The Modern Neighbors of Tutankhamun: History, Life, and Work in the Villages of the Theban West Bank, by Kees van der Spek.
American University in Cairo Press, 2011. xxxi + 500pp, 75 b&w illustrations, 12 tables. Hb, ISBN 978-9774164033. $34.95.
Luxor, the site of ancient Thebes, is reckoned to be the largest open-air archaeological site in the world, and has been the focus of intense Egyptological and archaeologica activity and research for over two centuries. There are temples on the East Bank, but the greater focus has always been on the West Bank, the so-called ‘Cities of the Dead’, where the tombs of the nobles, the Valley of the Kings and the mortuary (memorial) temples of the pharaohs of the Middle and New Kingdoms are to be found. Living there among the tombs, literally beneath this ‘shadow of death’, in the village of Qurna, are the Qurnawis. They have been an integral part of the Egyptological work as labourers on archaeological excavations, but also noted with opprobrium as tomb robbers and dealers in illicit antiquities. This largely stems from the discovery by the Abd al-Rasul’ family of the royal cache of mummies around 1871, which was finally declared in 1881.
Van der Spek’s book is a brilliant anthropological fieldwork study, a triumph in recording the life of a vibrant community as it faces destruction. The background history of the Qurnawis is documented from their appearance in early European travellers’ accounts, to their modern, personal life in seasonal work on digs, augmented by official posts as guardians of the nobles’ tombs; and their active daytime activities selling souvenirs, creating fake antiquities and modern ‘antiques’, many of remarkable quality echoin ancient craftsmen. Chapters 8 and 9 (pp. 219–87) are particularly valuable in their detail of the village life and structure. The author is a master of the literature Unfortunately, one major reference often cited and quoted (Lange, 1952) is absent from the bibliography. The very full notes often provide an almost parallel text with detail that many familiar with the area, including archaeological teams, will find especially valuable.
The general visitor and most archaeologists have no idea of the depth of the Qurnawi cultural background—they only see the community as a colourful addition to their focus on its antiquity. Before the official eviction from the village and it destruction, people such as Caroline Simpson made valiant efforts to bring the story and history of the Qurnawis to themselves and to the wider circle of tourist visitors. However, despite initial official support, that was reneged on by the bureaucracy and all swept away including historic houses incorporating tombs used by Sir Gardner Wilkinson and ‘Yanni’ (Giovanni d’Athannasi), both major figures in the early days of study and collecting antiquities.
Professor Kent Weeks, in his Foreword, sadly notes that a world known to many over decades has been swept away by bureaucracy to create ‘theme park tourism’. Officially the answer to Egypt’s economic problems (tourism accounts for over 50 per cent of Egypt’s foreign income), ‘many believe that this is resulting in the Disneyfication of Luxor the suppression or physical removal of its indigenous people and their culture, and the creation of an artificial Ancient Egypt Land whose appearance owes more to Hollywood than to historical veracity’.
The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism hopes to see 16,000 visitors a day on the West Bank by 2015, but only a small amount of the income from tourism is used to train antiquities staff or protect the monuments. We must be grateful to the author for documenting in a classic account the history of these people as the light is extinguished on the unique cultural heritage of the Theban West Bank.
Peter A. Clayton