al Qurna (pronounced al Gurna)

“It’s all Qurna!”

Qurna is really the name of the ribbon of villages that encircle the Theban necropolis on the eastern flank of the sacred mountain range, whose pyramid like peak is the “qurn” or horn. So from Qurna Marai to Abd al Qurna to.. Abu al Naga. Many of these villages were demolished to “clear the way” for “scientific archaeology” and “theme park tourism”. Since the revolution in 2011 the process has paused but some houses are still under threat. ..

People have lived on the Theban necropolis since the beginning of time. The evidence of this is not hard to find, ancient remains of the artisan’s village at Dayr el Madina. And indeed the name Dayr means monastery, further evidence of subsequent use by Copts. The Copts are the original Egyptians, their settlements and graveyards pepper the landscape. During the roman period they continued to speak thier native Egyptian language, written in Greek script and were consequently discriminated against by their Roman (Byzantine) overloads. Although the Copts were Christians they followed a radically different doctrine to the Byzantine church. A great deal of the conflict between them explained by the distinction between the “Monophysyte” Copts and the Melkite (Royal) beliefs of the Roman church. Melkites believing that Christ had a dual nature – god and man. Monophysytes Christ had single divine nature. The vehemence of the religious dispute cannot be underestimated.

I’ve been recording some local history in Qurna. The memory of the changeover from Byzantine (Roman) to Arab/Muslim rule is still very much alive, despite this being something that happened over a thousand years ago. The Arab “conquest” of Egypt happened in the 7th century, the second peace treaty dated 671ad. Most of the fighting occurred in the Northern delta region – Upper Egypt being really a rule unto itself. But the fact that the Copts actively preferred the new Arab regime to the status quo is absolutely born out by the facts (see Butler’s “History of the Arab Conquest of Egypt”). This is a unique time in history when Christian Copts completed assimilated to Arab muslim culture.

The monumental published accounts of pioneering European traveler Gardner Wilkinson (1797-1874) confirms that Qurna. Madinet Habu and Kom El Byrat are indeed very ancient villages on the west bank. But he also says (1) that the Copts abandoned the village rather than stand up to the Arab invaders. Wilkinson is an amazing author but he does share many of the prejudices of his times; his books are full of phrases such as “the indolent Arabs, cowardly locals, mean Coptic hovels etc”. Butler’s History is more objective, explaining why it would have been suicide for such a small, unorganized group of villagers to resist the Arab military force which had already committed several military atrocities. The decision to abandon their ancient home cannot have been taken as lightly as Wilkinson thinks. I’ve not checked Wilkinson’s sources so cannot really say I agree with the idea that the villages were permanently abandoned. Perhaps they returned and are indeed the ancestors of the current occupants, albeit converts to Islam. Conversion might also explain the abandoned Coptic remains?

The current village numbers its foundation 100 years after the conquest. There was a need to build new houses on available higher ground near to the cultivated area to avoid the depredations of the annual Nile flood. They needed to be new houses because existing Coptic churches and villages were to be protected. “The Muslims to desist from all seizure of churches and not to interfere in any way with the Christians. The Jews to be suffered to remain at Alexandria…”(continued …see p 196).

There is a long gap in the historical record which I hope to fill some with research in old records, 17th century travel writers and local memory.

Of the several thousand inhabitants of Qurna, most come from a handful of families. . . .

El Qurna, on road to Temple of Hatshepsut circa 2005?

El Qurna, on road to Temple of Hatshepsut circa 2005?

al Qurna before and after the demolition



For a bit of background:

The Modern Neighbors of Tutankhamun
History, Life, and Work in the Villages of the Theban West Bank
Kees van der Spek
Foreword by Kent R Weeks

A historical–anthropological study of the people who lived in the antiquities precinct of Luxor’s West Bank Until their recent demolition, the colorful mud-brick hamlets of al-Qurna village, situated among the Noble Tombs of the Theban Necropolis on the Luxor West Bank, were home to a vibrant community. Inhabiting a place of intensive Egyptological research for over two centuries, it was inevitable that Qurnawis should become part of the history of Egyptology and the development of archaeological practice in the Theban Necropolis. But they have mostly been regarded as laborers for the excavation teams or dealers in the illicit antiquities trade. The modern people inhabiting the ancient burial grounds have themselves rarely been considered. By demonstrating the multiplicity of economic activities that are carried out in al-Qurna, this study counters the villagers’ stereotypical representation as tomb robbers, and restores an understanding of who they are as people living their lives in the shadow of valued cultural heritage.

KEES VAN DER SPEK is an independent scholar who lives and works in Canberra, Australia.

At Kees suggestion I’ve been reading the recently published Ghost Riders of Upper Egypt by Hans Winkler. Winkler was a German anthropologist writing in the 1930s. His study of Egyptian rock art, was published in English, is a classic. Much of his other work remains untranslated, in part due to the tarnishing of his reputation by the Nazification…

This book is objective, and incredibly informative on a disappearing world. A recent BBC TV documentary confirms that the Upper Egyptian tradition of Hajj painting using the figurative style is still very much alive and well (Rageh Omar: “The Hidden Art of Islam” BBC 2012). The book has photographs and description of the shrine of Bakhit, which also had an image of the “mahmal” – a special textile once sent from Egypt each year to Mecca (The practice since banned by Saudi clerics).

Qurna and Napoleon

The villagers of Qurna on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor claim their village was founded 100 years after the Arabic conquest of Egypt in the 7th century AD. I’ve been investigating and validating this claim. The village was already old when Napoleon’s scientific expedition arrived Napoleon and his army arrived in Egypt on the 10th May 1798. The report of this was published in several, large illustrated volumes. This map from Volume two shows the whole region, including the village clearly marked in the approach to the Temple of Hatshepsut (then undiscovered). The central mound marked “Hypogee ou Syringe” is Sheikh abu Qurna and is so named in the contents page to the volume, as is Dra’ abu al Naga. “Hypogées ou Syringe” is an early French archaeological term for Gallery Tomb – this hill is now known as Tombs of the Nobles.


In above smaller image the same area is labeled “Gde Grotte ou syringe”. You can see more detail in the larger map below: The basic outlines of the village is shown east of the monument marked “Palace” – which is actually the remains of the mortuary chapel of Sety I. The village well (French: Puits) is shown. The French surveyor has only shown the village in outline as two small blocks. Judging by these maps the village was smaller and has since expanded in all directions (Details on other maps (ie. Luxor) possible give prominence to archaeological features than accurate representation of contemporary dwellings).


Source: Description de l’Egypt, 1988 facsimili of original edition 1809 – [Description de L’Égypt ou Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont étè faite en egypt pendant l’expedition de l’armie Francais. Publie par les ordres de sa majeste L’empereur Napoleon Le Grand.]

I’d welcome any suggestions or older citations or maps. I’m currently looking at Georges Sandys the early 17th century english explorer
email them to me (mandox2000{@}

(1) Topography of Thebes and General View of Egypt, Being a short account of the Principal Objects worthy of Notice ion the valley of the Nile, I G Wilkinson, John Murray, London 1835. 650pp

(2) Description de l’Égypt, 1988 facsimili of original edition 1809 – [Description de L’Égypt ou Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont étè faite en egypt pendant l’expedition de l’armie Francais. Publie par les ordres de sa majeste L’empereur Napoleon Le Grand.]

(3) The Topography Of Thebes From The Bronze Age To Modern Times
by Sarantis Symeonoglou (to read)

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