Photo: Man stands on a desert hill with Giza pyramids in the background

A camel driver waits for tourists near the Pyramids at Giza.

Photograph by Emilio Morenatti, AP

By Carl Hoffman

Writer Carl Hoffman traveled to Egypt in February 2011, a week after popular demonstrations led to the president's resignation. These are his observations.

Tourism is Egypt’s second largest source of revenue, bringing in $13 billion in 2010. The Great Pyramid at Giza, after all, is one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.

To visit the Pyramids is to be struck dumb by their monumentality, their celebration of the fundamental human need to create. It's even more affecting in the midst of a revolution, when there are no tourists at all. A week after Hosni Mubarak’s departure and a day after the biggest celebration in Tahrir Square, a handful of Egyptians scrambled up the blocks of Khufu’s Great Pyramid, but there was not a foreigner to be seen.

I have visited them before, but this time they felt different. Each stone block is waist-high and worthy of awe. I noticed them, not the other people around me. They were mine for reflection and contemplation. All I could think of is how hard it must have been to make them, how much will it took when there were no cranes or earthmovers or power tools, and what that says about us as human beings—that we can no more not build or mark our place or strive for glory than we can not breathe or eat or love.

In the empty quiet I had a chance to talk to the horsemen and camel drivers who usually hustle rides to tourists. 

“We have no work, nothing,” said Ali Abd el Hamid, astride his camel. 

He and his colleagues ply their trade seven days a week, year in and year out, a profession inherited from their fathers and grandfathers. They were barely hanging on now.

“I had three camels but sold two to feed my family,” says Hussein, who wouldn’t give his last name. “But before, the Egyptian citizen had no value, and hopefully that will change.”

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