Egypt: Time & Trouble: Part Three of Four

A modern sensibility toward protection of ancient treasures; Egypt's wealth of antiquities brings tourists, but it also makes a tempting target.

India 2005

By Eric Ringham

June 10, 2009

LUXOR, Egypt – Nine years ago this November, a group of men dressed in black appeared outside Queen Hatshepsut's tomb near Luxor. It is a popular tourist site, one of the mandatory stops for visitors to the Valley of the Kings.

The men produced automatic weapons and began shooting the tourists. They moved methodically up a ramp and through the massive temple, chasing down those who tried to hide. Sixty-two people, all but four of them foreign tourists, were killed.

It was an agonizing episode for a country whose people pride themselves on generosity to visitors - "The Holy Family came here for shelter," said one older man - and whose economy depends on tourism. Before they escaped into the desert, and apparently killed themselves, the six gunmen inflicted a wound on the tourism industry that would take years to heal.

And visits by Americans, say tourism workers, have never recovered. If the gunmen had not taken their own lives, "I would kill them by my own hands," a guide outside Hatshepsut's tomb said this month.

When terrorists want to hit Egypt where it hurts, they attack a tourist site. The recent bombings in the Sinai Peninsula, an area billed as the Egyptian Riviera, drew a quick police response and the death of the purported ringleader.

Whatever the charms of Sinai resort towns like Dahab or Sharm el-Sheikh, the infrastructure of Egypt's tourist economy lies in its antiquities. From the pyramids outside Cairo to the tombs and temples of Luxor, Egypt offers the newcomer countless opportunities to stare upward with mouth hanging open.

And the person in charge of that infrastructure - probably the most charismatic leader in Egypt today - is Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Earlier this month, as a group of visitors filed into his office, he pretended to be absorbed in Time magazine's just-released list of the world's 100 most influential people, which included him.

"Who is George Clooney? Who is ... Willi Smith?" he asked, in feigned bewilderment. "Who is George W. Bush?"

Hawass is a gregarious man with a sense of humor and of mission: to help Egyptians understand and appreciate their heritage, and to assert Egypt's right to keep and protect its treasures - and if necessary to get them back.

When he heard where one of his visitors was from, he replied, "St. Louis? I need you to help me make the life of the director of the art museum miserable!"

Hawass alleged that the St. Louis Art Museum has a funeral mask that was taken from Egypt illegally. The museum's director, Brent Benjamin, disputes the charge. As a press conference this month, he demanded that Hawass "provide documentation substantiating his claim that the mask was stolen - or to cease his attacks on the St. Louis Art Museum."

Hawass clearly relishes his role as the country's chief archeologist. He has adopted what he refers to as "my Indiana Jones hat" as a personal trademark. He describes being approached by schoolchildren who know his face and want to ask about Egypt's past. "Doormen in the streets of Cairo stop me and ask me questions," he said.

To him, that's a victory. "All over Egypt are modern towns, built above antiquities," he said. "When Egyptians understand their culture, they will preserve it and help me take care of it."

That is, if they can afford to do so. One of the pressures on Egypt's ancient sites is poverty: Stones have been plundered from tombs for use as building material.

A mother of five in the Cairo slum of Imbaba, whose husband explained that "everything is too expensive for us," described her view of Egypt's heritage this way:

"We're a beautiful country with lots of antiquities and lots of museums. But what do we benefit from it?"