One tour taking in many worlds

August 27, 2004

Karen Exell continues our series on intellectual tourism by describing the challenges of being a cultural guide in Egypt.

What is intellectual tourism? In a nutshell, it's a holiday with facts: art, historical, archaeological, architectural. In addition to this, many such tours offer a holiday in an exotic and often difficult location where the language barrier and complex cultural differences are smoothed away by the agency of the tour lecturer and local guide.

True travellers might regard such cosseting and information spoon-feeding with disdain, but we live in an era when there are increasing numbers of people of a certain age (usually 45-plus) who have different requirements from a holiday: they have a desire to experience new and alien cultures but see no need to compromise their creature comforts to do so; in addition, many of those who take part in the tours have retired and the holiday is a chance to learn, rather than an escape from work. I am often exhausted after a day visiting tombs and temples in 35C heat, but more often than not my suggestion that the group relax for the evening is met with requests for information on places they can visit in the free time.

Having said this, it is inevitable that an early evening lecture will be met by gentle snoring from the front row. Part of the art of lecturing on cultural tours is to not take such things personally (clients may be keen but a day in the heat and a pre-dinner drink will inevitably take their toll), and to make sure, as my predecessor explained to me, that at all times you have an object that you can bang on the table to regain attention. I met my predecessor when she came to give a talk at the university where I work. She asked me whether I had ever led tours, insisted I would love it and passed my name on to the company.

After an interview and presentation, within weeks I found myself landing at Luxor in the middle of the night with 22 clients, an itinerary for a tour of ancient Egyptian art and culture, a local guide and a coach. I had to remind myself that friends and family viewed this as a great opportunity - the chance to finally use that obscure degree and PhD for paid employment.

I also recalled a colleague's anecdote of being hired to lead a tour in a country he had never visited and getting up before dawn every day to race around the streets and monuments on that day's itinerary to be able to stroll knowledgeably around them later in the day when accompanying the group. And perhaps it was these thoughts that got me through days of obscure questions, clearly unnecessary camel riding and evenings of aggressive finger-pinching slide projectors, plus an English-speaking local guide who could do no such thing.

That first tour differed in many ways from those that have followed, most noticeably in the number of foreign tourists in the country. This was long enough after the Luxor massacre of 1997 for Egypt's tourist industry to have regained its impetus and the place was heaving. Shortly after this the Iraq War broke out and almost all tourism in the Middle East ground to a halt. Given that tourism is one of Egypt's largest earners, such a state of affairs was extremely serious. The archaeological sites and the hotels are still relatively quiet - heaven for those who are visiting but a sad reminder of a country struggling economically. And the Americans are noticeably absent.

So what happens when a group of Westerners with a keen interest in the ancient Egyptian culture find themselves in the midst of an Islamic country rocked by the political events affecting its neighbours? What happens when the modern culture dominates the ancient one?

Integration with the local culture is something that inevitably varies according to the country and type of tour. If the tour focuses on the living culture - taking in the history and architecture of mosques, for example - then integration is inevitable at least to a certain degree. But many of the Middle East tours focus on cultures long dead.

The ancient culture of Egypt has for many years ostensibly been the preserve of the West since, as long ago as the 16th century, travellers began to report back about the marvels that could be found there. Ancient Egypt was "discovered" by the pre-Renaissance scholars in search of the "Key to all Mythologies" (as Casaubon in George Eliot's Middlemarch described it), who believed that Egyptian hieroglyphs encoded this secret.

Bizarre attempts at translating the hieroglyphs centred on symbolic interpretations of the script until Jean-Francois Champollion finally deciphered the partly alphabetic, partly pictorial script in 1822 and gave birth to the modern discipline of Egyptology. French and British occupations of the country, and exotic movies such as Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor and Death on the Nile that depict in different ways an ancient culture that exists as the plaything of the West, serve to support this idea that Egypt is an ancient world theme park writ large.

When a tour promises the major sites of ancient Egypt - the Great Sphinx at Giza, the Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, the great royal mortuary temples at Thebes, Karnak and Luxor temples, Abu Simbel, the museums - it is easy to forget that these ancient monuments are embedded within another culture, alien to us. And indeed they are made easier to forget by the efficacy of the Egyptian tourist machine, which whisks the tourists from the airport to a five-star hotel via an air-conditioned coach with as little contact as possible with anything local.

This means that few people are aware of the realities of the modern country, such as the poverty-stricken conditions most of the population live in and the complex relationships with other Arab states. The dichotomy between the wealthy Western-clad Cairenes and the traditionally attired village dwellers is almost as great as that between the ancient and modern worlds that co-exist in Egypt. With such a wealth of monuments, and the slick tourist machine, the reality of daily life for most Egyptians is easily concealed.

Whereas modern Cairenes copy Western lifestyles, and Cairo city-centre buildings are surmounted by giant advertising hoardings for mobile phones, cars and laptops that are affordable to only a very few, the dress, housing and daily lives of the village dwellers have changed little over the millennia. An ancient tomb painting depicting scenes of daily life where, for example, a farmer lifts water from the Nile with the aid of the shaduf is a scene that can be viewed repeatedly along the banks of the Nile today.

The co-existence of ancient and modern cultures, and the apparent link between the two represented by the almost unchanged lives of the rural population, makes cultural - and intellectual - tourism in Egypt a complex experience. The tour participants come looking for one culture and find it existing within another; they come looking for ancient tombs and find themselves walking around a modern village surrounded by eager children with dolls or "artefacts" to sell, where the ancient past represents an economic commodity rather than an intellectual curio.

As a lecturer on a cultural tour, my brief is to provide an introduction to the ancient culture and to the sites on the itinerary, and give lectures on the general background: art, religion, architecture and so forth. A straightforward task, made easier by a captivated (and to a certain extent captive) audience. But when we arrive in Egypt, the modern culture exerts itself within minutes: the heat makes tight Western clothes uncomfortable, the call to prayer hangs hauntingly in the air and, when we get on the coach and I introduce the local guide, the questions start to pour forth about modern Egypt that is noisily all around us - questions about women, children, schools, job prospects and, inevitably, whether the local guide, usually a woman called Sally, is married.

Imparting information on ancient Egypt as the lecturer on a cultural tour has been a learning experience: not only with regards to the subtleties of manoeuvring a group of people from temple A to hotel B without suggesting at any point that they are part of a tour group, and the temperaments of the various slide projectors (the temples are not the only ancient monuments in Egypt today), but also on the richness and complexity of the culture that exists in Egypt today.

Karen Exell is deputy curator of university museums at Durham University and teaches undergraduate and postgraduate courses in ancient Egypt, museum studies and material culture. She is also a lecturer for the Martin Randall Travel agency.

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