Jennifer Williams | Cairo, Egypt | Post 2

Jennifer Williams | Cairo, Egypt | Post 2

If only the walls could talk…

In the famous museum of Cairo and the ancient temples along the Nile from Luxor to Aswan, not to mention all the other archeological oases, I can only imagine the millions of stories the walls could share. Yet, the tale they would tell today would undoubtedly be the lack of people appreciating the wall’s history.

Within my first minutes in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, I looked at some of the earliest samples of writing in human history, I gazed upon towering statues on either side of me, and I stared at the exquisitely-preserved Narmer Palette in front of me. Soon afterwards my professor drew my attention to one of the most beautiful, powerful and kingly statues in existence. As I walked through the chronology of exhibits on the ground floor listening to my professor talk about the depth of the history, I felt entirely captivated. The museum houses wall-to-wall history with barely enough spaces for people to walk between the artifacts. Within the two floors rest over 120,000 artifacts ranching from the pre-dynastic time period of ancient Egypt to the new kingdom of the pharaonic era and beyond. Yet, there were barely enough people to fill one small classroom, let alone an entire museum. While the museum provided a fleeting refreshment from the crowded atmosphere, hectic streets and growing population of Cairo, it also showcased the distinct absence of tourism.

I witnessed the same story unfold before my eyes on my trip to Luxor and Aswan. For the recent holiday, Eid al-Adha, the International Students and Study Abroad (ISSA) office hosted a subsidized five-day Nile Cruise. I, in addition to the other international students who accompanied me, was afforded a luxurious experience with only the oppressively hot weather to limit full-unabashed enjoyment. Sitting on the top deck on the cruise ship, we could look at a complete 360-degree view of the Nile without the obstruction of too many ships. More often than not, I was able to look out at the closes and reaches of the Nile valley where the desert meets the river and then opens to an area of cultivatable land. Not even at the towering temples of Karnak, Luxor, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Philae did there seem to be an excessive human presence. Wandering through the infamous Valley of the Kings, our tour guide explained he could not accompany us inside the tombs—tourism laws restricted him from imparting his wealth of knowledge to us. In the past these laws had been designed to ease the passage through the tombs, as people used to often stop and listen to the various tour guides explain the frames of hieroglyphics, the properties and stories of the various Gods represented, the specific examples of vandalism and the general history depicted on the sandstone masterpieces. However, as we walked through the three tombs allotted on our ticket, I remember thinking that the tour guide would not have caused a major disruption of the space. Even going into Tutankhamen’s small but beautiful tomb, we did not have to wait in any lines. All throughout our trip, we enjoyed the examples of history without any test on our patience caused by crowds. We had the space to stare up at the grand temple walls and imagine what they would say (apart from their probable comments on the evident lack visitors).

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At almost every historical site, there was a small market leading up to the entrance where desperate shopkeepers would stand in front of the path attempting to say anything to entice us into their shops. Almost all of us walked past them trying not to make eye contact, so as not to encourage any more invasive techniques of persuasion. In Edfu, a site known for the many shopkeepers, I heard a man call out once, “How can we help you spend your money?” I smiled without thinking, but kept my head down. With my capitalistic ideas that I must search for the lowest price on commodities, I avoided buying anything. We knew going in that people would try to overcharge us as foreigners, and every day our tour guide would reiterate this point. Not considering the tourism crisis, I merely felt mild annoyance at the shopkeepers in my path.

Now, more acquainted with the impact of job losses on unemployment and the growth of the informal sector, my actions seem an attempt to preserve my privilege. For one thing, as an American, the exchange rate is heavily in my favor. For another, Egypt has lost nearly half of the percentage contribution to total billion USD revenue from tourism since its peak in 2010. It would not be a great inconvenience for me to buy souvenirs costing maybe the equivalent of 10 cents each for family members and friends back home, so why did I not buy anything? Why did it seem at the time necessary not to spend any of my money? It is true that I cannot afford to frivolously throw dollars at items I do not need, but I cannot help but feeling that I purposely avoided extra contribution to the tourism revenue, especially considering my immense enjoyment of the ancient historical monuments. When I consider this dilemma and my role in it, my mind feels pulled in countless different directions. One the one hand, I have been taught my whole life to spend my money with caution. On the other hand, the detrimental effects of the tourism crisis are felt everywhere and are inescapable to notice. As I have some means to contribute to the Egyptian economy, should I be focused with tunnel-vision precision on my budget as a student or should I not attempt to haggle with my fruit man and spend the extra 50 cents each time I crave mangos? I wonder what the ancient walls would say, as they have experienced various economic crises in the past and encountered people with all levels of socio-economic power. Oh, if only the walls could talk…

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