Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Tourism, the enemy of archaeology

Tourism can be the enemy of archaeology, but archaeology also cannot be protected without tourism

Tourism,  the enemy of archaeology
Tourism, the enemy of archaeology

The Bulgarian Ministry of Tourism invited me to take part in the International Congress on World Civilisations and Creative Tourism that took place in Sofia at the end of last November.

I believe the idea behind the conference was first suggested by my friend Taleb Al-Refaai, secretary-general of the UN World Tourism Organisation. When I arrived in Sofia I went to the reception of the conference hall accompanied by Egyptian Ambassador Manal Al-Shenawi and her assistant counsellor, Hadad Al-Sohari. I met Al-Refaai, who introduced me as the “Indiana Jones of Egypt” to the former king of Bulgaria. The king had left Sofia with his father when it fell under communist rule, but when the country became part of the European Union he returned. He was elected prime minister and was so loved by the people that he became the only prime minister in the world to be addressed as “the king”.

Our session at the conference was entitled “Bringing to Life World Civilisations through Creative Tourism”. The moderator was Anita Mendiratta, managing director of Cachet Consulting, an international consulting firm. The panelists were Princess Dana Firas, president of the Petra National Trust of Jordan, and Pavlos Geroulanos, head of the “Greece: A Different Path to Growth” project and chairman of Kefalonia Fisheries. The former Spanish minister of industry, energy and tourism, José Manuel Soria Lopez, was present.

During our session, Princess Dana gave a beautiful and passionate speech about the protection of Petra. Geroulanos and Lopez each talked about his role in the protection of sites in Greece and Spain, respectively. I gave a speech about my vision for tourism and archaeology in Egypt. I made the statement that “tourism is the enemy of archaeology, but archaeology also cannot be protected without tourism.” In this article, I intend to explain my statement by elaborating on my vision for both tourism and archaeology.

We need to accommodate the need for tourism to support the economy of the country and the protection of its monuments. So what can we do? The most important step is to plan a site-management programme for every site. This should include protecting the site by building a wall around it or using a natural barrier, creating a plan for the conservation of the monuments in the area, providing routes to limit the access of tourists to the site, and providing facilities for tourists such as shops and cafeterias.

However, the most important part of any site-management programme is the visitor centre at the entrance to the site, with a film on the history and archaeology of the area, for example. This centre should give tourists instructions or information, for instance on not using flash photography or not wearing backpacks that could damage murals or carvings. At the entrance to every tomb, if these are included in the site, a plan with photographs and descriptions should be available. Tour guides should make a full presentation to their groups outside the tombs, so that when the tourists enter them they can enjoy the atmosphere quietly without having to stand inside for a long time. This will also reduce the humidity that can harm tomb paintings and provide a better experience for visitors.

Group visits should not be made only in the mornings, as is the case in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor in Egypt, where over 10,000 tourists visit the tombs every day. In order to avoid such crowds, the West Bank of the Nile where the Valley is located has been illuminated at night so groups can come at night and the number of visits can be divided across the day in the mornings, at noon, and in the evenings, along with limiting the number of visitors allowed into the tombs at any one time.

Site-management plans have been carried out at many sites in Upper and Lower Egypt, and each site has had a different approach. The first site to see such a plan was Abu Simbel and Kalabsha in Upper Egypt. At the site of the unfinished obelisk at the latter, 50,000 square metres of sand and stone rubble were excavated from around the obelisk and major discoveries were made in the process. We now know for the first time the methods that the ancient Egyptians used to cut obelisks. The excavation uncovered diorite tools used to smooth the stones, as well as an inscription dating to the reign of the Pharaoh Thutmosis III, which states that the king ordered his architect to cut an obelisk for his father Amun-Re. Scenes of dolphins, obelisks and ostriches were also found.

In Kom Ombo, also in Upper Egypt, a unique crocodile museum was built as the area once hosted the main site of worship of, and pilgrimage to, the crocodile god Sobek. Great conservation and restoration work has also been carried out at the temples of Karnak and Luxor to prepare them for tourists.

The Great Pyramids Project that started before the 2011 Revolution has not been completely finished, but a 17km wall has been built around the site, along with a new entrance from the Fayoum Road for tourist buses only. The plan is to build a parking area designated for tourist buses in the desert near the souvenir market. All the camel and horse stables will be in one area next to the offices of the tourism police, antiquities inspectors, and Giza governorate employees.

This will mean that visitors can ride camels or horses with the Pyramids in the background. A visitor centre to the south will also be set up to introduce the history of the site. Tourists can then ride in electric cars for the duration of their visit. This plan will change the site from the current disorganised state into a genuine open-air museum, and there will no longer be unfortunate stories of tourists being bothered. It will also be possible to increase the number of group visits to the Pyramids.

Al-Muezz Street in Islamic Cairo is another important site, where over 36 Islamic monuments have been restored. Cars have not been allowed to enter the surrounding streets, and visitors can now walk through them until they reach the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar. They can have a late lunch at the Naguib Mahfouz Café in the bazaar and visit the nearby Mohammed Ali sabeel, or water-fountain, now turned into a museum for textiles. The Hanging Church, the Coptic Museum, and the Jewish synagogue of Moshe bin Maimoun have also been restored in Old Cairo.

The last important project to be discussed here is the making of replicas of ancient Egyptian tombs. Some unique tombs have been in danger of being destroyed by visitors, such as the Tomb of Nefertari, restored by the US-based Getty Conservation Institute. This tomb was so stunningly restored that I once saw a lady crying as a result of the beauty she encountered there. There are also the Tombs of Tutankhamun and Seti I, where the paintings and carvings are faced with risks of humidity that could lead to their destruction. I myself excavated the mysterious tunnel in the Tomb of Seti I, going down for more than 200m underground until I reached a dead end, but at least revealing the secret of this tunnel to Sheikh Ali Abdel-Rasoul, who was interested in solving the mystery.

The Society of Friends of the Valley of the Kings contacted me, and it was able to fund the creation of replicas of three tombs using laser scanning. The replica of the tomb of Tutankhamun is finished and is installed near archaeologist Howard Carter’s house, the original discover of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, which is now a museum for this great man. We need to complete the other two tombs and make replicas of more of the valley, and then the original tombs can be closed to visitors in order to protect them. There is a precedent for this practice at the Lascaux Caves in France, where millions of people visit the replica of the Caves, while keeping the originals closed to the public to help preserve them.

I think that what was really gratifying to me during the conference in Bulgaria was the fact that we also discussed the importance of teaching tour guides about saving our heritage and how they can guide tourists to do the same. Al-Refaai told me that he would plan a conference aimed just at tour guides. Finally, it is important to understand that if we do not start site-management and development projects soon, the monuments of the world could be destroyed in fewer than 100 years by an excess of tourist numbers.

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