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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