The barrier between the ancient and the modern in Egypt is perilously permeable, leaving some of history's most remarkable artifacts both wonderfully within reach and dangerously exposed.
Egypt's most famous site, the pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, is located just outside Cairo in the neighboring city of Giza. On one side of the pyramids, rolling desert dunes stretch off into the distance, a convenient backdrop for "Lawrence of Arabia"-style souvenir photos. On the other side, a smoggy, hazy Cairo cityscape stretches for as far as the eye can see. On many days, that isn't very far.
Large, air-conditioned motorcoaches still drive right up to the base of pyramids, even though a wall was supposed to have been completed in October to cordon off these ancient treasures. That unfinished wall is part of an as-yet-unrealized $3.5 million project that would have tourists board an electric train from the visitor center to the pyramids or the Sphinx, rather than allowing them to be driven or to ride by camel to the sites.
When I visited the Giza plateau in October, the area was still open to buses and cars, and I saw few signs that the proposed project was near completion. But that doesn't mean it won't be finished, insisted ElSayed Khalifa, director of the Egyptian Tourist Authority for the U.S. and Latin America.
"You know, sometimes you plan for a project to be finished in two or three years, but it takes longer," Khalifa said.
Protecting the pyramids from vandalism and destruction has been a long-standing challenge, primarily because policing such a vast area has posed a serious problem for Egyptian authorities. Visitors are not supposed to climb the pyramids, but while I was there, a small group went around the side of the smallest of the three, the Pyramid of Menkaure, to sneak a photo atop some of the supporting building blocks.
Unfortunately, the pyramids are but one example of modern Egypt's complicated predicament.
"One could say that sites in Egypt are a victim of their own success," said Gaetano Palumbo, program director for North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia for the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to preserving and protecting endangered historical sites around the world. "In the Valley of the Kings, Luxor, visitor numbers have almost doubled in the past 10 years, from 1.5 million to close to 3 million, with peaks of 10,000 visitors a day. This creates massive problems in visitor management. ... Drastic decisions may have to be taken in order to regulate visitor numbers, including temporary or permanent closures" of ancient sites.
Thanks to some very ambitious pharaohs a few thousand years ago, Egypt's dominant industry today is tourism. Last year, Egypt received 12.8 million tourists, and the country anticipates adding 1 million tourists every year throughout the foreseeable future, Khalifa said.
Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities and the face of contemporary Egyptology, wrote in his blog in July that tourism is "the No. 1 threat to Egyptian antiquities. I always say that the Egyptian monuments will be completely destroyed in less than 100 years if tourism isn't managed properly."
Earlier this month, the government named Hawass deputy minister of culture. The roles he plays in ongoing archeological discoveries throughout Egypt -- protecting and preserving the ancient sites and serving as a spokesman for Egypt's historical and cultural heritage -- make him a focus of controversy. But while public opinion of him varies widely in Egypt, Hawass, a man of outsized personality, has enjoyed great success increasing the world's awareness of both Egypt's sites and the need to protect them.
Randy Durband, who recently joined Robin Tauck's sustainable tourism venture, R. Tauck and Partners, to address issues such as those facing Egypt's archaeological sites, said Egypt has "such a plethora of sites to protect and such a throng of people coming in, it's overwhelming."
Durband, who formerly served as the president of luxury tour operator Travcoa, marveled at how "the tourist visitation has just been exploding in recent years. Egypt is booming."
That is in large part due to the fact that Egypt has experienced relative political calm of late. Its tourism industry was severely scarred after gunmen killed more than 60 tourists in Luxor in 1997, but in recent years, terrorism incidents have been comparatively minor. In February, a small bomb blast in front of the Khan el-Khalili bazaar in central Cairo killed a French tourist and wounded 20 others. In September 2008, five Germans, five Italians and one Romanian were kidnapped, along with eight Egyptian guides and drivers. They were later released unharmed.
With security visibly heightened at major hotels, on the Nile River cruise ships and at archaeological sites, visitors are now more comfortable traveling to Egypt, and they are arriving in droves. Based on predictions provided by Egypt's culture ministry, Palumbo said he anticipates a doubling of arrival numbers by 2015.
Driving without headlights
Some of the problems in Egypt reminded me of my guide Mohammed's explanation for why drivers in Cairo don't turn on their headlights at night: "They don't want to bother the person in front of them."
Egyptians making their daily bread from tourism are reluctant to do anything to detract from the tourist experience. In effect, they don't want to "bother" the tourists.
"They're afraid of putting down a heavy hand, because tourism makes up a major part of the economy," said Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours & Expeditions, which has been operating in Egypt for some 20 years. "So many people's incomes are derived from [tourism]."
Perhaps understandably, many Egyptians are focused on short-term gains, searching for ways they can profit from the flood of international visitors rather than considering the long-term well-being of the sites.
"The big picture is, here's a developing country starved for external currency," Durband said. "There's no constituency there who wants to put a brake on that."
Sites like the Temple of Karnak, the Luxor Temple and the Dendera Temple are supposed to be protected by two layers of human defenses: first, the tourism and antiquities police, with their official white uniforms, badges and guns; then, men wearing traditional jellabiya garments -- long, floor-length dresses -- and turban-like headdresses.
But on numerous occasions, both antiquities police and men in the jellabiyas (though more often it was the latter) offered, without being asked, to guide me to some off-the-beaten-path location within the sites. To see what they were up to, I followed them several times for a minimal tip. Usually, they just led me to see some additional hieroglyphics that honestly looked just like all the other hieroglyphics at the site. One or two times, the relics they revealed were slightly more impressive, such as particularly colorful or vivid carvings.
At Luxor, an antiquities police officer guided me to an area that was off limits to show me a shabby carved crocodile. The point is that these supposed protectors of the sites solicit payments from tourists to be taken into areas to which visitors shouldn't be allowed access.
That isn't to say Egypt has completely failed to make progress in protecting its antiquities. Important preservation developments have been and continue to be made at many of the sites. For example, at the Valley of the Kings, a complex of 63 pharaonic tombs dug into the mountains near Luxor, tourists are prohibited from snapping photos and are limited to entering three tombs of their choice per day. In addition, many of the long tomb entrances with paintings and carvings along the walls have protective glass screens.
"The Valley of the Kings is a special case," Hawass wrote in July. "Here, tourists concentrate on visiting certain tombs, especially the tombs of Tutankhamen, Ramses VI, and Horemheb, while others are hardly visited at all. ... This means that some tombs need added protection, while others need to be closed completely in order to save the ancient paintings."
According to Hawass, lighting is being installed so that the tombs can be visited in the evening. "This will help to protect the paintings, because it allows us to spread the tourist visits out over the course of the day," he wrote. "They will need to make reservations for the morning, early afternoon or evening. This will allow the tombs to escape from the extra heat and moisture that builds up in them over the course of the day."
Among other measures undertaken in recent years to protect the sites are adding walkways and railings at the Unfinished Obelisk in Aswan; banning photography inside the temples at Abu Simbel and constructing new motorcoach parking lots farther from temples like Karnak and Dendera, where new, proper visitor centers with clean bathrooms and trash cans also help keep the sites clean.
Numerous other ambitious projects are also in the works, including reconstructing the Avenue of the Sphinxes, the original sphinx-lined path that connected the Karnak Temple with the Luxor Temple in ancient times. The challenge in this instance is that an entire indigenous community has built homes and businesses atop the land that will need to be excavated to complete the project.
The jury is still out on the impact of visitors touching and sitting on artifacts and climbing at the site. I was unpleasantly surprised to see not only tourists stroking the hieroglyphics, but tour guides touching them as they explained their meaning. Tourists taking a break from walking and the desert sun have no problem perching on the base of an ancient column or leaning against walls covered in priceless paintings and carvings.
I asked repeatedly whether these kinds of behavior were permitted, and the answers I got were varied. The general response, including from Egyptologists, was that since the sites have survived for the last several thousand years, they'll surely last several thousand more. The unstated assumption is that a few million tourists couldn't possibly do more damage than a thousand years of wear and tear.
Khalifa argues that some sites are more vulnerable than others. For example, he said it was one thing to "talk about the tombs, where there should be a certain percentage of humidity, and the paintings inside could be easily protected, but with the huge temples like Karnak or Luxor, no matter how many visitors enter, it will not be the same bad effect."
Hawass proposes several key elements for effective site management: "In order to have a high-quality site management program, it is important to have means of protecting the site, an educational introduction within a visitor's center, well-trained personnel, programs for restoration and conservation and, outside the site, facilities for tourists, such as a cafeteria, a bazaar and clean bathrooms."
Beyond tourism issues, Egypt faces a parallel environmental dilemma.
"The problem in Egypt," Palumbo said, "is overpopulation, with its corollary of problems: pollution, poor sanitation, lack of water ... all this creates an unhealthy environment for people to live in and for sites to survive."
Egypt's population of 83 million is the 15th largest in the world, but it ranks 134th in per-capita gross domestic product. About 22% of the population lives in Cairo, a city whose traffic and smog problems are notorious.
In Upper Egypt, between Luxor and Aswan, the air seems much cleaner than in Cairo. But along the Nile, there are warning signs, as well. With more than 300 overnight passenger vessels, many with aging emissions technology, the river, too, could be threatened.
A popular excursion on a Nile River cruise, for instance, is to go bird-watching near Aswan. But when we set out on such an excursion, during a cruise aboard Uniworld's new River Tosca ship, many of the birds were swimming among discarded water bottles. It's disappointing, and as one of the tourists who drank out of a water bottle and traveled on a luxurious Nile cruise, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt.
It's easy to point fingers
My observations are not meant as a criticism of Egyptians or their government. Egypt's relics, like other threatened international treasures, such as the Galapagos Islands and Antarctica, are not just a local problem; they are the world's responsibility. The historical and cultural temples, tombs and artifacts dating back thousands of years have immeasurable, universal human value. They are humbling to visit, revealing a society so sophisticated beyond its time that it's easy to joke, with a certain degree of insecurity, about how little we've advanced since then.
Yet there have been great advances, especially in technology, and many of those now pose very real threats to ancient Egyptian sites. Over the years, numerous governments, international organizations and local groups have aided in efforts throughout Egypt to excavate, restore and preserve. Most notably, when the Aswan High Dam was built to prevent flooding along the Nile, several governments stepped in to help save sites that would otherwise now be submerged beneath the vastness of Lake Nasser. For example, the French government helped dismantle Abu Simbel and re-erect it nearly 200 feet above its original location.
While Unesco has been very active in Egypt over the decades, only seven sites there are on Unesco's World Heritage List, a far cry from the dozens of sites listed for countries such as China, France, Italy and Mexico. Even with some of Egypt's World Heritage sites including vast areas such as all of ancient Thebes and the Necropolis (which encompasses the Karnak and Luxor temples as well as the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens), the low number of sites on the list is surprising.
"The answer is very simple," said Francesco Bandarin, director of Unesco's World Heritage Centre. "Sites are not selected by Unesco but presented by member states. Unesco only evaluates them. So, the reason is to be found in Egypt." Even so, he noted that Egypt has additional sites under consideration for the World Heritage List.
Whether or not additional sites in Egypt are added to the list, the challenges remain.
"When we talk about the archaeological sites and the new projects for development, there is another aspect in this process, which is awareness," Khalifa said. "Awareness is very important both for Egyptians and for the tourists. If somebody goes to the pyramids, if they are aware, they won't try to engrave anything."
Khalifa said that Egypt two years ago launched a $3.7 million, five-year tourism awareness campaign that includes educating "the media in Egypt, lectures at schools, seminars, to educate people of the value of the monuments and attractions.
"We are looking for the new generations to be better than ourselves," Khalifa said.