If there is one place in Egypt you definitely benefit from having a guide, if only for protection from the hustlers and hawkers – it is definitely the Giza Plateau. I have lived in Egypt since 2003 and been to Giza many times prior to the Revolution of 2011 and once during the Revolution. It left me speechless on 21 Oct, 2012, but it left my friend, shocked, shaking AND speechless. I’m a pretty tough cookie but I wear varifocal glasses and in places like Giza this means I must concentrate on where I am putting my feet – if I’m not to fall over! You will see the reason I tell you this later.
Our day started at KFC – yes, KFC/ Pizza Hut sits eyeball to eyeball with the Sphinx on the site of one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. The view from the upstairs window could be lovely – except that is marred by the tackiness of the restaurant inside, the dirty, dusty street directly outside and the occasional whiff of horses’ urine and dog pooh!
We ordered a pizza with extra pineapple and cinnamon pieces for dessert. The pineapple was tasteless and tasted like it had been soaked in water for hours. I insisted the manager taste it himself and he agreed it was bad… he brought some fresher pineapple pieces. My friend refused to eat her cinnamon pieces but, being a nice person, she was happy to pay for it – she doesn’t like making a fuss. I, on the other hand, don’t suffer fools gladly any more. She didn’t want me to eat the pizza – fearing I would be ill, but I had been up since 5am, had early breakfast and was starving. Anyway, I always have Antinal (medicine for Egyptian Tummy Bug) in my “go-everywhere-with-me” bag so I don’t worry too much on that score. They took the cinnamon pieces away, put some more sugar on top and brought it back…she was not impressed!
We enjoyed out chat, finished and paid the bill. The change came – it was 40 LE short. Now, the waiter had already been unable to take the order by himself, and couldn’t understand our english so he was going by the pictures we pointed to in the menu when taking our order. That was ok – “he’s in training” the Manager had said. But the manager had to be called again when the guy could not understand that I was not arguing about the 4 Le charged for the water (which we didn’t order or drink) but was asking for the missing 40 Le.
Eventually we got out the door and into a taxi to go from the Sphinx to the ticket office, which is on the other side of the Plateau. Now here is where the independent touristic experience really starts!
The road up to the Pyramid area goes past the famous Mena House Hotel, so the road is pretty exclusive and has barriers ready to stop or slow traffic. Approximately 200 yards before getting to the turn into the Mena House street ‘IT’ started…3 different groups of 2 or 3 men tried to stop the taxi – this was not new to me. I had been there before and fell for the trick first time, so I was not about to fall for it now.
They tried to persuade us that the taxi was not allowed turn into the Mena House street. They wanted us to get out of the car….why? Because they were going to show us the way to the Pyramids, in fact they were going to be kind enough to rent us a horse and cart to go there. As the men had approached the car the taxi driver had beseeched me to be the one to refuse their offers. He was quite obviously afraid to offend them. Then we turned into the street – no wonder the taxi driver wanted to keep silent, there were about 20 men lolling around on the green area in the middle of the road – all waiting to waylay tourists in cars and transfer to the horses and carts. This experience alone would have been intimidating enough for many tourists.
Next hurdle was to insist to the police man checking cars in front of the new ticket offices that I wanted the car I was in, that specific taxi to go and wait for us inside the plateau parking area. At the ticket office I bought our two entry tickets to the plateau, our two entry tickets to the Gt. Pyramid, our car entry ticket, went through the security scanner, walked out the door and up the pathway towards the Pyramids. Here is where my previous reference to my spectacles comes into play. Watching where I was putting my feet, I emerged out of the pathway and found my way suddenly blocked by an egyptian man, well-dressed, looked about mid-thirties. I had all our tickets in my hand and before I knew what was happening he snapped “Tickets!” and grabbed them out of my hands! I was not expecting this so I floundered a bit, my head swinging around from side to side while I mumbled and muttered “what? what? what?”
He quickly passed our tickets to a second man behind him who started answering my “what? what? what? by saying he was a government official working there. He said it about 3 times while backing away from me but my friend was a bit faster than me on this one (she’s got no glasses to distract her you see) and she quickly snatched the tickets back while he was focused on me. The taxi man was now openly admiring my bravery on the road and my friend’s bravery with the ticket snatcher. I looked around once we were safely back in the taxi and noticed what seemed to be like 50 – 70 men spread out waiting and wandering just beyond where we emerged from the pathway.
What was that all about? Yet another attempt to “take” us to the pyramids – they were obviously all blind because even I, with my specs, could see the Gt. Pyramid right in front of me – bit hard to miss really. Even official tour guides are not allowed into the Pyramids with their clients, they do their talking outside, just as they do at Luxor’s Valley of the Kings. However, this day I noticed quite a few tourists with guides – except they were not real Tour Guides…they were those tourists whose tickets had been snatched by “government men” whose “job” it was to show them the pyramids – they had fallen for the trick obviously. Difficult for the unsuspecting tourist not to get tricked really, because it all happens so fast. Of course there is a “fee” which you better pay afterward for this “service”
Finally we reached the foot of the Great Pyramid but not without being accosted by 3 more men and one scruffy woman peddlar who wanted us to take her photo (for a price). We climbed up to the entrance, went through the ticket inspection and ‘leave the camera here’ routine – bit daft really them collecting cameras at the entrance when most everyone has a camera phone these days…oh well, this is Egypt. We scrambled up the stairs – funny how my energy raises once inside the Pyramid and my old body seems to be more nimble! Half way up the stairway to the Kings Chamber we catch our breath outside the Queen’s Chamber, locked and bolted, the public obviously no longer allowed access. At last we reached the much awaited Kings Chamber.
We had both been to the Gt. Pyramid before so we were not on a sightseeing trip as such – we just had felt the urge to go and spend some quiet time at the Pyramids. Well, as you can imagine from my story so far – there is not a square inch on the Giza Plateau where you can sit without been accosted and hassled by a hawker or a camel driver. Now I can also confirm you that you CANNOT get a quiet 15 minutes inside the Gt. Pyramid either – not even when there isn’t a single tourist in sight! Because a few minutes after you enter the Kings Chamber one of the guys from the entrance runs up the stairs to make sure you leave FAST!
We had sat down inside the Kings Chamber and were catching our breath – had just about caught it when in walks this official guy. Three tourists who had also just sat down got the message and moved pronto! I was a bit more obstinate. Up to now the day had cost each of us 235 LE – I felt entitled to a few minutes peace and quiet! I invited the ‘gentleman’ to sit down with us and tell us what the problem was – he just kept pointing to his watch and saying “time! time!” I tried the gentle approach (not always my first method but I was going to be diplomatic today). In my best arabic, which surprised him, I said we live here, been here for years, have paid a lot of money today, just please give us 5 minutes. He wasn’t having any of it. He told us if we wanted to spend more time we needed a special permission and it would cost us about 5000 LE from the office. I told him I knew all about that, told him I worked very hard to encourage tourists to come to Egypt – that didn’t work either.
Then I tried to convince him I knew some “important” people and that I was not at all happy. I asked him for his identity card which he, eventually and grudgingly, showed me but would not let me touch (probably afraid now I really might land him in trouble). Since I obviously was not inclined to move he turned to my friend and motioned to her to come to the middle of the room, pointed to a spot on the floor and indicated that she should hold her hands in meditation pose, hold her head up and close her eyes. She signaled to me “Is this guy for real?” I shook my head and whispered that this was going to cost her so she best get off the “special spot”. Then he took her over to the wall, put his face against it and made a sound – now this was something new to me – the sound seemed to echo outside the wall and up the Pyramid – herself tried it and was delighted with it!
It was obvious there was no peace to be had here either and now there actually were some tourists coming in so we left. Back at the entrance when I asked how long tourists were allowed stay inside the guys couldn’t agree whether it was 10 minutes, 15 minutes or 20 minutes. And who ordered that? – I asked. “The Big Boss” was the answer I got – never did find out who exactly the Big Boss is, but I did catch the signal the guy who had bothered us upstairs was making – you know the gesture you make by rubbing your thumb across the tops of your other fingers quickly – the “give me some money” signal? He wasn’t really throwing us out of the Great Pyramid, he was scavaging for a tip to let us stay inside – hence the mention of the 5000 Le. He would probably have let us stay if we had produced a 50le note. His second modus operandi is taking money from what they call “meditation people” for showing them some idiotic thing like standing in the middle of the floor of the King’s Chamber and humming! Obviously he had not heard there has been a revolution in Egypt because of corruption – well, they need another revolution to clean up Giza!
You might think it is not unreasonable to be asked to move out of the Pyramid. I would think it reasonable if there were scores of people coming and going but there wasn’t and there isn’t most days. The people “working” the Giza Plateau spent the last 18 months bemoaning the lack of tourists. Now they are back to the old ways of fleecing tourists, hassling them and destroying their Giza experience. They are like the Dementors of the Harry Potter novels – they suck the energy and money out of the tourists in every way they can and then they trash the very area they should be protecting and enhancing – if they want a future there.
All in all – Giza has a bad atmosphere, it is dirty, chaotic and intimidating. Far from being the best site in Egypt – it is the worst experience for a quiet, peace loving tourist and it feels like it has gone too far for redemption. The Giza Plateau – a place where you should not need a guide for explanations is the one place in Egypt you actually do need a guide for protection from the touts, unless you want to be conned out of money for countless services and have a terrible day on top of that! It is the saddest experience I have had in my 10 years in Egypt to see the total lack of respect for either the Giza site itself or the tourists coming to see it, by those in charge of it and trashing it. They have no idea what a jewel they have nor what to do with it. There are more laws governing the presentation of the souk in Luxor than there is on the Giza Plateau! So very, very sad….it will not be surprising if the Giza Plateau and Gt. Pyramid lose it’s UNESCO heritage status – been on the cards a long time.