CAIRO — The lone tourist bus curved through the desert past the limestone-topped Pyramid of Khafre, leaving the camel handlers and postcard sellers trudging through its dust. It rounded one last turn, then settled atop a plateau overlooking the pyramid and its two mammoth siblings.
The bus door flapped open, unleashing a dozen Chinese tourists into the empty parking lot. They strolled toward the plateau’s edge, cameras and parasols in hand, just ahead of the vendors scrambling at the prospect of a few paying customers. For a moment, the scene was perfect — the solitary caravan approaching from the desert, the heat shimmering off the stone blocks, the majestic desolation.
It helped that we were mostly alone that hot, late-August morning in the heart of one of the world’s best-known tourist destinations. I was in town to help cover the troubles that had seized Egypt over the past two months and had found a calm morning to make it out to the Cairo suburbs, where the pyramids mark the start of the vast brown desert. I didn’t expect to find the usual crowds there, but still the emptiness and quiet were a surprise. Closer to the pyramids, the crowds weren’t much thicker: a British family, a scattering of Arab couples, Somali women posing for pictures in flowing headscarves, everyone easy and unhurried.
Years ago, before the 2011 revolution that started Egypt’s political roller coaster, visiting the pyramids could quickly become a two-hour flight through clouds of tour groups. Visitors, guides and vendors jostled in front of the ancient marvels, as a steady line of buses emerged from the brown blocks of the city.
Now, after a summer of coup, protests and massacres, the flocks have flown to other spots, abandoning such draws as the Egyptian Museum, the ancient ruins of Luxor farther down the Nile and, of course, the pyramids of Giza.
In mid-August, arrivals at Egyptian airports dropped by more than 40 percent after the military brutally cleared two sit-in camps protesting the July ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood.
That has devastated the country’s all-important tourism industry, which makes up more than a tenth of all economic activity. But it’s proved a boon for travelers willing to defy official warnings from the U.S. and other countries against coming to Egypt.
Hotel and restaurant prices have dropped, sometimes by half, as has the Egyptian pound, making the already affordable country even more so. Once at the sights, travelers find themselves usually alone with some of the world’s greatest treasures, be they gold death masks of pharaohs or the sublime centuries-old mosques soaring above old Cairo. Tourist sites have become forlorn, even serene — more befitting these dignified survivors of the millennia.
Australian Mary Hill said she had been traveling across Europe with a friend over this summer and hadn’t kept up on the news from Egypt. However, they had already booked a visit, and were set on going, even after they heard about the bloodshed.
“We were at a stage in our trip where we had to take a chance,” Hill said as she stepped out of the child pharaoh Tutankhamen’s exhibit at the Egyptian Museum. “And in the end, it’s been positive.”
“From the country’s perspective, of course, it’s not good.”
The dearth of business has driven already predatory vendors and guides into a frenzy, with the U.S. Embassy in Egypt even issuing an alert in June about “over-aggressive vendors.” Visitors had come across “angry groups of individuals surrounding and pounding on the vehicles,” the embassy reported, “and in some cases attempting to open the vehicle’s doors.”
On my pyramid trip, one young guide jumped onto the back of our car and clung to the rear window, while our driver abruptly braked and zoomed ahead and wove from lane to lane to try to shake him off. Only a block later did the driver convince the guide’s friends to keep the young man off the bumper.
Then came the vendors inside the pyramid complex, who tried out their usual pitches before moving onto more desperate Plan Bs.
“There’s no business here, there are no more tourists,” one camel rider said, the ache in his voice sounding genuine. “I have a family. We need to eat.”
In the winding alleys of the Khan el-Khalili bazaar in old Cairo, merchants tried to physically stop what rare visitors they spotted walking through as they hocked limestone miniature pyramids and bright cotton fabrics.
Shop owner Mohamed Hafez said his sales had fallen by “100 percent” since Egyptians first took to the streets 2 1/2 years ago.
“There used to be a lot of tourists, a lot of nationalities,” Hafez said, while cooling down in the air-conditioned inner sanctum of his souvenir shop. “Now, it’s nothing. We just want safety, no more revolutions.”
Wooing back those visitors has become a top priority, even with all the military vehicles and checkpoints in the streets. Dallas-based college student Deniz Mustafa had, in fact, flown into Cairo as part of a volunteer project inviting youth from around the world to visit and tout Egypt’s top tourist sites.
Two weeks after his arrival in July, however, Morsi was violently removed, and the volunteer project was cancelled. Mustafa responded by hitting the road and seeing Egypt, flying down to Luxor and up to the Red Sea resort of Dahab, where empty restaurants were offering 50 percent discounts on entire menus.
Mustafa and a fellow volunteer from China had since moved onto the Egyptian Museum, where they were studying the ancient granite statues of Egyptian nobles and the small wooden ships buried with pharaohs.
“Any time you go to a temple or climb Mount Sinai, you have a more personal experience now,” Mustafa said. “It’s just you and the tour guide up there.”
That peace was without a doubt a fragile one. The city still goes dead every Friday afternoon in anticipation of Muslim Brotherhood protests that can turn violent in an instant. Nighttime curfews were also in effect while I was there, effectively shutting down Cairo’s buzzing nightlife.
Everyone was nervously waiting for the Brotherhood’s response to the repression and expecting the worst. On one night in the bar of my hotel, the pops of explosions outside immediately silenced all conversation, as we wondered whether the violence was indeed back. A quick check out on the street confirmed they had only been fireworks.
For visitors, it all made for a rare glimpse into a proud country trying to figure out its future and also a chance to see Egypt free of many of the usual hassles. The dangers were real but mostly manageable.
The threat of a U.S. strike on Syria, however, made some Americans nervous about revealing their nationality. And if the political troubles flare up again in Egypt, even the bravest traveler will have to think twice about coming.