By Nick Mendez and Emily Williams
Giza, EGYPT – Sed Ali, 33, digs his heels into the hindquarters of a small, gray, Arabian-style horse, trotting across the sand and weaving through a pack of worn-down camels. Today, Ali is providing a group of Northeastern University students with a guided tour of the great pyramids in Giza, a family business he’s been a part of since he was 6 years old. But before he sets out, he makes a request.
He asks that clients send the Egyptian government letters praising his business and urging officials to continue allowing him to bring tourists through the sandy desert to the pyramids. Ali does so, he says, due to the government’s threatened closure of the independent camel operators in favor of modernizing the historic site.
“Without the camels, the place it will die,” said Ali, whose family has done this work for three generations.
Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities, which oversees Giza and other historic sites, is looking to protect the Giza pyramids by transforming the area’s largely unregulated industry of camel drivers, docents and peddlers into a carefully controlled tourism complex by October 2009, according to officials.
Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and chief architect of the plateau modernization effort, said he’s merely trying to protect one of the country’s treasures. In a recent interview in his Cairo office, Hawass acknowledged that the camel and horse operators “hate” him. But he said that for too long, they’ve been allowed unfettered access to the historic site. That has led to damage and an atmosphere driven by the calls and approaches of aggressive souvenir sellers.
“To the people with camels and horses, the plateau is like a plate with gold,” Hawass said. “I want to polish it but they just sh-t on it.”
In his office, Hawass picked up a pen and paper to sketch his vision, a $35 million complex in which visitors – in buses, cars, camels and horses – are expected to arrive at a visitor’s center. From there, they would buy a ticket and take an electric tram to the pyramid and the adjoining Great Sphinx. Ali and other area merchants would be required to pay license and rental fees, vying for space on limited plots allotted for stables and shops.
That’s a far different Giza than the one that Ali fondly remembers as a picnicking spot. A containment wall now blocks his family from doing that anymore.
And for the time being, businesses such as Ali’s are forced to compete with government-sanctioned tour buses, which climb the plateau along a new road from the north. The road is just the latest in several years of government efforts to direct tourism through its more regulated, and therefore more profitable, conduits. The wall already runs along the east side of the plateau, but, on a recent afternoon, the guards allowed a group to pass through for just 100 pounds, less than $20.
After the modernization is complete, this gated entrance will only be used for VIPs and tourists wishing to travel on foot.
“I did not like the wall,” Hawass said, “but sometimes if you are dying and they want to cut off your leg, you’ll agree.”
The wall is also intended to prevent Gizans from building houses any closer to the pyramids. Along with homes belonging to locals, which Hawass felt are ugly and obtrusive, westerners coveting the view of a lifetime have encroached on the site with the construction of lavish manors.
“I want people to feel the magic of the pyramids,” said Hawass, who emphasized the potential for physical damage if the plateau is not more closely controlled. “The pyramids were made for history.”
Similar projects have already been completed in Luxor at the Karnak and Hatshepsut temples, the latter receiving significant additions due to security concerns after Islamic militants killed 60 tourists there in November 1997.
Concerns over further damage to antiquities have even inspired Hawass to consider building a replica of King Tut’s tomb (known as KV62) and close the original, currently one of Egypt’s most popular tourist spots. In December 2007 he capped the number of visitors at 400 per day to protect the Valley of the King’s most popular attraction.
“I am the only one in Egypt who does not want more tourists,” Hawass said with a chuckle.
Ali said he loves his job however, and isn’t ready for the decades-old family enterprise to come to an end. When asked, he credits even his learning English to his work on the plateau.
“Mostly from here,” he said shouting, steering his horse into the crowd. “This is the school of life.”