Pyramids under tourist threat


After more than 4,000 years of splendid isolation in the desert, the Great Pyramids of Giza are being encroached upon by housing development and by ever-increasing swarms of tourists, trailed by souvenir hawkers and would-be guides.

On the Giza plateau where the pyramids lie, buses disgorge tourists from around the world every day, with crowds of Egyptians joining them on weekends and holidays.

The scene is chaotic, as tourists, arriving in private cars, taxis or buses, run into official and self-styled guides who offer them rides on camels and horses they lead around the site with a constant turnover of customers.

Salesmen offering papyrus and trinkets mingle with crowds heading in different directions - to the pyramids and the Sphinx, or the tourist shops and fast-food restaurants, with litter and animal dung scattered in the sand, roads and parking lots.

Further out, anyone riding horseback finds a desert strewn with the shells of old cars, bottles and other plastic objects, iron rods, wires and cables, and even the decaying corpse of a horse.

And to the south of the three pyramids, there is the foundation for a road, which is part of an unfinished project to complete a beltway around the city of 16 million people.

Construction was stopped amid an international controversy over the impact of such a road.

The "pyramids are attacked, completely attacked by modern construction, by horse stables," said Zahi Hawass, the new secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, in a recent news report.

"You cannot please people and destroy the pyramids."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced at the end of May that he would ask Unesco about a plan to dig a tunnel near the pyramids that would complete the ring road.

Impatience is mounting in certain quarters of the Egyptian government to see the beltway finally completed. Notable is the housing ministry, which proposed building the tunnel about four kilometres south of the pyramids.

Culture Minister Faruq Hosni says the housing ministry is now proposing the tunnel as the project to complete the ring road, and Mubarak has carefully brought the dispute before Unesco.

But the Unesco office in Cairo said it has not yet received any request.

The Giza plateau, Hawass said, is part of a zone of 50 square km that is protected by Unesco.

He favours a Unesco proposal to build a tunnel north of the pyramids.

However, Egyptian newspapers said the cost of the project, equivalent to around $200 million, is prohibitively expensive.

Hawass added that the area needs to be regulated, as the city keeps encroaching on the site.