Al-Ahram, 23 June 2007


Qurna .. a history which shall not die


by Dr Zahi Hawass


The name of this village, which is situated in the bosom of the mountains, is derived from the peak (qurn) or pyramidal summit which overlooks the Valley of the Kings, on account of which the local people applied this name to this individual village, whose population have been connected with the Valley of the Kings, its tombs, excavations and discoveries, and the adventurers and antiquities dealers .. King Mentuhotep II chose Deir el-Bahri on the western bank at Luxor, as the site of his burial place, and subsequently made it the capital of the country, and the kings of Egypt in the golden age, i.e. the 18th dynasty of the New Kingdom (1550 BC), found  that the western bank was a settled and secure place as a burial site for the kings and queens of Egypt -- likewise the officials, nobles and workers. From the tombs, temples and archaeological discoveries which occurred in this district we can know the history of Egypt during this period and the history of the village of Qurna which was linked to all these adventures and discoveries.


Numerous scholars have written about this village, the most important of whom is Caroline Simpson. It has been studied at the highest level, since the village of Qurna has been mentioned by numerous European travellers from the late 17th century onwards. In 1820 many of the Europeans working there took up permanent residence, building houses for themselves, their families, friends and visitors. The British Consul Henry Salt built a house for one of the most important of his men, Giovanni Athanasi, known as Yanni. This is considered the first modern house in the hills of the district. Yanni's house was built in the form of a small fortress, surrounded by a group of other buildings. Below the house is the part tomb-dwelling of Sheikh `Osman, built of mud bricks.


From the beginning of the 20th century this house passed into the hands of the Lazim family, which is the family of Sheikh Osman. In 2000 the house became abandoned and most of it collapsed while it was inhabited by an old woman who reared a flock of geese. It appears that one of those modern buildings which is reckoned to be an important item in the history of buildings may be allowed to disappear after the present inhabitants of the locality have left.


As for the house of the Italian antiquities dealer Piccinini in the locality of Dara` Abu 'l-Naga, it is of small size and is considered to be the first house built in that place, in addition to the remains of the Coptic monastery situated in the locality. Drawings which the adventurer Hay made in 1820 showed a number of ancient buildings of a Coptic character, one of which was situated to the south east of Sheikh `Abd al-Qurna. There is also a picture by Wilkinson in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, dating from 1827, which depicts a group of houses belonging to one family, and this is clear also in a photograph of 1850. In the late 19th century these houses were rebuilt again, and among them, we know, was the house of Tadrus Ayyub which was discovered by the Italian adventurer Baraize [actually a French archaeologist] in the early 20th century. Many of the houses there were purchased between 1970 and 1980 by the family of `Abd al-Salam and the Tadrus house became part of a cafeteria but was demolished in 2002.


Among the most important houses known in that district is the house of the `Abd er-Rasul family, a family which knew the secrets of the Valley and discovered the cache of mummies in Deir al-Bahri and guided many of the archaeologists to new tombs. The lad who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun may have been one of them. I met Sheikh `Abd er-Rasul, the last of these men: he was a unique personality, and he told me much about the secret of the subterranean vault found in the burial chamber of Sety I. Muhammad `Abd er-Rasul built a new white house over the tomb of one of the kings in order to conceal it.


It was James (St) John, while living in Qurna in 1834, who recounted that he met one of the dervishes, called `Abd al-Rahman, who built for himself a modest house with a prayer-room attached, in addition to an annexe which he used as school to teach children reading and writing. It seems that this was the first school to be established in the village. The area surrounding the house of the family of Al-Hajja Rafi`a was reserved for Sheikh `Abd al-Rahman.


As for Osman al-Daramalli, he reached the age of 76 in 2000, and I do not know whether he is still alive or not. He lived below the Yanni house.


Among the travellers who visited the district was the Jesuit Father Claude Sicard in the 18th century, who made a Nile journey to preach to the Copts of Upper Egypt, and did excellent studies of the antiquities there. As for Richard Pococke, he was a monk in love with travel, who came to Egypt in September 1737; likewise in that period appeared Frederick Lewis Norden, a Danish artist sent by King Christian VI on a journey of discovery to Egypt. Pococke published a travel book in 1743, while the travels of Norden were published in 1755, and are considered the first attempt at a precise description of Egypt.


Among the most important of those who worked in the western bank area was Bernardino Drovetti, Consul-General of France in Egypt at the beginning of the 19th century. He had a strong infatuation with antiquities, their study and their theft, including opening tombs with dynamite to make it easier for him. After that came Salt who elevated the Italian circus clown Belzoni to work in the Valley of the Kings and especially at the tomb of King Ramses III, which was called the tomb of Bruce, who worked in the Valley with Belzoni. He set about transferring the huge sarcophagus from the tomb in order to sell it to King Louis XVIII of France, who deposited it in the Louvre.


Belzoni was responsible for the discovery of many important tombs, including that of King Ay in 1816, and he also discovered the tomb of King Ramses I and his son King Sety. The work on many of the discoveries in the district of the Valley of the Kings was carried out after Belzoni's departure in the midst of Salt's apprehensions for his personal glory. He also worked, during four months of strenuous effort, on discovering other tombs. John Gardner Wilkinson relates that Salt, on his own and with the help of Yanni, was able to clean out nearly 55 metres inside the tomb of King Ramses II in the period between 1817 and 1827. Wilkinson was one of the fathers of modern Egyptology, who was born in Chile on 5 October 1897 [????] and spent most of his time in the district of Thebes working on drawing and studying the scenes and important inscriptions in the tombs of Thebes, where he organised a group of excavations in the period between 1824 and 1827.


The most important of the antiquities dealers who plundered the Valley was Robert Hay, who came in 1830 and lived with the people of Qurna and curried favour with many of them. [Hay was not a dealer and did not plunder. He financed a team of artists and draughtsmen who made meticulous records of Thebes and other sites in Egypt.]  He started work in the tomb of King Ramses IV, no.2, and Ramses VI, no.9. Many scholars and workers from Qurna participated with him in the work, including Edward William Lane in 1826. There are the names of many of the workers whose names were connected with the discoveries: the most important of these families was the `Abd er-Rasul family, some of whom were porters who knew the ways to transport huge statues such as entire Pharaohs. They also included antiquities dealers who cooperated with the European consuls in transporting many of the antiquities. Some of them worked with Mustafa Agha who was able to sell thousands of archaeological pieces abroad, such as a group of mummies which were sold to the Museum of Niagara Falls in Canada, including one believed to be that of Ramses I. He was also able to export some archaeological pieces, in cooperation with the `Abd er-Rasul family, from the cache of mummies which some of the people of this district had entered for the first time in 1871 or 1875. They came only from the famous village, situated directly to the north of Luxor. All its people were considered experts in excavations and they worked everywhere in Upper Egypt and the Delta. I worked with many of them and learnt much from them.


Some of the people of Qurna were able to build their houses directly over the tombs and they proceeded to use one of the tombs as a store-room for stolen antiquities; their dwellings over the tombs also damaged the monuments. So a compromise was reached with the history of Qurna by way of choosing about 25 historic houses to be left in situ to give an account of this great history and at the same time to do away with the gloominess existing in this place. The history will endure because monuments and mankind are valuable and important especially when they acknowledge humanity. This history is part of us and we must work to preserve it. It is a history which shall never die!