The Qurna Eviction: Separating the Living from the Dead in Egypt
Built atop the 3,000-year-old Tombs of the Nobles, Qurna, a village located on the West Bank of the Nile, is one of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt, but it is also one of the most controversial. For nearly a century, the Egyptian government had wanted the citizens of Qurna out. Not only were they living on top of and within ancient tombs, they were also secretly looting priceless treasures, and making it impossible for excavations to take place. In 2006, the villagers were given their marching orders.
Qurna, in 1989. Source: Bernard Gagnon/ CC BY SA 3.0
Overview of the Qurna Eviction
The significant problem posed by Qurna, in which a settlement had been built on top of an extremely important archaeological site, was first realized in the early 1900s. It is known from travelers’ accounts that the village of Qurna (aka. Kurna, Gourna) was already in existence since at least the 1800s. However, by the early-20 th century, it became apparent that not only were people living on top of pharaonic tombs, and in some cases inside them, but some villagers were looting tombs, which they could access beneath their homes, and selling off important artifacts. As soon as the Egyptian government became aware of what was taking the place, the started a plan to evict the villagers from their settlement.
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Foundation tablet bearing the cartouche of the birth name and epithet "Amenhotep, the God, the Ruler of Thebes". 18th Dynasty. From Temple of Amenhotep II at Kurna (Qurnah, Qurna, Gourna, Gurna), Egypt. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London. With thanks to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
The Egyptian government had planned to relocate the villagers of Qurna to a new settlement known as New Qurna. The man responsible for designing and building New Qurna was a famous Egyptian architect by the name of Hassan Fathy. The work began in 1946, and was completed six years later. Fathy’s philosophy behind this new village was as follows: “with the aid of local materials and techniques, sustainable human development and social cohesion can be met with vernacular architecture”.
New Qurna, near Luxor, in Egypt. (Egraf/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
A Question of Excavations
Proponents of the relocation provide several reasons as to why this was necessary. One of these, for example, is that the mud-brick houses of the villagers are an obstacle to the archaeological work that could potentially be carried out there. As an example, there are about 100 tombs, collectively known as the ‘Tombs of the Nobles’, which are sunk deep into the hillside located in this area of the Nile. Due to the houses of the villagers, however, it was not possible for archaeologists to excavate them.
Aerial view of the Tombs of the Nobles. The buildings belong to Sheikh Abd el-Qurna. Lower left corner: Ramesseum. (Raimond Spekking/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, European Egyptologists were excavating in that area, as it was already known to be full of tombs belonging to ancient Egyptian nobles. These Egyptologists needed workmen for their excavations, which naturally attracted locals to settle in the area. Some of the discoveries made thanks to the labor of these workmen include the tombs of Nakht (a scribe of the granaries during the reign of Thutmose IV), Rekhmire (a vizier serving under Thutmose III, and Amenhotep II), and Menna (a scribe in the service of Thutmose IV). The unearthing of these tombs also resulted in the arrival of tourists to the site. As a consequence of this, the villagers of Qurna were presented with another source of income.
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Ancient Egyptian women and men wearing kohl, from the tomb of Nakht in Thebes. ( Public Domain )
Fighting to Stay in Qurna
Apart from serving as tour guides, the people of Qurna also began to make fake artifacts / forgeries to sell to tourists seeking to take home pieces of ancient Egypt with them as souvenirs. These objects bear such a strong resemblance to the real thing that it is often difficult to distinguish the real from the fake. The villagers of Qurna have also often been accused of looting the tombs in order to sell the artifacts on the black market. This unsavory reputation was first given to the villagers by European tourists during the 18th century (for the sole reason that they looked poor and forbidding), and has survived to this day. Thus, another argument in favor of relocating the villagers of Qurna is that it would help protect the tombs from further looting.