Families Uprooted as Alley of Sphinxes Revived
Hajj Khodari lifts a defiant fist at the demolition machinery now just meters away from his front door.
"I will not be forced out of my home without fair compensation," the village elder vows as a hydraulic hammer reduces his neighbor’s brick home to rubble. "If they try to destroy my house I will lock myself inside it."
Khodari is the patriarch of an extended family of 14 who live in the two-storey house, its exterior walls adorned with paintings of his pilgrimage to Mecca four years ago. He has defied a municipal eviction order and demands "equitable compensation" before vacating the home he claims is built on land his family has occupied for over 200 years.
"For the past month the government has cut off our water and electricity during the day to pressure us to leave," he says. "Then they came a week ago and told us we must go. Go where? Into the streets, the desert… to Israel?"
Hundreds of low-income families have lost their homes since Luxor city officials approved a controversial plan to excavate an ancient processional route and develop it as a key tourist attraction. Buried for centuries under soil and houses, the 2.7-kilometer ‘Avenue of Sphinxes’ once connected the temples of Luxor and Karnak in what was then the ancient city of Thebes.
The processional route, first used during the reign of Amenhotep III (1386-1349 BC), took its final form under the 30th Dynasty king Nectanebo I (380-362 BC). Over 1,300 stone sphinxes line the paved avenue, which fell out of use in the 5th century AD after a flood covered it in a thick layer of silt.
"It was always our dream to uncover this sacred route between Luxor and Karnak temples," says Mansour Boraik, SCA’s director of Luxor antiquities. "It is the longest and biggest religious route ever built in the ancient world. There is no parallel to it anywhere on earth."
The SCA is supervising the demolition of buildings that lay above or adjacent to the ancient route, and has cut a 100-meter-wide trench through densely populated neighborhoods and cultivated fields along its length. Two of four sections are expected to open to the public early next month.
Few doubted that archaeological treasures would be found in the process. Excavators have already uncovered ancient chapels, a Roman wine factory, and 620 sphinx statues, some in remarkably good condition. But critics say the supercharged tourism project has resulted in sloppy archaeology and unacceptable social costs.
"You don’t do archaeology with a bulldozer," said one foreign archaeologist, who preferred to remain anonymous. "It can take years to excavate and record a site. Work on the sphinx avenue is being rushed to get it ready for tourism, and several historical buildings have been deliberately destroyed."
Residents charge that the government is using archaeology as a pretext to raze low-income neighborhoods it perceives as eyesores. Over 800 families have been forcibly relocated since the project began three years ago.
"So far we have removed about 95 percent of the houses on the sphinx avenue," says Luxor governor Samir Farrag. "We give them a choice of compensation: a new flat or LE 75,000 (13,500 US dollars). The new flats [are located] just 200 meters from the old ones. If they choose the money, we give them a check and they go to the bank to receive the money."
Evicted families that IPS spoke to, however, claimed this was not the package they were offered. Some said they received as little as LE 30,000 (5,500 dollars) for their homes. Others complained that the new flats, when provided, were unfinished or in remote desert areas.
One local resident, who gave his name only as Ramadan, said he was offered a new flat in the desert beyond the city’s airport, but it was "very small and very far away." Instead, he accepted LE 40,000 (7,200 dollars) per floor for his three-storey house and moved into a rented flat on the city’s outskirts. It would cost about LE 750,000 (136,000 dollars) to purchase a new house like the old one, he estimates.
"We are eight men with our wives and children living under one roof," he explains. "The settlement money will run out in a few months, and we don’t know where we will go then."
The home demolitions are part of a government-backed master plan that ostensibly aims to protect Luxor’s ancient heritage and increase its tourism revenue. The plan calls for removing encroachments on the city’s archaeological sites and relocating residents to new planned communities. It outlines extensive infrastructure improvements and new tourist facilities with the goal of creating the world’s largest open-air museum by 2030.
But the plan has drawn fire for its aggressive gentrification. One commentator noted that "rather than encouraging the mingling of tourists with the local population, which enriches the visitors’ experience and generates valuable income for the locals, the [Egyptian government’s] policy promotes segregation of the two groups."
Meanwhile, implementation of the sphinx avenue component has caused friction between the Egyptian government and UNESCO, which monitors the bookended World Heritage sites of Luxor and Karnak temples. A joint World Heritage Center/ICOMOS mission in April 2008 reported that several historical buildings were demolished, while SCA excavations appeared both hurried and clumsy.
"It is inconceivable that such an enormous expanse of the avenue was thoroughly excavated and recorded in such a short period of time. Heavy machinery was obviously used, as betrayed by the leveling of the soil and the marks on some of the stone blocks," the mission report stated.
There is also concern that the master plan will result in the ‘Disneyfication’ of the ancient Egyptian city. Tourism developers are mulling plans for pharaonic-themed tourist villages and the reenactment of ancient processions along the sphinx avenue. Officials even flirted with the idea of a monorail to ferry around tourists.
Instead, tour buses will proceed in caravans along two lanes that run parallel to the restored avenue. Tourists will be allowed to disembark and descend several meters to the open-air exhibit.
"We will open some sectors with controlled entrances under our supervision so [tourists] can see parts of the avenue," says Boraik. "We will not build any replicas of the sphinxes, because the destruction of the sphinxes is history, but we are restoring the ones we find."
When completed, the sphinx avenue will generate tourism revenue through ticket sales, tour fees and increased hotel guest spending. While officials are reluctant to put a figure on it, one tourism expert estimates the new attraction should bring in at least 50 million dollars a year.
By contrast, the government has allocated just over 5 million dollars for one-time compensations to relocated families.
"It really makes the government’s compensation package look pathetic," says one man whose home is slated for demolition.
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