Egypt: The Frickin’ Pyramids, and How to Help

Ah, the Pyramids. Last remaining wonder of the ancient world. Monumental tombs for the pharaohs. Engineering mystery.

And pain in my ass.

I’m not the only one to think this. Every tourist I’ve ever met in Egypt has looked shell-shocked when they mention their trip to the Pyramids.

It shouldn’t be this way. Egypt’s second source of income after foreign aid is tourism, and the Pyramids are the number-one tourist attraction by far. They’ve been grossly mismanaged, probably because Zahi Hawass, ex minister of antiquities, was too busy wearing his silly hat on National Geographic specials to care.

Sorry to be so rancorous about such an important and impressive pile of rocks. They are pretty cool.

Crush, crush.

This photo sums up the problem of visiting the Pyramids. I didn’t want to take this photo. I didn’t even want to be out in the desert where you have to be to take this photo. But some guy with a camel started chatting me up, and because some days it’s easier to smile than it is to snap and draw the line, and that doesn’t even work anyway, I ended up letting him walk with me, and then of course the next thing I know I’m on the damn camel and we’re tromping out to the photo-op spot.

He was a nice guy, this camel guy. He asked me to write a text message to his German ‘girlfriend.’ He tried to get me my Coke for a reasonable price from the guy selling them from a foam cooler. He had lovely eyelashes. And he asked me for a ridiculous amount of money, even though I had never hired him. I knew that would happen the minute he said hello, but like I said, some days it’s easier to smile.

His camel's name is Mickey Mouse. Every camel's name appears to be Mickey Mouse. How did that joke get started?

Anyway, this wasn’t a terrible experience, mostly because I didn’t have much at stake that day and I knew what to expect. By duct-taping my rose-colored glasses to my face, I could still enjoy the guy’s company without getting too peeved about this whole camel deal being forced on me. But most people have far worse problems at the Pyramids–like actual jerks who yell and threaten and fight to get more money out of tourists.

This makes it sound like the camel guys (and there are horse guys too) are the problem, and if they just banned them from the Pyramids area, everything would be fine.

Ah, but…two problems:

1) The Pyramids are spread over a big area, so the horse and camel rides are actually useful.

2) The horse and camel guys are from the village next to the Pyramids, and they have exactly zero other ways to make money. (Well, except for the Mubarak regime hiring them to beat up their compatriots in Tahrir Square. That’s how desperate they are.)

Zahi Hawass et al. knew they couldn’t get rid of these guys completely, but tried to control them by erecting this horrific wall between the village and the Pyramids. It looks like a mini-Palestinian barrier fence, and all it does is make the horse and camel guys move up the road to try to nab tourists before they get to the Pyramids.

Cool tiles at the Giza metro stop

This starts at the Giza metro stop, where seemingly concerned strangers sidle up and tell you which bus to take to the Pyramids. Then of course try to sell you on horse rides while you’re waiting for the bus. Or they jump in your taxi when it’s stopped in traffic. Or, wait, backtrack: they get the guy at your hotel to sell you a “sunrise tour” of the Pyramids, which means you show up two hours before the site opens, and you pass the time by talking to a guy who wants to sell you a horse ride.

It would be funny if it didn’t drive tourists to breakdowns and rages. The day I visited, I must’ve said ‘no’ about 856 times. And if you don’t say ‘no’, it must mean yes. So, yeah, I was basically date-raped by a camel.

The only calm part of the Pyramids is the almost-dust-free zone of the Cheops Boat Museum.

I wish I could just advise people not to go to the Pyramids, as I think they’d be a lot happier with their trip to Egypt. But I know that’s the grumpy outlook. Though Anthony Bourdain didn’t go to them on the Egypt episode of No Reservations.

My friend Hassan is a tour guide, and he happened to be on that episode. He was the one telling Tony all about the Pyramids, so that Tony didn’t have to go.

Hassan has a dream of fixing the Pyramids, of finally solving this problem with the horse and camel guys, who provide a useful service but are the source of so much aggravation. He’d like to help them form a cooperative of some kind, so they’re not all competing with each other, and there’d be set prices. Oooh, and maybe an orderly line! (Sorry–that might just be me getting carried away.)

I’d love to connect Hassan with some people working in tourism in other countries who might advise on how to go about organizing something like this. Or people working in NGOs with this kind of experience. Any ideas? Mexico connections are an obvious choice, as a lot of tourist services in the Yucatan work on this model.

In the meantime, I was heartened at least by how many Egyptians were at the Pyramids when I visited this year. I’ve never seen this before. Then I was disheartened to see them also being hassled endlessly by the horse and camel guys. By the end of the day, they looked as beat as me.

Just chilling out at the Great Pyramid of Cheops. As you do.

Sorting out the camel and horse situation would be as radical and helpful a change as installing meters on Cairo taxis–which has been done successfully. Cairo taxi drivers are now a delight to ride with. And I bet many of the horse and camel guys would also be excellent ambassadors for Egypt, if they weren’t so desperately fighting for the last tourist dollar.

All suggestions welcome. Have you been to a tourist site that was remarkably well managed? Or poorly managed? This isn’t rocket science–places have solved it, and probably not for too much money. Somewhere as great as the Pyramids deserves a lot better.