Once more it was with great sadness that I left Luxor on October 20th 1997 to travel back to England. Part of me had been left behind in Egypt, as it always was, in what had become my ‘home from home’. This wonderful country had got under my skin and I would miss so much all of the lovely people I had met during the past few weeks.
Almost a month later, on November 17th, I was at work when I heard a newsflash on the radio announcing that there had been shooting on the West Bank of Luxor and many people had been killed by unidentified gunmen in Hatshepsut’s Deir el-Bahri Temple. Immediately I remembered my feeling of impending disaster and the heightened security when I was there and I was stunned and horrified by the news. I listened to the radio news throughout the day but it seemed very confused and it was not until much later that the whole tragic event was clarified. The attack had happened early in the morning, the busiest time at Deir el-Bahri, when six gunmen from the Islamic terrorist group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, who were disguised as members of security, opened fire with automatic weapons and committed terrible atrocities on tourists in the temple, killing a total of 62 people. The terrorists escaped into the Theban hills, chased by tourist police and military forces and were eventually caught and killed. I later learned that many men from the West Bank had also taken to the hills in pursuit of the gunmen and many had been injured, including my friend Haga’s son Ahmed. The people of Luxor were both devastated and angry at what became known as the Deir el-Bahri ‘Incident’.
The Egyptian authorities had been certain that they had gained the upper hand in their five-year-old battle against Islamic extremists after a series of heavy crackdowns by the security forces. Tourist groups in Egypt were tightly guarded and it was thought that the problem had been contained. It was hard to see what more could have been done. But this attack was by far the worst Egypt had seen. I knew it would have a devastating effect on the livelihoods of many of the Luxor people as the tourists left and the reputation of one of the most popular holiday destinations was shattered. My heart went out to the families of the dead and to the Egyptian people.
Dr. W. Raymond Johnson, director of the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, wrote afterwards:
On the evening of December 10, 1997, a memorial service was held at the candle-lighted Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, to honor the fifty-eight foreign tourists and four Egyptians massacred during the terrorist attack there in November.. More than 2,000 persons were invited to the service and hundreds more marched to the Deir el Bahari site, carrying banners denouncing terrorism. Egyptian President Mubarek and numerous other government ministers were in attendence, and the program was highlighted by Egyptian actor Omar Sharif reading a state-sponsored message written by 86-year-old Nobel prize winning author Negib Mahfouz, which in part said that the massacre was “a stab inflicted on the body of all the people of egypt…[who] now wish to express to the world their deepest apologies and sincere condolences.” The Cairo Opera Orchestra played “Tears of Anger” from Verdi’s Requiem, and the Bulgarian National Choir sang. A Nubian troup, wearing white turbans and robes, beat drums in mourning.)
Soon afterwards, my friend Robin and I began to organise our next trip to Egypt, in an effort to show support for the country we loved. We would not be beaten by these madmen!