Please forgive my silence since March – there was an essay to write and work in the office to get sorted after my return from Egypt. As I mentioned in my last post, I was heading off to Egypt on a group study tour arranged by a former professor at the end of March. It would be two weeks travelling from Cairo via Beni Hassan and Amarna to Luxor. A few of my friends were going on the trip so I was looking forward to some fun and laughs along the way.
It was not to be that sort of trip. Egypt one year on from the revolution is still quite fragile. Yes, the Foreign Office tell us travel to the tourist sites is safe, but there is still a feeling of strife and tension in the air. Protesters still meet in Tahrir Square to discuss progress, or a lack there-of, in governmental elections, and mother’s stand forlorn holding up photographs of their dead or horribly injured children, the casualties of a dark year of pain and suffering. While it seems incredibly refreshing that the Egyptian people managed to overthrow a long-standing regime with little more than their voices and twitter in a matter of weeks, their success came at a high price for some, and there is a terribly dark and sinister side to the sense of euphoria we all witnessed on CNN last year when Mubarak stood down.
The great tourist sites are also less than calm. At Saqqara, buying a few postcards and guidebooks nearly started a riot, as the sellers fought with one another for our trade. With so few tourists visiting at present, you could feel their desperation to sell anything, at any price just to ensure they made some money that day (and who knows how much they have to pay in brides just to be allowed to work at the site?). It was wonderful to enjoy the pyramids without thousands of tourists pushing and shoving past you for their photo opportunity in front of the sphinx, but it was equally distressing to see malnourished horses being whipped and mis-handled by their frustrated owners who were fighting to entice what few tourists there were to take a ride across the Giza plateau.
The Cairo Museum was still recovering from the shockwaves of the revolution. The gift shop was still closed after it was looted in February 2011. Packing crates, some with precious cargo inside, were left half unpacked in hallways. Many of the best items from the Tutankhamun exhibition were missing, on almost permanent tour to bring in money for improvements and the construction of a new museum at Giza, which in March 2012 showed no signs of being underway. A contract for its construction has been signed, but with the political situation still so fragile it is far from clear when work will begin. For those of our party who had dreamed of visiting the Cairo Museum, it was a great shock to see the grand old lady looking a bit frazzled.
When it came time to head into Middle Egypt, we suddenly found ourselves with a plain-clothed armed guard on our bus, and in some areas a police escort – this isn’t uncommon in Egypt, where tourist protection has been paramount since the terrorist attack at Luxor in 1997. The usual armed guards were to be found at places like Beni Hassan, but there was still a slight feeling of anxiety in certain areas, and our guides did not want us leaving our hotel unaccompanied in Minya.
We were unable to stop at the pyramid at Lahun as it was market day and the only way to get to the pyramid was by driving through the market – our police escort were worried this might cause friction with the locals. We did at least get to the pyramid at Hawara, where we walked a few yards down the corridor before reaching a barrier of water that has flooded the pyramid below ground.
Still, I felt that generally everyone was pleased to see us, and at the Speos Artemidos I was thrilled to meet a group of young women who were studying for their tourism degree. They felt confident enough to ask us all to fill in a short questionnaire. The only serious problem we found on the way south to Luxor was a lack of petrol. Long queues were to be found outside every petrol station in towns and on the desert highway. At one point our guides were forced to buy petrol on the black market to ensure we made it safely to Luxor. When we stopped at one petrol station, not far from Abydos, we were amused to see camels curled up in the back of flat-bed trucks, waiting patiently as their owners queued at the pumps.
It was a great relief to reach Luxor, but even there, in what has been called “the greatest open air museum in the world”, all was not well. The hotels were less than a third full and cruise boats were moored 10 abreast, lying idle along the banks of the Nile. I cannot deny that I quite enjoyed walking around Karnak and Luxor without too many noisy tourists ruining the grandeur, but for the local people it is a veritable tragedy.
Without a steady stream of tourists, everyone from taxi drivers to the souvenir hawkers are suffering. One seller who kept following our group around the Tombs of the Nobles on the West Bank said he’d rather not badger us, but if he didn’t make some more sales before the end of the main tourist season, his children wouldn’t have clothes or food. You could almost see the desperation in their eyes.
One can only hope that things will slowly improve this year once a new president has been elected – but even in the last few days Egyptians were protesting in Tahrir Square again over the sentencing of former President Hosni Mubarak. It seems the road to recovery will be bumpy.
It was an amazing trip, full of incredible once in a lifetime experiences. The renowned Egyptologist Barry Kemp took us on a private tour of the ruins of Amarna, possible birth place of Tutankhamun, we found ourselves stuck in the pitch black of a Queen’s pyramid at Giza, and I held an ancient ibis mummy at Tuna el Gebel.
It is a trip I will never forget. It was two weeks of stunning scenery, breathtaking history and heritage, and special moments shared with friends. I even managed to find a few more Sekhmet statues at Karnak and Medinet Habu.
But I can’t help but feel worried for the Egyptian people. Last year they did something incredible and almost impossible – overthrowing an entrenched regime with little more than their hearts and mobile phones. But I fear that was the easy part, and they face difficult years ahead. The best thing we all can do is go and visit Egypt. There may be the odd temple or archaeological site you cannot visit from time to time, but Egypt is open for business and they need us to come and enjoy their stunning country. And spend a few pounds if you can.