Further to disturbing information received from various sources and an exchange of correspondence, the Egyptian authorities invited a World Heritage Centre mission to the property, in the days immediately preceding the 30th session of the World Heritage Committee (Vilnius, July 2006). As the report was not presented in the documents of the session, a summary is given hereafter.
This report first summarizes all perceived threats identified in recent communications from various sources and reported to the Committee in document WHC-06/30.COM/7B. It also contains recommendations concerning implementation of the “Master plan for Luxor City 2030” developed by the Governor further to a UNDP study in 2002-2003, that addresses development of the region in which the property is located and includes 32 short-term development projects, many already underway. The Master plan’s objectives are focused on tourism development, meeting the social and economic needs of the population, and protecting antiquities.
The mission report also reviews systematically all issues raised, such as creating an open air plaza cum causeway from the first pylon of the temple of Karnak to the Nile; razing of all buildings and structures in the area (among which the French-Egyptian research centre and its annexes, the stadium, souvenir shops and dwellings, a public garden, ancient stones storage areas, the residential complex along the Nile known as the “French village”); lowering of the present cornice road and its displacement closer to the Nile; constructing a parking lot on the location of the present stadium; building shops along the south side of the plaza, along with a visitor centre.
The mission report noted that the overall aim of an open air plaza in front of the temple of Karnak was to correct the haphazard development of secondary facilities that have sprung up over time and to upgrade these through a harmonized design. It highlighted the need for the State Party to organize an international design competition for the entrance to Karnak Temple to encourage high-quality design alternatives which support and promote a new vision on heritage management, and to respect existing archaeological and surviving evidence.
The mission also described reported projects in Luxor such as the excavation of the Alley of the Sphinxes in its totality, designed to make evident the past physical connection of the Luxor and Karnak Temples by exposure of the 3-km long ceremonial avenue, which linked them in antiquity. The report commented that while work in these areas has already demonstrated the good physical survival of the avenue, a part of this avenue is covered by the contemporary town and will require demolition of at least 300 residential houses.
Concerning the project to demolish most of the houses spread above ancient tombs in Gurnah (Qurna) and to displace its inhabitants to a newly built settlement, the report commented that the proposed new settlement will offer all basic facilities of water, drainage, primary health care and education, as well as a market, currently not available in Gurnah proper. The mission noted that the State Party stressed “the incompatibility and unsustainability of the situation in terms of living conditions of the communities in relation to World Heritage site management” and that “inhabitants would only move on a voluntary basis with adequate compensation”.
ICOMOS reviewed the mission report and made the following remarks:
a) The information made available demonstrates that while the Master plan is very much about cleaning up, improving image and conditions for tourists, renewal, sanitization etc., it is not about protecting the outstanding universal value of the site. As a result, little attention has been given as to how best to maintain the complex set of historic layers which underlie the Thebes inscription on the List, and that indeed many significant parts of the site are being needlessly discarded.
b) The demolition of some of the structures near Karnak, the later urban settlements between the two temples and of substantial parts of Gurnah are neither acceptable approaches within contemporary conservation theory (which demands that changes be limited to only those essential to meet critical functional needs, and here, only where this can be done without loss to heritage values), nor respectful of the property’s outstanding universal value. Even if some of these places are not what would be described as “antiquities”, they should be protected as being indissociably connected to the development of the site, and therefore worthy of the strongest protection efforts. In particular, the loss of Gurnah, whose residents have provided the bulk of the excavation effort at Thebes from the 19th century forward, would involve loss of a place of great importance within the original nomination. Removal of the population of Gurnah, and reduction of the village to a few surviving designated (and empty) historic buildings is an act which goes against all the principles of conservation. ICOMOS would note that in 1998, and then in 2001, the Bureau of the World Heritage Committee had recommended the “launching of a co-operation programme encompassing geological, archaeological and geographical surveys and mapping, anthropological studies, assessment of the historical and cultural landscape qualities of the foothills and of the presence of Gurnah village in the site” and that the Bureau had also recommended “the postponement of any further transfer of the population of Gurnah until these investigations had taken place”.
c) The demolition of structures along the proposed Avenue of Sphinxes linking the Luxor and Karnak temples is an effort to reconstruct past physical relations. However, the Operational Guidelines stress that “in relation to authenticity, the reconstruction of archaeological remains or historic buildings or districts is justifiable only in exceptional circumstances”.
During its 30th session, the World Heritage Committee notably requested the State Party to provide the details of proposed re-settlement of villagers and of new developments, as well as their visual and environmental impacts, and to ensure that “all architectural designs for new facilities respect the outstanding universal value of the World Heritage property”.
The State Party submitted two documents on 26 January 2007, both printed power points presentinga “Comprehensive Development Plan for the City of Luxor – the City of Luxor Master Plan 2030”; and a “List of completed and on-going projects in the archaeological site of Luxor”, which describes only one sub-project: “Project to reduce the ground water level at the Temples of Karnak and Luxor.” These documents are heavily illustrated but contain little or no text which would justify the planned interventions. In the framework of the Retrospective Inventory, the State Party transmitted to the World Heritage Centre a topographical map and a cadastral map representing the five components of the property, thus answering to the request of the Committee. Some clarifications are still expected, before they are presented to the Committee in 2008. In addition, in April 2007, a “Pilot site management plan” for Madinat Habu (one of the temples part of the property, on the West Bank of the Nile) was received by the World Heritage Centre. At the time of preparing this document, the plan has not yet been examined by the Centre or by ICOMOS.
The mission to Cairo (29 April-4 May 2007) requested as an emergency by the Supreme Council of Antiquities was the opportunity to visit rapidly the property in order to assess the work carried out since 2006, that was not reflected in the documents provided by the State Party as mentioned above. The mission noticed the following:
d) No account was taken of the main recommendations of the 2006 mission, nor of the previous recommendations of the World Heritage Bureau;
e) A large number of the houses of Gurnah were destroyed without any historic or ethnographic survey and the inhabitants moved to a new village to the South;
f) No consultation was made regarding the design of the Plaza between the entrance to the Temple of Karnak and the Nile and the new visitors centre and shopping mall were built following questionable architectural criteria;
g) The project to destroy a portion of the city of Luxor in order to excavate the Alley of the Sphinxes and make it into a sunken pathway is still foreseen;
h) The destruction of the “French village” close to the Nile is to take place in the coming weeks;
i) A project to build a mooring for cruise boats and various infrastructures on the West Bank close to the new bridge is foreseen.
The mission had the opportunity to go through the new visitors centre at the entrance of the Valley of the Kings, funded by Japan. It is to note that its limited space, the design of the adjacent shops and the circulation scheme might cause problems when massive amounts of tourists enter at the same time. Another issue is the location of the parking lot at the entrance of the temple of Hatchepsut at Deir el-Bahari that seriously impairs the vision of the temple and should be moved to another location.
The mission expressed its concern regarding those issues, in particular the need to keep in mind, at all stages of planning and design, the outstanding value of the property for which it was inscribed on the World Heritage List, and to maintain the essential balance between the antiquities, the successive layers of history to date and the living communities.
Finally, the mission also visited the remains of the mud-brick village built by Hassan Fathi in the seventies, on the West Bank, in a dreadful state of decay. Those houses are an outstanding testimony of the architect’s achievements and should be restored urgently before they collapse due to lack of maintenance. A pilot project could be launched to this end for the benefit of history of 20th century architecture and serve as a training exercise both for the inhabitants and young architects.