It is said that it is the oldest Dig House on the West Bank, but there are a lots of stories about this. It most certainly is more than two hundred and fifty years old. What is for sure is that it is a very relaxing place indeed with a wonderful garden where you can take your meals or drinks in the shade. It has several restaurants and one inside for when it gets cooler. The restaurant is open all year round.
Situated between the temple of Meremptah und Ammenophis IV, near to the ticket office the “Masram” is the right place to discover Theban West. Not fancy, no pool, no TV & no nightlive – but authentic and famous among travellers, egyptologists and artists.
It is more famous as “Sheikh Ali’s Hotel”, because it was Sheikh Ali who established the hotel in the 40th of the last century. It was also Sheikh Ali who developed this location to a meeting point for artists and Egyptologists from all over the world. But also for everybody who needs to belong to this – as they are thinking – elite circle. Sheikh Ali, a descendant of the famous and notorious Abd El Rassul clan, makes a name not only for his place, but also for his exceptional and spontaneous personality. Many guests only spent the garden restaurant a visit to meet that man. A man with a lot of stories grown up around himself. A man, who by mistake many times is mentioned in association with Howard Carter and the tomb of Tutankhamen, and whose family again and again is connected to spectaculary tomb robberies, secret discoveries and smuggler deals. A man, who presented on one hand the byword for Oriental hospitality, on the other hand also was feared because of a being a man with unpredictable reactions.
But not only Sheikh Ali himself, also the place had a name of legendary reputation. Considering that from 1920 it was the site of the prestigious “Chicago House”, where American researchers did their studies and practical work. After the inauguration of the “Metropolitan House” down of the temple of Hatshepsut end of the 30ths, the “Chicago House” moved to the city of Luxor, Sheikh Ali took over the whole area including the remaining building – which, by the way, still nowadays is in good condition, still belongs to the “Marsam” compound as the entrance wing.
Like nearly all members of the family Sheikh Ali was working since long time with the excavation missions in the Theban necropolis. As it is told mostly all of them were working very serious, apart from some small robberies, which were not punished by law in that time. But the name Rassul appeared more and more in stories concerning big deals in tomb robbery. True or not true? Nobody knows for sure.
But one true story made headlines all over the world. The story of the hidden mummies in a cache of Deir El Bahari. In 1871 Sheikh Alis ancestors discovered the hidden shaft in the steep mountains (picture left: the mountains of Deir El Bahari), made long time a lucrative business out of it. But then Gaston Maspero, he took over the post of the head of the Antiqutíties Services in 1874, heard that royal artefacts appeared on the market abroad, pieces always decorated with cartouches, the signs of the pharaohs. He started investigations, the results lead him to Qurna. Suspicion fell on members of the Abdel Rassul family, the police jailed one of them. But the man shut his mouth, and in absence of evidence he had to be released. Back home he deserved a much larger percentage of profits from the royal cache because he had suffered at the hands of the police. That caused a serious quarrel. The other Rassul members refused his demand. Thereafter he revealed the secret to Maspero, led him in 1881 to the cache, where in approximately 1000 B.C. affraid about ancient tomb robbers priests had hidden the mummies. The officials discovered 40 mummies, most of them kings from the New Kingdom. Among them Setoy I., Rameses II., III. und IX, Thotmes I., II. und III. Some of them are now exhibited in a special mummy hall in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Another renown person was the grandfather of Sheikh Ali, it is told that together with the notorious adventurer Giovanni Battista Belzoni he discovered and excavated the tomb of Setoy I.. Also Sheikh Ali worked in this tomb, uncovered a secret corridor, which led him to an untouched door. Sheikh Ali assumed behind a secret royal treasure chamber of the King. But the Antiquities Authorities did not gave him the permission to open the door. What is really consealed behind it, until today is still a secret.
The anthusiastic excavator and art lover Sheikh Ali had the idea to develop his Qurna residence, to create a place, where Egyptian and foreign scientists, researchers, students, artists, craftsmen but also tourists and locals can get together. A place, where they can discuss, exchange their experiences in calm atmosphere and nice surrounding. With the artist Mohamed Nagui in 1941 Sheikh Ali’s idea found a partner. The painter was right then surching for a location to establish a permanent art centre with studio (marsam) in Luxor. Sheikh Ali’s place was tailormade for his suggestion. A second building with large windows for perfect light inside was constructed for “Luxor’s Marsam” (Picture left: The “studio” today from inside), the other building was used as a hotel. Nagui’s wanted his students from the Faculty of Fine Arts to live and work there for a while, while surrounded by the ancient monuments reflect their historic heritage.
“Luxor’s Marsam” became something like the Upper Egyptian Montmartre, popular Egyptian artists as Hamid Said, Salah Taher or Abbas Shohdi visited the place in Qurna.But also Egyptologists, working nearby, discovered the “Marsam”, and architect Hassan Fathy was one of the regular visitors. There was – and still is today – a special sentiment at “Marsam”, you will feel there a very special spirit. Therefore nobody was wondering, that the experiment of Sheikh Ali, to run a hotel in such a rural and remote area, was successful. Although the Faculty went out – the name of the place remained.
The hotel started with only ten simple rooms in the old “Chicago” building. But over the decades Sheikh Ali’s place became so famous, notorious and demanded, that he had to increase the number of rooms. More and more of his guests, who actually came just for dinner, some drinks, and discussions to Qurna, stayed over night, slept under the stars on the wooden benches in the garden – until today the garden is the heart of the place. Therefore in 1970 a complete new guesthouse was built. To match the region with thick walls of mud bricks, small windows, domed ceilings. In the traditional way of construction, rediscovered and realized by the late Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy. The construction style combined with the material keeps the rooms cool in summer, warm in winter times.
And the roof garden offers a spectacular view – until today. To the western side across the recently opened temple of Merenptah, the mountains with the pharaonic tombs, to the eastern side over the fields to the colossi of Memnon and the ongoing excavating work at the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III.
The new guest house was built for the Italian Egyptologist Sergio Donadoni and his team. Built under the supervision of Ali’s brother Ahmed, who did work as a foreman with Hassan Fathy during the construction of the village New Qurna. Up to now here are nearly no visable changes in the eight small double rooms and the roof garden – except some renovation work and new of furniture. Still the same are the natural colours, the simple traditional furniture made of the rips of palm leafs. Last but not least that is one of the reasons, that the active, nearly 90 year old Donadoni prefers the “Marsam” to the modern five star hotels in the city when travelling to Luxor.
After Sheikh Ali passed away in 1987 also the turbulent times died. The hotel was a product of the powerful personality of its creator. His heir Sayed, his then just 16 year old son, of course could not stand it. But it was only a short time of recess. The first sign of progress showed up in 1989 in person of Dr. Horst Jaritz, Director of the Swiss institute “Schweizerisches Institut für Ägyptische Bauforschung und Altertumskunde”. He and his team started with the excavating and reconstruction work at the neighbouring temple of Merenptah. And they choose the “Marsam Hotel” as their useful and agreeable headquarter. Now, after finished his work, also Dr. Jaritz takes accommodation in “his” hotel when visiting Luxor. Within the twelve years he lived there up to the official opening of the temple in April 2002 the “Marsam” became nearly his second home.
That’s why step by step also other archaeologists and Egyptologists found their way back to this place. For example every autumn the Italian mission, every spring the Spanish mission are regular guests for two months. And this again attracts tourists who are interested in ancient Egyptian history. The “Marsam Hotel” is in demand like in former times, particularly in winter. Therefore please make contact in advance. Luckily you get a room, can come to be caught by the spirit, to watch the Egyptologists and their daily expectations.
And for sure the legendary reputation of the famous-notorious, demanded-admired Sheikh Ali will not be faded shortly. As everybody who lives a bit longer on the West Bank, who knows perhaps even in the “Marsam”, will hear some incredible stories about this man or about the Rassul family. And who ever will tell it, there is always a small sound of envy, even respect between the lines.