Luxor 1997-8

Notes by Nigel Strudwick

Over the past few years I have written some short notes on what has been going on of interest in the Luxor area, primarily for archaeologists. Things this year have regrettably been somewhat unusual, so I divide this account into two parts. Those wanting to read about the archaeological and other news can skip the Deir el-Bahari stuff by clicking here.

1. The attack at Deir el-Bahari and its aftermath

Events in Luxor during the winter of 1997-8 have been dominated by the effects of all kinds resulting from the attack at the temple of Deir el-Bahari on the morning of Monday 17th November. As we were in the area when it happened, and observed and indeed took part in some of the consequences, it seems appropriate to record many of these consequences, since they have been important for Egypt and for everyone concerned.

We also have the impression in Luxor that the media attention in Europe was somewhat one-sided, particularly in newspapers. What follows are notes based on personal experience and some opinions of my own; on discussions, opinions, and impressions of the local population; and considerations of wider issues as represented in Egyptian media, particularly the English language Al Ahram Weekly. I have given references to supporting stories on the BBC web site; note that these URLs cannot surely remain there indefinitely.

I do not wish to dwell on the attack itself; I can add nothing to what has surely been presented, analysed, and thrashed out in the western media, although Helen wrote some important notes just after the event. We must never forget the fact of the loss of life, Egyptian as well as foreign, and particularly the brutal manner in which it was accomplished. But to concentrate on the sensational, the blood-letting, is to deal with just part of the story. A report in the early-mid December issue of Newsweek by W Raymond Johnson has at least begun to present a wider version of the story. I would like to follow a number of different threads and comments.

Our experience

The tomb in which we work in the hill of Sheikh abd el-Qurna is no more than a kilometre from the temple of Hatshepsut, but we heard none of the shooting concerned with the original incident. Our tomb faces away from Deir el-Bahari, and sounds do not travel far. I don't know what the official opinion on the time of the incident is, but certainly by 9:10 that morning, our workmen were craning their necks in the Deir el-Bahari direction, and there was some indication of a problem there. This shows how fast the grapevine operates in these villages. In our break of 9:30-10:00, word was coming back of 900 people being killed, which mercifully turned out to be false. We decided to continue working until more was known. At about 11:00 we heard a number of shots and some machine gun fire in the relative distance, to the south; at this, our workmen almost to a man dropped everything and rushed off. Several remained and helped us pack our equipment away; after a quick consultation with our nearby German colleagues, we returned to our accommodation, and reported back home that all was well with us. The timing of this shooting still baffles me, since we understand that the bus which the attackers hijacked was heading in the Medinet Habu/Valley of the Queens direction by 9:30 or so; was it the end of the shootout, or was is just nervous individuals firing off their guns?

The effect on the local population

The local population was totally stunned by the incident. [BBC report] It had always been assumed by everyone--archaeologists included--that Luxor was safe, and thus it struck home harder than other attacks, particularly once the scale became clear. Gone were the usual omnipresent smiles of the Qurna population, to be replaced by a bemused silence heavy with emotion. The cynical might say that this was due to the effect they knew it was going to have on their livelihoods, but I think that in the first days after the attack it was not that emotion which prevailed. Whatever one says about the way tourists sometimes are treated or taken advantage of for financial reasons, it is clear that one of the ground rules of Egyptian hospitality had been broken, that you do not harm your guests, and this was repeated to me over and over again in the days which followed. The puncturing of the belief of the relative invulnerability of Luxor also hit home.

In the days which followed, every time I travelled somewhere, everyone was saying 'these people weren't Egyptians' or 'we in Luxor aren't like that'. Everyone was trying to stress to foreigners how appalled they were, and even those who often adopt a more aggressive tone when trying to sell their wares (e.g. taxi drivers, boatmen, sellers) were subdued. Soon more concrete signs of grief and regret started to appear: in Luxor city, banners saying 'No to terrorism' popped up, and mass expression of these emotions became frequent. There were demonstrations in Luxor, and frequently at Deir el-Bahari--Johnson in his Newsweek article describes the arrival of a mass of demonstrators with banners and placards. These demonstrations often took the form of prayers at the temple; in the early days they were mainly the local populace, and later there were people coming down from Cairo to join in, including representatives of the Coptic Pope and the Sheikh of the Al-Ahzar mosque in Cairo. As an example, on my return to the UK I found an email announcement of a demonstration at Deir el-Bahari by Egyptian Tour guides for December 3.

An excellent BBC "From our own correspondent" article covers this subject.

Enhanced security

The initial shake-up of the security system following the attack was covered by foreign media. The day after the attack, President Hosni Mubarak visited the temple--when we arrived for work that day, there were soldiers all over the mountain, which we wondered were there for general security, but in fact indicated his visit! The President publicly berated the Interior Minister at Deir el-Bahari, and he soon resigned. His replacement initiated a shake-up of all the police in the area, and it is said that only about one officer retained his post. Some are apparently going to be tried for not ensuring better safety of foreigners. [BBC report]

A couple of days or so after the attack, more police became visible at key points--at the road to the Valley of the Kings, at the sites themselves, and outside most main hotels. This security presence continued to increase; there is now a small vehicle with armed police at each of these points, with at least a couple of men wearing body armour and helmets. In addition, truckloads of police periodically drive back and forth along the main roads. An unobtrusive development was the setting up of small camps of police in four places at least in the hills above the main tourist sites. Even small hotels now have their own policemen. There are not many tourist buses around now, but sometimes you see a bus accompanied by two pickup trucks of armed police, a police car and a police motorcycle. The most amusing to me was the sight, in Luxor, of a long column of horse-carriages accompanied by an armed police escort, travelling at the same speed as the horses.

Amusing as this was, it does beg the question of whether the security is getting too visible. A taxi driver said to me, 'either we do too little or too much', and Luxor city did seem sometimes overloaded with police before Christmas. I sincerely hope that the western media reported the fact that the Egyptian authorities have taken the matter very seriously, and are instituting measures to prevent any recurrence, but I do wonder what an optional tourist would make of the place. Would he find the security oppressive? Would he want armed soldiers around him on his holiday? The security does indeed make the chance of another attack much less likely, but does it give the misleading impression that Luxor is a war zone and otherwise unsafe? Those of us who know Egypt see this as the expected reaction of course. We shall have to see. I do get the impression that the police presence has reduced to a less visible level since Christmas.

Tourism

For a couple of days after the incident, there were still lots of tourists around, but then the numbers dropped like a stone. I would be surprised if Egypt does not now hold the dubious distinction of the world record for the fastest collapse of a tourist industry. Visiting Luxor city in the evening before Christmas, the tourist parts of the city were eerie and empty. One often found oneself alone in a restaurant.

It sounds as if the effect has spread well beyond Thebes, since the tourist trade has dropped off in both Cairo and Aswan. Early December was always one of the quietest times of the year in Egypt, with the pre-Christmas lull, but I have never seen things like this before. The nearest I recall was before the Gulf War at the end of 1990. As tourism is Egypt's number one foreign currency earner, and in a place like Luxor a formidable percentage of the population has some connection with the tourist industry, the effect is going to be considerable. It all depends on how quickly things pick up again; my guess is that the impression given of the attack in the media is not going to help, and it is going to take much longer than after previous events. Things improved around Christmas time, but whether the numbers will keep up in view of the lack of mass tourism remains to be seen; I definitely detected a drop-off by mid-January.

This was the way the tourist collapse happened. It seems that initially, many tour companies pulled their tourists out of Egypt in three/four days after the incident, and did not let them finish their holiday, even many of those who had no wish to return home. Since we were keeping an eye on the advice of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office as to what we should do, we ascertained that the advice being offered was that tourists were being advised to keep away from Luxor for the time being, but that those who did go should exercise discretion. We were explicitly told that they were not advising those in Luxor to leave, and that archaeologists are not subject to the advice for tourists (I presume we count in the same category as business travellers). This advice apparently was broadly the same as that being offered to nationals of other countries. However, Helen and I distinctly overheard at least one travel agent saying that the foreign embassies were telling their tourists to leave. Some travel companies who were pulling their people out were said to be forcing waivers of responsibility on those travellers who insisted on staying and completing their holidays. Much of this is to do with fears about insurance claims and compensation I suppose, but I find all this a little dishonest. The next stage was the cancellation of a lot of package holidays in Egypt, and the withdrawal of charter flights.

I can, of course, understand people not wanting to come for holidays to a site recently affected by an incident like this, but I can't help thinking how the countries which have participated in this collapse are being a little hypocritical, regardless of Embassy advice. It is however true that tourists were being targeted in a way not seen in most other countries.

A number of European countries, including my own, have ongoing domestic terrorist problems; how often do we hear pious words about 'not giving in to terrorism' etc? [I think particularly of events in the UK and Northern Ireland in early 1998.] But that exactly is what has happened to Egypt--the countries which provide the tourists have given the terrorists exactly what they were seeking in this attack, namely a serious blow to the economy of Egypt. I am sure there are a number of people who wanted to come to Egypt who have been prevented by tour companies from doing so. I heard that the Egyptian media reported critical comments by President Mubarak about the behaviour of tour companies, singling out Thomson for particular criticism. Similar comments were made by various ministers; I have a lot of sympathy for this point of view.

Since 10 December 1997, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has dropped its recommendation that tourists should not visit Luxor, so the tour companies should not point to this as a reason for not restarting their tours.

Expiation

Anyway, back to the events. Following this attack, the Egyptian government has taken a more serious approach than in previous cases. The tendency before has been to sweep things under the carpet and pretend that everything is OK, but this time this has not happened, and a failure of security has been acknowledged, and public apologies made. On 10 December, a very public event was staged at Deir el-Bahari called 'A message from Thebes to the world', intended to be both a memorial for those who died, and an expression of hope for the future.

We attended this event, along with a handful of other foreigners; most of those there were Egyptians, from many places other than just Luxor. The President attended, along with a number of ministers and foreign ambassadors. The programme consisted of local drumming for mourning, a playing of the Last Post, followed by the reading of a wonderful message specially written for the occasion by Naguib Mahfouz. This was also read in French and English by Omar Sharif. Music followed, consisting of some extracts from Verdi's Requiem, and a number of pieces of classical Arabic vocal music, which combined mourning with nationalism and hope. Nationalism was certainly an element--I was astonished at the excitement and passion which greeted the President's arrival--but we also have to remember the effect this attack has had on the national consciousness, as I tried to indicate earlier. It ended with flower-laying and candle-lighting at a temporary memorial to the victims. Apparently some more permanent memorial is planned.

The event was broadcast on Egyptian television, and was presumably made available to foreign media, but as yet we do not know how widely it was reported. It certainly does not seem to have made it onto the BBC World Service in any more than a passing reference; as it is unlikely to be broadcast in full abroad, selective clips can make or break the impression. There is no doubt that it was partly intended as an act of national expiation, and partly as a PR event. The concept of this type of formal memorial event is generally alien to Islam, and hence the mixture of items, the effect of which is as yet unclear. It was very Cairo-orientated--I suppose it could be argued that the locals had already done their own more personal things. For me it was a chance to think about what happened there--I still find it hard to believe that it took place somewhere I have known for years, and particularly almost under my very nose as it were.

The attackers and the future

Will the government do more to deal with the sources of the problems? There is no doubt that the group blamed for the attack, Gamaa al-Islamiyya, wants a fully Islamic state, but there is also no doubt that that is not what the majority of Egyptians want. However, more voices are now being raised in the Egyptian media and in Parliament that more should be done to deal with the root causes which seem to drive certain youngsters into the arms of the militant organisations--such as the failure to talk to the moderate Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, or the economic problems which can turn people to terrorism, or even the underlying fear/hatred of the police in Egypt which must surely be responsible for some of the less publicised attacks.

It was interesting that of the attackers, only one of them had any sort of security record before; three others were students in the Assiut area, who came from villages in the Quft area, 30 km north of Luxor, and another was at an islamic secondary school at Tahta and came from near Sohag; the fifth was from near Assiut. The sixth individual (the first to be identified, however) came from the village of Badari, and had not been seen by any of his family since 1993, since which time he had been sought by the police. [BBC report] It is still unclear from contradictory statements received by the media as to whether the attack was centrally sanctioned or whether the assailants acted alone. [BBC report 1; BBC report 2] One interesting theory is that an attack was planned by the leadership to be made on the Aida opera which did not come about, and that the assailants then cooked up their own later version of an attack at the same site.

One interesting consequence of the attack was the comments aimed by President Mubarak at countries which are supposed to be harbouring terrorist leaders or those who finance the terrorist operations, Britain among them. [BBC report on UK response] I do not yet know the British angle on this, but a number of Egyptians interpreted the reports in the Egyptian media to say that Britain was financing these terrorists. Presumably this refers to some sort of welfare or other benefit which they are receiving here. Helen was astonished to hear on the radio reports from a London mosque where the Sheikh and some of the worshippers were being openly supportive of the attack. It is the perennially difficult problem in a 'democratic' society, of balancing freedom of speech and the rights of people who may be here under asylum rules with the valid concerns of other countries.

Behind the rhetoric, there is clearly an issue here, and it will be interesting to see how this one develops, particularly since Algeria is also making similar noises about terrorist networks in Europe. Some Egyptians were also pointing the finger at Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, in prison in New York for association with the World Trade Centre bombing, that he was encouraging these actions.

2. Archaeological and other matters

The SCA continues to be active in restoration work in various monuments. The sun court of Amenhotep III has been reassembled in Luxor temple. On the West Bank, work is still ongoing to open up two ramesside tombs in Dra abu el-Naga to the public, those of Shuroy (TT13) and Roy (TT255). A prominent access path has been built up to these, but no date for the opening is yet available, not helped by the lack of tourists. The Mummification Museum has opened in the Visitor Centre on the East Bank, just in front of the Mena Palace hotel, not far from Luxor temple. It is excellently laid out, with a lot of interesting pieces, and is very worth a visit. On the West Bank, work has been going on to restore the Carter House to its original state as a museum about Howard Carter and the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

The following foreign missions are known to have been active up to late January 1998:

Mission
Location, particular achievements

University of Milano

TT37, excavation, study

German Archaeological Institute:

 

a. Dra abu el-Naga: excavation, study
b. TT84: recording and study
c. the temple of Sety I: reconstruction work

CNRS French Mission

a. the Ramesseum: reconstruction, architectural study
b. the tomb of Ramesses II: securing the structure, excavation

Chicago House

a. the small temple of Medinet Habu: documentation, repairs to the stonework of the roof
b. Luxor temple: consolidation of loose sandstone blocks

University of Cambridge

TT99: see TT99 web site (shortly to be updated)

Wasada University

Tomb of Amenhotep III, study and documentation

Edwin and Lyla Brock

Tomb of Merenptah, study of finds

Berkeley Theban Mapping Project

VK 5: see www.kv5.com

Centre Franco-Egyptien, Karnak

Study and restoration, notably commencing the restoration of the Chapelle Rouge in the Open Air Museum

Polish mission, Deir el-Bahari

Restoration and conservation, includes work on the cleaning/restoration of the Punt reliefs, due to lack of tourists

No major discoveries have so far come to my attention. None of these missions pulled out as a result of the attack, although several (including ourselves) experienced problems due to changes in airline schedules and the reluctance of some team members to come along.

Aida

A performance of the opera Aida took place in October, and is said to have been a great success, both artistically and in terms of audience. The Aida web site has no reports on it that I can see, however.

House removal

The programme of removal of occupants from the houses among the tombs has stopped for the moment, as the village built subsequent to the floods in 1994 and used for these people is now apparently full. This village is 2-3 km to the north of the road to the Valley of the Kings, and not the one visible from the north end of the archaeological site, consisting of new single storey houses. These apparently have a floor area of approximately 160 m2, as against the 100 m2 of the other village, in which some at least of the houses have two storeys. The first occupants of these houses moved in around mid-January 1998, before all the services had been connected.

It seems to be that relatively few houses have been pulled down since last year; a house by the entrance to the tomb of Rekhmire has been destroyed, which now means that our tomb (TT99) is visible from the road for the first time for many years! [click here to see a low-resolution Quicktime VR movie in front of the tomb of Rekhmire]. Another house near TT46 (Ramose) has also been destroyed, as has one adjacent to the tourist tombs of Benia and Khonsu. It would appear that extensions to the newer of the two villages are planned, and that mud from a dredging project currently underway in the Nile is being used for foundations or building material for new houses. We shall see...

Riots

The season started with violence, and ended with it. Exactly two months to the day after the Deir el-Bahari attack, there were riots on the West Bank in the area of et-Tarif. The precise cause is not clear, but it seems that the police moved in to destroy some illegally-built houses in an area near the two new villages on the morning of 17 January. They were apparently greeted with volleys of stones, and withdrew down the road towards the Carter House. At this point of the story things get particularly unclear, but there was shooting at some point. This rapidly developed into an anti-police riot down the main road towards the hospital at Tarif, and a number of police vehicles and a bulldozer were set on fire. We heard shooting while at the tomb, and on our return to our hotel about 14:30, we found the road partially blocked and stones everywhere, and that the hotel was almost in the centre of the riot, and we watched riot police with tear gas trying to get a large group of men back off the road and into the village and cemetery. There was a lot of stone throwing, to which the police responded with gas. Around 16:00 things started to settle down, and people gradually dispersed, probably not unrelated to breaking the Ramadan fast at sundown. The riot police stayed in place around the hotel until about 20:00, although it appears they were at the end of the road later that evening. The following morning they had gone, as had the police in the area who were supposed to supply security for tourists; the latter were clearly removed to prevent further antagonism.

It was an unpleasant incident, in the course of which 4 locals and one policemen were killed, and at least 10 further people were put in hospital. While clashes between police and people do happen occasionally, they do not usually take this form--the term 'misunderstanding' was used more than once. The Egyptian media have carried a number of critical comments about the police as a result. It has certainly done nothing for the local confidence in the police, which had perhaps improved with all the personnel changes after the Deir el-Bahari attack.

It must be stressed that this had nothing to do with tourists, and I would ask that it not be presented as a reason for not going to Luxor. Luxor at present is as safe as, if not safer than, any tourist destination. The story did not really make the western media, although it has been spotted on CNN and in the Independent in the UK.

[Go to news] [Go to Egyptology Resources home]

© Nigel Strudwick 1998

Unless otherwise indicated, © Nigel Strudwick 1994-2012