Egypt's Plans for Luxor: Vegas on the Nile?

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Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

A local Egyptian man guards the site of Pharaoh Ramses II Temple at Luxor.

Luxor has long been Egypt's prize possession. It was here that the ancient Egyptians at one time built their capital of Thebes; where Pharoahs dedicated massive temples to their gods; and where Howard Carter unearthed the world-famous boy King, Tutankhamen, in his tomb full of riches in 1922. "It has been one of the biggest and most famous tourist attractions for at least 200 years."says Francesco Bandarin, the head of the World Heritage Center at UNESCO. Adds Mansour Boraik, who oversees Upper Egypt for for the country's Supreme Council of Antiquities, "30% of world monuments lie in Luxor, and 70% of the monuments in Egypt are in Luxor."

In an effort to preserve the riches — and beef up the number of tourists they attract — local authorities have been pressing an ambitious project to reinvent and revive Luxor; rehabilitating tombs, and expanding the city's tourist infrastructure at a dizzying pace to the tune of hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars. Egyptian authorities are in the process of excavating an ancient "Avenue of the Sphinxes," a 2.7 kilometer pathway once lined with the human-headed lion statues from the pharaonic past; after it has been resurrected, the avenue will link the Luxor Temple on one end to the colossal Karnak temple on the other. The plan is to turn the city into an open air museum by the year 2030. "Luxor needs a pioneer project like this to preserve it for the new generation," says Boraik of the ongoing work.

However, all this construction may be at the expense of the current generation of Egyptians living in Luxor. On the project's agenda is the creation of protective "buffer zones" between local communities and the ancient relics. That is, as some critics suggest, keeping the natives away from the treasures. To turn Luxor into a modern city of five-star hotels and wide pedestrian avenues, the authorities want to push back the crowded slums and mismatched buildings that arose in recent decades. The American consulting firm Abt Associates, which came up with the master plan, describes the eventual results as "reclaimed lands." Luxor residents say it is more likely to be the fruit of forced evictions.

"They're sending us to the desert," says Leila Mohammed Ahmed el-Tayyib, whose house is one of hundreds being demolished to widen the street that will run alongside the Avenue of the Sphinxes. "We want TV cameras to come and film this. It's like Palestine here," she says, gesturing to the bulldozers. Many of Luxor's residents have watched the transformation with disgust. "Ninety percent of the people here are angry, but there is nothing they can do," says Abu Quzaifa, a shopkeeper. Much of the anger lately has swirled around the Avenue of the Sphinxes, where the mass displacement is currently focused. One British archaeologist, who has worked in Luxor for more than a decade, says Luxor's governor Samir Farag wants to move the city back to the pharaonic period. "Nothing else can exist."

The government says each family they move is compensated with either 75,000 Egyptian Pounds (about $13,000) or a brand new apartment. But residents say they're often given far less — or nothing at all. "Half of the house is gone," says Fatima Abbas, 50, who lives in a partially collapsed shack on the edge of the construction zone. "We were sleeping when they did this and we woke up when it collapsed on part of our house. Our cow died. The refrigerator and furniture were destroyed," she says. "They offered us 15,000 LE to leave. Where? We don't know."

A polished socialite with gray-blue eyes and a politician's smile, Samir Farag is not shy to acknowledge his opposition. "It was very difficult to convince the people that this is a master plan is for the sake of them," says the former chairman of the Cairo Opera House. "Everybody thinks about himself, what the benefit is for himself." Indeed, Farag is the man who resurrected the development plans, which Abt Associates had first presented in 1999 only to see the project languish for six years.

In the five years since Farag took office, the rapid pace of change has shaken this city to the core. Authorities have widened streets, and cleared out the old souk, adding a new design, public toilets and new cafes. The government knocked down homes and paved a huge piazza in front of Karnak Temple, pushing back the locals it claimed were encroaching. The Abt report calls for 6,600 new hotel rooms, and officials say that 18 new hotels are already under construction, including the sprawling 34,000-square-meter Luxor Four Seasons, on the bank of the Nile. The McDonalds has a spectacular view of the 3,300-year-old Luxor Temple, and the colonial-era Winter Palace Hotel nearby is getting a heavy-duty facelift that will expand the hotel right up to the lip of the temple.

To some, Farag is a visionary who has done great things for a developing world town with a lion's share of archaeological riches. "Luxor, in my view, is very well managed," says Bandarin, the UNESCO World Heritage head. "This is a place where 10 years ago, the situation was very bad, physically. Now everything is full of flowers." To others, however, the new Luxor seems more Vegas than Egypt. The original plan, says the British archaeologist, "was dismissed by the international community at the time as a pile of rubbish. Basically what they were doing was the investment side of it: how money could be made from Luxor."

Worse, some critics complain that the dream of a recreated pharaonic Luxor actually is potentially destructive to the antiquities still beneath the surface. Many scholars are angry about the bulldozers and backhoes at work at construction sites — violations of modern archaeological standards — and by what they view as complete disregard to any cultural heritage that isn't from the age of the pharaohs. In 2007, the village of Gurna on the west bank of the Nile was demolished and its residents relocated, due to what authorities said was a damaging proximity to ancient tombs. In the process, Egyptian authorities hastily destroyed a unique village culture that had existed in the hills around the tombs for more than a century, says one Egyptologist. Now located further from the tourist zone, residents of the New Gurna complain of cramped housing and few job opportunities.

And then there is the question of the spectacular Avenue of the Sphinxes. Some experts say that many of the sphinxes were destroyed over the millennia, hacked to pieces or harvested for stone by the civilizations that followed the Pharaohs. "[Egyptian authorities] were told that by every archaeologist and Egyptologist: that if they found anything, it was going to be fragmentary," says the British archaeologist. The plan moved forward anyway." Says one Egyptologist: "There's nothing there."

Some locals question whether the enterprise makes economic sense. How can Egyptians benefit from all these projects, residents ask, when package tourists stay increasingly cloistered in their boats and hotels, and locals eager to make a living are being quite literally pushed out of town. "When you fly in now, there's this huge grid next to the airport of streets and electricity and lights but no houses," says the British archaeologist. "And that's where they want Luxor people to go. To live in this shithole in the desert, in the undying heat."

Meanwhile, on the west bank of the Nile, where the prized Valley of the Kings sits, thick bushes of pink flowers along the roadways cannot completely obscure the mud-brick poverty and trash-filled irrigation canals of the villagers who say they have been cut out of the governor's plan for prosperity. "Samir Farag says, 'Oh, the streets are wider now, it's better,'" scoffs one shopkeeper, who declined to be named for fear of the authorities. "All these are lies. Tourism is going down and the hotels are empty."

In the end, many with a stake in Egypt's most celebrated city are wondering what the new version of Luxor is going to look like. Some see a major success; some predict Disneyland; others see a sick joke. Says the Egyptologist: "I think it will be very shiny."