CAIRO/LUXOR: Candlesticks, tobacco and pipes, almond paste, a flag, and a light Cairene donkey-saddle are some of the items a traveler should acquire for a journey in Egypt according to Murray’s Guide to Egypt, published in 1847.
And as Thomas Cook’s Tourists’ Handbook for Egypt of 1897 makes clear, the services of a guide, or “dragoman,” were also considered indispensable for a traveler in Egypt.
Nowadays some 13 million travelers come to Egypt each year, very few of whom acquire either candlesticks, almond paste, or a light Cairene donkey-saddle for their journey. But for the majority of visitors, Egypt’s ancient antiquities are the main attraction. And for these a guide is still indispensable.
“When people choose to visit Egypt, they are choosing a cultural tour. There are beaches all over the world better than those in Egypt. There are ocean cruises that are better than cruises in Egypt. But Egypt is always a cultural tour,” Waleed Zayan, 42, tells me.
Waleed is one of some 15,000 tour guides working in Egypt. Although representing only a small fraction of the Egyptian workforce — or even of the estimated 12 percent of Egyptian workers employed in tourism — tour guides have an unusually important role.
Because of the historical and cultural focus of many tourists’ visits to Egypt, the role of the guide is crucial for unlocking some of the meaning and purpose behind the impressive monuments that travelers visit.
Despite the rise of independent travelers armed with Lonely Planet guide-books, a brief visit to the pyramids, or the Egyptian Museum, or the Valley of the Kings, will confirm that tour groups are still by far the most popular way to visit these sights.
The tour guide is, then, the Egyptian with whom many foreign visitors will have the most contact. As such she acts as an ambassador for Egypt, as the country’s human face, as well as being a repository of arcane facts about Pharaonic burial customs.
Becoming and being a guide
Ramez George, 26, tells me how his decision to become a guide was more or less made for him by his grades at school: he was somewhere in the middle of the field, and so tour-guiding was one of the best-paid professions he could enter.
Having studied for four years in the Faculty of Tourism and Hotels at Helwan University, Ramez’s English is good, and his enthusiasm for Egypt’s sights is infectious.
The variation in guides can be great. Although all guides must be members of The Egyptian General Tourist Guides Syndicate, the syndicate does not vet the quality of its members, Waleed tells me.
Some guides are seemingly over-qualified for the job. Waleed, for example, has a PhD in Egyptology, and was once thinking of pursuing his interest academically. Others study subjects unrelated to Egyptology or tourism, and then learn what they need for the Ministry of Tourism’s exam.
Many graduate from the faculties of tourism in various universities, such as those of Helwan, Cairo, Ain Shams, or Sixth of October. Students opting for the tour guide track, Ramez explains to me, are given teaching in a language and the basics of Egyptology, including an introduction to hieroglyphs, as well as receiving instruction on the tourism industry in Egypt, good presentation skills, and other “soft skills” required for managing groups of tourists.
Working as a tour guide can be a difficult life, Azazi El-Feky, 30, a French-speaking guide, tells me. One often spends two or three weeks away from home at a time, leading groups on Nile cruises or on oases tours. The need constantly to meet new people and establish a good rapport with them can be tiring.
This aspect of the job is also one of its attractions, Waleed explains. Through his exposure to many different nationalities (he speaks Spanish as well as Arabic and English) he feels he has learnt as much about different cultures and how to interact with different groups as if he had traveled to their countries.
Guides are self-employed, and so can choose how much work to take on. This can mean that their work is unpredictable and seasonal, relying on establishing good relationships with tour companies. The profession, though, is well paid, Azazi tells me. And undoubtedly money — both in basic pay and tips — is attractive to many who decide to become guides.
Sites and sounds
The preservation and maintenance of the ancient sites is crucial to the tour guides’ profession. This is the responsibility of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).
“People pay a lot for their tickets [to the sites], and this money is supposed to return back to the antiquities in one way or another, with the kinds of services given to tourists, maintenance of the sites, restoration of the antiquities… But what’s happening is that people pay a lot for their tickets, and then the Supreme Council of Antiquities is not doing what it is supposed to do,” Waleed tells me.
It is important also to keep developing the sites and adding new features to them, so that tourists will keep returning to Egypt on different occasions. The popular sound and light shows — to which a new one has just been added at Edfou temple — had a galvanizing effect on tourism.
But not all developments are improvements.
The authorities “are planning to support the pyramids with a tram, instead of riding camels,” Ramez tells me, “This is exciting for tourists; don’t ignore their opinion; they like to ride camels. So don’t [take away] the camels and use trams.”
It seems that Egypt’s guides are uniquely placed, having not only detailed knowledge of the country’s sites, but also having very close contact with visitors to Egypt. Their views on the future of Egypt’s ancient sites ought to be heard by the SCA.
In her role as guide, scholar, interpreter, ambassador, and counselor, a love for the sites of ancient Egypt remains the most important element in a happy career.
“I never feel bored. Every time I go inside a temple or a tomb, it is as though it is the first time for me,” says Waleed, who has been working as a guide for nearly 20 years.