Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Modern Neighbors of Tutankhamun

The Modern Neighbors of Tutankhamun: History, Life, and Work in the Villages of the Theban West Bank

Kees van der Spek
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 532
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Modern Neighbors of Tutankhamun
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-564-6
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Foreword
    (pp. xvii-xx)
    Kent R. Weeks

    Tourism in Thebes dates back to dynastic times, when Egyptians, for religious and social reasons, visited archaeological sites that even then were ancient. Foreign tourists also came: visitors from the ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome often combined business with pleasure on voyages up the Nile. But it was not until the nineteenth century ce that tourism became a business, and Europeans made Thebes (modern Luxor) a popular destination. Tourist numbers remained relatively unchanged for almost a century, but in the 1960s their numbers rose, due partly to publicity generated by traveling Tutankhamun exhibits, a plethora of books and films...

  6. Acknowledgments and an Invitation
    (pp. xxi-xxx)
  7. Notes on Transliteration
    (pp. xxxi-xxxii)
  8. Prologue: A Theban Sound-scape
    (pp. 1-4)

    In so many ways, the muses occupy the landscape. Musical instruments are everywhere, and although out of sight and now mute, there is a truth in suggesting that the landscape of the Theban west bank with its ancient burial grounds is imbued with melody¹. Harps, lutes, flutes, tambourines, indeed entire orchestras figure prominently in the banquet scenes decorating the ancient Egyptian tomb chapels. The illustration of scenes from the life of a tomb’s occupant is both a means to achieve, and a representation of, his aspirations for the afterlife. Essentially secular—accompanying dancing-girls or livening up a dinner party—the...

  9. Introduction: Fieldwork in the Territory of Others
    (pp. 5-16)

    This book finds its origins in a crime. At least, that is if today’s strict Egyptian antiquities legislation, prohibiting the illicit excavation and trade in ancient Egyptian artifacts, were applied to the rich tomb discovered around 1871 by the brothers Muhammad and Ahmad ‘Abd al-Rasul in the cliffs above al-Qurna on the Theban west bank. When the discovery was made public in 1881, it became obvious that the ‘Abd al-Rasul family had used their find as a ‘bank account,’ selling off antiquities when in need of funds. As a consequence, the question of how the ‘Abd al-Rasuls and their fellow...

  10. 1 Ancient Remains as Lifeʹs Stage: Differing Perspectives on Life in the Theban Necropolis
    (pp. 17-38)

    The gold and silver colored wrappers of the sweets offered to newly arriving visitors seemed to complement the monotone colors of the mud-brick room, the clinical blue wash of its walls combined with such wrapper-emitted sparkles as to produce a hospital-like atmosphere. Extinguished the moment the shiny paper was crushed and tossed into a corner, its short-lived effect was nevertheless only illusory, for monitoring Mahmud’s condition there was no bedside state-of-the-art equipment here to reflect a ward’s bright lights, and no sterile glazed tiles to cover the dust of worn adobe.¹ Creating realities out of their absence, as illusions invariably...

  11. 2 The Natural and Social Setting of the Theban West Bank Communities
    (pp. 39-52)

    Separating the Western Desert from the Nile River, the natural landscape of the Libyan Plateau’s terminal escarpment reminds one of a breaking wave, the rising crest of its Theban Mountain attempting one final crescendo before rolling ashore. Despite the imagery, the Western Desert’s Theban Mountain and its foothills have generally been construed during recorded history more in terms of their cultural qualities than their natural characteristics. Yet, it was the mountain peak’s natural features that most likely reminded ancient Egyptians of their ancestors’ pyramidal mortuary architecture, inspiring royalty and public dignitaries to have their funeral chapels and chambers cut into...

  12. 3 Early European Travelers and the Emergence of the Theban Communities in the Consciousness of the West
    (pp. 53-78)

    Much of what characterizes the people of al-Qurna today is not only inherent in the physical aspects of the surrounding landscape, but also the historical process of archaeological recognition and interpretation that has resulted in the culturally constructed characterization of the Theban foothills. This perspective immediately directs the attention to the historically situated development of western academic involvement with the Theban west bank, necessitating a global perspective in explanation of the particular cultural constructions that resulted from the contact with foreign interests. In this sense, a study of al-Qurna fits the trend identified by Dale Eickelman, where anthropological studies of...

  13. 4 ʺIn Justice to the Inhabitants of Gourneiʺ: European Presence and Its Literary Record
    (pp. 79-134)

    The yet to be fully documented mummy trade discussed in the previous chapter demonstrates that historically the overriding preoccupation with Egypt on the part of Europeans concerned its ancient past. Ignore ideas about Venetian engineering works and generalist Enlightenment travelers in search of whatever was different, unknown, or of biblical interest. The demand formumiya-derived products back in Europe, and the quest for ancient artifacts by individual and institutional collectors, at different times represented forms of consumption that mined ancient Egypt as its source.

    As part of this process, the emergence of al-Qurna as a location of significance in the...

  14. 5 Protected Space as Domestic Place: Human Presence and the Emergence of the Built Environment in the Theban Necropolis
    (pp. 135-156)

    Beyond the comments already made about west bank population movements throughout history and the possible detail of Qurnawi presence there as seen through the eyes of western observers, what is the sense of history that Qurnawi have of their own presence in the region? How may we view the genealogical history of the modern community, if at all possible? Establishing a sequence for the time depth of occupation of the Theban foothills based on a Qurnawi remembered past is problematic, if only for the practice on the part of some to trace local ancestries back to the time of the...

  15. 6 Qurnawi Foothills Architecture: Footprint, Form, and Function
    (pp. 157-170)

    The urbanizing process initiated by the protective measures of expropriation and eviction discussed in the previous chapter not only accelerated the expansion of contemporary vernacular forms, but also resulted in a particular architectural assemblage typical of the Theban Necropolis. The evolving domestic floor plan eventually came to comprise a footprint which still included the ancient funerary spaces, the new above-ground architectural forms, and the traditional mud structures characteristic of Upper Egypt. As a rule, the following individual components can be recognized: the main dwelling proper, but often still abutting an ancient funerary space, which no longer supported any artwork in...

  16. 7 Agriculture, Conflict, and the Maintenance of Stable Social Relations
    (pp. 171-218)

    Despite the archaeological context in which Qurnawi labor has generally been considered, the account of Qurnawi archaeological work practices offered in the next chapter cannot be divorced from the variety of ways in which members of the foothills communities make a living. Since archaeological work for the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) is government employment, the nature of Qurnawi economics for those so employed is one that combines formal with informal money-earning activities. Even where such formal government work is not related to archaeology, informal aspects may still be present: in the house of a local teacher who is also...

  17. 8 All in a Seasonʹs Work: Egyptology-Induced Labor Relations at al-Hurubat
    (pp. 219-246)

    Among the houses of al-Hurubat, two earlier dwellings were imbued with symbolism. The two were very different. Sir John Gardner Wilkinson’s house was essentially a tomb dwelling, expanded with mud-brick structures and partitions erected in the courtyard, as inspired by the practice of his Qurnawi neighbors (Thompson, 1996; 2010: 206–207). The nearby 1817 house built for Henry Salt’s collecting agent Giovanni d’Athanasi (‘Yanni’) was a freestanding, aboveground, mud-brick structure, most likely constructed from ancient bricks obtained from the surrounding necropolis. Their difference was not only architectural, they were also in stark contrast conceptually. Wilkinson’s tomb dwelling provided a base...

  18. 9 Faked Antikas and ʹModern Antiquesʹ: Artistic Expression in the Villages of the Theban West Bank
    (pp. 247-288)

    The archaeological work discussed above has historically had close connections with the tourism industry. Archaeological artifacts uncovered by Qurnawi have been items of interest to western visitors since at least the second half of the eighteenth century. There is a fine line between Qurnawi offering items for sale to a visiting person like Charles Sonnini, and to an early scientist like Vivant Denon engaging Qurnawi guides when exploring the necropolis to draw monuments and collect antiquities. The latter activity would eventually evolve into the largescale explorations of Belzoni and Rhind, but the archaeological practice that gradually emerged from such operations...

  19. 10 Contemporary Spirituality and Traditional Beliefs in the Theban Necropolis
    (pp. 289-318)

    Compared to other annualmulidcelebrations, the Augustmulidof Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qurna is a relatively small-scale affair but it is nevertheless significant. Not only do the celebrations take place in the midst of al-Hurubat and the Noble Tombs, they also provide a visible and contemporary expression of the spiritual quality that has characterized this landscape for millennia. In keeping with that spirit, and possibly reflecting the vernacular and uncomplicated approach of its community toward such things, the fair-like commercial atmosphere of othermulidevents is entirely absent. There are no entertainment professionals here with their circus-style equipment, and the...

  20. 11 The Ethnography of Eviction
    (pp. 319-346)

    On March 8, 1999, sixteen Coptic families moved from their large housing compound in al-Hurubat to the new settlement of al-Suyul. Comprising around one hundred people, the move represented the largest single relocation event from the central Noble Tombs area at that time. Apparently voluntary in character but effectively eviction by stealth, the desire for improved housing conditions was at least in part due to the declining standard of living resulting from standing prohibitions on maintenance and renovation, and a general deterioration in the appearance of the surrounding landscape caused by the discarded rubble from earlier demolitions. The event was...

  21. Conclusions and a Challenge
    (pp. 347-354)

    The historic and ethnographic material uncovered during the present study has revealed the Theban west bank as a rich and fascinating field site. Overshadowed and obscured by the practice and marginalizing dominance of a differently focused academic discipline and the wholesale global preoccupation with ancient Egypt that its practice and analyses continue to inspire, here we have attempted to return to Qurnawi the degree of historic and contemporary visibility that their place in this archaeological landscape warrants, and the level of academic interest that its social and ethnographic specificity merits on its own terms. Although the vernacular foothills hamlets are...

  22. Appendix 1: Ethnography in Sensitive Surroundings: Notes on Life and Work among the Tombs
    (pp. 355-368)
  23. Appendix 2: Theban Mapping Project Aerial Photographs
    (pp. 369-380)
  24. Appendix 3: English Translation of Carla Burriʹs Italian The Anonymous Venetian Text
    (pp. 381-382)
  25. Appendix 4: Extract from Howard Carterʹs Autobiographical Sketch V
    (pp. 383-386)
  26. Appendix 5: A Petition from the People of Qurna to the Egyptian Government
    (pp. 387-388)
  27. Appendix 6: Art and Craft Production at al-Qurna A Portfolio of Work 1995–1999
    (pp. 389-398)
  28. Notes
    (pp. 399-442)
  29. Bibliography
    (pp. 443-466)
  30. Index
    (pp. 467-500)