasures. Throughout the great, headline-spinning excavations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the village and its inhabitants played a pivotal supporting role. Qurnawis did the grunt work as Howard Carter uncovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Even now they provide the bulk of labor on many dig sites.

But Qurna itself, authorities in Cairo soon decided, was more horror than help. Its residents were using their proximity to the antiquities to loot on an industrial scale, they said. Their houses, inside the ancient pharaonic-era tombs, and later on top of them, were damaging precious heritage. As antiquities officials and the archaeological community struggled to stymie widespread grave robbing from the late 1900s, many came to see Qurna as the most in-your-face illustration of their impotence. The battle lines had been drawn. “The [Qurnawis] are a key part of the story of the area, but archaeologists have denied them any history on the mountain,” says Caroline Simpson, a researcher and longtime campaigner for the villagers’ cause. “They’ve been horribly treated.”

This sordid saga first began in the late 1700s, when European adventurers started journeying up the Nile in real numbers. They were enchanted by the temples, many of which were still buried ceiling-deep in sand, and beguiled by the almost impossibly green riverside fields. The only thing that didn’t meet their romantic expectations were many of the locals themselves. “These rascally fellahs,” wrote Charles Sonnini de Manoncourt, a French naturalist after a visit to ancient Thebes in 1800. “This truly detestable place.”

Once the capital of Middle and New Kingdom Egypt, Thebes had been mostly reduced to ruins and rubble by the time the foreigners began to arrive about 5000 years later. The great temples, previously accessible only to high priests, had been savaged by the elements and cannibalized for building materials by subsequent rulers. And some of the villages that developed in their stead were populated by bandits and political dissidents fleeing the short arm of the state in Cairo to the north. Still largely intact, however, were most of the ancient burial grounds in which dozens of pharaohs and thousands of noblemen had been laid to rest – many under Qurna.

When Napoleon returned home after his invasion and occupation of Egypt from 1798-1801, weighed down with richly detailed accounts of Luxor’s splendors, antipathy towards the Qurnawis only hardened. European powers started clamoring for pharaonic antiquities collections of their own. It became a question of prestige, an ‘obelisk race’ to unearth buried treasures, with the people living among the tombs cast as unfair and uncultured competition.

The villagers have, at times, been their own worst enemy, never more so than when, in 1871, Qurna resident Ahmed Abdel Rasool hit pay dirt in the jagged bluffs overlooking the Temple of Hatshepsut. Closely guarding news of the discovery, he and his brother discreetely bartered away their treasures, including dozens of mummies, whenever they needed money. Legend has it that they even killed a donkey, and dumped its carcass down the tomb entrance in order to give other potential mummy snatchers the impression that the find was cursed. Some Qurnawis still wonder whether their continued association with this notorious crime ultimately proved their undoing. “We had a famous thief living among us, so maybe people thought we were all like this,” says Ahmed Abdel Rady, the curator of a small museum dedicated to Qurna’s recent history.

Tombs, open for visitors and tourists, reside in the heart of Qurna. Roger Anis
Om Ahmed, one of the few remaining inhabitants of Qurna, makes her way down from the hillside to gather food supplies Roger Anis
Statue of Memnon presides over the west bank in Luxor Roger Anis
The hillside of Qurna. Roger Anis
Nearby Qurna, archaeologists are still looking for artifacts from ancient Egypt. Roger Anis
A view for Qurna along the west bank in Luxor Roger Anis
Excavators work on the site of ​the ​Funeral Temple of Amenhotep III in Luxor Roger Anis

Similarly egregious bursts of looting followed over the subsequent decades. A villager found and sold a sacred boat, dating from the 18th Dynasty, roughly 3,500 years ago, allegedly acquiring 40 acres of land with the proceeds. Soon afterwards, other Qurnawis discovered and then melted down dozens of elaborate gold trinkets, arousing understandable outrage among archaeologists. With the much-celebrated opening of King Tut’s tomb, locals imagined that many of the other 3,000 to 4,000 tombs that dot the Nile’s west bank contained similar riches and began to comb the Necropolis accordingly. “This all really started after [Tut],” says Abdou Osman Tai Daramali, a native Qurnawi and foreman on a Swiss-led archaeological dig. “It made people think that all tombs had a lot of gold.” As first the Great Depression and then World War II struck, depriving the Luxor area of tourists, desperate locals turned to looting with abandon. Qurna’s nefarious reputation was sealed.

“I don’t understand anyone who says we should leave these people there,” says Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s colorful and controversial former antiquities czar, almost shouting as he reeled off their misdeeds. “They dig under their houses, into these tombs, and then use them to hide things. It was completely unacceptable!”

That, however, is only half the story, Qurnawis say, and the only half that some officials and archaeologists care to remember. Who, after all, was buying these treasures?, the erstwhile locals ask. And who was ferrying them out of Egypt? “Obviously not us,” says Said Morsi, who runs a restaurant across the road from Dra’ Abu Al-Naga’, one of the half dozen or so hilltop hamlets that collectively made up Qurna. “It’s not like we can take things to the airport and fly them out.”

At the root of the villagers’ enduring anger is a sense that they were only a cog in a big international swindle. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, there was little systematic grave robbing for collecting purposes, nor it seems even that large a population living among the tombs (though tomb raiding had flourished in the ancient era). It was only when foreign buying agents, among them representatives of the French, British, Russian, Belgian and Italian governments, set up camp looking to pad out both public and private collections back home that the exporting of Egypt’s patrimony really took off.

“Because mining for mummies was both illegal and religiously suspect, Europeans themselves will have been instrumental in setting up lines of communications, supply routes, and the organization and oversight of local suppliers,” writes Kees van der Spek, author of the Modern Neighbors of Tutankhamun: History, Life, and Work in the Villages of the Theban West Bank. Foreign Egyptologists, most of whom were French, dominated Cairo’s antiquities ministry well into the 20th century. Under their watch, half of excavated treasures were turned over to the Egyptian state, and the rest were dispatched abroad. (Until 1947, the Egyptian Museum sold genuine antiquities from its gift shop.)

As the appetite for Egypt’s treasures grew abroad, Qurna’s infrastructure expanded with it. Content enough until that point to live in the tombs, which were prized for their cool temperatures during the tortuous summers, some villagers began to mimic the foreign archaeologists, a number of whom had built houses on the edge of the Nile flood plain throughout the late 1800s. The Qurnawis’ houses, with their leaky plumbing and inadequate waste disposal, were later blamed for flooding myriad tombs, soaking – and often destroying – finely painted murals. And their numbers ballooned as other locals looked to share in the spoils. “There is scarcely an entire mummy to be obtained for love or money at Thebes,” wrote Isabella Romer, a visiting British tourist in 1846. It was all a straightforward matter of supply and demand, villagers say. “The foreigners wanted as many antiquities as they could find, and so people started to live in the mountain to work for them,” says Ahmed Abdul Rasool, a hotel manager and great grandson of the famed grave robber. “That’s how it was.”

Ultimately, however, none of these mitigating circumstances mattered. Egyptian authorities wanted Qurna gone, and from the late 1940s onwards, they worked hard to make it a reality. Moved to action by another attention-grabbing theft in the village (this time the perpetrators cut and removed a large rock carving from one of the tombs), antiquities officials hired Hassan Fathy, a celebrated and well-connected young architect, to build a replacement village. His creation, a bold mudbrick cluster of houses, the remains of which still stand on the approach to the Colossi of Memnon, was attractive but in the end too impractical to entice many Qurnawis from their homes. Among his many missteps, he built Nubian-style domes into his new houses, a feature that natives used only in their mausoleums. “They associated his village with death,” Caroline Simpson says.

And then, from the mid-1990s, officials tried again, this time with the full machinery of the state at their disposal. Working off a plan designed to sanitize Luxor and thereby maximize its tourist potential, they gave some Qurnawis nice alternative houses with large patches of land, a kind of divide and conquer strategy. “They knew how to keep us apart,” Daramali says. “You cannot fight when you are weak.” Soon afterwards, the government cut electricity to the village, trying to force out those who remained. Businesses were shuttered; resident government employees had their salaries frozen. Finally, between 2006 and 2009, the governor ordered in the bulldozers and razed scores of houses to the ground, including a number that had been tagged as heritage sites in their own right.

Ahmed Abdel Rasool a descendant of the famous tomb raider
Ahmed Abdel Rasool is a descendant of a famous tomb raider. Roger Anis

For the first time since priests and craftsmen set up shop among the tombs in the pharaonic era, the ‘mountain’ was barren and almost devoid of life. “The place reminds me now of a golf course before they lay out the sod,” says Kent Weeks, a veteran American archaeologist who heads the Theban Mapping Project and has been working in the region for more than 50 years. Nowadays, only Qurnat Marei, supposedly preserved as a film set, and a few tenacious hangers-on, like Om Ahmed, remain. Where once thousands of residents bustled back and forth, now only bored-looking policemen roam.

“I’d say that two years of ministry bulldozing of the site likely inflicted as much damage as a century of Qurnawi living,” one senior archaeologist said on the condition of anonymity for fear of antagonizing the ministry. If they were keen to prevent further tomb raiding, that ship had sailed. Though a few locals periodically offer tourists – and reporters – scarabs for sale, there’s been no evidence of widespread looting around Qurna for years.

Most unhappy of all, of course, are the Qurnawis, who are now scattered among at least five or six other villages, some miles apart. Their close-knit community has been shattered, their traditions in disarray. “I used to see my mother every day, but now maybe every week,” Daramali says. “They split us up, which is the worst thing they could have done.” As the bedrock of archaeological labor on the West Bank, with at least 1000 men excavating the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III and several other sites, they’re further from their workplaces. Despite Zahi Hawass’ insistence that the new villages are “big and beautiful,” many complain that their new quarters are cramped and stiflingly hot in the summer. Almost everyone, it seems, is poorer and worse off for the experience.

“Without the houses and the people, the mountain looks sad,” Ahmed Abdel Rasool says. “It looks like a dead place. It’s a shame.”

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