For our Egypt travel guidebooks we are always on the lookout for interesting sightseeing ideas. Especially places that are somewhat off the beaten track or different from the usual tourist highlights are worth exploring. New Gourna on the West Bank of Luxor is one of these secret places we go back to quite often when we visit Luxor. While today New Gourna looks like a modern and ordinary part of Luxor, its roots go back to a ground-breaking architectural project. It was developed by Hassan Fathy, one of the most famous Egyptian architects. His traditional adobe (mudbrick) architecture in New Gourna was modern and traditional at once. And New Gourna in Luxor is his most important project that is still in existence.
The history of Old Gourna (Al-Qurna)
Once upon a time, Gourna – or Al-Qurna – was a village of tomb raiders. The villagers of Gourna lived at the edge of the fertile Nile valley, on the Western outskirts of Luxor. This area, where the green fields end and the desert begins, has always been very important in Egypt and the villagers lived next to their fields at the edge of the fertile lands. Right beyond that, in the desert, was the place where the ancient Egyptians buried their dead. And at one point, the tombs of Pharaonic noblemen, thousands of years old, were lying practically below the village of Al-Qurna (later “Old Gourna”).
Thus, in the 19th century, when Egyptology started out and archaeologists were searching for remains of the past, they came across the tombs of Al-Qurna. The villagers of Al-Qurna found jobs helping the scientists and digging for burial goods. And they realised that they had fabulous treasures in their backyards, or rather, below their backyards. So, instead of working only for the Western scientists, they started digging on their own and selling the mummies and ancient artworks to the highest bidder on the international antique markets.
The archaeologists – and the Egyptian state who owned those goods – were not amused. They tried to get the villagers to move out, but never succeeded. Of course, over the decades and with the modernization in Egypt, the old village became less and less attractive, but still, many of the grave robbers didn’t want to move.
The architect Hassan Fathy
In came Hassan Fathy, a famous if somewhat controversial Egyptian modernist architect. Born in 1900 in Alexandria, Hassan Fathy studied architecture in Cairo, where he got in contact with the architecture of Le Corbusier and Bauhaus. We have visited the house Corbusier built for his parents at Lac Lemont in Switzerland and can imagine that Hassan Fathy was impressed by the skilful use of natural light inside the house. From Bauhaus he also took some ideas. For instance, it was a new concept that good buildings do not have to be necessarily decorative. Instead, modern Bauhaus architects focussed on functionality for the inhabitants, even in small details.
Hassan Fathy was very interested in traditional design methods and materials and designed his first adobe buildings in the late 1930s. And then the Luxor authorities tasked Hassan Fathy with creating a new Gourna village that would entice the Old Gourna villagers to move to the new place.
An “architecture for the poor”
Hassan Fathy wanted to build for Egypt’s poor – simple but functional constructions. He thought that the new building material of his time, structural steel, was not an apt choice for poor countries. And also, materials such as concrete, timber, and glass did not make good economic sense in poor and dry Egypt.
Thus, his idea for New Gourna was to build from traditional materials: mud bricks. Adobe houses are cool in the hot Egyptian summer. With cleverly arranged windows and courtyards they can be comfortable without air-conditioning. In winter, they can be heated and hold the heat quite well.
And the best thing about adobe houses is that they are easy to build. That means that the families living in such houses can easily add a room or rearrange the layout if their requirements change.
Hassan Fathy planned not only adobe houses of different sizes, but also everything a modern town would need. There was a central and modern mosque, and nearby the market and even a theatre.
Since the town of New Gourna lay at the crossroads of access roads to the tourist attractions of Luxor’s West Bank (Thebes), he also planned a tourist market. That way, Hassan Fathy argued, the New Gourna villagers could still earn money from the wonders of Ancient Egypt. Rather than looting Pharaonic tombs, they could produce and sell souvenirs to the tourists on their way to the Memnon Colossi or the Hatshepsut Temple.
The fate of the architecture of New Gourna
Hassan Fathy himself lived in a mudbrick house in New Gourna while he was building the new town, in the late 1940s. But alas, few of the villagers of Old Gurna wanted to move. Some did not want to move anywhere, and that was that. But others who were willing to leave the old village still did not want to live in New Gourna, for several reasons.
Firstly, the mud-brick houses seemed backward to them: They wanted modern concrete houses! And secondly, the adobe houses really had their drawbacks. For however convenient it is to be able to repair and re-build your own house – you also have to repair the adobe regularly. The mud facades will fall into disrepair quickly if it rains occasionally and the inhabitants don’t repair the mud once in a while. Most villagers were not so keen on that work. And thus, only the poorest agreed to moving into Hassan Fathy’s new houses.
In 1952, the builders stopped working on the remaining areas of the village. New Gourna functioned for a while, but indeed many villagers did not take good care of their houses. Therefore, today not many of them are left.
What there is to see today of the modern architecture in New Gourna
The only structure by Hassan Fathy that became popular with the villagers was the mosque. It may have been modern and unusual, but the community liked it enough to undertake the regular repairs that were necessary. It took 70 years and a UNESCO restoration project to save some of the other Hassan Fathy houses.
You can still visit New Gourna on the way to the Memnon Colossi, the Ramesseum or the Hatshepsut Temple. The mosque is easy to spot at the end of the main village road. There’s also a sign pointing to the Hassan Fathy architecture in New Gourna. On this short village road, you will see the repaired theatre building on your left. It is only open in the mornings.
Opposite the theatre is the only house still in roughly the shape that Hassan Fathy intended. The owner has transformed it into a small museum for Hassan Fathy’s architecture. He and his family are happy to explain more about the revolutionary architectural project. They will also guide you through New Gourna to spot the original adobe houses, and can show you around the theatre.
New life for Hassan Fathy’s market arcades
In front of the mosque, the main road of New Gourna turns right and forms a large square with covered arcades. A few years ago, they were crumbling and dilapidated. Rising groundwater levels were endangering the foundations of the mudbrick arcades. Luckily, the UNESCO started a project in 2011 to protect the adobe architecture by Hassan Fathy. In connection with the groundwater drainage at the nearby Temple of Amenhotep III, the conservators could reduce the water damage.
The arcades look almost enticing now. And the building behind them, which Hassan Fathy intended as a tourist market, is being converted into a guest house and café. Hassan Fathy’s own house not far from it is also in the process of being rebuilt.
How to get to the architecture in New Gourna from the ferry pier on the West Bank of Luxor
Follow the main road west for about 1 km, where you have to cross the fairly busy West Bank street. About 350 m further on an old sign says “Mohandes H Fathy Street”, even though it is pointing in a wrong direction. There is also a sign for the UNESCO project. On the left side you will soon see the theatre. On the right side is the small museum run by Ahmed Abdelrady. At the end of the street you will already see the mosque. You can easily reach the village on foot. Alternatively, you can rent a bicycle at one of the shops near the ferry pier on the west bank.
Hassan Fathy also wrote a book about his concept for New Gourna:
Hassan Fathy. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt
NB: We researched New Gourna and the architecture of Hassan Fathy for our German guidebook about the Nile “Ägypten – Die klassische Nilreise”. However, we had no sponsoring for the trip to the modern architecture in New Gourna.
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As I am planning for Egypt, this place looks so raw, offbeat and un touristy. I would definately visit Ne Gourna from Luxor not only for Hassan Fathy but also for this raw town. Thanks for the article, saving it right now.
Dear Pamela, if you are interested in architecture – New Gourna is really interesting. To see the village life in Egypt – just walk away a little bit from the main tourist sights. It is really everywhere.
What a rare look into Egypt, outside of the tourist spots. I have to schedule a trip there…for both the tourist spits and the rawness of it.
For the history buff in me, the story behind Old Gourna and New Gourna is very interesting and amusing. I also like Le Courbusier and been to some of his creations and it is interesting how Hassan Fathy was inspired by him. He would have been so sad and a bit frustrated perhaps when he learnt that no one is ready to move here. Good to know that at least now UNESCO has restored the whole place.
What an interesting story! I have visited Egypt last year and had no idea about the New Gourna. I spent two days in Luxor and visited the Valley of the Kings, so I must have passed by it on the way there. I wish I knew, so I could have visited this village as well. The concept of architecture for the poor is really intriguing, but makes sense, especially seeing myself how this area looks like. I’ve learned about the story of the tomb robbers, but I didn’t know that they were so close to the Valley of the Kings – practically their backyard as you say.
Dear Joanna, New Gourna is not on the main tourist path – you are right. Most people visit the main sights, like Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Ramesseum, Medinet Habu, Hatschepsut Temple and so on. But if you are interested in architecture and want to see something a bit different, New Gourna is an intersting place to go!
Ihr Lieben, das klingt ja wahnsinnig spannend und genauso sieht es aus. Allerdings wirkten die Arkaden vor der Restaurierung ästhetischer als danach, wo sie sehr clean daherkommen. Wow, wie fleißig Ihr seid. Auf Recherche würden wir nie auch nur einen einzigen Artikel für den Blog schaffen. Weiterhin viel Spaß und viele Grüße!
Ja, New Gourna ist wirklich ziemlich spannend. Ich kann dich beruhigen, wir würden das während der Recherche auch nicht schaffen. Der Artikel war schon ziemlich fertig und wir haben nur noch die neuesten Infos ergänzt! Und du hast recht, jetzt sieht alles ziemlich clean aus. Ist auch irgendwie unklar wie es weitergehen soll.
I am at a loss for words in regards to Fathy’s project. The mud-brick construction of New Gourna Village genuinely astounds me; it appears to be exquisite. I honestly found reading about its past to be very interesting. Traveling through Egypt and coming here soon are definitely on my bucket list!
We had two days in Luxor but we completely missed New Gourna on the West Bank of Luxor. As a Civil Engineer it would be fascinating to learn more about the ground-breaking architecture of Hassan Fathy. Great that he had an open mind and chose materials and designs that really worked for New Gourna. Even if it did mean they had to repair their houses more regularly. It looks like a spot I would love to visit if we get back to Luxor.
Dear Linda, New Gourna is not on the tourist trail and it makes totally sense that you visit the must-see sights if you have limited time in Luxor. But on the other hand if you are interested in architecture and traditional building methods, New Gourna is really worth the detour.
Well, not all good intentions are accepted as good things! But I kind of understand the Old Gourna villagers’ thinking about having to fix the house all the time. On the other hand, I agreed that adobe houses are a good choice for the desert topography/climate. It reminded me of adobe houses in New Mexico in the U.S. I guess villages are willing to fix the mosque because that’s their place of worship.
It’s a very interesting story on Hassan Fathy’s functional and groundbreaking architecture in New Gourna, turning a town of tomb raiders into a brand new city. I totally agree with the point on durability of mud houses as they are hard to maintain in compared to concrete ones even though they remaun cool in hot weather. But it was commendable that UNESCO took over the restoration project for the remaining houses built by Hassan Fathy in time. And finally the villagers were able to make an earning from tourism. I would love to see such well preserved architectural masterpieces.
Dear Puloma, actually the villagers are far from earning anything from tourism. New Gourna is not on the tourist path and most tourist tend to spend only 2 days in Luxor. That is just enough time to see the main pharaonic sites.
I am not really familiar with New Gourna but I definitely learned something new today after reading your post. Thank you for sharing a bit of their history. Happy to know that they were able to restore and save some of the Hassan Fathy houses.
This was very interesting as usually when we read something about Luxor it is about the Valley of the Kings and the ruins. I think I learned something new by reading this. I find it amazing that Fathy actually wanted to build for poor and that he considered practicality while he built. In hot climates keeping your house cool must be one of the key elements. Same with cold. Next time I visit Egypt I want to see Luxor as well and I will definitely keep an eye out for this as well.
Your post really makes me want to go back to Egypt. I was there a couple of times many years ago but visited in a very touristy way – I had a small kid in tow, after all. Therefore, I did visit many amazing places – like Luxor, obviously – but it was all organized. Consequently, I missed out on hidden gems like New Gourna. The place looks so interesting and somewhat mystic. But to tell you the truth, I liked the market arcades better before the renovation 😉 As always, you are introducing a fascinating destination in an elaborated fashion – I truly appreciate that 🙂
Dear Renata, we are really curious how the project turns out. It would be nice if tourists (Egyptians and foreigners) became more interested in the architecture of Hassan Fathy and the villagers finally could earn some income from this heritage.