Field Notes from Africa: Should the Impoverished Maintain Historical Treasures?

Field Notes from Africa: Should the Impoverished Maintain Historical Treasures?
Photo Credit: joepyrek @Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

I am currently traveling through Egypt, where tourist numbers have declined precipitously since the overthrow of President Mubarak in what global media calls the Arab Spring six years ago. Governments around the world have issued travel warnings for the country, exaggerating threats and dangers that have been effective in scaring away all but the hardiest of travelers.

This harsh reality has not been kind to small towns in Upper Egypt, where the past decades have seen the local economy quickly shifting from agriculture to tourism. So much of the local population has become dependent on the tourist trade that the sudden decrease in tourist inflows has thrown most into the uncertainty of severe underemployment.

To continue keeping themselves alive with dwindling business, these locals have devised more desperate ways to get the most out of the few remaining travelers that still mill about the town, hoping to increase earning per person to make up for reduced overall numbers.

Some of the methods to squeeze the tourists have become decidedly devious, threatening the very sustainability of the towns’ tourism resources and future as tourist destinations.

One good example of this shortsightedness occurs daily at the Valley of the Kings, where 3000-year-old underground tombs of Egyptian pharaohs are preserved in their original conditions.

On paper, the rules for tourists at the Valley of Kings seem pretty strict. The number of people inside the tomb cannot exceed more than a defined number at once. No photos are allowed inside or outside the tombs; no speaking or even fast-walking inside, and definitely no touching of the walls, most of which are coated with colorful paintings depicting ancient lives in the land of the pharaohs.

Photo Credit: Supermac1961 @Flickr CC BY 2.0

The reason is plain and simple. After 3,000 years sealed underground, the world is lucky to just see the colorful wall painting of the royal tombs in their original state; the paintings are so fragile that anything that can possibly damage it must be avoided, whether it be shaking of the ground, camera flashes, or excess moisture. The strict rules, at least in theory, are the main ways to keep the paintings alive for posterity while keeping the tourists coming.

In practice, however, the rules are routinely ignored.

The guards of the individual tombs lurk around the few foreign visitors, discreetly telling them "loopholes" to the rules. Looking around to make sure their managers are not looking, the guards make hand gestures for money, followed by another for taking pictures. The interpretation is straightforward, "hand over cash, and the rules mean nothing." Foreign tourists, so willing to leave some permanent photographic evidence of their visits, are only too willing to hand over cash to the guards.

Of course, there are always some conscious tourists who find such behavior disturbing. They plainly remind the guards that the rules are in place to protect the tombs. But the guards, upon hearing such comments, nonchalantly retort that a few pictures cannot do much harm, thereby encouraging the tourists to put down cash and start snapping away.

The money-centered way of thinking among local employees of historical sites is not limited to the Valley of Kings. Every tomb, temple, or monument in the area almost always comes with these kind of people, helping tourist enter restricted areas and break the rules, while helping them avoid being captured by already meager police presence to supplement drastically reduced incomes.

The damage done to the sites in the process requires no scientific elaboration. The ancient relics of the glorious pharaoh era are the sources of the towns’ relative wealth, and when the local population receives bribes and intentionally turns a blind eye to tourists damaging the historical sites, they are simply trading future sustainability of the town as a center for global tourism for meager incomes in the short term. It should be noted that some tourists only plan to show up only once at a certain destination in their lifetimes. They will have no qualms about destroying local sites for their personal enjoyment. When more of these people decide to show up with their happy-to-bribe, happy-to-destroy attitude, it will be the beginning of the end for these towns as important historical destinations.

It is worth reiterating that politics has done its part to make responsible tourism less of a possibility.

On the horse carriage ride in town, my driver said, "Business was so good before, that there was no need to hassle around tourists like now, just wait and people come, but now even feeding the horse is a problem."

By "before," he meant the before the Egyptian Revolution some five years ago. In the process, the biggest victim was undoubtedly the previously bustling tourism industry.

With a steep decrease in income for most locals, like the guards of the Valley of Kings, the horse-carriage drivers on the streets, and anyone else dependent on the influx of tourist money, direct confrontation for more money has become much more common.

For the few tourists that do come though, it means more unpleasant, persistent, and aggressive hassling for money. It also means more and more exaggerated tales of misfortune about how families go unfed and no better opportunities for earning money. No one likes being pushed to part with their money, whether through unwanted services being forced onto them or sad stories locals tell that completely destroy the happy mood of travels. Words of mouth cannot possibly be good, and more tourists will probably stay away even if they think Egypt is safe. As more tourists are driven away by the locals’ behaviors, a vicious cycle ensues, causing more damages to the sites.

It is all the more unfortunate, though, when one considers the sheer effort developing countries have been putting into getting back national treasures from Western colonizers who pillaged them for their respective national museums. It is the actions of the guards at Valley of Kings that vindicate Western suspicion of developing countries’ inability to keep these treasures in good conditions. Indeed, the task of saving history for future generations cannot be left to those who can barely feed themselves today. For them, a 3000-year-old tomb is just a building, something worth sacrificing to ensure that their families can survive.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original piece was published on the author’s blog here: The Ill-Paid Should Not be Guardians of Antiquities