On March 7, a statue of Egyptian Princess Iset emerged from the sands of Luxor with the help of a team of archaeologists. The princess encountered a paltry audience for her debut. Over the past two years, Luxor’s tourism rates have dropped sharply. The number of visits in January 2014 fell by 28.9 percent from the year before, according to Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. Last September, the decrease compared with the previous year reached nearly 70 percent. The decline reflects waves of unrest that have destabilized the country since the January 2011 revolution that deposed longstanding leader Hosni Mubarak.
Luxor, along with much of Egypt, stands on the brink of desperation; its illustrious history does not secure future prospects. When it comes to Luxor’s future, as well as the rest of the nation’s, two questions stand side by side like the Colossi of Memnon (built in memory of Princess Iset’s father, King Amenhotep III): Who will win the presidency and how will the future address Egypt’s problems?
“We used to have thousand of visitors arrive here every day,” one tour guide said on a recent visit. “How many tourists are here now? Four!” He pointed at the four people sitting in the van, “Plus me,” he joked. “So it looks like we have five!”
In the streets, drivers of empty-horse drawn carriages will follow a foreigner for a mile in hopes of a customer. Inside tombs of the Valley of the Kings, guards proffer explanations, even to unwilling audiences, in search of tips.
Over the weekend, interim President Adly Mansour announced presidential elections will take place in April. He also issued a controversial decree that gives the Presidential Election Commission the power to make incontestable decisions about the election outcome.
Critics, including presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, have questioned the constitutionality of the new law and warned it reduces the transparency and credibility of the election process. The current regime, which has struggled to keep chaos at bay since the July ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, shows resolve to stick by the law and move full-tilt toward elections next month.
As Egypt counts down to elections, one clear frontrunner has yet to officially confirm his candidacy. The popularity of Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s current Minister of Defense, has skyrocketed since he oversaw the military removal of Morsi from the presidency in July 2013. A polarizing figure, Sisi embodies the strength and power that many Egyptians view as essential in their next leader for the sake of their nation’s security and economic recovery.
Love and hate for Sisi fill Egypt’s streets from Cairo to Luxor. Signs featuring his face decorate public spaces throughout the country. In Cairo, pro- and anti-Sisi graffiti reflect the leader’s omnipresence in both his supporters’ and detractors’ minds. Sisi may find it easy to fulfill the people’s first order to enter the presidential race. But the next round of requests for security, freedom, employment, functional transportation, access to gas, release of jailed journalists and political adversaries, and enfranchisement for Egypt’s frustrated youth population must give any candidate pause about leading the country into the future.
In Luxor, I visited the famed Valley of the Kings, home to Tutankhamun (popularly known as “Tut”), Seti I, Ramses II, Ramses IV, Ramses VI, and other illustrious ancients. As my tour group meandered from the resting place of one Ramses to another, our charismatic tour guide, nicknamed “Bob,” warned us to watch our feet lest we stumble into an undiscovered tomb. His warning, though playful, pointed to a valid possibility; according to records many unexplored tombs lay beneath shifting swaths of sand and rocks.
The allure of Egypt’s buried treasure troves has long garnered foreign fascination. At the end of the 1700s, Napoleon sent a French team of archaeologists to Egypt, launching the phenomenon of overseas excavation.
In the 1920s, British archaeologist Howard Carter led a project in Luxor that led to the revelation of King Tut in 1923. Tut’s diminutive mummy lay in a small, well-concealed tomb that escaped assault from ancient robbers. Consequently, when Carter’s team opened Tut’s abode, they found the boy king preserved under his original golden burial mask and surrounded by treasures and provisions for his journey to the afterlife.
Despite the fact that Egyptians and other experts now suspect that Carter absconded with a share of Tut’s treasures, the “Egypt Fever” that followed his discovery triggered an influx of tourist money.
In 1937, Agatha Christie heightened Egypt’s notoriety when she penned her novel Death on the Nile, set aboard a Nile cruise ship, from Luxor’s riverside Winter Palace hotel. Both the author and her characters portrayed Egypt as a chic destination for cultured, upper crust Westerners.
Intrigued by stories of the old Winter Palace, I booked a room with a Nile view during my Luxor stay. Now the lush gardens and wide halls of Agatha Christie’s haunt remain quiet throughout the day. While handfuls of visitors interrupt the hotel’s yawning spaces, their activity represents a mere echo of the lucrative hustle and bustle that animates the pages of Christie’s novel.