Thursday, March 22, 2007

Police Protection In The Land Of The Pharaohs

The pyramids may be the iconic image of ancient Egypt, but the real pharaonic heart lies in the town of Luxor, situated on the site of ancient Thebes. Although the temporal capital may have migrated to Memphis and then Alexandria (amongst others) the spiritual centre of the country was always Thebes. It was here that the greatest temples to the ancient gods were erected, each pharaoh trying to outdo his predecessors with ever more grandiose constructions. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the temple complex of Karnak where successive rulers added halls, altars, obelisks and statues until the whole ensemble grew to over 100 acres (it's the largest ancient religious site in the world). The scale, the still-visible colours and the craftsmanship are all an immortal declaration of power designed to impress, and impress they do.

The city of Thebes restricted itself to the eastern bank of the Nile whereas the west bank - the direction of the setting sun dropping into the underworld - was reserved for the dead. It is here, in a dry, barren wadi surrounded by cliffs that one finds the famous Valley of the Kings, the final resting place (at least until their mummies were moved to the museum in Cairo) of some 65 New Kingdom (roughly 1500 B.C. to 1000 B.C.) pharaohs, including Tutankhamun. Despite their best efforts at concealment most of these tombs were pillaged in ancient times (hence the reason why Tut, despite being a relatively insignificant monarch with no lasting achievements to his name, has become so famous) and so all that is left are the wall-paintings and perhaps a sarcophagus as well. But it wasn't just kings that were buried with pomp in the old days, there are over 400 tombs of queens, nobles and high-ranking officials dotted around. In fact it is the tombs of these officials and nobles that are perhaps the most interesting as they had fewer valuables but more vividly colourful decorations. Although the pharaohs made sure to hide their graves they made up for it by building ostentatious funerary temples to themselves though they don't seem to have withstood the test of time as well as their counterparts on the opposite bank.

It was at one of these west bank temples (the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut at Deir al Bahri) 10 years ago that a group of 62 tourists were massacred by Islamist militants. The attack caused the number of visitors to Egypt to plummet and so the government quickly stepped in (because without its income from the tourist industry Egypt would be a complete basket case).There was a crackdown on domestic Muslim groups, security was tightened around tourist sites and visitors were severely restricted in their transport options and a good deal of places were off limits altogether. The tactic worked and in the ensuing years there have only been a few minor incidents and so the tourists have come flooding back. And although there has been calm for some time now the police presence has remained. Ordinary package tourists may not notice it but south of Cairo there is a tangible security buffer between them and the locals. Just as there are walls and fences around historical monuments, to keep vandals out and to ensure people pay the entry fee, there are further walls and barriers around these to restrict access for locals to the roads around these very sites. On top of that there are sentry posts, where police officers armed with machine guns lurk behind bullet-proof protectors, all around these sites as well. And if a tourist should somehow manage to make it through these cordons (designed not only to keep locals out but also foreigners in) and turn up alone and unannounced in a provincial town they will immediately be given a police escort to wherever they are planning to visit, and then quickly bundled onto the next available train the nearest "safe" town. It means that there is even less contact between foreigners and ordinary locals. All this seems paradoxical to me from a safety point of view because if there was to be a terrorist attack then it would be far more likely to be against a train full of foreign tourists than a local service with a couple of ajnabis aboard.

Finally I ought to make a quick comment about the touts. For quite some time now I've been warned by other travellers about the Luxor touts and how merciless they can be and so I was preparing myself mentally for the onslaught. However they were not as fierce as I had feared. For anyone who has braved Agra on foot or gotten off the Siem Reap bus at Phnom Penh and survived they do not pose an insurmountable obstacle.

1 comment:

Karel Bartosik said...

Nazdar vespolek, sleduji tvuj blog Eriku, obdivuji tvou trpelivost si s tim dat takovou praci! Mas tam ted tatu, uzijte si to ale davej bacha abys ho neztratil. Good luck and see you all when you come back. Karel B.