Reflections on Egyptian Tourism

camel2Obligatory camel “tourist” photo. 

Tourism in Egypt is a big part of the experience and a large part of the economy. Egypt is proud of its past, but what I am interested in the present. How do cemeteries reflect the living? However, in order to really understand the present, acknowledging the greatness of the country’s history is essential. One can see this through the tourism, and after spending a week as a “tourist” with my Aunt, I think I have learned equally much as the previous three weeks trying to “live” here. And these discoveries aid my research questions as I see the dilapidation of grand ancient mausoleums, the rise of simple family oriented religious burials, and the great disparity of wealth and class — which causes people to live in the cemetery.

  • Egypt is proud of its monuments and history. There are many layers and aspects to the country with great periods:  the ancient Egyptian and pharaohs, the old Islamic parts of Cairo, the old Christian parts of Cairo, the Mamaluk rulers, the sultans, and even the the Nubian community. You can get a degree in “Egyptology” and work exclusively in trying to make new discoveries about the past.There is still a lot unknown. Even my cab drivers are eager to point out important buildings or tell me a bit of history here and there, and it seems like everyone knows stories from the ancient past.
  • Egypt makes money from its past and tourism is a major part of the economy, but now no one is coming here to see the past because of its present.
  • People are waiting for tourism, but it is not coming and this can be very depressing. I visited Luxor and Aswan at the peak of tourism, christmas. There used to be 300 boats cruising the Nile and now there are about 40 that half empty. This is when foreigners would theoretically escape the cold and see the wonders of the ancient world. On our ship there were maybe 50 people and the crew was busy repairing the ship deck during the cruise. But this was the peak crowd! It was as if they were waiting and preparing for the larger crowd to come, but in reality we were it. This was sad.
  • Egypt is safe. Tourism is safe. There were no problems with feeling “unsafe” flying. But it did feel as though our guides were trying to protect us from the present communities and focus our attention to the greatness of the past. We were shuttled in cars everywhere and the only time we spoke to local people was saying no to hasslers trying to sell us cheap souvenirs. The reality is that these people are desperate to make a few pounds (and this means a few cents). Bargaining is part of the economy, but at points I would feel bad trying to reduce it a dollar because as soon as you step out of that shop you see people living in huts and poverty when you really that extra dollar makes zero difference in your life.
  • This above point was especially true staying in the Nubian village. The history of the Nubian people is tragic, but the make beautiful things, live in beautiful homes, and have beautiful traditions. Their economy depends on charging tourists to experience their culture, see their homes, and be surprised by the family’s live crocodile in their living room. With no one coming through the market can be a sad place, and after a while it can make people angry. “Nubain people need rights, they don’t need money or clothes or charity,” as one smart and energetic man told me. But he has no idea how to get these rights, and that is the problem. They are angry with politicians and promises, but they need energy and community organization from within to actually achieve this.
  • You can see from my photos that Egypt is beautiful. This is authentic. But somehow I am left feeling confused about what is Egypt. I am always joking by saying “welcome to egypt” and “this is egypt.” But I am not sure I know. How can Egypt solve all its current problems when it is stuck remembering all of its wealth in the past?  The revolution came, people organized, but there was not a lot of change. The reality is that change takes time and hard work. People are comfortable dreaming, but living in old patterns. But there is still hope and it starts with you and me– touring Egypt?


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