Zeina Elcheikh writes about her encounter with a “historic” tourist attraction in Egypt.
Apologizing for using the title of Kevin Lynch’s fabulous book as a part of this piece’s title keeps me safe from being accused of committing a flagrant clone-plagiarism. However, the title of Lynch’s book is what first came to my mind when I visited “that place”. Everything began with how “that place” had been advertised to me.
“Come with us on a journey through time to the rich and exciting age of the pharaohs”, a “time brought to life by an incredible group of actors and actresses, faithful and exact reproductions of buildings”. I read these words on an Egyptian travel website to market a tourist destination in Giza (east of Cairo): The Pharaonic Village. The website, and many others, described the Village as “a time machine”, or as “an excellent complement to a trip before going to Aswan and Luxor”.
Whether one is coming to Egypt as tourist, or as scholar in Egyptian history and archaeology, the Village is touted as a “must-see”. Then an Egyptian colleague described, proudly, how successful the Village was in creating an experience, “second to none”. He also went further to suggest it as a “role model” for socio-economic development on the nearby island. Moreover, assigned the topic of authenticity and profit in tourism, an Egyptian professor advised me to pay a visit. Thus my conception about “this place” moved from reading many posts to actually visiting the site.
The visit started with a tour in a boat, through the “mythological canal” to see miniature replicas of selective temples and Gods, with a recorded shortened explanation. This was followed by scenes from daily life in Ancient Egypt, performed by live actors. Other tours guide you through several parts of the village: replicas of the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and Tutankhamun’s Tomb. There are also exhibits on Islam, Copts, ancient arts and beliefs, mummification, and former Egyptian presidents: Abdul Nasser and Sadat, and many others. Objects with historical value were showcased in some exhibits in the Village.
I noticed that cameras were not allowed, except with an extra charge, and then only mobile phones with no flash, in order not to damage the structures and displayed objects, which are replicas. Moreover, and perhaps in order to give the visitors an impression that they are in an authentic setting, many of the objects (replicas) were bounded with sort of “do-not-touch” fence.
The Pharaonic Village provides visitors with an oversimplified image of Egypt’s history, and consists primarily of recreation and shopping facilities revolving around the theme of Ancient Egypt. All the structures and services in the Village are designed and decorated with ancient Egyptians motifs, mostly exaggerated. Even veiled waitresses at one of many restaurants had worn a braided wig to look more “pharaonic”. The cultural and historical assets of the village are all created, making it more of a theme park, where the main drive is to emphasize a theme around which designs, costumed personnel and sales, all working in concert to create a special atmosphere for visitors.
The Pharaonic Village could also be seen as a tourist enclave with its “all-planned-ahead” and “all-inclusive” experience: beverages and food are not allowed on board, in order to encourage visitors to spend not only their time but their money in the restaurants and cafeterias. It might be a satisfactory alternatives for many tourists, who generally come with a will to see everything in a limited time. Therefore, the cultural experience offered in this tourist setting differs and depends on what visitors want to experience.
It might be a successful attraction for many, so I am in no position to criticize it. Yet, it is only about an opinion: my personal one. Could any visitor to Egypt, one who could afford time and money to visit wonderful museums and magnificent sites, be satisfied with a trimmed visit to replicas? Can the history of Egypt, with all its glory, richness and treasures be condensed in one place? “Such a place” was not an adequate answer for me.
Zeina Elcheikh, Syrian architect, holds an M.Sc. from Stuttgart University. She worked with German International Cooperation and the French Institute for the Near East in Syria. In Egypt, she joined the UNESCO office as an intern with the Wadi Halfa Museum project. She is also a member of AiP‘s Advisory Board.