Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Pyramids Fascinate Tourists for Thousands of Years

The Giza Pyramids outside of Cairo have been a tourist destination for over 3,000 years. Let me repeat that. Three thousand years ago, tourists from ancient Greece and Rome had heard of and traveled to see this marvel. It is the only original Seven Wonders of the World that survives. By looking up at the tip of these structures, you join Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Mark Twain, William Thackeray, and millions of others who were stunned at the skill of workmanship and the effort needed to complete them. On the wall outside the Khafra pyramid, original hieroglyphics, or early day graffiti, revealed Ramses II had been there when he was Pharoah around 1300 BC. Writers from Herodotus in 449 B. C. to Amelia Edwards in the 1870s have tried to describe the significance of these tributes to the Pharoahs and their queens.

There have been dips and rises in the numbers who have come. It wasn’t a good time to visit in 969 when the Tunisian Fatimids marched 100,000 soldiers over the desert to take Cairo or in 1258 when the Mongols invaded Egypt. But tourism picked up in the 1800's. Ancient Egypt was all the craze in Europe and camels were required, not just for photo ops but to ferry hoards of Englishmen to the site. Women, in their fine dresses and hats, insisted on viewing the pyramids up close and even on top.

As thousands year old graves were discovered filled with gold bejeweled masks and other finery, the frenzy continued. Despite occasional tourists attacks even in our time, tourism is by far the number one industry in Egypt today. Until the latest recession, Russians were taking their turn at overrunning the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and museums. Salesmen at the Pyramids shift effortlessly into English, French, German and Russian as they try ply their miniature pyramids, stuffed camels, and plastic jewelry, all made in China.

So, can it still be worth it? That interesting? Worth fighting the crowds? Of course it is.

The Giza pyramids stand in the middle of a Cairo suburb but with sufficient desert immediately surrounding them to maintain their integrity. From a distance they seem small. Only by standing at its base can the achievement of their construction be felt. Amelia Edwards wrote in her book, “A Thousand Miles Up the Nile”, of the Great Pyramid “in all its unexpected bulk and majesty towers close above one’s head, [and] the effect is as sudden as it is overwhelming. It shuts out the sky and the horizon. It shuts out everything but the sense of awe and wonder.”

The tallest, the Great Pyramid, is the largest single structure in the world. Its limestone blocks are so tightly packed that a knife can’t be inserted. Very recent excavation reveal that the workers were not slaves as commonly believed. They worked three month shifts and were fed well with meat and beer - similar to our modern day, off-shore oil workers.

In the past, tourists could climb to the top of the pyramids. But today, the major “extra” adventure offered is burrowing through tunnels inside either Khafra’s or Cheop’s pyramids into the chambers where kings were previously buried. Signs warn claustrophobic visitors shouldn’t try this. The tunnel into Khafra’s was about four feet tall and wide. I thought I wasn’t claustrophobic but learned otherwise. All had to walk hunchback, a kind of compressed duck walk, seeing only the person in front. It was hot and humid. Imaging helped calm breathing. We were only in the tunnel about five minutes but it felt forever. Finally, we burst into a remarkably large inner burial room with only an empty sarcarphogus to prove its original intent. A “guide” pointed out that it was indeed a sarcarphogus and then asked for “baksheesh” or a “tip”. I was so happy to be standing, I would have given him anything.

Outside , you also have many opportunities to be photographed with a bedecked camel and to ride on said bedecked camel. Negotiating is de rigeur and saying no impossible.

The Sphinx was the surprise and has its own riddle. It may be older than the pyramids and no one is sure of its purpose. The lion’s body lounges patiently in the sand with its tail circling comfortably around. In “Innocents Abroad”, Mark Twain described its great human face as “so sad, so earnest, so longing, so patient............ It was stone, but it seemed sentient.” This is where the crowds congregated late in the afternoon as all tried to get as close as allowed to the excavated feline.

The Sphinx supervises the Nile and modern day Cairo, a view that has evolved over 3,000 years of watching. But having tourists nearby hasn’t changed much. The fascination with the shape, angles, size, placement and reasons for the pyramids will surely continue for another three thousand years as visitors connect with a fascinating past that has slowly revealed its secrets.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


The television station’s call letters were APTN - Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. Based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, this was the world’s first television station dedicated to native people and one of only four officially licensed TV networks in Canada. Its broadcasts reached across the country and into our hotel room on a recent visit to Quebec. Curious about the First Nation people’s issues in Canada, we tuned in every evening.

Canada has over 600 recognized First Nations governments or bands and approximately 1,200,000 Native Canadians, about 3% of the population. First Nation People, Amerindians, Native Americans, and Aboriginal people are all terms used to refer to those who first occupied Canada. Although First Nation tribes were not conquered as they were in the United States, Canada has struggled with how to integrate federal and provincial laws with the treaties and land claim agreements negotiated over the last 250 years. The first proclamation in 1765 was meant to protect territories reserved to the tribes for their hunting grounds. The Indian Act of 1876 determined how reserves would operate, who qualifies as a First Nation descendant and how to enfranchise their inhabitants.

The 1927 Indian Act forbade First Nation people from forming political organizations and speaking their language in schools. 150,000 children were removed from their homes and placed in government supported boarding schools to assimilate them. On June 11, 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the schools and the abuse many children received.

The Indian Act has been amended over the years. But it wasn’t until 1983 that the heads of the government sat down with the leaders of the Aboriginal groups. The issues were not a surprise - land claims, natural resources ownership, education and self determination rights. Those concerns continue today as evidenced by the news stories at APTN.

During our viewing, we learned there was an election for a regional chief to the Assembly of First Nations. The candidates talked about the problems of poverty, advancing human rights, and remembering their ancestors. A second story featured members of a tribe in the far north who were blocking the trucks of an oil company until claims of ownership of the natural resources could be determined. A feature advised of the growing number of native teachers in the First Nation schools, a process started in the 1970's.

I was particularly interested in the discussion of the Sharon McIvor case, a sex discrimination suit that had just been settled the summer before. In 1985, the Indian Act was amended to correct a discrimination against Aboriginal women. Previously, an Aboriginal woman who married a non-status Indian lost her own status. The amendment corrected this problem but did not extend the protection to the woman’s children. An Aboriginal man’s children were protected even if he married a non-status woman - classic sex discrimination. It took ten years but Ms. McIvor won her case and now Aboriginal women’s children’s status are protected regardless of who their mother married.

Reading newspapers and watching local television in foreign countries helps with perspective. I realize the United States in not alone in its complexity. Canada, with ten provinces and three territories, must deal with the same federal and states rights issues we do and blend in past treaties. The most basic question of what nationality are the First Nation people is even a concern. I read that a tribal chief in Canada had recently developed a passport for his aboriginal nation which was accepted by several European countries.

Our English/Spanish debate is multiplied in Canada. At the APTN station, 56% of their broadcasts are in English, 16% in French, and 28% in Aboriginal languages. And the question of what children are taught in school is magnified in Canada as the First Nation people ask that their descendants and fellow Canadians learn of their traditions and history. Amerindians continue to protect their way of life by being politically active and by promoting tourism on their lands and in their crafts and arts. APTN helps keep them and us informed of this important goal.

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