Lost in Gourna

“One’s beautiful design must serve the humble everyday needs of men; indeed, if theses designs are true to their materials, their environment and their daily job, they must necessarily be beautiful.”


The first time I encountered the name Hassan Fathy was in 1995 during a captivating lecture on urban sociology. My curiosity was piqued immediately at the mere mention of his name, especially when our professors started by naming him as the Great Architect of Egypt. Yet, intriguingly, we were advised not to replicate his work in Gourna, as it failed to satisfy the socio-cultural needs of Old Gournis. This contradiction left me puzzled, motivating me to investigate deeper into the paradox around Hassan Fathy (1900-1989).

As I explored the subject further, seeking answers to my questions, as my professor’s explanations only partially satisfied my curiosity. I realized that Hassan Fathy was the Egyptian Architect who is widely acknowledged but the reservation about his work in Gourna kept my head busy. I wondered what the conflict is, why the controversy?! Why as we mention him as the genius visionary architect, we were advised not to repeat his mistakes in New Gourna. The truth remained elusive, and these contemplations persisted in my mind for years.

A few years later, when I found myself in Paris for my PhD journey, I relived the astonishment when I found my French surrounding also fascinated by Hassan Fathy. Whenever I mentioned my Egyptian heritage and profession as an architect, the name Hassan Fathy inevitably surfaced in conversations. At that time, back then, New Gourna was mentioned as a “World Heritage” that needed to be put under UNESCO’s protection as it was deteriorating with immense rapidity. It was undeniable that he was spoken of as the “Egyptian Architect” whom architecture for the poor left an eternal mark on the architectural heritage not only the Egyptian one but the World’s.

After years, I came back from Paris to Egypt I shifted my research interests to the types of rapid urbanization, especially the vernacular urbanization and its architecture be it formal or informal. Analyzing different types of space production in these areas along with the self-developed areas led me to recognize the architecture developed by the people, within a certain context, without an architect: the vernacular. The latter made me realize the importance of the built, non-built environment and the local resources. I developed on how human needs can primitively initiate architectural attempts that are successful and sustainable. Then came the relation between the vernacular, the informal and the production of urban space as a key to social/urban sustainability. How people usually perceive and experiment with their housing system and how the planned areas can become informal when the offered housing units don’t meet the users’ needs. Moreover, vernacular architecture can be perceived as one of the most sustainable solutions to rapid urbanization where the user is his own architect.

The Old Gourna and the new one of Hassan Fathy in Luxor were the subject of some of my research papers. I wanted to compare Old Gourna as very successful vernacular architecture in a challenging context, to the New Gourna of Hassan Fathy. The latter represents the perfect architectural solution meant to replace the original vernacular one. However, people initially rejected it because it wasn’t adapted to their needs. I was so enthusiastic to finally get the opportunity to understand what happened. I went back to Luxor with some of my students for a workshop and to investigate on the ground to finally understand the paradox of Hassan Fathy.

I learnt that throughout his career, Fathy completed several projects that not only reflected his design philosophy but also served as examples of how architecture can be used to improve people's lives. Fathy designed a few private residencesA throughout his career, many of which were built using traditional techniques and materials like mud bricks and palm trunks. While in Luxor, my mission was to collect as much information as possible about Fathy’s Gourna. Ahmed Abou Gabal, the Old Gourni, whom I became friends with and maintain that friendship to this day, was introduced to us during the workshop. He proudly introduced his family and his mother to me. Ahmed’s family is among a few who refused to relocate from the Gorn mountain to live in Fathy’s Gourna. His mother explained, “How can I accept to move down after living on the top? Here Luxor is literally beneath my feet. Why would I compromise this?

New Gourna

During my quest, I went to Gourna twice during workshops, the first time was in 2015 and the second visit was in 2018. During these two workshops which we worked on the three “Gournas”: the old one that was constructed by the People on the mount of ElGourn, the new by Hassan Fathy and “AlJadida” near Al Taref village that was constructed by the Egyptian government.

The village of New Gourna is situated about 2 to 3 kilometers away from the Old Gourna near Luxor in Upper Egypt. In the early year of 1946, the Egyptian government assigned Hassan Fathy to design a new village for the Gournawis in order to safeguard the pharaonic tombs that were embedded in the mountain of Gorn (Horn). 50 acres of agricultural land were designated for the relocation process. The new settlement should have provided the Old Gourni residents with a mosque, a school, a theater, a market, and a total of 90 houses. However, this project was never completed due to political and financial complications in addition to inhabitants’ rejection for the new site and the new architecture.

Prior to my visit to Gourna I decided to delve into Hassan Fathy’s background. I read his book “Architecture of the Poor” with the intent of understanding him, his way of thinking and his approach to Gourna to be able to formulate an opinion. From the pages of the book, I assumed that he comes from an aristocratic wealthy family, considering he used to regularly sojourn to villages for vacation purposes. This revelation provided insight into his childhood aspiration that if he’s offered 1 million EGP, that it would be used to build a village where peasants would follow the way of life that he would like them to, a decent life in affordable houses.1 Nevertheless, this aspiration–phrased in his book– bewildered me as I remained convinced that the rural people would naturally desire to lead lives according to their own preferences rather than conforming to someone else's ideals. However, my confidence in the virtuous intentions of this eminent architect remained undoubted. The living conditions of Egyptian peasants at that time were undoubtedly challenging, particularly regarding the lack of accessible affordable housing options. So, despite what I heard, my own research about Hassan Fathy made me realize that he was a visionary Egyptian architect whose avant-garde genius led to a revolution in sustainable architecture and urban renewal in the mid-20th century. He also dared to establish the idea of the right to vernacular innovation and that the traditional can be modern or contemporary. He successfully incorporated elements from traditional Egyptian architecture as sources of inspiration for designing and constructing contemporary homes. In this context, modernity is not primarily about aesthetics but rather pertains to the adaptability of the space for accommodating modern social practices and lifestyles.

Old Gourna

Knowing that I still needed to decipher the contradictory situation of my knowledge about Fathy, I embarked on a quest to find someone well-versed in the history of Old Gourna, it was during this journey that I crossed paths with Ahmed Abou Gabal during both workshops and I got to spend time with his family. This was the beginning of understanding a sort of light at the end of the tunnel! One memorable visit led us to Ahmed's mother, still residing atop the Gorn mountain. The Lady seemed to reign over Luxor in a very modest house that contains neither water nor official electricity, but the view wass really breathtaking. She explained why she refused to get down from the mountain and what on earth could ever compensate the feeling of being on the top of Luxor: “Getting down of the mountain is like exposing oneself” she said. "Here, our sanctuary remains inviolable; no one can enter without our consent. The intricate labyrinthine layout of old Gourna's urban fabric ensures that only those guided by one of us can navigate its winding paths."

From a distant perspective, the old Gourna may appear deceptively simple in structure, yet it's a masterful design carefully thought out. Ahmed took us on a tour of the remaining houses, elaborating on the rationale behind their construction, the choice of materials, and their adaptation to the scorching climate. One thing that left me in amazement was "Bab Al Hajjar," or the "Door of the Stone." These openings signified ancient Egyptian tombs repurposed as both cellars and private sanctuaries, a refuge for the family's patriarch and his wife during the sweltering heat. For generations, Gourniis had made their livelihood by tunneling into the tombs, plundering the contents, and selling the artifacts on the black market. It has been claimed that they built their houses in front of the tunnels to accord a certain degree of security to their operations and “Babel Hajjar” was the gate to these tunnels. This is why the distinguished vernacular architecture and urbanism of Gourna have been threatened for decades based on the belief that the Gournii are the thieves of ancient Egyptian treasures. I admit that stepping into these long-abandoned spaces, once evacuated, sent shivers down my spine.

While I was exploring the houses in Old Gourna I began to understand how the vernacular architecture blended with its environment. However, it was to a great extent different from what Hassan Fathy achieved in New Gourna. So, I decided to discuss with Ahmed Abou Gabal to learn more about the difficulties and problems related to Fathy’s Gourna.

Abou Gabal explained that the houses in Old Gourna were constructed with unique floor plans tailored to meet the specific needs of their occupants. Typically, these houses featured a primary entrance and a separate secondary entrance for guests. Many of these residences included inner courtyards, providing women the opportunity to raise poultry and enjoy a degree of freedom within the household. Additionally, each house boasted a main terrace with views overlooking Luxor and its temples. Staircases were commonly found, often situated in an open courtyard, to access the second floor. The houses exhibited remarkable ingenuity and flexibility, with rooms often adopting non-geometric, organic shapes. In Old Gourna, residents were skilled at crafting their own homes and furniture. Beds, for instance, were fashioned in the shape of mushrooms to provide a safe sleeping environment for children, free from the threat of scorpions. The interiors and exteriors of these houses were often adorned with colorful ornaments, reflecting individual tastes and personalization. Pigeon towers and pathways played integral roles in Old Gourna’s residences. Consequently, wall openings were scattered throughout the homes to facilitate the free movement of pigeons both inside and outside. In Old Gourna, inhabitants displayed their skill in sculpting various elements, including niches, beds, bathtubs, and even cabinets. Each house possessed a distinct personality that set it apart from the others.

Abou Gabal continued explaining that on the one hand, the houses that were designed by Fathy were remarkably uniform, to the extent that they lost their individuality. Furthermore, he pointed out that Fathy primarily relied on the same combination of materials that the old Gourni people had traditionally used for construction on the mountain. However, these materials, when applied in agricultural areas, proved vulnerable to water infiltration, resulting in most houses becoming saturated through capillary action and experiencing significant cracks which damaged most of the houses.

On the other hand, the Gourni people initially refused to move into the new homes Hassan Fathy had built for them because of the inspiration of the Nubian architecture which didn’t align with their social and cultural norms and a sense that they were not sufficiently involved in the customization of their new residences Hassan Fathy found it necessary to employ numerous domes to enclose specific areas with limited spans, like bedrooms. For the Gourni people, domes traditionally symbolized tombs, akin to their use in Islamic architecture. Reflecting on this, I understood the reason behind it, particularly after visiting the Mamluk necropolisB in Cairo which was characterized by an abundance of domed structures. In Gourni and Egyptian culture at large, there was a saying: "under the dome, there is a Sheikh." While the word "Sheikh" in Arabic typically refers to an elderly man, in this context, it signified a deceased individual beneath the dome.

In his book however, Hassan Fathy explains that he was aware that he is introducing architecture to natural architects!2 His intention was to include their architectural vocabulary in his new designs. This reflex was also strengthened by the fact that Old Gournis are experienced vernacular architects and craftsmen. Nevertheless, Fathy had to work with what he had at his disposal. The scarcity of materials also played a role in influencing his choices, particularly when it came to domes and vaults. He had to fashion roofs using the materials he could acquire, and since Old Gournii’s roofs were traditionally reinforced with wood, a resource he lacked access to due to wartime constraints, domes emerged as the ideal solution.

“It is important to understand that this search for local forms and their incorporation in the new village was not prompted by a sentimental desire to keep some souvenir of the old village. My purpose was always to restore to the Gournis their heritage of vigorous locally-inspired building tradition, involving the active cooperation of informed clients and skilled craftsmen.”3

During the second workshop I understood more about the construction methods of Gournii and I discussed a lot with young people who moved to “El Gourna AlJadida” or the second New Gourna, situated close to the village of Al-Taref, approximately 5 kilometers away from the Old Gourna. In 2005, the government forcibly demolished the traditional homes on Mount Gourn and relocated the people from Old Gourna to El Gourna AlJadida. The architectural style in the new settlement markedly differs from the vernacular houses of Old Gourna. While some acknowledge the tidiness of these new homes, they are acutely aware of the discomfort they experience due to the extreme heat in their new surroundings. They were also promised to have modern amenities such as running water and electricity, but these promises were not always kept.

One of the ladies I met in “El Gourna AlJadida” was FatmaA, an elderly lady who deeply longed for her former residence in Old Gourna. She expressed nostalgia and profound sadness because she found the new houses near Taref to be lacking in character. She lamented, saying, "These new houses make me feel like I've lost a part of myself. I miss the mountain air, I miss my neighbors, we used to bake together, live together as one big family. But here, everyone is secluded in their own homes. These houses have dispersed us and driven us apart." Fatma really had nothing, but she showed a lot of generosity that touched my heart. She insisted on giving me the little dolls she fabricated from some remaining cloths!

Lost to Be Found!

What truly astonished me during the second workshop were the individuals who opted to relocate to Fathy's Gourna for resettlement, only to have their homes develop cracks and deteriorate. Subsequently, they embarked on constructing new, modern concrete houses on their original plots, even bringing their animals with them into these concrete dwellings. It was quite unusual to witness animals navigating stairs inside these homes!

I believe that the younger generations of Old Gourni may increasingly embrace Hassan Fathy's architectural vision, especially when they are confronted with the contrasting government-introduced architecture in "El Gourna AlJadida" near AlTaref village. This experience has led them to recognize the value and quality of Hassan Fathy's architectural contributions after almost six decades. Perhaps initially, Hassan Fathy's architecture appeared too flawless or overly immaculate for the residents. It's possible that his government commission to design homes for these individuals, who were regarded as instinctive architects, led to him being seen as an architectural outsider or colonist. These residents sought familiar touchpoints in their new surroundings, whether in Fathy's designs or in "El Gourna AlJadida." This is why many of them took their doors and windows with them after the demolition in 2005.

Today, they are actively working to preserve what remains of his architectural legacy, while also safeguarding well-preserved structures such as the mosque and the market (Souq). In fact, some individuals have begun to derive a livelihood from Hassan Fathy's homes, as exemplified by Ahmed Abdel Rady, who has opened his house for tourist visits.

Although very little remains of Fathy's houses, primarily because the project was never fully realized according to his original design due to political and financial challenges, resulting in the village being left incomplete and abandoned, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from New Gourna that should resonate with all of us!

Following years of research and extensive experimentation with my students regarding earth materials, and all the challenges we were facing, as we strived to modernize this vernacular material, I reached a conclusion that I believe has bridged the gaps in my understanding concerning the debates surrounding Hassan Fathy's architectural legacy. I no longer question this matter. No doubt, he is a tremendously courageous architect, yet we must also recognize his failings in Gourna, not necessarily as an architect but in the architecture offered to Gourniis. Hassan Fathy's architecture exhibited remarkable quality, but it didn't align with the needs and preferences of the Gournii people. This is evident in the fact that his projects for individual clients, where budget and culture were not primary considerations, have thrived and continue to stand as a testament to his genius, both in Egypt and abroad.

Hassan Fathy’s journey can be considered as continuous research for architectural solutions such as “Malqafs”C (Windcatcher) shading and mud bricks fortified with straw to keep the buildings cool in the harsh weather conditions that respect the local context. He saw the potential for using local materials and techniques to create environmentally and socially sustainable communities. He learnt from our ancestors’ construction methods at the granaries of RamesseumD in Luxor, the tomb of Seneb in the cemetery of Giza and St. Semion Monastery as well as the Nubian buildings in Aswan plus what he has found in Touna El Gebel on how to use the mud bricks to build houses and to cover them with vaults. It’s a durable material and an environmental method, as it maintains a balanced indoor temperature all year long.4

Indeed, Hassan Fathy was great enough to sacrifice himself in a project like Gorna because he believed in it and aimed to enhance the quality of life for rural communities through architecture. Perhaps, it was his journey as an architect to be lost in Gourna that enabled him to assert his leadership in the global architectural landscape as a pioneer in the revival of vernacular architecture. In the reintegration of Nubian architectural principles into the framework of modern vernacular architecture. Perhaps, he had to fail in order to succeed. It's worth noting that many great architects, from Alberti with the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini to Santa Maria Novella in Florence, have followed similar paths of trial and triumph in their architectural careers.

We've learned a valuable lesson from his experiences. Hassan Fathy displayed remarkable courage by daring to experiment, even if it meant for him to fail with the Gournii people. His experiments helped us and them gain a deeper understanding of his architectural vision. Through his innovative designs, Fathy demonstrated the power of architecture to transform the built environment and improve people's lives. Today, Fathy's legacy continues to inspire architects and urban planners around the world, as they seek to create sustainable and socially responsible communities that prioritize the needs of people and the environment. There is a growing and ongoing need for sustainable architectural solutions worldwide to protect both the built and natural environments. This necessity becomes even more obvious considering the escalating heat island effect and the challenges posed by global warming, emphasizing the importance of sustainability in the present and future. While Hassan Fathy may have got lost and faced challenges in Gourna, his journey ultimately set us on the correct path, leading us to discover avenues towards genuinely sustainable vernacular architecture.

Lost in Gourna

9/26/2023

The paradox of Hassan Fathy

“One’s beautiful design must serve the humble everyday needs of men; indeed, if theses designs are true to their materials, their environment and their daily job, they must necessarily be beautiful.”

Hassan Fathy


The first time I encountered the name Hassan Fathy was in 1995 during a captivating lecture on urban sociology. My curiosity was piqued immediately at the mere mention of his name, especially when our professors started by naming him as the Great Architect of Egypt. Yet, intriguingly, we were advised not to replicate his work in Gourna, as it failed to satisfy the socio-cultural needs of Old Gournis. This contradiction left me puzzled, motivating me to investigate deeper into the paradox around Hassan Fathy (1900-1989).

As I explored the subject further, seeking answers to my questions, as my professor’s explanations only partially satisfied my curiosity. I realized that Hassan Fathy was the Egyptian Architect who is widely acknowledged but the reservation about his work in Gourna kept my head busy. I wondered what the conflict is, why the controversy?! Why as we mention him as the genius visionary architect, we were advised not to repeat his mistakes in New Gourna. The truth remained elusive, and these contemplations persisted in my mind for years.

A few years later, when I found myself in Paris for my PhD journey, I relived the astonishment when I found my French surrounding also fascinated by Hassan Fathy. Whenever I mentioned my Egyptian heritage and profession as an architect, the name Hassan Fathy inevitably surfaced in conversations. At that time, back then, New Gourna was mentioned as a “World Heritage” that needed to be put under UNESCO’s protection as it was deteriorating with immense rapidity. It was undeniable that he was spoken of as the “Egyptian Architect” whom architecture for the poor left an eternal mark on the architectural heritage not only the Egyptian one but the World’s.

After years, I came back from Paris to Egypt I shifted my research interests to the types of rapid urbanization, especially the vernacular urbanization and its architecture be it formal or informal. Analyzing different types of space production in these areas along with the self-developed areas led me to recognize the architecture developed by the people, within a certain context, without an architect: the vernacular. The latter made me realize the importance of the built, non-built environment and the local resources. I developed on how human needs can primitively initiate architectural attempts that are successful and sustainable. Then came the relation between the vernacular, the informal and the production of urban space as a key to social/urban sustainability. How people usually perceive and experiment with their housing system and how the planned areas can become informal when the offered housing units don’t meet the users’ needs. Moreover, vernacular architecture can be perceived as one of the most sustainable solutions to rapid urbanization where the user is his own architect.

The Old Gourna and the new one of Hassan Fathy in Luxor were the subject of some of my research papers. I wanted to compare Old Gourna as very successful vernacular architecture in a challenging context, to the New Gourna of Hassan Fathy. The latter represents the perfect architectural solution meant to replace the original vernacular one. However, people initially rejected it because it wasn’t adapted to their needs. I was so enthusiastic to finally get the opportunity to understand what happened. I went back to Luxor with some of my students for a workshop and to investigate on the ground to finally understand the paradox of Hassan Fathy.

I learnt that throughout his career, Fathy completed several projects that not only reflected his design philosophy but also served as examples of how architecture can be used to improve people's lives. Fathy designed a few private residences throughout his career, many of which were built using traditional techniques and materials like mud bricks and palm trunks. While in Luxor, my mission was to collect as much information as possible about Fathy’s Gourna. Ahmed Abou Gabal, the Old Gourni, whom I became friends with and maintain that friendship to this day, was introduced to us during the workshop. He proudly introduced his family and his mother to me. Ahmed’s family is among a few who refused to relocate from the Gorn mountain to live in Fathy’s Gourna. His mother explained, “How can I accept to move down after living on the top? Here Luxor is literally beneath my feet. Why would I compromise this?

New Gourna

During my quest, I went to Gourna twice during workshops, the first time was in 2015 and the second visit was in 2018. During these two workshops which we worked on the three “Gournas”: the old one that was constructed by the People on the mount of ElGourn, the new by Hassan Fathy and “AlJadida” near Al Taref village that was constructed by the Egyptian government.

The village of New Gourna is situated about 2 to 3 kilometers away from the Old Gourna near Luxor in Upper Egypt. In the early year of 1946, the Egyptian government assigned Hassan Fathy to design a new village for the Gournawis in order to safeguard the pharaonic tombs that were embedded in the mountain of Gorn (Horn). 50 acres of agricultural land were designated for the relocation process. The new settlement should have provided the Old Gourni residents with a mosque, a school, a theater, a market, and a total of 90 houses. However, this project was never completed due to political and financial complications in addition to inhabitants’ rejection for the new site and the new architecture.

Plan of the village of New Gourna – © American University Cairo
Public buildings, group of houses, the market and the craftschool of New Gourna – © American University Cairo
New Gourna Houses, gouache, 1946 – © American University Cairo
Plan and elevation of New Gourna – © Hassan Fathy
The Mosque of New Gourna by Hassan Fathy – © Randa A. Mahmoud
The Market of New Gourna. The Nubian Vernacular Architecture reinterpreted by Hassan Fathy – photo: Roland Unger © CC 4.0
The Discrepancy Between Fathy's Architecture and the Post-Collapse Gournii Architecture in New Gourna – © Randa A. Mahmoud
Remaining of Fathy's Architecture entwined with concrete and red bricks: restoration solutions by Old Gournii in Fathy’s New Gourna – © Randa A. Mahmoud
The condition of houses in Fathy's Gourna: In the hope of a proper restoration – photo: Roland Unger © CC 4.0
Proliferation of Red Brick/concrete houses in Fathy's New Gourna – © Randa A. Mahmoud
01 | 11
Plan of the village of New Gourna – © American University Cairo

1 Hassan Fathy, Architecture for the Poor an Experiment in Rural Egypt, The American University in Cairo Press, 1989, p. 232.

Prior to my visit to Gourna I decided to delve into Hassan Fathy’s background. I read his book “Architecture of the Poor” with the intent of understanding him, his way of thinking and his approach to Gourna to be able to formulate an opinion. From the pages of the book, I assumed that he comes from an aristocratic wealthy family, considering he used to regularly sojourn to villages for vacation purposes. This revelation provided insight into his childhood aspiration that if he’s offered 1 million EGP, that it would be used to build a village where peasants would follow the way of life that he would like them to, a decent life in affordable houses.1 Nevertheless, this aspiration–phrased in his book– bewildered me as I remained convinced that the rural people would naturally desire to lead lives according to their own preferences rather than conforming to someone else's ideals. However, my confidence in the virtuous intentions of this eminent architect remained undoubted. The living conditions of Egyptian peasants at that time were undoubtedly challenging, particularly regarding the lack of accessible affordable housing options. So, despite what I heard, my own research about Hassan Fathy made me realize that he was a visionary Egyptian architect whose avant-garde genius led to a revolution in sustainable architecture and urban renewal in the mid-20th century. He also dared to establish the idea of the right to vernacular innovation and that the traditional can be modern or contemporary. He successfully incorporated elements from traditional Egyptian architecture as sources of inspiration for designing and constructing contemporary homes. In this context, modernity is not primarily about aesthetics but rather pertains to the adaptability of the space for accommodating modern social practices and lifestyles.

Old Gourna

Knowing that I still needed to decipher the contradictory situation of my knowledge about Fathy, I embarked on a quest to find someone well-versed in the history of Old Gourna, it was during this journey that I crossed paths with Ahmed Abou Gabal during both workshops and I got to spend time with his family. This was the beginning of understanding a sort of light at the end of the tunnel! One memorable visit led us to Ahmed's mother, still residing atop the Gorn mountain. The Lady seemed to reign over Luxor in a very modest house that contains neither water nor official electricity, but the view wass really breathtaking. She explained why she refused to get down from the mountain and what on earth could ever compensate the feeling of being on the top of Luxor: “Getting down of the mountain is like exposing oneself” she said. "Here, our sanctuary remains inviolable; no one can enter without our consent. The intricate labyrinthine layout of old Gourna's urban fabric ensures that only those guided by one of us can navigate its winding paths."

From a distant perspective, the old Gourna may appear deceptively simple in structure, yet it's a masterful design carefully thought out. Ahmed took us on a tour of the remaining houses, elaborating on the rationale behind their construction, the choice of materials, and their adaptation to the scorching climate. One thing that left me in amazement was "Bab Al Hajjar," or the "Door of the Stone." These openings signified ancient Egyptian tombs repurposed as both cellars and private sanctuaries, a refuge for the family's patriarch and his wife during the sweltering heat. For generations, Gourniis had made their livelihood by tunneling into the tombs, plundering the contents, and selling the artifacts on the black market. It has been claimed that they built their houses in front of the tunnels to accord a certain degree of security to their operations and “Babel Hajjar” was the gate to these tunnels. This is why the distinguished vernacular architecture and urbanism of Gourna have been threatened for decades based on the belief that the Gournii are the thieves of ancient Egyptian treasures. I admit that stepping into these long-abandoned spaces, once evacuated, sent shivers down my spine.

While I was exploring the houses in Old Gourna I began to understand how the vernacular architecture blended with its environment. However, it was to a great extent different from what Hassan Fathy achieved in New Gourna. So, I decided to discuss with Ahmed Abou Gabal to learn more about the difficulties and problems related to Fathy’s Gourna.

Abou Gabal explained that the houses in Old Gourna were constructed with unique floor plans tailored to meet the specific needs of their occupants. Typically, these houses featured a primary entrance and a separate secondary entrance for guests. Many of these residences included inner courtyards, providing women the opportunity to raise poultry and enjoy a degree of freedom within the household. Additionally, each house boasted a main terrace with views overlooking Luxor and its temples. Staircases were commonly found, often situated in an open courtyard, to access the second floor. The houses exhibited remarkable ingenuity and flexibility, with rooms often adopting non-geometric, organic shapes. In Old Gourna, residents were skilled at crafting their own homes and furniture. Beds, for instance, were fashioned in the shape of mushrooms to provide a safe sleeping environment for children, free from the threat of scorpions. The interiors and exteriors of these houses were often adorned with colorful ornaments, reflecting individual tastes and personalization. Pigeon towers and pathways played integral roles in Old Gourna’s residences. Consequently, wall openings were scattered throughout the homes to facilitate the free movement of pigeons both inside and outside. In Old Gourna, inhabitants displayed their skill in sculpting various elements, including niches, beds, bathtubs, and even cabinets. Each house possessed a distinct personality that set it apart from the others.

Remaining of Old Gourna from Faraway, from my visits with Abou Gabal – © Randa A. Mahmoud
On our way to discover Old Gourna – © Randa A. Mahmoud
The vibrant desert hues of the houses in Old Gourna – © Randa A. Mahmoud
Luxor seen from Old Gourna, a breathtaking view – © Randa A. Mahmoud
The funerary temple of Ramesseum seen from Old Gourna – © Randa A. Mahmoud
Remaining of Old Gourna. The photo shows the interior organization of Old Gournii's houses. These houses were demolished by the government to force the relocation of Old Gournii – © Randa A. Mahmoud
Donkeys on top of the lost world of Old Gourna – © Randa A. Mahmoud
Vernacular architecture/structure of houses in Old Gourna – © Randa A. Mahmoud
Interior vernacular architecture of Old Gourna. A lost identity in the other New Gournas – © Randa A. Mahmoud
Ceiling structure in Old Gourna; Fathy replaced this structure method with vaults and domes because of the war and the scarcity of imported construction materials – © Randa A. Mahmoud
Molds to fabricate statues for tourism, one of the handicrafts that Old Gournii used to practice in order to generate money – © Randa A. Mahmoud
01 | 12
Remaining of Old Gourna from Faraway, from my visits with Abou Gabal – © Randa A. Mahmoud

2 Ibid, p. 43.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

Fatma

Mamlouk necropolis

Malqafs

Ramesseum

Abou Gabal continued explaining that on the one hand, the houses that were designed by Fathy were remarkably uniform, to the extent that they lost their individuality. Furthermore, he pointed out that Fathy primarily relied on the same combination of materials that the old Gourni people had traditionally used for construction on the mountain. However, these materials, when applied in agricultural areas, proved vulnerable to water infiltration, resulting in most houses becoming saturated through capillary action and experiencing significant cracks which damaged most of the houses.

On the other hand, the Gourni people initially refused to move into the new homes Hassan Fathy had built for them because of the inspiration of the Nubian architecture which didn’t align with their social and cultural norms and a sense that they were not sufficiently involved in the customization of their new residences Hassan Fathy found it necessary to employ numerous domes to enclose specific areas with limited spans, like bedrooms. For the Gourni people, domes traditionally symbolized tombs, akin to their use in Islamic architecture. Reflecting on this, I understood the reason behind it, particularly after visiting the Mamluk necropolis in Cairo which was characterized by an abundance of domed structures. In Gourni and Egyptian culture at large, there was a saying: "under the dome, there is a Sheikh." While the word "Sheikh" in Arabic typically refers to an elderly man, in this context, it signified a deceased individual beneath the dome.

In his book however, Hassan Fathy explains that he was aware that he is introducing architecture to natural architects!2 His intention was to include their architectural vocabulary in his new designs. This reflex was also strengthened by the fact that Old Gournis are experienced vernacular architects and craftsmen. Nevertheless, Fathy had to work with what he had at his disposal. The scarcity of materials also played a role in influencing his choices, particularly when it came to domes and vaults. He had to fashion roofs using the materials he could acquire, and since Old Gournii’s roofs were traditionally reinforced with wood, a resource he lacked access to due to wartime constraints, domes emerged as the ideal solution.

“It is important to understand that this search for local forms and their incorporation in the new village was not prompted by a sentimental desire to keep some souvenir of the old village. My purpose was always to restore to the Gournis their heritage of vigorous locally-inspired building tradition, involving the active cooperation of informed clients and skilled craftsmen.”3

During the second workshop I understood more about the construction methods of Gournii and I discussed a lot with young people who moved to “El Gourna AlJadida” or the second New Gourna, situated close to the village of Al-Taref, approximately 5 kilometers away from the Old Gourna. In 2005, the government forcibly demolished the traditional homes on Mount Gourn and relocated the people from Old Gourna to El Gourna AlJadida. The architectural style in the new settlement markedly differs from the vernacular houses of Old Gourna. While some acknowledge the tidiness of these new homes, they are acutely aware of the discomfort they experience due to the extreme heat in their new surroundings. They were also promised to have modern amenities such as running water and electricity, but these promises were not always kept.

One of the ladies I met in “El Gourna AlJadida” was Fatma, an elderly lady who deeply longed for her former residence in Old Gourna. She expressed nostalgia and profound sadness because she found the new houses near Taref to be lacking in character. She lamented, saying, "These new houses make me feel like I've lost a part of myself. I miss the mountain air, I miss my neighbors, we used to bake together, live together as one big family. But here, everyone is secluded in their own homes. These houses have dispersed us and driven us apart." Fatma really had nothing, but she showed a lot of generosity that touched my heart. She insisted on giving me the little dolls she fabricated from some remaining cloths!

Lost to Be Found!

What truly astonished me during the second workshop were the individuals who opted to relocate to Fathy's Gourna for resettlement, only to have their homes develop cracks and deteriorate. Subsequently, they embarked on constructing new, modern concrete houses on their original plots, even bringing their animals with them into these concrete dwellings. It was quite unusual to witness animals navigating stairs inside these homes!

I believe that the younger generations of Old Gourni may increasingly embrace Hassan Fathy's architectural vision, especially when they are confronted with the contrasting government-introduced architecture in "El Gourna AlJadida" near AlTaref village. This experience has led them to recognize the value and quality of Hassan Fathy's architectural contributions after almost six decades. Perhaps initially, Hassan Fathy's architecture appeared too flawless or overly immaculate for the residents. It's possible that his government commission to design homes for these individuals, who were regarded as instinctive architects, led to him being seen as an architectural outsider or colonist. These residents sought familiar touchpoints in their new surroundings, whether in Fathy's designs or in "El Gourna AlJadida." This is why many of them took their doors and windows with them after the demolition in 2005.

Today, they are actively working to preserve what remains of his architectural legacy, while also safeguarding well-preserved structures such as the mosque and the market (Souq). In fact, some individuals have begun to derive a livelihood from Hassan Fathy's homes, as exemplified by Ahmed Abdel Rady, who has opened his house for tourist visits.

Although very little remains of Fathy's houses, primarily because the project was never fully realized according to his original design due to political and financial challenges, resulting in the village being left incomplete and abandoned, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from New Gourna that should resonate with all of us!

Following years of research and extensive experimentation with my students regarding earth materials, and all the challenges we were facing, as we strived to modernize this vernacular material, I reached a conclusion that I believe has bridged the gaps in my understanding concerning the debates surrounding Hassan Fathy's architectural legacy. I no longer question this matter. No doubt, he is a tremendously courageous architect, yet we must also recognize his failings in Gourna, not necessarily as an architect but in the architecture offered to Gourniis. Hassan Fathy's architecture exhibited remarkable quality, but it didn't align with the needs and preferences of the Gournii people. This is evident in the fact that his projects for individual clients, where budget and culture were not primary considerations, have thrived and continue to stand as a testament to his genius, both in Egypt and abroad.

Hassan Fathy’s journey can be considered as continuous research for architectural solutions such as “Malqafs” (Windcatcher) shading and mud bricks fortified with straw to keep the buildings cool in the harsh weather conditions that respect the local context. He saw the potential for using local materials and techniques to create environmentally and socially sustainable communities. He learnt from our ancestors’ construction methods at the granaries of Ramesseum in Luxor, the tomb of Seneb in the cemetery of Giza and St. Semion Monastery as well as the Nubian buildings in Aswan plus what he has found in Touna El Gebel on how to use the mud bricks to build houses and to cover them with vaults. It’s a durable material and an environmental method, as it maintains a balanced indoor temperature all year long.4

Indeed, Hassan Fathy was great enough to sacrifice himself in a project like Gorna because he believed in it and aimed to enhance the quality of life for rural communities through architecture. Perhaps, it was his journey as an architect to be lost in Gourna that enabled him to assert his leadership in the global architectural landscape as a pioneer in the revival of vernacular architecture. In the reintegration of Nubian architectural principles into the framework of modern vernacular architecture. Perhaps, he had to fail in order to succeed. It's worth noting that many great architects, from Alberti with the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini to Santa Maria Novella in Florence, have followed similar paths of trial and triumph in their architectural careers.

We've learned a valuable lesson from his experiences. Hassan Fathy displayed remarkable courage by daring to experiment, even if it meant for him to fail with the Gournii people. His experiments helped us and them gain a deeper understanding of his architectural vision. Through his innovative designs, Fathy demonstrated the power of architecture to transform the built environment and improve people's lives. Today, Fathy's legacy continues to inspire architects and urban planners around the world, as they seek to create sustainable and socially responsible communities that prioritize the needs of people and the environment. There is a growing and ongoing need for sustainable architectural solutions worldwide to protect both the built and natural environments. This necessity becomes even more obvious considering the escalating heat island effect and the challenges posed by global warming, emphasizing the importance of sustainability in the present and future. While Hassan Fathy may have got lost and faced challenges in Gourna, his journey ultimately set us on the correct path, leading us to discover avenues towards genuinely sustainable vernacular architecture.

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