As the world witnessed the passionate political demonstrations of recent weeks, frozen forever in televised images from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, it was often hard to keep it all in perspective: This historic fight for freedom amounted to little more than a blip in the more-than-5,000-year timeline of Egyptian civilization.
That perspective, however, was not lost on the Egyptian people, whose devotion to their heritage ensured that the antiquities marking one of the world’s oldest civilizations would remain intact long after the protests had faded from memory, guaranteeing both their heritage and the assets upon which Egypt has built its tourism industry.
There is no denying the negative impact the unrest has had on tourism to Egypt as travelers rushed to leave the country and tour operators all but shut down their Egypt operations for February and into March.
Yet there has been very little damage to the country’s antiquities, the historical and cultural treasures, the sites and artifacts that will help Egypt rebuild its tourism economy once the political crisis is resolved.
Two relatively minor incidents occurred at the onset of the crisis: break-ins at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and at a storage magazine in Qantara East, in the Sinai.
But aside from that, all other major historical sites, from the Great Pyramids at Giza to the Temple of Luxor and beyond, remain intact, according to Zahi Hawass, the revered Egyptologist and archaeologist who was appointed minister of antiquities in the Cabinet shake-up of Jan. 31.
Hawass reported that during the museum bust, 70 objects were damaged, not stolen, and that the damaged objects would be restored. Since that time, the museum has been closed and guarded by army patrols. There were more than 250 objects stolen from the storage magazine in the Sinai, but all have since been returned, Hawass stated.
Unlike the lootings and destruction of historical artifacts and monuments that often occur amid revolution and civil unrest, most recently during the Iraq War, Egyptians have presented a united front in their desire to protect their cultural heritage no matter how violent or escalated the protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt become.
“When news broke out that the Egyptian Museum was in danger during the more turbulent days of the protest, Egyptian civilians rushed to the site and formed human chains around the museum to protect the treasures it houses,” said El Sayed Khalifa, director of the Egyptian Tourist Authority for the U.S. and Latin America.
Indeed, Irina Bokova, director-general of Unesco, applauded the action of the hundreds of Egyptian citizens who "spontaneously formed a chain around the museum to protect it."
The Blue Shield, an international organization that works to protect cultural heritage during armed conflicts, also cited the resolve of Egyptians to protect their historical treasures.
"Any loss of Egyptian cultural property would seriously impoverish the collective memory of mankind," the Blue Shield said in a statement.
It comes as no surprise that Egyptians had such a strong response to the looting. Beyond the historical and cultural significance of the country’s ancient archaeological sites and artifacts, the tourism industry that Egypt’s history has spurred has long been a vital part of the country’s economy.
In 2010, total tourism revenue in Egypt exceeded $11 billion, and Egypt’s tourism industry today employs about 2 million people. Last year, Egypt welcomed 14.7 million foreign tourists, of whom 361,000 were from the U.S.
"Every Egyptian knows that tourism means job opportunities and that the precious antiquities are the bread and butter of this industry," Khalifa said. "There are whole cities that live on tourism: Sharm al-Sheikh, Luxor, Aswan, to name a few. So, it is imperative that the people take it upon themselves to protect all historic, cultural, touristic sites in this crucial period of Egypt’s history."
Tour operators that have been watching the situation closely remain hopeful about the safety and security of the sites and how they will lend themselves to Egypt’s recovery.
Randy Durband, a senior partner in Robin Tauck’s sustainable-travel venture, R. Tauck & Partners, said, "There is a deep understanding in Egypt of the importance to the broader economy of the tourism trade."
"Egypt’s treasures have withstood 5,000 years of invasions, wars, floods, storms and plagues, and I have not the slightest doubt they will survive the current events," Ady Gelber, owner and COO of Isramworld, wrote in an email. "Egypt’s extraordinary antiquities are a glorious and storied heritage that is a source of enormous pride for every Egyptian."
This report appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of Travel Weekly.