In ancient Giza, located on a plateau facing a temporary city filled with what National Geographic describes as “skilled, well fed workers,” the pharaohs built a complex to serve as a timeless shrine to their civilization. The Pyramids and the Sphinx have lasted as just that, as building began over 4500 years ago, or roughly 2500 BCE.
Today, The Pyramids stand guard over the urban sprawl of Cairo, the Egyptian capital and a metropolis home to more than 10 million people. Standing on the Giza Plateau, the myriad calls to prayer, broadcast from minarets around modern Cairo, waft up to the monuments, enhancing the sense that one stands on a sacred place, and is surrounded by relics from the first civilization. Touring the monuments can give the effect of jumping back centuries in time – men in jellabiya (pronounced gale i bay-uh in Egypt) – lead camels and donkey carts along the roads, and the desert stretches out on three sides, seemingly endless.
We rode camels around The Pyramids – reassuringly sure-footed beasts, I had no idea that the plateau had so many ups and downs, and then a steep steep down to Cairo – and out into the desert to view all three Pyramids. Each one had a name targeting the tourists – my ride out had a lovely decorated saddle and was named Michael Jordan. Back in, I rode Mickey Mouse and he was decorated with tassels on his reins. The sway of the camel is lulling, and contributes to the spell of the desert. Viewing the monuments and Sahara this way, it’s easy to understand both a fear of the desert, and how crucial a role it played in history. Conquering the desert like the sea was the key ot geopolitical power in the region, during the age of Colonialism. A strategy I learned from watching Lawrence of Arabia:
“My lord, I think… I think your book is right. ‘The desert is an ocean in which no oar is dipped’ and on this ocean the Bedu go where they please and strike where they please. This is the way the Bedu have always fought. You’re famed throughout the world for fighting in this way and this is the way you should fight now!”
The Western view from the pyramids, and the even the journey to the pyramids, is not always as scenic. The plateau looks out over the modern suburb of Giza and towards greater Cairo. The urban sprawl is indicative of Cairo’s epidemic housing crisis, and Egypt’s economic and environmental woes.
In 2005, more than 20 percent of the population of Egypt lived below the poverty level, and over 44 percent were in the range of poverty to near poor, by World Bank standards. This was while the country was experiencing a growth in GDP, a growth in population (it is the largest in the Arab world, according to the CIA World Factbook) and still served as one of the most stable areas in Africa. Since the global recession, Egypt’s GDP contracted froma pre recession rate of greater than 7 percent as far down as just over 4 percent. There was some growth in 2010, but the revolution is expected to negate this growth in 2011.
As one source says in the AP article – ‘[Egypt] was never a poor country. It was just one full of poor people.” Its positioning on the Nile provides Egypt with an amazing amount of natural resources. Despite the fact that less than 3 percent of the country is arable, over 30 percent of the population works in agriculture. It ranks in the top 50 countries worldwide for both natural gas and oil production.
Yet, one factor attributing to maintaining the economic trouble here is the sharp decline of tourism. Prior to the revolution, tourism was the third largest industry in Egypt, after textiles and food processing, and over 50 percent of the Egyptian workforce is in the services sector. At visit to the Pyramids in May 2011, and those looking to capitalize on the tourism barely exceed a 1:1 ratio with said tourists. Each provider has to hussle a little harder, and unfortunately, the hard sell does not always translate well with the tourist (writes the cranky consumer. . . .)