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Egypt’s city of Esna is slowly
regaining its glory amid renewed interest in its heritage
The Ministry of Antiquities
and an urban development company, with US funding, are advancing a major
project to revive tourism in the city of Esna in Luxor governorate, by not only
promoting its ancient heritage but also by implicating the locals.
The city of Esna, located on
the banks of the Nile River just 60 kilometers (37 miles) to the south of
Luxor, is undergoing an ambitious project to document and preserve some of its
key heritage sites. The work aims to reposition the city as an important
cultural destination on Egypt’s tourist map and pave the way for its economic
development and sustainable revitalization.
Rediscovering Esna’s Culture
Heritage Assets (RECHA) project is being implemented by the urban development
company Takween along with the Ministry
of Antiquities and Luxor governorate,
and is funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
program started in 2016, but has been presented to the public this year and its
first tourist promotion video was released Sept. 28, on World Tourism Day.
“It is a project where we are
trying to test a model to see [how] provincial cities like Esna can capitalize
on their cultural assets, both tangible and intangible.
And how these can
become an agent for economic development in the city,” Kareem Ibrahim, CEO and
co-founder of Takween and RECHA’s project director, told Al-Monitor.
The history of Esna dates back
to the Pharaonic era, when it stood as the capital of one of Egypt’s regions at
The city remained important for over 2,000 years as a hub of trade
and commerce that left behind assets and wealth of the Pharaonic, Greco-Roman,
Coptic, Islamic and modern eras.
Its prominence, however, started to fade at
the beginning of the 20th century with the rise of Luxor as a major tourist
destination in the country, in a process that eventually led to its gradual
deterioration before being forgotten.
Today, Esna stands as a
frequent stop for Nile cruises given that its city center is home to the Temple
of Esna, dedicated to the ancient deity Khnum.
Its construction began during
the 18th Dynasty of Egypt and was completed during the Ptolemaic and Roman
period. Esna is also famous for its barrage bridges, including the now-obsolete
one built in 1906 by the British and the modern Electricity Bridge from the
Yet Ibrahim said that the
current tourism model has a very limited impact on local residents, given the
little interaction between them and tourists.
To change this dynamic, RECHA has
been primarily devised as an urban development project that initially focuses
on locals rather than on tourists.
This way, the project aims to first
integrate residents, improve their living conditions and bring economic
benefits for them, and with the intention that this will ultimately make it
appealing for tourists as well.
“The problem is that in Egypt
you have large numbers of tourists and revenues, but what really stays with the
local communities is minimal,” Ibrahim said. “In places like Esna tourists
go to the temple, buy a ticket and leave, so whether you have 40,000 or 1
million visitors a year, it does not really matter. We are trying to
The most important building
that the project has aimed to preserve is the 18th century Wakalat al-Jiddawi, a two-story building that used to
work as a caravanserai and stands today as a witness and representative of
Esna’s commercial importance and its thriving economic life in the 18th and the
The building, listed as a monument in the 1950s but never
properly restored, is located in the intersection of the city that overlooks
the street of the bazar and the Khnum Temple. It can become a tourist and
RECHA has also restored
facades of about 10 other significant buildings, which are not listed
as monuments, in an attempt to draw the attention of locals, government
officials and visitors alike.
Finally, the project has also
restored parts of Al-Qasareya Street, which is a typical, mostly covered street
that runs from north to south and holds most of the city’s economic
activity. Before the intervention, more than half of the more than
110 shops in Al-Qasareya — which is famous for its fabrics,
sewing tools and tailor shops — remained closed.
But Ibrahim said that
people are starting to reinvest and visit the area again.
“The market [before the
renovation] was not very busy and most customers were afraid to come
because the street was not paved, the market was not well lit and its wooden
ceiling was [about] to fall,” said Adel al-Ansari, the owner of a clothing
store located on Al-Qasareya who renovated his shop at the same time when the
area was restored.
“After the restoration the situation became different
and safer. [Now] it is much better.
There is a boom, which will encourage more
people to work and open shops that were closed,” Ansari told Al-Monitor,
explaining that he himself is planning to expand his shop and buy another one.
Other hidden gems from Esna
that RECHA aims to capitalize on are the city’s corniche, where its old barrage
and some of its most notable historical buildings and palaces stand, as well as
the city center, home to several other significant buildings and street
Another remarkable site in the area is the only oil press that still
remains in Esna from the more than 30 presses that used to work in the city
over the past two centuries.
“The importance of the project
lies in the preservation of the remaining architectural heritage [of the
city],” Ahmed Hassan, head of the Esna and Armant areas at the Ministry of
Tourism and Antiquities, told Al-Monitor.
“The second goal is to make tourist
visits longer; instead of tourists just visiting the temple [encourage
them] to visit other buildings that are being restored around the city.”
The project is working on
management plans to define the future use of the different sites that have been
preserved, and it is also developing a tourist map of the city for marketing
and promotional purposes.
RECHA has received funding to keep working until
“Before we got involved it
was only the temple that was known. There was nothing else,” Ibrahim
said. “What we are trying to do is to show that the city has a lot to
offer, just like many other cities in Egypt.”
He added, “If given the right
care and attention, Esna can become a multidestination site, rather than a
single destination one."
As part of its efforts to
preserve and foster Esna’s intangible activities in order to maintain its local
environment, RECHA is also conducting different workshops to build the human
capacity of locals.
These put a special emphasis on tourism and on the skills
of craftsmen. They have already encouraged partnerships between the city
administration, businessmen from the area and locals.
“During [one of] these
workshops we conducted field visits; we were trained as tourist guides and on
how to deal with different age groups to deliver information in a suitable
manner,” said Rehab Mukhtar Abdel Haris, a graduate of Egyptian archaeology at
South Valley University who participated in a workshop and has already led
several school trips on guided tours within Esna.
She told Al-Monitor that the
handicraft workshops devoted to housewives and girls who have not completed
their studies are also “very useful” given that “they can practice these crafts
at home” and sell them.
“It is a
360-degree program,” Ibrahim said. “We are focusing on physical, marketing
and economic components, and on the human capital, to give a boost to the