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In the Land of the Pharaohs

By Chris Mead

The Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE) has been a pioneer in promoting chamber travel missions for tourism and economic development. Recently, the association found a new opportunity in the Egyptian travel market.

Egypt boasts arguably the world’s first civilization, not to mention about 30 percent of the world’s antiquities coming from just one region (Luxor). For North Americans who consider a century-old building to be historic, seeing such a place was sure to be an eye-opener. An ACCE delegation of 18 chamber executives, together with spouses and friends, visited Egypt in late August/early September 2015. Our host was ACCE’s official corporate sponsor for chamber travel, Central Holidays West. This firm’s parent company, Sakkara Group International, began its operations in Egypt, and owns several hotels and cruise ships there.

Our group of U.S. and Canadian executives had two overall reactions to the nine-day tour, which included Cairo, Luxor, Edfu, Aswan, and other areas. First, we were impressed by how much Egyptians wanted us to tell our chamber members that their country is safe and that Egyptians sincerely want visitors from North America. Second, we were astonished—awestruck—at the countless traces of civilization, art, and antiquities dating to 3200 B.C.

Egyptians showed us they wanted us in many different ways. Young children, teenagers, and even middle-aged men sometimes waved to us or shouted “Hi” or “Welcome!” from riverbanks, farms, or markets. One young man may have put it best as he quietly commented to some of us individually: “Welcome home.” Top officials made time to see us, including Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, Minister of Tourism Khaled Ramy, Governor of Luxor Mohamed Badr, Secretary General of the Federation of Egyptian Chambers Alaa Ezz, and the Executive Director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, Hisham Fahmy.

The hospitality was extraordinary, with too many examples to mention. Perhaps one will suffice: the governor of Luxor met us at the airport and later opened the Temple of Luxor for us in the evening, so that he could host a seven-course dinner for us under the stars, complete with dancers, musicians, and others dressed in period costumes, courtesy of Central Holidays West and its parent company’s owner, Baher Ghabbour. I felt particularly for the brave soul in an ancient Egyptian costume who stood on stilts for an hour or more, arms outstretched. The evening also featured a talented musician who proved what must be a universal rule: 95 percent of all women harpists have long hair.

We were treated to a special, guided tour of the tomb of King Tut, a rare opportunity. We were there in the small tomb for 30 minutes or more, with a full explanation of how Tut lived and died. Likewise we had a close look at the elaborate tomb of Ramesses II. And we were shown everything from how the workmen got fresh air from the surface to how grave robbers plied their trade.

The man who gave us our Tut, Ramesses II, and Hatshepsut tours was no ordinary instructor. He was Mohamed el Mansoury, the chief of antiquities research and archaeology for all of Egypt. His love of his work was unmistakable. El Mansoury’s involvement, in concert with our overall tour guide (Ehab Wagdy, an expert in Egyptian studies himself), was one more sign that Egypt’s tourist industry and government were pulling out all the stops for U.S. and Canadian chamber executives.

We saw the pyramids in the north too, of course, along with the Sphinx. Ehab’s grandfather made some important discoveries in the area. But the pyramids had a key weakness: they were a message written in stone to tomb robbers: “Y’all come! We have a rich dead pharaoh in here.” All their treasures have long since been pillaged. A lot can be stolen if there are large buildings advertising the treasure and 5,000 years—more than 1.8 million days and nights—to do the stealing.

The Egyptians tried harder further south to bury their pharaohs, mostly in the Valley of the Kings, out of sight of thieves. Nevertheless, these tombs also were robbed, except for the tomb of King Tut. El Mansoury believes there are four more pharaohs’ tombs in the valley, and perhaps one or more of them will be found complete with treasures. King Tut’s tomb, a minor one by the measure of other pharaohs, nevertheless produced eye-popping wealth, including his coffin made of 243 pounds of gold (which if melted down today would bring a price of about $4.34 million). There’s a possibility that Tut’s wife, Queen Nefertiti, is buried nearby.

A poignant scene for many of us was on an island in the south of Egypt, where 22 priests once lived. There, on the temple, was carved the last known example of hieroglyphic writing. It was written in a hurry sometime around 30 BCE. The message, which was read off the wall by Ehab, who is fluent in hieroglyphics, said, “The Romans are coming. They are killing everyone. They”—that was the end of the inscription. You can guess the rest of the story.

We in the West tend to think of the ancient Egyptians as somewhat inscrutable, with some peculiar beliefs, practices, and buildings but without much connection to our lives today. Yet, as we learned on our tour, it was the Egyptians who came up with the temple structure that the Hebrews used, together with the ark carried by priests and the words “Moses” (“from the water”) and “Amen.” Monotheism was practiced in Egypt (although it was soon discarded) hundreds of years before the Hebrew tribes emerged from the desert. And that’s only the beginning, Ehab told us.

As for our Greco-Roman heritage, we know that the Egyptians were studied by the Greeks as early as the time of Herodotus, and Egyptian building techniques and other influences can be seen throughout the Mediterranean. Even here in the U.S., our dollar bill features a pyramid on the back and an obelisk—the Washington Monument—dominates the skyline of our nation’s capital.

In our tour of Egypt, we felt very safe. No one in our group encountered danger of any kind, except perhaps eating or spending too much at the open markets. We saw a number of foreign tourists like us, some emerging from buses like ours 

and other unguided groups of two or three. After our trip we heard of the government’s mistaken bombing of a group of Mexican tourists, but that bus was in an area in the desert far away from normal tourist haunts.

Egypt’s government, a quasi-dictatorship that brooks no serious political or journalistic opposition, is not one that most Westerners would choose to live under. But it has established order. The antiquities covering thousands of years of history were and are protected. The Suez has been widened and lengthened in a huge endeavor, completed in one, rather than the projected three years. And religious freedom, at least, is secure. The result is a country that shows stability in major cities and tourist areas, a quality that is important in a nation where the Pyramids stand eternally still and where people routinely speak of their illustrious place in ancient history and contemporary world affairs.

And what about seeing the wonders of Egypt? They are ready for western visitors. Now you can spend a few relaxed minutes with King Tut, experience the stunning beauty of the tomb of Ramesses II, and see the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the Aswan Dam. Should your chamber seize the opportunity, you will enjoy a lion’s or crocodile’s share of this great nation’s hospitality.

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