Friday, January 09, 2009

Luxor - Out with the new and in with the old

The National News (Simon Mars)

Samir Farag wants to reclaim the glories of ancient Luxor, even if it means demolishing a village or two. Will the governor’s dreams of tourism dollars save the city or destroy it?

It’s the first week of December and a woman, her four-month old baby in her arms, is sitting outside her home in Gourna, a village high up in the hills of Luxor’s West Bank. She’s waiting for her final eviction notice. She expects it any day now. If all goes according to the official plan, she and the other remaining villagers will be gone in a few days, and their houses will be leveled. The woman’s child will almost surely be the last to have been born in Gourna, a village built on a network of ancient Egyptian tombs.

On another recent day in Luxor, I am sitting in a garden looking up at the New Winter Palace hotel – one of Luxor’s tallest and, it’s generally agreed, ugliest buildings. As the sun sets, I watch a lone labourer, perched on a narrow ledge on the hotel’s roof, chipping away at the building with a sledgehammer.

The garden where I’m sitting is attached to the Old Winter Palace hotel, a grandly appointed 19th-century structure built in the British colonial style. While the shabby modernist New Winter Palace is being demolished, the antique charms of its hundred-year-old sibling are being enhanced with a five-star upgrade.

Out with the new and in with the old: this is Luxor in a nutshell. With plans to turn the city into one of the world’s largest open air museums, the Egyptian government has busily set about demolishing eyesores such as the New Winter Palace and obstructions such as the hardscrabble village of Gourna. Meanwhile, they are preserving everything that is fine and ancient– all so that tourists can commingle with a carefully curated version of Luxor’s past.

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