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Egypt's ancient pyramids at Giza get makeover

The monuments may be glorious, but visiting Egypt's famed Giza Pyramids has long been a nightmare, with hawkers peddling camel rides and pharaonic trinkets hustling tourists relentlessly at every turn.
Image: Pyramids
Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni (left) and Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (right), walk along the Great Pyramids in Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo on Aug. 11. Hosni inaugurated today the first phase of the site management project for the Giza Plateau.Khaled Desouki / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

The monuments may be glorious, but visiting Egypt's famed Giza Pyramids has long been a nightmare, with hawkers peddling camel rides and pharaonic trinkets hustling tourists relentlessly at every turn.

But now the hustlers are gone, as Egypt unveiled on Monday the first stage of an elaborate project to modernize the site and make it more tourist-friendly, while also putting in improved security — including a 12-mile chain-link fence with cameras, alarms and motion detectors surrounding the site.

"It was a zoo," Zahi Hawass, Egypt's chief archaeologist, said of the usual free-for-all at the pyramids. "Now we are protecting both the tourists and the ancient monuments."

The three Giza Pyramids have long been unusually open for a 5,000-year-old Wonder of the World, especially compared to other world-renowned sites like Greece's Acropolis, Jerusalem's Western Wall or Rome's Colosseum, where security is tight and the movement of visitors is controlled.

The pyramids stand on a desert plateau that was once isolated, but in the capital's expansion in past decades slums have been built right to its edge, separated only by a low stone wall in parts. The rest of the area was wide open to the desert.

Hawkers — many from the nearby impoverished neighborhoods looking to benefit from the tourist dollar — have had free rein, and have become notorious.

Tourists undergo a constant barrage from peddlers selling mock-ups of pharaonic statues and scarabs, T-shirts and other trinkets, or are followed by men on camels selling rides or photos — and rarely taking no for an answer. Young men even try to force their way into taxi cabs carrying foreigners toward the pyramids, looking to steer them to nearby horse stables for a ride around the site.

But tourists have taken their own liberties as well. Since the 19th Century, climbing the Pyramid of Khufu, the biggest of the three, was a favorite past-time for visitors, continuing into the 1970s — with the occasional fatal fall of an inebriated tourist.

Since then, authorities have cracked down on climbing the giant 2.5-ton blocks, though visitors can still freely ramble around the pyramid grounds, where many tombs and other archaeological sites remain only partially excavated and vulnerable to damage.

The new technology will do away with shenanigans by both sides.

Kamal Wahid, the site's general director, said the new system will ensure vendors and tourists "be good," and more importantly will greatly improve security at the site.

In 1997, amid a wave of Islamic militant violence, gunmen attacked tourists at a desert temple in the southern city of Luxor, killing more than 60. The militant campaign and most attacks ended in the late 1990s, but bombings in Sinai beach resorts in the past four years have kept officials wary.

The long metal chain-link fence around the plateau reaches a height of 13 feet (4 meters) at some points. "Intruders can't jump over this," Wahid said. It is dotted with infrared sensors and motion detectors that set off alarms at a control room on the plateau.

Tourists enter through a new brick entrance building, where half a dozen gates are equipped with metal detectors and X-ray machines. Once inside, their every step is closely watched by 199 closed-circuit cameras covering every corner of the sprawling plateau. The footage goes back to the control room, where guards monitor a bank of 24 screens around the clock.

"It looks clean and beautiful," said Michael Schmidt, 43, a real estate agent from New York City, as he visited the site Monday. "They did a good job."

As Hawass and antiquity authorities showed off the changes Monday, trinket sellers were nowhere to be seen, apparently ordered off the plateau. Three lone camel riders in male Arab headscarf and the traditional galabeyah robes were standing at the edge of the plateau. Instead of chasing customers, they waited for the tourists to come to them for a photo opportunity.

As a reporter walked up, one of them said: "Go away, the police told us not to talk to you."

"I've been working here for 25 years," said a second one, but would not give his name for fear he could lose his permit. "Now I don't know if I will be here tomorrow. I have five children, a wife. What will happen to us?"

It was not clear whether the trinket dealers were pushed out just for the day or whether they would return in a more controlled fashion. Wahid said phasing out the hawkers will not be sudden or "unkind."

"Two years from now, you won't see them inside the site," he said. He added that a special area nearby will be designated for horse and camel riding for tourists — with the pyramids serving as a dramatic backdrop for photos.

The changes are part of a $26 million project that began seven years ago to improve the site, Hawass said. Still to come are a new lighting system, a cafeteria, and a visitors center and bookshop that will give better information on the pyramids, where tourist guidance is sparse.

Once the project is complete, golf cars will drive tourists around the site, similar to those in use in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor and other ancient sites in Egypt.

Exactly how much a future visitor would be able to roam around freely is unclear, but on Monday, Ramish Bissoon, 59, a teacher from Trinidad, felt unrestricted as he explored the plateau with his wife, Molly.

"I don't know what it was like before, but I feel very comfortable and secure," he said. "There are a lot of policemen around."

Hawass insisted none of the innovations will diminish the experience of the visit. "We are giving back the magic of the pyramids," Hawass said.