Egypt Today Magazine – By Hossam Zaater
The last of the Seven Ancient Wonders gets a twenty-first century facelift, but pleasing everyone proves to be a difficult task
The site of the 5,000-year-old Giza Pyramids is now up to speed with the twenty-first century, complete with cameras, lasers and control rooms. Last month, part of a multi-phase plan to renovate the site of the only remaining Wonder of the Ancient World was completed, a modern makeover cooked up by the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) to make the Giza Plateau more tourist-friendly.
The first phase, costing roughly LE 60 million, includes an 18-kilometer-long steel fence equipped with 199 closed circuit TV cameras, infrared motion sensors and elaborate control rooms placed alongside the fence. In addition to the reinforced boundaries, the plan dedicated one of three entrances, the one near the Mena House Oberoi Resort, as the primary security entrance, kitted out with x-ray machines and metal detectors.
While the modernizing of the most ancient site in the world — one that was previously an uncontrolled sandbox of pandemonium — has tourists and international media impressed, it has left local peddlers and bazaar sellers locked out and worried about their livelihood.
According to Sabri Abd El Eziz, assistant to SCA Secretary General Zahi Hawass, the plan was put in motion about seven years ago. After finishing site management for all the areas in Upper Egypt — including Abu Simbel, Luxor, Philae and Kom Ombo — the SCA’s plan for 2008-2009 was to focus on the pyramids. “There are roughly 6,000 to 10,000 visitors daily at the Pyramids and though we accommodate them easily, there was a need for a [facelift],” says Abd El Eziz.
A principal reason for the developments was that the SCA, although part of the Ministry of Culture, needs to find ways to be self-sufficient. “The SCA doesn’t take money from the government; we depend on entrance fees and exhibitions both locally and abroad, as well as royalties,” says Abd El Eziz. With the previously lax control over the Pyramids area, income from entrance fees was approximately LE 300,000 daily. “After the fence and the setting-up of a proper entrance, income is now around LE 800,000  and that’s money that we use for maintaining museums and restoring antiquities.”
The SCA is home-base to nearly 400 archaeologists in Egypt and supports beginners in the field as well, even building a school of excavation for hands-on training for fresh graduates in the field.
Phase Two will soon kick off, thanks to a 15 million (LE 116 million) loan from the Spanish government. During this phase, the entrance from the Fayoum road will become the main one, due to its vast area for parking. According to Abd El Eziz, hundreds of buses bring tourists to the site every day, sometimes “convoys of 50 buses from Alexandria and Port Said at the same time.” Once there, electric carts will take the tourists along the roads on the plateau to the Pyramids. “The second phase will include roads inside the plateau [for] better transportation,” adds Abd El Eziz.
A large visitor center will also be set up at the Fayoum entrance, equipped with cafeterias, decent bathrooms and a bazaar area inside. Phase Two will reinforce even stricter rules for local vendors of trinkets, postcards and animal rides who want to enter the site.
The Pyramid facelift stemmed from the authorities’ need for basic security and control. “It’s the only way to protect the Giza Plateau from urban development and [from trespassers]. The fence is up and control rooms are operational with golf carts on standby for a quick response should the guards see anything on the cameras. We also had to make a concrete fence next to the houses near Selman village,” says Abd El Eziz, adding that “If you see the control room with the cameras, you’ll feel protected.”
A hard sell
For the locals at Selman village, an area that hosts roughly 5,000 peddlers, stable owners, and salesmen, that protection feels one-sided. Forty-year-old Ibrahim Mahmoud says his work has suffered since the added security. “They have a list of those who can enter the site, and the list has names of people, some of whom aren’t licensed and yet still get in,” he claims. “You can be registered with the state but if you’re not on the list you don’t get in. And the state security and the Giza security know all about the list.”
Mahmoud has been selling horse rides to tourists for the past 35 years and says his two-horse business can’t compete with larger stables that have the connections to get around the new regulations.
Mahmoud claims the fence has hindered his business, as previously with horses “we used to just ride up through the desert.” While he praises the new system’s better organization and control, he claims it has stunted his livelihood. “I’m married and I have a family I need to provide for, plus I don’t have any other line of work. I’ve been licensed for 20 years and this is all I know how to do.”
Summer is usually high season for the Selman villagers, but Mahmoud says he hasn’t had much work since the start of Ramadan. “Before the fence and this new system, there was more work, but what’s unfair is that it’s all about connections now. Even if you don’t have a license you can get in if you know the right people or have the money to bribe the entrance guards,” he says. “I don’t know what to do, my kids need clothing.”
Mahmoud asserts that the majority of the inhabitants at the village have come to realize that working legitimately may not be the way to survive. Facing a diminished volume of work due to the new developments, peddlers are further inclined to cheat the system. He says that though the state has a fixed price of LE 30 an hour for horse rides at the Pyramids, he and others manage to set higher prices with tourists, providing the tourist police a cut of the profits.
“We just give the officer LE 5 or 10 and tell them we’re charging the fixed rate,” Mahmoud alleges. “When I do that, he praises me in front of the tourist and tells them I’m the right man for the job; otherwise he’ll scare them off and tell them I’ll rob them or something.”
In September, just a few weeks after the Ministry of Culture announced the new security and control measures, Egypt Today visited the Plateau’s Sphinx entrance. Two guards slouched in wooden chairs, drinking tea and yelling at a nearby vendor for approaching tourists.
This vendor, 20-year-old Ahmed Sabri Saeed, alleges that to cope with the new measures, he has to resort to bribery to get in.
“With horses and camels we’d go up as we wished; no entrances or anything. Now, with the fence I have to leave my ID card with the guard and in order to get it back at the end of the day, I pay him LE 5.” Saeed sells souvenirs but will sometimes go seven to eight days without work since his name isn’t on the list as an authorized vendor. He says he jumps the fence with a bag of postcards and the antique trinkets.
While he’s doing that, his eight-year-old apprentice Moussa handles three camels. New to the work, he’s also quickly learning that honest pay for him isn’t as honest as he would like. “The government won’t let us work in anything so we have to pay [bribes],” the boy alleges. “We pay the security official LE 10 so that we can charge a client LE 100 for two hours, even though it should only be LE 60,” he says, adding that money clears the path, even at the gates to get around the frisking by the guards.
Saber Mahmoud has owned a bazaar store for 19 years and says he’s had trouble getting onto the Plateau since July. “I used to go up and sell merchandise, but now it’s not as easy as before,” he says. “They give us a number to get in, but it really depends on the mood of the entrance guard. I don’t have a license; most of us sellers don’t have licenses because we never needed them. Before the fence we’d just walk in.”
The other side of the fence
Though government officials do not offer a solution to the alleged onsite corruption, the new regulations, says Abd El Eziz, make visiting the Pyramids much more pleasant.
“It was just too chaotic and haphazard [before]. Chariots, camels and horses [were] all over the place. There wasn’t much trouble with complaints [to tourist police] but the need for more organization was obvious.” Abd El Eziz adds that once the second phase is complete, most of the peddlers will have to relocate to a designated bazaar area by the Fayoum entrance and pay a monthly rent.
He says that most of the peddlers are licensed and registered with the Ministry of Tourism; those who aren’t will not be allowed into the site. Those registered will pay rent for kiosks rather than just roam freely in the desert.
Abd El Eziz is sympathetic with the locals: “They need to make a living so we can’t cut them off, but if we provide them with an area in which they can operate, they can pay rent. It’s all about organization. I’ve sat with these people a couple of times, and I agree that we have to protect their livelihood. We’re not going to prohibit them from entering the Plateau because it’s their well-being and their children’s well-being, and they’ve been working there for years.
“At first it will be hard for [the peddlers] to get accustomed, but we needed to intervene. They’ll grow to like it later,” Abd El Eziz says, adding that tourists feel safer when there’s visible enforcement and organization.
“I, myself, don’t enjoy my time when I go. Surrounded by horses, camels and chariots, I can’t see behind me and I look ahead to see the Pyramids and they’re blocked. The horses just run around in an unorganized fashion, stumbling over tombs and important sites. This isn’t right. The Giza Plateau needs a facelift and these people need a dedicated site to provide their services.” et