Egypt has opened to the public the tombs of leading retainers of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun at Saqqara, south of Cairo, in a desperate bid to lure back tourists who have avoided the country since the revolt in February that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
Unemployed guides at Saqqara, one of the great archaeological sites of the world, speak hopefully of the publicity surrounding the grand opening of seven tombs boosting foreign interest in Egypt’s past. They stress that never before have visitors been able to see the tomb of Maya, Tutankhamun’s treasurer, with its scenes of bearers bringing offerings, or of the young pharaoh’s general, Horenheb, with incised stone carvings of his military victories.
But it may some time before fascination with ancient Egypt will be enough to make tourists forget the recent television pictures they have seen of fighting in Tahrir Square. At Saqqara, dominated by the 4,500-year-old brick-step pyramid of Zoser, even the souvenir sellers who used to try to harass visitors into buying over-priced trinkets, guide books and photographs, have given up trying.
Sabri Faraj, the chief inspector of the site overlooking the Nile Valley, said: “We used to get 3,000 visitors a day, but now the number is down about 250.” Even the scrawny horses that used to bring visitors in carriages from tomb to tomb have been returned to their stables because there are so few customers,
The collapse of the tourist trade is a disaster for Egypt because few countries are so dependent on the money spent by foreign visitors. The numbers visiting Egypt was down by 60 per cent in March compared to a year ago. Hotels are 80 per cent empty. Walid El-Batouty, the vice president of the guides’ union, says that most of his 16,000 members are making no money and are falling into debt. He says that potential visitors to Egypt are becoming frightened of going anywhere in the Middle East or North Africa and associate the whole region with the violence they see on television.
He adds: “They imagine that Libya is two feet from Egypt and Syria is a block away. In fact, at the start of the revolution one million tourists were evacuated from Egypt over three or four days without a single one them being hurt.”
It is rather a good to be a visitor in Egypt right now. Cairo’s Egyptian Museum is largely empty and one can look at the gold sarcophagus of Tutankhamun, or his chariots, walking sticks, gloves, socks and underclothes, without anybody else getting in the way. When I visited the museum, the only large group there was an intrepid party of Indian women in saris and a few elderly Americans, Britons and Scandinavians.
The museum was burgled by thieves on January 28 when the guards disappeared because of the fighting in nearby Tahrir Square and the building of the National Democratic Party was set on fire. Until recently, the skylight through which they entered the museum had not been repaired. Fortunately, the robbers took only a few items, including a military golden trumpet, from the grave goods of Tutankhamun. Much of their time was spent looting the cheap but gaudily painted replicas of ancient Egyptian sculpture from the museum’s gift shop rather than the shabby but priceless originals.
Egypt is a little more dangerous than it used to be. The police, highly unpopular and blamed for the violence against protesters, are keeping a low profile. Though 1.4 million strong, the security forces are notoriously corrupt and, these days, are demoralized, often telling those who complain that they have been the victim of a crime to address themselves to the army. There have been fierce sectarian clashes between Copts and Muslims in the tough, working-class districts of Imbaba and Ain Shams in Cairo with at least 30 dead and hundreds injured. But, given that the population of Cairo is 18 million, casualties are not high. Some 864 people were killed in the revolution out of 80 million Egyptians though this is still enough to make Egyptians, accustomed to the security of the Mubarak police state, edgy and fearful.
Egyptians involved in the tourist business are near despair. Tamer Tewfiq, the owner of Top Dock Travels, says he was doing fine in January when “I received 400 to 500 tourists, but then nobody at all in February and March, and we are expecting only 100 a month for the next three months.”
Tewfiq says that the Nile cruises have mostly stopped and the rioting in Imbaba has destroyed any returning confidence. Tourists are going to Turkey instead and banks in Egypt have stopped giving loans to tourist businesses “because they are a high risk”.
The problem for Egypt is that the revolution happened partly because so many people had failed to benefit from the old regime. Many live on the edge of starvation and they hope that the overthrow of President Mubarak will improve their lives, but so far it has failed to do, and many, such as those in the tourist industry, are worse off.
In the longer term, Egypt benefits from the world’s continued fascination with fresh discoveries of ancient Egyptian tombs and buildings. The number of finds is likely to rise quickly as the result of a new satellite survey that has identified 17 previously undiscovered pyramids, several of them at Saqqara.
Infra-red imaging showing the remains of buildings just under the ground has led to a further 1,000 tombs and 3,000 settlements being identified by the US Egyptologist Dr Sarah Parcak at the University of Birmingham in Alabama.
Ancient Egyptian life is mostly known about through the survival of their tombs and grave goods in places like Saqqara which was not flooded annually by the Nile. The mud-brick houses of great cities like Memphis, where many of those buried with such ceremony lived, were on the river’s flood plain and have long been washed away. The infra-red imaging detects mud brick just below the surface because it is denser than the soil surrounding it.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq and most recently, with his son Henry Cockburn, Henry? Demons.