- - Monday, October 9, 2017

LUXOR, Egypt — Egypt’s crucial tourism industry has been rocked by political instability and terrorism concerns, but help has arrived from a venerable source.

A series of stunning archaeological discoveries from the days of Egypt’s ancient glory are giving hope to those who depend on foreign visitors to make a living.

This year alone, archaeologists in Luxor unearthed dozens of statues depicting a lion-headed warrior goddess at the temple of Amenhotep III, found evidence of a 4,000-year-old royal botanic garden treasured by Middle Kingdom rulers and revealed a tomb dedicated to an 18th Egyptian dynasty nobleman named Userhat.

Khaled El-Enany, minister of antiquities, announced last month the discovery of the burial place of a New Kingdom goldsmith just several feet away from Userhat’s crypt.

“It is an important discovery that sheds light on the necropolis’ history and promotes tourism to Egypt,” Mr. El-Enany said at an event at the tomb, declaring 2018 would be Egypt’s “Year of Discovery.”

Knowing the goldsmith’s name was a boon to Egyptologists and provided a human connection with the metalworker for tourists, said Ahmed Seddik, a Cairo-based tour guide often tapped to organize foreign officials and television celebrities’ tours of ancient sites.

“In the pharaonic belief system, a goldsmith’s work related to god,” said Mr. Seddik. “Gold was the flesh of the god named Amen, a solar deity with golden rays. That’s why he gets the name ‘Amen em hat,’ which means ‘Amen is at the front’ in the language of the ancient Egyptians.”

The discovery dates to the high point of ancient Egypt’s wealth and power, a period that includes the reign of King Tutankhamen and the queens Nefertiti and Hatshepsut.

“This is a good sign,” said Mostafa Waziry, the chief government archaeologist in Luxor. “If we keep digging in this area, we’re going to find four more tombs.”

To Egyptians, mummies mean money. Archaeological discoveries have contributed to a 20 percent year-on-year rise in tourism in Egypt in the first quarter of this year, said Luxor-based tourism specialist Mahmoud Edris.

Before the 2011 Arab Spring, tourism represented 13 percent of Egypt’s gross national product, bringing in nearly $20 billion a year, according to government figures. More than 3.5 million international visitors a year were drawn to the sites and mysteries in and around the Valley of the Kings.

But political unrest and sporadic terrorism in recent years — including commercial jet bombings and deadly attacks on Coptic Christian churches — sharply cut the number of visitors and revenue. In 2010, before the Arab Spring, the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak, the rise of Islamic State and the coup that ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and put former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in power in Cairo, Egypt welcomed a record 15 million foreign visitors. By 2016, the number was down to 5.3 million, according to the Ministry of Tourism.

Luxor has its own grim history of terrorism. Twenty years ago, a radical Islamist faction gunned down 62 people, mostly foreign tourists, at a site just across the Nile from Luxor.

Before the goldsmith’s grave was unveiled, locals said, they were hoping archaeologists would discover a new pharaoh to lift tourism numbers further.

Luxor transformed

Global tourism transformed Luxor from a small village to Egypt’s sixth-largest metropolitan area after tour operator Thomas Cook started running steamship service down the Nile in 1896. The luxury tourism trade expanded after British Egyptologist Howard Carter made the sensational discovery of King Tutankhamen’s undisturbed tomb in 1929.

“Those were the golden years of tourism here,” said hotel owner Ehab Gaddis. “My grandfather ran a photography studio in the entry alcove of the Winter Palace Hotel and took pictures of European royalty and Egyptian sultans.”

Today, most Luxor residents rely on tourism for their livelihoods and follow hotel occupancy rates as closely they do the results in Egypt’s premier soccer league.

The region has plenty of room for improvement, said Mr. Gaddis, adding that he hasn’t seen an increase in bookings. “My hotel will not be more than 20 percent full,” he said.

But large international hotel chains are sounding more bullish about Egypt’s eventual tourism recovery.

“The devaluation of the currency has led to an upswing, and we are going to expand the number of hotels in Egypt from 17 to 30 over the next decade,” said Mohab Ghali, vice president of operations for Hilton in the Middle East.

Archaeologists and tour guides on hand for the event said the discovery of the goldsmith’s tomb would add to public understanding of the lives of the craftsmen and officials who served and even challenged pharaohs.

“Tombs of high officials and artisans have given proof that the people who built pyramids and mortuary structures were salaried workers who went on strike when they didn’t get paid,” said Ahmed Nouby, 60 a retired diplomat and archaeologist. “The hieroglyphs they left behind depict paradise as a place where there was good duck hunting and lots of parties with music and wine.”

But Mr. Nouby and others questioned the wisdom of uncovering more of the ancient past with so many pressing challenges confronting Egypt in the present.

“We need to preserve what we have discovered,” said the Sorbonne-trained Egyptologist. “With millions of artifacts in storage and too many neglected, even stolen and sold on the black market, we should leave what’s left for the next generation.”

Those sentiments are echoed in the hookah cafes and handicraft stalls that fill this metropolitan area of 1.2 million people.

“With all that’s here for the tourists to see already, do we really need to unearth more antiquities and tombs?” asked Abu Eish, a 75-year-old manufacturer and dealer in replicas of ancient Egyptian statues.

In Cairo, Tarek Tawfik, director general of the Grand Egyptian Museum, a massive home for a pharaonic heritage collection in the final phases of construction, said he was looking forward to playing host to finds from the new tomb.

Ancient Luxor “is so rich with its different kinds of antiquities, and the area provides a huge opportunity of making endless finds,” said Mr. Tawfik. “Preferably, every new discovery of important new pieces will come to the Grand Egyptian Museum, where they will be safeguarded, scientifically restored and curated in a meaningful context.”

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