Friday, June 7, 2013

Are the Pyramids Safe?

Safe to visit, that is.

Of course, not all the Pyramids are in tip top shape
Some of them, like these "starter" models in Dahshur have seen better days and are not recommended for climbing. 

However, the US Embassy in Cairo recently issued an advisory about the very safety of visiting the Giza Pyramids and Egypt has responded with understandable petulance. Although I haven't been around for the latest revolutionary activities, I thought I would offer some perspectives.

To recap the news, here's the pertinent portion of the Embassy's email to ex-pats who subscribe to the so-called "warden messages" (
Security Message to U.S. Citizens No. 46: Incidents at the Giza Pyramids
Thu, May 30, 2013 at 7:26 AM

>In recent weeks, the U.S. Embassy has become aware of an increasing number of incidents at or near the Giza Pyramids.  The majority of these incidents are attributed to over-aggressive vendors, though the degree of aggressiveness in some cases is closer to criminal conduct. Other more serious incidents have been reported involving vehicles nearing the Pyramids, with angry groups of individuals surrounding and pounding on the vehicles – and in some cases attempting to open the vehicle’s doors. While the motive is less clear (possibly related to carriage operators wanting fares), it has severely frightened several visitors. A common theme from many of these reports is the lack of visible security or police in the vicinity of the Pyramids. U.S. citizens should elevate their situational awareness when traveling to the Pyramids, avoid any late evening or night travel, utilize a recommended or trusted guide, and closely guard valuables. 

Though other tourist locations have not been brought to Embassy attention, these measures are also recommended at all crowded or popular tourist sites. Tahrir Square and the Sadat Metro stop remain off-limits to Embassy personnel. Additionally, Simon Bolivar Square is also an area that receives little, if any, direct police coverage and has been an area frequented by gangs who throw rocks or molotovs at police beyond the barricades, vandalize property in the square, or target individuals for robbery. As a matter of general practice, U.S. citizens should avoid areas where large gatherings may occur. >
I've color-coded the Warden message into three sections, along with the other excerpted section (the last part of the message is not given because it deals with the Embassy's standard verbiage.)

1) Aggressive vendors...or thuggery? Having been to Giza on several occasions I've seen the best and worst of local Egyptian vendoring. From one perspective, tourists in the Middle East and other economically challenged places should come expecting a certain level of vendor haggling...
...harrassment, baksheesh, begging and general importuning. That's the price you pay for being a tourist. If you don't want that, stay in your hotel and drink umbrella drinks by the pool. However, at some point, the hectoring becomes uncomfortable...particularly as the economy worsens dramatically and as the tourist trade drops off. 

One day I was escorting a friend to the Giza Pyramids using a driver I hadn't used before but who came recommended by my usual driver. He brought us to the base of the Sphinx area where tourists usually depart, or else go to see the evening light show extravaganza. It happens to be a place where a great many camel-ride vendors and guides hang out...but, notably, it is not the place where you obtain your entrance pass. That's up the hill and around a bend, where the tour buses park. Typically, one gets "assigned" a guide when you get out of your vehicle, which you're free to take or not. Eventually though you will give in and allow a friendly Egyptian local to negotiate a camel, carriage or horse ride, or at least a walking tour. (My advice is to get up on a camel for a small fee, take your pictures, and then simply stroll through the three-pyramid area). However, on this occasion, the driver tried to drop us off down by the Sphinx/exit area and we were immediately beset upon by zealous vendors. I firmly...loudly...asked the driver why the hell was he bringing us here and instructed him to drive up to the entrance. All the while, the vendors were walking or running along, sticking their hands out and even into the front of the car. I think I may have scared the driver because he shot off and in a minute deposited us at the proper location, up on the hill.
Needless to say, my companion was scared to death, but our journey proceeded without further ado.

Note the Warden's phrase "it has severely frightened several visitors." This was certainly the reaction of my companion that day. Fortunately, I knew the lay of the land on that occasion but I can easily imagine the variety of reactions than can infuse these situations. And some people are more easily frightened than others.

2) Lack of visible security. This is a pretty significant item, for tourists anyway. There is typically very little visible security at the Pyramids to start with…and the uniformed individuals you do see are often busy collecting fees for posing with you or for setting you up with a guide. For North Americans and Europeans used to having their national treasures guarded by a corps of severe-looking, armed officers who appear ready to jump into action, the security force at the Pyramids is woeful-looking indeed. One might say this is one of the charms of a free-market, laissez-faire touristic scene, but it could be unnerving when locals get over-zealous and certainly thuggery can come into play.

3)  US citizens should elevate their awareness.  This is certainly true when traveling anywhere, and, one might say, especially in the gun-fervored US where anything from a movie theatre to  a grade school can be the scene of a mass-murder. So this is sound advice in a place where revolutions have been taking place on a yearly basis.

In effect, then, the Embassy is advising visitors to the Pyramids to be extra careful around an area that has traditionally been considered a safe haven.

The Egyptian government has quite understandably reacted quickly and firmly with a message of, if not outrage, at least, great annoyance at the Embassy's cautions. And well they should. After all, tourism is a very significant portion of Egypt's economy and  has dropped at least a third, if not more, in just three years.  

A ministry statement on Saturday says the warning is "baseless." Egypt's Antiquities' Ministry insists the pyramids' area in Giza, Cairo's twin city, is "totally secure" and that the overall situation for tourists has improved.

Unfortunately, from various readers' comments I've been seeing attached to news stories, this touristic hooliganism (my new term for overzealous touts) is prevalent and until the economy gets better and the government stabilizes, it's not likely to improve.

That said, careful tourists who don't mind tipping the occasional guide and camel jockey -- it's only fair -- should find themselves safe and secure. And you may have the Pyramids and Sphinx all to yourself to boot.

all photos copyright Jim Veihdeffer

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