A Window Into the Real Ancient Egypt?

BY SANDRO VANNINI

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Tourists at the Temple of Kom Ombo

It is already almost the fourth anniversary of what many call - wrongly so, in my opinion - Revolution. I would rather call it an awakening: it is as if the country has been aroused suddenly from the slumber into which it had slowly sunk following the 1952 coup d'état. But this is not the subject of this short note. What I am interested in here is the fact that one of the most visible consequences of these four years has been the steep decline in tourism. Although it has partly resumed now in the beach resorts, it has, in contrast with what most people think, sadly disappeared from Egypt's biggest attraction, its true excellence, the incarnation of its national identity, in other words, its extraordinary archaeological heritage - the heritage of the Pharaohs. This priceless resource has never been fully valued or protected as it deserves, and, in recent years, has also been severely mistreated.

However, the current situation offers, in particular to the educated visitor, a great opportunity: the disappearance of mass tourism, possibly the worst enemy of any cultural heritage. Its absence allows us even now to experience Ancient Egypt almost in its pristine state, when the pyramids were still a place of legend and not surrounded by the coaches full of loud tourists that, up until 2011, would come in their thousands from the Red Sea resorts, wearing shorts and flip-flops. Now you can find yourself in Saqqara or in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo completely on your own, with no chaos of sweaty, vaguely bored visitors queueing in front of you. Of course, this is sad news for the Egyptian economy, even if it may bring about a welcome rethinking of its overall approach to tourism. However, this is good news for anyone visiting Egypt at the moment, indeed it is almost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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A cruise boat on the Nile

Nonetheless, a number of observations should be made first regarding the safety of travelling to Egypt. The authorities in western countries have diffused all sorts of alarms over the last four years, repeatedly publishing travel warnings on their websites. Although I am not in the position to discuss the decisions of these intelligence services in detail, I personally do not believe, particularly in light of recent events, that Egypt is any more dangerous than many other places in the world, including (unfortunately) many western capitals. It remains a country where the level of risk is comparable to that which most potential travellers would encounter in their homelands. The decision about visiting the country is still, obviously, one's own and, now more than ever, travelling has gone back to represent a sort of artform. It reminds me a little of the 1980s, when planning a trip was something you did personally, collecting information, arranging travel and making your own choices about what to do and where to go.

Let me tell you my experience. I have worked in Egypt for many years and I spend about half of my time in the land of the Pharaohs. I was in Cairo during the demonstrations of 2011 and, taking a few additional precautions, I continued to do my job and never had fears or problems that I had not anticipated, even during the worst of the clashes in Tahrir. I have since continued to travel around the country, often finding myself completely on my own in sites which were once packed with tourists and which, as a result, were perhaps losing their fascination for me. So my advice is to take advantage of this period, which for the Egyptians' sake, I hope will only be a phase, but which, for selfish reasons, is an opportunity worth seizing.

I hope that in the future concerned institutions and entrepreneurs will finally be able to turn Egypt into what it deserves to be: one of the greatest destinations for cultural tourism in the world.

Click here to know more about Sandro Vannini.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Dr Hawass' views.
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