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Ban on Souvenir Sellers : Renovation of Pyramids Stirs Uproar

Times Staff Writer

“I am not afraid,” boasted Sami. “I go where I please, and no one can stop me.” With that, the young rider kicked his camel hard in the flanks and galloped off toward the forbidden zone, disappearing in a cloud of dust.

The older men remained behind, shaking their heads in amusement at the folly of youth. But they were also bitter.

“It is not nice what they do. Not nice,” said Fuad Abdel Ati Fayed, speaking for the others. “This is a tourist place. The tourists come for the horses and the camels. But now they cannot see them. This is not nice.” The others nodded their heads in agreement.

Fayed, a swarthy man known among his peers as “King Fuad,” is one of a small legion of camel drivers, horseback riders and souvenir salesmen who, like their fathers before them and their grandfathers before them, earn their living by catering to the tens of thousands of tourists who come each year to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza.

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Like the Money-Changers

But now, like the money-changers that the Bible says Jesus drove from the Temple in Jerusalem, these modern entrepreneurs are to be banned from the area around the Pyramids as part of an attempt by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization to clean up the Giza plateau and project a more dignified image for Egypt’s most famous tourist attraction.

As a first step, the souvenir sellers have already been banned from the area immediately around the Great Pyramid of Khufu and, starting next month, they will be banished from the Pyramids of Chephren and Mycerinus as well, antiquities officials say.

“We will have a special place for the camels and horses and a place to sell souvenirs near the sound-and-light stage on the far side of the Sphinx,” said Samia Mallah, the antiquities organization’s chief inspector for the Giza plateau. “But no animals will be allowed inside the historic zone. This is the most important historical setting in Egypt and one of the most important in the world, and we must do something to protect it.”

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1st Work on Great Pyramid

The cleanup is part of a comprehensive renovation of the Giza plateau that includes the first restoration work ever performed on the Great Pyramid since the labors of 100,000 men, working for 20 years, raised it from the desert sands more than 4,600 years ago.

Extensive repairs are under way on the pyramid’s south side, where over the millennia the corrosive effects of wind and sand have loosened a number of the giant 15-ton limestone blocks, posing a threat to the Solar Boat Museum below. The sand is being cleaned off and the loose blocks cemented in place with epoxy resins.

Interior work is also being performed on the pyramid, which has been closed to the public for the last two months. When it reopens, it will have a new lighting system and a network of closed-circuit cameras to monitor the visitors inside. The pyramid’s interior walls and original ventilation system are also being cleaned for the first time, Mallah said.

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More complex and time-consuming, however, is a parallel effort to save the Sphinx, which is literally being eaten away from within by what Zaki Hawass, the director of antiquities for Giza, calls “limestone cancer.”

Known scientifically as efflorescence, the affliction consists of salt deposits in the limestone that, mobilized by moisture from the ground, dissolve and spread outward to the surface of the rock. Drying again in the desert sun, the salts crystallize and crack the outer surface. A part of the Sphinx’s right shoulder fell off in February, and since then a committee of specialists formed to save the statue have identified five other places in need of urgent repair.

The work on the Sphinx, which has already begun, is expected to take two years and cost nearly $2 million to complete.

‘Whatever the Cost’

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“We must save these monuments, whatever the cost,” said Mallah. “And we must also clean up the Giza plateau and make it look nicer. Thousands of people come here from around the world every month, and for them, what they see here is Egypt.”

While no Egyptian would quarrel with this, the campaign to rid the area of its flea-market atmosphere seems certain to put the antiquities organization on a collision course with the men of Nezlit es Saman, the village of vendors, peddlers, guides and animal drivers that has sprung up at the base of the Giza plateau to cater to the tourist trade.

“There are at least 3,000 of them who make their living and support their families this way, and for sure, they are not happy about the new rules,” Mallah conceded.

Nuss nuss (so-so),” Fuad said bitterly. “Business (is) only nuss nuss now.

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‘It’s Not Nice Up Here’

“It’s not nice up here--too dusty, and most of the tourists do not come this far,” he added, referring to the large vacant lot, several hundred yards from the Great Pyramid, to which he and the others have been banished.

Amid the swirling dust churned up by the hooves of their horses, the braying of the camels, the crack of whips and the curses uttered in Arabic as the men argue with their beasts, the riders and their steeds evoke comparisons to an anxious army waiting for the orders to begin a siege.

“I have been a rider of horses for 15 years, and the others here, it is the same with them,” Fuad said, adding again that “the new system, it is not nice.”

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Suddenly, there is a commotion in the camp. A small group of camera-laden tourists, separated from the rest of their party, has wandered into the camp, and the men of Nezlit es Saman spring into action.

‘Special Price, My Friend’

“Pic-ture. You take pic-ture of my camel? Very cheap. Special price for you, my friend. . . .”

“Here, over here. . . . My camel named Mickey Mouse. You take picture of Mickey Mouse. . . . “

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The tourists, who are apparently from West Germany, settle on a camel named Lufthansa. It has a large yellow banner emblazoned with the name of the West German airline draped over its rear end, and the tourists are falling all over one another to take its picture when the owner comes running up, shouting, “Two pounds! Two pounds to take picture!”

One of the tourists protests that at about 87 cents, this is double what the other riders are charging to take pictures of the rear ends of their camels.

Flying Camels Cost More

“Ah, but my camel is a special camel,” the owner replies. “Lufthansa is a flying camel. One pound for regular camels, two pounds for flying camels.”

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Lufthansa, however, seems firmly fixed to the ground, sitting on its haunches like the Sphinx itself and showing no inclination to take flight. The tourists leave, the commotion dies down and a certain sullenness comes over the men of Nezlit es Saman once more.

They watch silently as, in the shimmering distance, a caravan of air-conditioned tourist buses, their occupants still with pounds in their pockets and no pictures of camels in their cameras, pulls away from the Pyramids and joins the long line of traffic snaking its way back to Cairo.

“No,” repeats Fuad softly, “the new system is not nice.”


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