Security – Egyptian Style

1 06 2009

Hatshepsut

The town was deserted.

We wound our way through the silent pre-dawn streets, the only movement coming from the occasional stray dog and the swirl of sand on asphalt. The streets were softly illuminated by yellow lights, but the businesses, offices, homes, sidestreets and alleyways were pitchblack and as abandoned as the set of an “End of the World” movie.

We turned a corner and found a police roadblock beyond which sat a long line of motorcoaches parked three deep on a flood-lit street. A heavily-armed officer waved us forward, pulled back a spiked barrier and ushered us beside the other vehicles. A shortwhile later, with an armoured car at the front, a truck filled with paramilitary police at the back, and a few outriders racing up and down the side, our convoy headed off into the dark desert beyond the city limits.

No, it wasn’t Baghdad, it was Hurghada, Egypt…a country that takes its tourism security very seriously.

The first sign of Egypt’s intense security came on arrival at our budget hotel when we navigated a metal detector just to enter the hot and fetid foyer. As we presented our bags, the genial guard waved us through without so much as a glance. Clearly, foreign tourists weren’t of much concern. Over the coming weeks, such measures – and more guns than you would find at an NRA garage sale – became the norm.

In November 1997, a group of terrorists attacked tourists gathered at the Temple of Hatshepsut near the Valley of the Kings. By the time the assault had ended, 63 people had died. Although Egypt had tight security before, the attack catapulted their security to some of the tightest in the world.

Large hotels are surrounded by tank traps and armoured cars topped with heavy machine-guns. Police sit in concrete pill boxes and cautiously wave vehicles towards their checkpoints. All hotels – even budget properties that lack computers or televisions – have their own guards and airport-style metal detectors. Tourist sites have police in abundance as well as less conspicuous plain clothes guards.

But it is when travelling away from the cities that the security measures become particularly evident.

We were heading from Hurghada into the Sinai and onto Dahab on the Red Sea. Although a considerable distance, our 3am start was due to the convoy’s timetable not any desire to beat rush hour! All tourist travel between major centres is made in heavily guarded convoys, whether from Hurghada to Cairo, Aswan to Abu Simbel or elsewhere.

With lights flashing, our convoy set off into Hurghada’s desolate streets before venturing into the Sahara. At each town we passed, the local police were out in force with their cars and heavy weaponry – or in some smaller instances, their donkeys and old carbine rifles – and blocked off all intersections as our parade raced through. In remote areas, isolated police stations resembled Beau Geste forts with gun towers, sand-bags and machine gun nests. Although the security was impressive, it was hard to know whether these efforts did a better job of protecting us…or simply drawing more attention.

After several hours, the main convoy turned for Cairo while we headed for the Suez Canal and Sinai beyond. We watched them race away along the desert highway while we continued alone into the neighbouring hills of the supposedly secure peninsula.

As is usually the case, our visit ended without incident and the only indication of any potential trouble was the intense security itself. Given its location and history, Egypt will likely never be as safe as Bermuda, but for those with even a hint of adventure-lust coursing through their veins, there’s no denying that the odd convoy or occasional tank trap adds a certain Indiana Jones spice.

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

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A Chip Off The Old Block

19 05 2009

Stonehenge mwIt was recently reported that two U.S. tourists have returned a small piece of Rome’s Colosseum that they chipped off 25 years ago. The fragment of stone, small enough to fit into a pocket, arrived in Italy in a package from California and was accompanied by an apology that explained they “…should have done this sooner.” The couple said that every time they looked at their little souvenir they felt guilty and realised that if every visitor chipped off a piece of the Colosseum as they had done, there would be nothing left.

I was reminded of visiting the pyramids and crouching down beside the great structures to tie my bootlaces. The shade of the massive limestone blocks provided a wonderful respite from the blazing sun and as I pulled my laces taut, I realised I was kneeling on a treasure-trove of tiny fragments of the ancient monuments that were far superior souvenirs to the mass-produced papyrus sold around the corner. It would have been easy to casually pick up a particularly appetising fragment and slip it inside my boot for transport home –until I noticed the heavily-armed Tourism and Antiquities Police officer standing a few feet away smoking a cigarette.

Even if I hadn’t spotted the machine-gun glistening in the sun and the nicotine-stained finger idly caressing the trigger, I am pleased to say that I actually wouldn’t have slipped away with a morsel of ancient Egypt. Partly out of respect for the site and future visitors, and partly out of fear for being caught with my illicit souvenir at the airport and spending 20 years in a Cairo prison. But I can appreciate the temptation and understand the Colosseum tourists’ actions – except for the bit about actually carving off a chunk: that goes beyond souvenir-collecting and headlong into sheer vandalism.

I imagine that Rome and Egypt aren’t the only places that have this problem. In fact, every famous site in the world likely has similar difficulties. It is likely only perimeter ropes, security and pangs of conscience that have prevented Stonehenge from being whittled down to a ring of miniscule stone-teeth over the years. There was a similar dilemma in Israel with the mountain-top fortress of Masada. I once read that the problem of visitors collecting rocks and pebbles from this ancient site became so great that the authorities began trucking in a load of gravel every week to top-up the ground on which the visitors walked. This not only helped preserve the site – and stopped Masada being turned from a mountain into a molehill – but also means that there are likely thousands of tourists around the world who treasure shards of rock from some anonymous southern Israeli quarry!

 

Photograph and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009