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Deserted pyramids, ‘revolution specials’ in Egypt

CAIRO — The pyramid rose out of the sand before me, its smooth stone walls crumbling around the edges, but still majestic and mountainous. As I hiked around it, studying the etched hieroglyphs and pausing to pick up a small rock from the sand, I was filled with wonder. How did the ancient Egyptians build such a huge structure? What was life like 4,500 years ago when it was constructed?

And … where the heck is everybody?

On that late summer morning, I had a Wonder of the World all to myself. I saw three other tourists, who were leaving as I arrived. The only other living creatures in sight were my driver and two sleeping camels, their backs unburdened by photo op-seeking travelers.

Clearly, the Egyptian Revolution has taken a toll on the country’s tourism. Months of protests followed by the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and the ongoing political uncertainty have scared off many Westerners (including some of my friends and family, who questioned my decision to come on a work-related trip).

Tourism was down 35 percent between April and June compared to last year, according to Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. About 2.2 million tourists visited Egypt during those three months, compared to 3.5 million in 2010.

Several cruise ships have canceled ports of call in Egypt because of the political upheaval. Norwegian Cruise Line canceled its sailings to Egypt from late November to early April, citing “political unrest in the regions visited on these itineraries.” In February, Princess Cruises had canceled stops in Egypt, but it has since reinstated them.

And while the protests that toppled Mubarak are long over, the country is still making the kinds of headlines that spook leisure travelers. On Sept. 9, a mob attacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo. A few days earlier, authorities proposed requiring tourists to apply for visas before arrival, then turned around and rescinded the proposal.

But other factors were also keeping tourists at bay as I stood alone at the pyramid: It was August, which is not the ideal time to visit a desert, and it was Ramadan, a holy month of daytime fasting when the country slows down. Some restaurants and businesses close for the whole month; other places including the Egyptian Museum have reduced hours.

But for me, the revolution and lack of fellow tourists made for a fantastic trip. The usually overcrowded city was much more manageable to get around, there were some great deals to be had, and there was an energy, almost electric, on the streets. I was mesmerized by the political graffiti around Cairo, and inspired by firsthand accounts of the protests.

Others have also caught on that it might be a good time to visit. Although bookings at Geographic Expeditions, which offers Nile cruises, are down by more than half this fall and winter compared to last year, inquiries have started to pick up, spokesman John Sugnet said. He said one reason was positive word-of-mouth from those who have ventured into the county recently.

At the Bent Pyramid in Dahshur, about 25 miles south of Cairo, there was no line for tickets (60 Egyptian pounds or about $10 U.S.) and no line to go inside a pyramid. Since I was traveling alone and a bit scared of going inside, a worker manning the entrance to the pyramid happily climbed down the steep, narrow, claustrophobia-inducing tunnel with me. I was thankful for the extra attention.

The more popular pyramid site is Giza, which includes the Sphinx, in a suburb of Cairo. I also found extremely short lines there. It wasn’t as empty as Dahshur, but the crowds were very light.

At another typically crowded destination, the Egyptian Museum, I braced for huge lines to the King Tut exhibit. My guidebook suggested coming first thing in the morning to avoid the lines, but I had slept in. I shouldn’t have worried. I walked right up to the fantastic golden mask and had no problem meandering around the museum’s many other treasures.

I was interested to see nearby Tahrir Square and found the protesters had been replaced by security forces. It was still incredible to see — soldiers in riot gear and carrying clear plastic shields stationed around the main circle — and a vivid reminder that Egypt’s history is still unfolding.

As an independent traveler and a woman alone, I did take some precautions. I made sure to dress conservatively and I hired guides to take me around. One was a driver attached to the hotel where I stayed; he charged me 100 Egyptian pounds (about U.S. $17) for a trip to Giza, and I tipped him another 100 Egyptian pounds. Many people approached me on the street, offering guide services, and I also decided to try one of them. He was great, taking me on walking tours through Islamic Cairo and Coptic Cairo. This guide merely said I should pay “as you wish,” so I gave him the same amount I’d given the driver.

One of my favorite activities was walking around the city and looking at the graffiti, which was more political artwork than tagging. One mural-like painting showed a mummy shouting “I’m free!” (in English). Another showed a stenciled black machine gun and a stenciled black video camera pointed at each other.

Being one of few tourists in a place where the economy relies on them also made me a pretty big target among those who make their living off of visitors. Sometimes it was hard to walk more than 10 feet without people trying to get me to buy their wares, or come into their shops. But it was also a bargain-hunter’s dream.

I was lured inside a tchotchke store near my hotel with an offer of a cup of tea with fresh mint. The salesman gave me his pitch for the paintings on papyrus paper that lined the walls. He pointed to the price list and told me to ignore it — there was a “revolution special,” he said, which was 80 percent off the original price. I did buy two of his paintings, and he knocked off even more of the final bill.