How do you go about updating a city that’s over 5,000 years old and is estimated to contain one-third of the entire world’s ancient monuments within its walls? That’s the question currently vexing the administrators of Luxor, in Upper Egypt, and their proposed solution – effectively to turn the town into one big open-air museum – is causing bedlam.
The redevelopment, which began in 2004 under governor Samir Farag, an energetic former military man, has so far involved the resettlement of an entire community whose families had lived among the tombs for generations, the snap demolition of “unsightly” downtown slum areas (including a series of beautiful Belle Epoque buildings from the 19th century), and a police-enforced effort to minimise contact between international holidaymakers and local Egyptians at key sites.
The only snag was that as well as showcasing the remnants of ancient Thebes (as the city was known during the dynastic period), present-day Luxor is also a modern urban hub of 400,000 people – many of whom do not fancy being shunted aside for mummies and mausoleums.
Tourism is one of the bedrocks of Egypt’s flagging economy, and with the government needing to generate at least 600,000 jobs annually to keep pace with the growing number of new entrants into the labour market the redevelopment of Luxor – which lies 400 miles south of Cairo – was identified as a top priority.
As well as the incomparable Luxor and Karnak temple complexes in the city centre, Luxor has the legendary Valleys of the Queens and Kings (home to the tomb of Tutankhamen) just across the Nile, attractions which already pull in 2.5 million visitors a year.
But despite the potential for job creation, local residents, business owners, archaeological experts are increasingly up in arms.
Matters have come to a head over the excavation of a two mile “Avenue of the Sphinxes” in central Luxor, which dates back three millennia and is due to partially reopen next month. Sceptics have highlighted it as an example of the government’s alleged disregard to the local community and argue that this brand of redevelopment is unsustainable; uncovering the avenue has led to the displacement of 800 families and large swathes of formerly public land have been flogged off to high-end developers, destroying the livelihoods of many poorer shopkeepers and guides who relied on the tourist trade for their income.
“The whole thing is a disgrace,” thundered one American archaeologist recently. “They’re murdering the soul of the place.” Even UNESCO recently slammed the Egyptian authorities for bulldozing potentially momentous historical sites as part of its grand blueprint for the city.
The debate over Luxor’s future taps into a wider question surrounding the global tourist experience: how do governments balance the demands of international visitors with the duty of care they owe to their own citizens, and when do attempts to curate the movements of the former lead to an unwarranted attack on the latter? Handled in the right way, Luxor’s fabulous Pharaonic riches should be a boon to both locals and the state, providing much-needed employment for residents and filling the government’s coffers. But Egypt’s increasingly unpopular ruling clique has never been particularly responsive to the needs of its most vulnerable communities, and the quick-fix development strategy it is pursuing in Luxor is in danger of degenerating into a messy mistake that provides tourists with nothing more than an artificially-sanitised Pharaonic Disneyland and leaves the city’s contemporary residents out in the cold.
Mr Farag, who is fond of characterising himself as an unstoppable single-track train, has so far proved impervious to such criticisms. “No one can scare me,” he declared last week in a fit of pique worthy of the Boy King himself. “No one is more important than the government and I will not be threatened by the media or the press.”