Bulldozers overhaul Luxor, city of pashas and pharaohs

LUXOR, Egypt Thu Apr 1, 2010 5:21pm EDT

A tourist examines Queen Hatshepsut Temple in Luxor, southern Egypt, November 9, 2009. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

A tourist examines Queen Hatshepsut Temple in Luxor, southern Egypt, November 9, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

LUXOR, Egypt (Reuters) - In the dusty streets behind the pasha's grand villa, bulldozers and forklifts are tearing into the city where Agatha Christie found inspiration and Howard Carter unearthed Tutankhamun.

Egypt has already cleared out Luxor's old bazaar, demolished thousands of homes and dozens of Belle Epoque buildings in a push to transform the site of the ancient capital Thebes into a huge open-air museum.

Officials say the project will preserve temples and draw more tourists, but the work has outraged archaeologists and architects who say it has gutted Luxor's more recent heritage.

"They basically want to tear the whole thing down," said one foreigner who lives in Luxor part of the year, agreeing to speak only if his name was not used.

"They want it to be all asphalt and strip malls and shopping centres. That's their idea of modern and progressive."

He pointed to the destruction of the 19th-century house of French archaeologist Georges Legrain, demolished to make way for a plaza outside Karnak temple, and plans to knock down the 150-year-old Pasha Andraos villa on the Nile boardwalk.

While known mostly for temples and tombs, Luxor's Victorian-era buildings and dusty alleyways have drawn Egyptologists, statesmen and writers for decades.

Samir Farag, a former Egyptian general who now heads the billion-dollar plan to reinvent Luxor, dismisses the criticism. Improvements to the city had reduced traffic and brought top-notch education and healthcare.

"Just a few people, maybe I removed their houses or something like that, they want to criticize," Farag said this week in his wainscotted office of British military style.

"We just cleaned the houses, cleaned the streets. You'll never find a clean city like Luxor now in Egypt."

Farag said his work even won praise from Francesco Bandarin, head of the World Heritage Center at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

"His hometown is Venice. They have a very big area of slums," Farag said. "He told me, when he came here and saw what I did for the houses, the slum areas, he said, 'we should have one like you in Venice, too'."

MASTER PLAN

By 2030, the city and surrounding area will enjoy golf courses, five-star hotels, an IMAX theater and miles of new roads, while scores of lights will illuminate the mountains and valleys where Tutankhamun was buried, the project's master plan shows.

Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities is restoring the 2.7 km long avenue of sphinxes that linked Karnak and Luxor temples.

The buildings removed were not historically important, officials say, and uprooted homeowners received between 75,000 and 500,000 Egyptian pounds ($13,600-$90,810) or a free flat.

But archaeologists said heavy-handed work could be damaging antiquities and is plowing through dozens of classic buildings with lax oversight from the international organizations whose money is funneled into the project.

While many fume over the work in private, none agreed to attach their names to criticism, fearing they would be harassed, arrested, deported or see funding for their projects cut.

"Many buildings from many different periods have been erased, or will be, and I think that's entirely negative," said one architect with wide experience in Egypt heritage projects.

"At the end of the day, you're left with a kind of Disneyland piece of pseudo-pharaonic stuff, and the rest of it is swept away."

VIOLENT PROTESTS

The plan also calls for thousands of homes to be moved.

Residents of el-Maris, south of Luxor, have sued the state to reconsider a proposed marina they say would uproot at least 10,000 people and destroy valuable farmland.

Villagers there said they hoped the lawsuit and negotiations would persuade the government to move the port to an empty strip on the other bank, but they will fight if they do not.

Protests near Karnak temple in 2008 turned violent when citizens who said they were being forced to leave or unfairly compensated broke windows and threw rocks at police.

"They do what they want, we do what we want," Zain Sadi, 35, said outside his house in Maris. "We will beat and be beaten, we will kill and be killed. After we die they can take our homes."

In 2006 and 2007 Egypt demolished Gurna, near the Valley of the Kings, to access and preserve tombs buried beneath nearly 3,200 houses, and built a new village about 5 km away.

Three years later, residents of New Gurna say they cannot find work and have had problems getting water and electricity.

Those who are not happy with the changes are welcome to say so, Farag said, adding that he holds weekly meetings to hear complaints. But the end result may be the same.

When a group of four citizens came into his office this week and asked him to reconsider the widening of a downtown road, Farag said the work was for their benefit.

"We're talking about destruction for the public good," he said. "There are victims for every development."

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