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With tourists scarce, Egypt struggles to maintain heritage

January 10, 2017

With a shaky economy following years of unrest and a huge drop in tourists, Egypt is struggling to preserve its fabled archaeological heritage.

Maske Tutanchamun
The golden mask of legendary Egyptian boy king TutankhamunImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. El-Shahed

From Alexandria on the Mediterranean to the Great Pyramid of Giza - the last of the Seven Wonders of the World - and Aswan to the south, the North African country is home to impressive ancient monuments. 

For years, the sites were able to rely on a steady stream of ticket sales to finance their upkeep. But since Egypt's 2011 revolution, the number of tourists visiting the country has dwindled, leaving authorities scrambling to make up for lost revenues. "Since January 2011, our revenues have fallen sharply, which had a strong effect on the state of Egyptian monuments," Antiquities Minister Khaled el-Enany told. 

Tourismus in Ägypten
Sightseeing in LuxorImage: DW

From more than 15 million in 2010, the number of tourists visiting Egypt dropped to 6.3 million in 2015. Years of political tumult after the 2011 uprising that unseated strongman Hosni Mubarak and a jihadist insurgency following the army's 2013 overthrow of his Islamist successor Mohamed Morsi have discouraged many from visiting. 

Revenue from entrance tickets to historical sites dropped to about $38 million in 2015, from about $220 million in 2010. "It's catastrophic," said Fayza Haikal, an Egyptologist and professor at the American University of Cairo. Zahi Hawass, an archeologist and former antiquities minister, said the country's heritage has suffered as a result. "With the lack of funding, you cannot restore anything. Look at the Cairo museum. It's dark," he said, referring to the famed Egyptian Museum in the capital's Tahrir Square. "And you cannot ask the government to support you because the economy is not that good. And antiquities are deteriorating everywhere," he said. 

Ägypten Archäologie Ramses III. mit Sohn Amon-herchopeschef
Ancient Egyptian wall paintingImage: Reuters

Administering the country's antiquities takes about 38,000 employees, including on-site workers, technicians, Egyptologists and inspectors, the ministry says. The government has relied on foreign handouts since Morsi's overthrow, and finally decided to float the pound last year as part of an economic reform program connected to a loan from the International Monetary Fund. 

An important part of an economic revival would include the return of tourism, a main hard currency earner for Egypt.  Until then, Enany is trying to limit the damage. "I try to do extra activities to increase revenue," he said. 

For example, the Egyptian Museum, home to the golden mask of Tutankhamun and mummies of pharaohs, now stays open into the night, he said. Annual passes are also available to encourage Egyptians to visit the sites. 

Patrons and archaeological missions still contribute to the preservation of Egypt's ancient heritage, but the funds cannot cover everything. "Priority is given to restoration," said Haikal. "But there are excavations that have been stopped due to lack of funding." The excavations "have waited for 5,000 years and can wait," she said, but important restoration work has also been delayed. "At the very least we identify what needs restoration, and we do the minimum to keep them in a proper state." Enany is also pushing for granting public access to more sites, as was done with the recently opened tombs of Nefertari and Seti I in Luxor.
The Malawi museum in the southern province of Minya has also been reopened, after a mob looted it during the bloody unrest following Morsi's overthrow.The Grand Egyptian Museum near the Giza pyramids should also be opened, at least partially, in 2018. On some projects, the ministry can get special funds, such as for recent work done on the synagogue of Alexandria and the Abu Mena church, a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Ägypten Pyramiden von Gizeh
The pharaoh-faced Sphinx of Giza is one of the ancient world's iconic monumentsImage: picture-alliance/Arco Images

Hawass, who advises Enany, says the minister needs more support and also for authorities to think beyond Egypt by undertaking exhibitions abroad. "Why leave Tutankhamun in the Cairo museum, in a dark area. No one sees it," he said. "Tutankhamun can bring money!"

isi/ks (afp)