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Government, camel operators grapple over Giza access

By Nick Mendez and Emily Williams
Globe Correspondents / August 2, 2009

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GIZA, Egypt - Sed Ali dug his heels into the hindquarters of a small, gray, Arabian-style horse, weaving through a pack of dilapidated camels as he trotted across the sand. Ali was giving our group of Northeastern University students a guided tour of the great pyramids in Giza, a family business he has been a part of since he was 6.

Before we set out, Ali asked that we send the Egyptian government letters praising his business. He is concerned that the government’s modernization efforts at the historic site will mean the end for the independent camel operators who depend on the pyramids.

“Without the camels, the place, it will die,’’ said Ali, 33, whose family has done this work for three generations.

Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities, which oversees this and other historic sites, is looking to protect the Giza pyramids by transforming the area’s largely unregulated industry of camel drivers, docents, and peddlers into a carefully controlled tourism complex by October, according to officials.

Zahi Hawass, head of the council and chief architect of the plateau modernization effort, said he is merely trying to protect one of the country’s treasures. In a recent interview in his Cairo office, Hawass acknowledged that the camel and horse operators are upset. But he said that for too long, they have been allowed unfettered access to the site, leading to damage and aggressive souvenir sellers.

“To the people with camels and horses, the plateau is like a plate with gold,’’ Hawass said. “I want to polish it.’’

Hawass sketched his vision: a $35 million complex with tourists - in buses and cars, on camels and horses - expected to arrive at a visitors center. From there, they would buy a ticket and take an electric tram to the pyramids and the adjoining Great Sphinx. Ali and other area merchants would be required to pay license and rental fees, vying for space on limited plots allotted for stables and shops.

For now, businesses like Ali’s are forced to compete with government-sanctioned tour buses, which climb the plateau along a new road from the north. The road is just the latest in several years of government efforts to direct tourism through more regulated, and therefore more profitable, conduits. A containment wall already runs along the east side of the plateau, but, on a recent afternoon, the guards allowed our group to pass through for just 100 Egyptian pounds, less than $20.

After the modernization is complete, this gated entrance will be used only for VIPs and tourists wishing to travel on foot.

“I did not like the wall,’’ Hawass said. “But sometimes, if you are dying and they want to cut off your leg, you’ll agree.’’

The wall is also intended to prevent Gizans from building houses closer to the pyramids.

“I want people to feel the magic of the pyramids,’’ said Hawass, who emphasized the potential for physical damage if the plateau is not more closely controlled. “The pyramids were made for history.’’

Similar projects have been completed in Luxor at the Karnak and Hatshepsut temples, the latter receiving significant additions after Islamic militants killed 60 tourists there in November 1997.

Concerns over further damage to antiquities have inspired Hawass to even consider building a replica of King Tut’s tomb (known as KV62) and close the original, one of Egypt’s most popular tourist spots. In December 2007 he capped the number of visitors at 400 per day to protect the Valley of the King’s star attraction.

“I am the only one in Egypt who does not want more tourists,’’ Hawass said.

Ali said he loves his job and isn’t ready for the enterprise to come to an end. When asked, he credits his learning English to his work on the plateau.

Steering his horse into the crowd, he shouted, “This is the school of life.’’

Nick Mendez and Emily Williams can be reached at nickamendez@gmail.com.

Sed Ali in Giza, Egypt (Nick Mendez for the Boston Globe) Sed Ali's family has given guided tours of the pyramids for three generations.