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February 23, 2015

From Luxor with love

The Canadian Charger

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Luxor, in southern Egypt, is well-known for being home of the most famous UNESCO world heritage sites in Egypt, including the Valley of the Kings, Tutankhamon's tomb, Valley of the Queens, the Temple of Hatshepsut and many others.

The population of Luxor the city is some 200,000, makes it a mid-sized city by Egyptian standards.

One highlight of growing up in Egypt as a student is to visit the city on a school trip or later in life while attending university.

However, less well-known is the relationship of the local population to those who have been drawn to Luxor by their interest in its heritage sites.

In a chapter of the book Upper Egypt: Identity and Change, written by 14 anthropologists, historians and others, Dr. Sandrine Gamblin provides  insight to the many who heretofore only knew the famous city of Luxor by what they'd heard or seen of its heritage sites.

In a chapter entitled Luxor: A Tale of Two Cities, Gamblin begins by giving the reader a view of the city as seen by the newly arrived.

“At first Luxor appears to be divided in two: one is the town with the archeological  treasures which predominates and is entirely dedicated to tourists and foreign scholars.  On the other hand the “native town” is built at the heart of the historical sites and has been involved in their exploitation over several centuries.”

From this, it's not surprising that the population also seems to have developed from two distinct worlds: first is the tourism, then local administrations, neighborhood services and agriculture.

Visitors can easily identify the paths most traveled by tourists and Egyptologists since 19th century, but not the less traveled paths of the native towns. Gamblin said that where the two come together there are two problems: the construction of boundaries and the figure of the other.

While international hotels have been in abundance along the river bank in the tourist section of the city since the end 19th century, cruise boats are now lined up along the river, blocking the view mountains of Thebes.

The infrastructure has been continuously upgraded over the last 15 years to accommodate tourist hotels, bazaars, and restaurants, while the fleet of cruise ships has doubled in the last ten years, as Luxor is the point of departure for Nile cruises.

Looking at Luxor today, which includes five villages - Karnak, Karnak- al-Gadid, Gurna, Manshiyya, and Awammiya – Gamblin transposes the image of Luxor as a village of 10,000 at the beginning of the 20th century, with the settlement housed in the very heart of the temple of Luxor. The temple of Luxor was buried, forming a raised area protected from the Nile floods

The village was unusual in those days – and to some degree still is  - in that it received the consular representatives of the great Western powers, some of whom were also wealthy and renowned antiquities dealers.

Gamblin creates an image of an early 20th century Luxor with tailors, milliners and merchants from all over the world and a cosmopolitan society including large landowners. In the Winter Palace, built in 1906, lavish feasts for high society of the Orient and the Occident took place.

In those days, Luxor was a village with urban characteristics, which owed its expansion and raison d'etre to Egyptology and international tourism. Today, Luxor continues to take in and integrate a variety of foreigners while expressing local identity which is peculiar to the south of Egypt: the S'aid, based on the particular history of the settlement of this region.

The Sa'idi regional context of distinct identity (the tribal heritage being one identity amongst others), tends to reinforce a feeling of dispossession, as the “other” is on stark display.

Mr. Gamblin said he's not talking about foreign tourists is this context, but fellow countrymen who work in the tourist industry or government or the military, police or administrative government services in other parts of Egypt, local representatives of the governorate, police and army.

“When the distinction of “us” and “them” is expressed as self-aggrandizement, rejection or stigmatization, this is no less valid for the relationship between the inhabitants and local authorities or the central authorities and the local inhabitants among themselves,” Mr. Gamblin said.

The history and demography of Luxor show to what extent it has been populated by people who have come from elsewhere, and for whom tourism and ancient ruins represent heavy stakes, the acquisition of power, economic competition, prestige and wealth.

Meanwhile, although The Said is often portrayed as a source of disruption and unpredictability in the broader Egyptian system, Mr. Gamblin describes the order in the meaning full life of Upper Egyptians. That order is based on a strong sense of regional identity, including also religious and family identity and, the political, religious and economic and family structures that provide the context for action of the people of this region. 

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M. Elmasry

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