Paper given at the Egypt Exploration Society Conference, June 2008.


Ms Caroline Simpson, The Theban West Bank since ‘antiquity’

The Theban West Bank must be one of the most excavated, examined and recorded areas in the world. Except for a very few notable exceptions none of this effort has been directed at the last 1500 years. This paper looks at some of the material, photographic, written and oral evidence of life on the hillside and valley. It will examine the motivation behind what records do exist, and it will also discuss some of the reasons for neglect. Illustrations will range from ceremonial and funerary architecture to the domestic, from armies of nameless labourers to named and respected elders


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 The West Bank Since “antiquity”.


Thank you to Patricia Spence for inviting me to round off the conference of such an august body.  Many of you will know the Theban West Bank very well to work in and walk around, but others may only know its tombs and temples from books and museums.  I will try to present a talk that will be of interest to you all.


The period covered by this talk is where you all leave off.  While some of you have spoken of the events and remains of a single life and death, and others of relatively short periods, mine covers some 1500 years.  It will of necessity be just a sketch, with the more modern periods and some specific things fleshed out as they can be.


However our starting point is the general topography of the west bank. ***  Seen from over the river there are two mountain peaks, perhaps they were seen as two breasts, perhaps two arms enclosing a very special area of hillside.  We will also look slightly to the south of the Qurn at the town of Jeme at Medinet Habu and slightly to the north of Thoth Hill at what is called Tarif, - we will not just be seduced by the riches of Kings and Nobles.  This land dominated and enclosed by the twin peaks is a sacred landscape, full of magic and spirits – where subsequent religions have built places of worship and buried their dead.  It is also where people lived.


As Terry Wilfong says in his/her fascinating book on the Women of Jeme, “By the 5th and 6th centuries, most, if not all, of the population of Jeme and the west Theban area were Christians, and many of the Pharaonic temples in the area (along with other structures) had been converted into churches and monasteries.” ***  Here is what remained of Jeme when William Prinsep visited Thebes in 1842. ***  and here as excavated by the University of Chicago in 1927, looking remarkably like the ruins of Qurna in 2007.  There had been at least 4 churches, serving a population of some 2,000 people.


***   Deir el Bakhit monastery high on Dra abu’l Naga was perhaps the largest monastery in Upper Egypt in its 7th century heyday, seen here as a multi-storey ruin in a sketch by Wilkinson, before most of the bricks were used to build houses in Dra.  ***  Sadly no other detailed records survive, and until the last few years no archaeological work was done, but the German mission has recently been working there  ***  and we look forward to learning much more about this remarkable building and its occupants.


The other monasteries included larger ones such as the Monastery of St Mark on Qurnet Marai, ***  and of Phoibammon ,*** at Deir el Bahari, and smaller recorded foundations such as those of Epiphanius and Cyriacus on Sheikh abd el Qurna. 

The sites of these monasteries were chosen to demonstrate the supremacy of the new religion by building in the areas of temples to previous and ‘false’ gods and on commanding heights. 


Many of the tombs, especially on Sheikh abd el Qurna, have Christian crosses on the walls and inscriptions as clues to their uses as places of worship and dwelling.   On the drawings of early travellers, antiquarians and Egyptologists, there are also large mud-brick building groups which could have been more monasteries, or perhaps even the remains of family houses from the Coptic period.  *** large complexes on Sheikh abd el Qurna seen in a drawing by Wilkinson in the 1820s  *** and by Lepsius in 1840s  And in a photo of the late1850s  ***     One complex was in the area where the White House of the Abdul Rasul’s  was built in 1880/1, and may suggest where they got all the bricks from.   These large ruins were not otherwise recorded – suggesting that they were post Roman.  Interests have not changed, today, as the Rasuls move out and the houses are demolished, the archaeologists are only interested in the huge tomb ***  below the houses and not in what might have been a large Coptic complex.    We know that most of the Coptic monasteries around were deserted in the late 8th century, for reasons as yet unknown. Interestingly the departing residents of Jeme stripped out the doors and windows to take with them just as the Qurnawi do today. *** Timber was and is very scarce and expensive.


The German excavations of the 1970s, in Seti Temple, found a small church in the southern courtyard, which appears to have been used in the late 6th / 7th centuries – sadly this has not been published and looks as if it never will.  It still existed in memory, if nothing else, in the mid 19th century.   It was here, in the courtyards of the Seti temple and around it that the village of Qurna existed when the earliest travellers visited a thousand years later.  ***   *** It was here that Pococke’s Sheikh-guide lived.  ***. Denon shows many mud structures and walls.  We dont know if people lived here in some fashion from the 8th century or if they returned at some date, as far as I know no archaeological work was done on this settlement before it was scraped to “antiquity” in the 1920s and 70s. 


It is important to bear in mind what sort of size of population we are thinking of.  Egypt had a total estimated population of 4-5 million in the New Kingdom, perhaps as high as 7 million in the Roman period and between 6 and 8 million in the 7th century.  However, plagues and famines over the next centuries reduced the total population to  4 million in the late 18th century.  Most of the people were in the more fertile areas of the valley, and so the local population here would have been very small.


There had been a momentous event in Egypt in 641, when the Arab invasion brought Islam to this Christian country.  Although the Arabs came south, they did not loot and destroy like most armies, and they did not force conversion on the people, but they did leave their religious markers and they started to impose taxes.  It is said that the first mosque in Qurna was built by Amr, the general of the Arab army. What is certain is that it was a square, probably domed, building just to the south of Seti temple *** and was already a ruin by the early 20th century.  It is likely that the main population was living close by, but I suggest that this specific site was chosen to mark the superiority of the new religion.  From its roof you would have been able to see all the main monasteries of the Christians and the temples of the long dead Pharoahs.  It may have been small but it was highly charged.  A new mosque was built on the site about 17 years ago with no archaeological investigation


We then have a period of many centuries, where apart from some funerary monuments we have the local equivalent of The Dark Ages.  ***   In the large Muslim cemetery there are many old tombs with at least one of Fatimid date (11th or 12th century).***  There is also an unusual mud-brick minbar – ***  so old that people have forgotten its proper function for prayers at the Eid, and believe that it is the tomb of a wandering Sheikh’s camel.   To appreciate the huge respect for the dead that exists here in Qurna, and to feel an extraordinary link between past and present – you must join the rest of Qurna to visit the cemetery early in the morning at the Eid and breakfast with the ancestors.  It is also just about the only time you will see many of the young  Qurnawi women, and all dressed in their finery for the occasion. 


But back to Old Qurna in these Dark Ages.    We can only presume that settled people continued to cultivate the land between inundations, and many of these people gradually converted to the new religion.  There were also other people, wandering tribal Arabs, of different families, who periodically raided the settlers and then moved on.  Over time members of these tribal families settled in the large open saff tombs in northern area of Qurna called Tarif. ***    These will have seemed very similar - with their low, dark interiors - to their long moveable tents.  ***   The Khasas lived in Saff el Khasasiyya, and other families had their own saffs.     ***  When Denon came with the French army it was these people living in the saffs who resisted the French trying to preserve their animals, possessions and women. Those who could not get to the hills in time were slaughtered.  They made General Beliard so angry that he blockaded one group of big tomb dwellings and mined them.  The hawks and vultures who had been further north feeding on the results of other battles flocked to Tarif on hearing the explosion.  I have been told that there is no saff in which the families of Atiyaat lived before their settlement on Dra, perhaps they were in the saff that was blown up.  Probably this was the worst human destruction to the Theban Necropolis until the recent bulldozer demolitions.


The first Post Roman traveller’s account we have is by the Anonymous Venetian written in 1589, which talks of many villages, beautiful countryside and local Arabs who attack any visiting Turks or take to their mountain fortresses.  This is the first of many stories of boat captains not willing or unhappy to land on the west bank due to ‘insubordinate Arabs’.  If the only visits these Arabs received were to demand their sons for the army and yet more money in taxes then such behaviour is not surprising.  Fleeing to the safety of their refuges in the hills was something the Qurnawi were indeed able to do until the army built their blockhouses on the hill-tops after the Hatshepsut massacre of 1997.  ***


So in the 18th century we have people living in the saff tombs,  mostly of Bedouin Arab descent, and we have a village in the old Coptic area near Seti.  The villagers farmed the plain, ***   and kept animals, the tomb dweller would have kept animals, but did less if any farming.  The villagers of old Qurna also had their palm plantations. ***  The women of all families made granaries, ovens, cupboards and domestic furniture from a mud mixture, inside and outside their dwellings – whether they were tombs or buildings. ***


In the early 20th century with more and more foreigners coming to see the monuments and collect antiquities to take home, most of the dwellers of the tombs and of the village moved to where the work, action and treasure was. ***  They moved as family groups into vacant tombs in different areas of the hillside.  Those from old Qurna village moved first, to the area south of Hatshepsut causeway, into what became Horubat,  ***    on Sheikh abd Qurna and el Khokha,   *** while the saff dwellers moved to what we call ***   Dra abu’l Naga, making Hasasna, Atiyat, Ghabat, and Batlaniin.  The major Horubat families still kept their family areas of palm groves in Ginena and continued to farm the plain.   ***   It is a ‘ruined village’ when Lane draws his map in 1827, and  ***  Wilkinson records it as the ‘old’ village of Qurna.  Women continued to take their flocks out in the day *** and do all the tasks of the family.  There was a considerable minority of Copts in the Horubat area, but not in the Dra area.  Some of these were wealthier land-owners, and others were weavers.    A residue of the population stayed, or soon dribbled back to the lower lands - Lepsius in the 1840s recorded a small village again by Seti.  The population explosion of the last 60 years has filled all the old areas and more with dwellings. 


The exhibition on earthen buildings of Qurna – on display outside - has many illustrations of the mud structures and the houses.  Put very simply, people first lived in the tombs themselves, making mud structures inside and then out.  *** as seen in a detail from a Hay Panorama   Then they built small houses outside, often in the courtyards of the tombs.  *** as here in a painting by Princeps of 1842.   Then they build larger structures on the ground on top and around the tombs, in family groups which got denser and denser and sprawled more and more.  Foreign residents both led the way and copied local tradition.  About 1815 Giovanni d’Athenasi – Yanni – built the first free-standing house.  ***  ***    In 1827 Sir Gardener Wilkinson adapted a huge tomb for himself   ***   ***    . 


In the last two centuries the lives of the Qurnawi have been dominated, for better and for worse, by antiquities and tourism.  The Qurnawi have been employed as archaeological labourers  ***  here recorded in 1826 by Robert Hay   ***  by Maxime du Camp in 1835   ***  and by the EES’s Founder Amelia B Edwards in the 1870s.  Apart from Hay, many of the illustrations we have of the Qurnawi workers dehumanises them.  They are shown as ant-like slaves by du Camp, grotesque devilish body hunters by Edwards, and Shiaparelli even published head studies of his workers in the manner of criminals or specimens ***  ***.  Which is more ghoulish, the tourist or archaeologist who wants to see dead bodies and take home body parts, or the local guide enabling the visitor to have a good holiday or helping the foreigner to fill the museum back home? ***   ***  .  


The huge excavations of the 1920s employed armies of men and children  ***   ***  recorded in scenes reminiscent of UK Victorian workers laying the sewers and railways in the mid 19th.  Even more work fell on the women’s shoulders – *** a woman of the Daramalli household shown doing men’s work with the saqieh.  Today Qurnawi men are still used in large numbers in the digging season but some have been trained as restorers and draughtsmen.     The resident Missions also employed servants.  *** here seen at the Metropolitan House in the early 1920s.


Where there are tourists, there is a market for gifts  ***    and the Qurnawi are, like their ancient forebears, amazing craftsmen – *** and women.  *** Hagg Mahmoud, of Tarif, is a restorer in the Valley of the Kings, he was at Abu Simbel in the 1960s, and carves scarabs at home.   *** Said el Methany, also of Tarif, makes small scarabs and dainty pieces and has had exhibitions in London and Paris.  Craftsmen in Dra and at the Nobles make superb limestone replicas of tomb scenes.     The Qurnawi have been accused of being forgers and selling fake antiquities – but often this is said because it is hard to tell the real from the fake, and in every tourist destination the locals are out to make money from the tourists.  They do indeed make copies, but what is the difference between a good copy and a fake? 


***  Alabaster is a speciality of Dra, where craftsmen employed in bazaars in the day do their own work all evening back home.       *** Hassan el Adrebi works in soft wood to make amazing colourful carvings.  The art of Hagg paintings *** has grown to cover large murals on the shops and houses - here is head master and artist , Mohamed abd el Malek, the best of the painters of the 80s and 90s.  *** The children start young with the girls making little Qurna Dollies for their younger siblings to sell,  perhaps this one on the right  from Beni Hasan was made for 12 Dynasty visitors.


Tourists need looking after, and the Qurnawi are excellent hosts.  ***  Today the water is brought from afar in plastic bottles that litter the canals and hillsides, but in 1910 it was brought from the local well in large ceramic jars.    ***   The right hand young boy must come from one of the few local families who have relatively recently married someone from the Balad es Sudan – Nubia and beyond.    Probably the person was a slave or trader coming from the south on the historic route along the valley, who decided or was able to settle here.  *** Many travellers came by donkey from the river, and donkeys are still for hire by the ferry.


The person that foreigners and travellers get to know best is their guide.  ***  Sheikh Awad was born about 1773 and worked with Champollion, Lepsius and Brugsch as a foreman and guide.  He was almost certainly a friend and source of local knowledge and history to Bonomi, and probably to Wilkinson, Hay and all the Europeans of the early 19th century.  *** This photo was taken in about 1868 soon before he died in his 90s.  Half of Horubat is descended from Awad’s 40 plus children from his 10 or 12 wives, and longevity is a family trait – *** here is a grandson, with one of his grandsons in 2001. 


Awad is one of the very few 19th century Qurnawi who were drawn or photographed who have a personality and more importantly a name.  Thousands of photos have been taken of local people by visitors for nearly 200 years, but they show nameless villagers going about their business.  One very special exception is a photo by Robert de Rustafjaell, a Coptic scholar, taken in 1907.  ***  Here is the formidable matriarch of the Abd er Rassul Family, Fendia, proudly presenting herself at around 100 years of age, with shoes and no face covering. The family has many stories of her strength of character. This is probably the earliest photo of a named and known Upper Egyptian Woman.  Ahmed and his mother and family lived in a tomb on Sheikh abd el Qurna and he had invited his old camera-owning aquaintance to the house for tea.


***   Some equivalent of ‘Qurna Cinema’ probably goes on in many tourist villages, but here you are often caught out.  People who live or work on a tourist trail put on a show for the tourist that appears realistic and authentic.   Here the woman of the family made a specially big or intricate mud structure   ***  so that tourists stopped, took photos and most important -gave baksheesh.  You have to compare these structures with the ones at the back of properties – which is where they normally are! The camera did not lie in those days – but you have to know what you are looking at.   Craft shop owners today often sit outside pretending to do work that is not theirs and is in fact already finished – but it makes you stop and you might buy something.


Until very recently there was a great difference between the day and the night time lives of Qurnawi.  For many people the days were full of working for the foreigners in one way or another, but the foreigners went to their hotels across the river or to their boats, and left the west bank before dusk, and the archaeologists went to their ‘mission houses’.  Then the other major strands of Qurnawi life took hold and became more evident – family life, and family and religious observances.  ***  Birth, marriage and death and all the ceremonies around them take much time, money and effort.   In this Necropolis deaths are still major events – men and women have different roles to play – but both involve travel, visiting and much talking. Here women visiting in 1929  and men taking a body to the cemetery ***  .  This family visiting was the main way that women learnt a knowledge of Qurna topography, and of who lives where – their topographical memories are better than their male relatives but that will fast disappear now the families no longer live here. 


A belief in the supernatural played a great part in the lives of the Qurnawi – especially the women.  The Hillside was full of spirits, and many women kept special stones ***  from the hillside full of magical powers  for use when needed.  Young brides wanting babies visited Sheikh abd el Qurna,  ***   the small shrine by the Habu and many other special local spots.  Some ancient tombs were especially efficacious.  People visit the tombs of Sheikhs to leave small gifts and get help with their problems. Sheikh abd el Qurna  is also renowned for curing rheumatism, and there was a Coptic shrine here and before that a pharaonic one.  ***   Local moulids or festivals for local sheikhs involve horse racing, stick dancing and more.    ***  Sheikh Abu’l Qumsan’s moulid, held opposite the cemetery, was only established in the mid 20th century, but became a very popular event as he had a large following amongst the very poor.   It will be interesting to see if there is another moulid for Sheikh Abd el Qurna now that most people have moved from Horubat. 


And then there is that other strand of Qurnawi life – trying to outsmart the authorities by illicit antiquity dealing, digging for new tombs, and extending their properties to cover more land.  Since the first antiquity laws in the 1880s, some of the Qurnawi have tried to continue to make a direct living from antiquities on what they consider in many ways to be their land.  The worst period for tomb damage was during the last war when there was lots of knowledge and little supervision.   ***   The wonderful survey maps of 1924 show the extent of properties and such boundaries are not meant to be extended. ***  Periodically the authorities come round and knock down walls around appropriated land.


Since at least the late 1940s it has been Government policy to relocate the Qurnawi off the hillside in order to preserve the antiquities. ***  The greater use of water has become a more dangerous threat to the monuments. ***      Modern mass tourism seeks to isolate the tourist from the native population, and the massacre of tourists  ***  in Hatshepsut Temple in 1997 made this even more of a priority for the Egyptian authorities.     *** The flash floods of 1994 destroyed many houses and a new village was built to the North at what is now As-Siyul.  In the last 40 years there has been a gradual move off the hillside, in recent years the vacated houses have also been demolished.  Here is one example of the historic process –  ***   The family that lived in the tomb of User on Sheikh abd el Qurna were persuaded to move out in 1925, so they built next door.   ***   In 1999 the authorities persuaded the Abdullah family to move to As-Siyul and they had to come back next day to demolish their house  - the debris of which is all still there today.   ***  Mass tourism has brought great wealth to some Qurnawi – who have built huge properties along the road to As-Siyul, and in much of Tarif.  


There are a few modern examples of flagrant disregard of laws, and inspectors, and police that have been very detrimental to this world heritage site. ***   The owner of the Senufer resthouse decided to cash in quick before they were all moved, and build a hotel.  ***   There is no piped water system on the hillside and no septic tanks allowed, but the rooms are all ‘en suite’.  It is just above Ramose.   It looks like this building will be allowed to remain. ***  Over near Dra, on a piece of land that had never been built on, a large business grew in the last 6 years. 


There have been many schemes for complete relocation, ***  one even had the decency to consult and proposed building in family groups, but the latest scheme, on the flat desert to the North, has happened, and will continue until there is no living community on the hillside.  In the new concrete estate they no longer live in family groups   ***  but in straight lines.  ***     They are not allowed to keep animals.  They do have piped water for at least part of the day, but they still have to store water in containers for when there is none.


In December 2006 a big media show was laid on for the first moves to the new village and the demolition of the first houses to be vacated.  For the next few months the destruction of houses, and of the archaeology around and beneath those houses must have been the biggest destruction on a world heritage site ever to have happened.  ***  **** *** ****  Relentlessly the bulldozers and diggers and lorries went up and down the fragile hillsides and back and forth across the tomb-rich land; and destroyed Qurna and much else beside.  


I end on a more positive note – and with a blatant plug .


In February 2007 I negotiated with the SCA for the authorities to leave a unique small group of four properties on Sheikh abd el Qurna, *** which as an entity,  show the history of the settlement on the hillside.  There is a most wonderful tomb house  ***  with an amazing variety of mud structures inside and out.  There is a typical family house  ***  of farmers who relocated here in the early 19th century.  There is the community building ***  – the zawyeh – of the extended family.  And there is the Yanni house –    ***  now a huge ruin, but capable of reconstruction if enthusiasm and money allow – and John Taylor (together with ASTENE) is specifically interested in this.   The zawyeh  ***  is the new venue for the exhibitions I have made over the years about Qurnawi history, and the house  ***   will show a typical Qurnawi house with its collection of objects given and bought for this purpose. The Friends of Qurna Discovery  restored the zawyeh and the house for exhibition purposes, and installed the exhibitions, which are free for all to visit.  ***    


 We have had a most unfortunate 6 month period when some well connected modern artists from Cairo appropriated our beautifully restored historic                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              buildings, but after much letter writing and many phone calls, we have won the argument that Qurna deserves to have its history shown here.  Thanks to Dr Hawass and many others, we are back again in the zawyeh, and the exhibitions are again installed for all to see, and we are assured the house will soon be vacated by the artists. ***   If you believe, as we do, that the history of a small community that has had such an intriguing and intimate connection to the total history of this fascinating land has as much validity as any other period of history and should be celebrated and displayed,  ***   please do donate to this little project or become a Friend of Qurna Discovery.


Thank you.


Caroline Simpson,

Qurna History Project, and Secretary of Friends of Qurna Discovery, June 2008