Slum Spreads at Feet of the Sphinx
Village residents resist government efforts to relocate them away from the Great Pyramid area
CAIRO — FOR the average visitor, Nazlet al-Simman comes as a surprise, a town of squalor lapping at the feet of the great Sphinx. Children with smudged faces and knotted hair run through the streets, bidding each tourist hello and pleading for bakshish (tips or handouts). The smell of sewage wafts from the dirt streets littered with plastic bags, soda bottles, and papers. Animals dig through piles of garbage, and large families eat over open fires in the street outside one-room apartments.
The Egyptian government plans to relocate Nazlet al-Simman because it threatens the monuments at Giza plateau, including the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx.
But the villagers, many of them poor, have lived here for years and depend on the visiting tourists for their income. They do not want to leave their homes behind for a barren plot of desert land, and many lack the finances to even consider relocating.
``If you find a mummy under a house, remove one house, but you don't need to remove all the houses,'' says Khalid Gabry, a resident, who works as an electrician. ``This is our spirit, our soul. It's something in our blood. Even if they remove me I'll still say, I'm from Nazlet al-Simman.''
Still, for a government largely dependent on tourist dollars for its hard currency, the condition of the antiquities takes priority. ``The worst thing for the monuments is the village, the water sewage, pollution, cars. Can you believe that the Giza plateau, one of the seven wonders of the world, isn't a national park?'' says Zahi Hawass, the Egyptian Antiquity Organization (EAO) director general for the area.
The people of Nazlet al-Simman were Bedouins, nomads living in the desert, before they settled at the foot of the pyramids when tourists started coming in large numbers 70 years ago, according to Muhammad Omar Abdel Akher, the governor of Giza. In 1960, the Egyptian government started collecting the tourist revenue from the area, which had previously gone to the villagers.
At first the presence of Nazlet al-Simman raised few problems, but the population has nearly doubled to 70,000 in the last 10 years, bringing with it the slew of problems that overpopulation creates: lack of space, pollution, and raw sewage.
The village's underground waste percolates upward, eroding the foundation of the monuments. The government also fears the villagers are a problem for tourists, who might be put off by the town's downtrodden conditions and its residents' aggressive behavior.
Villagers are infamous for their abilities of persuasion. They verbally drag tourists into their perfume, papyrus, or leather shops, coercing them into buying any assortment of objects. Camel drivers push camel rides, children peddle lukewarm Pepsi and Coke, and stable hands have groups of foreigners galloping through the valleys of the desert before they know what has happened.
To make matters worse, the village is preventing the excavation of recent archaeological finds. While building a septic system to reroute sewage away from the antiquities, workers discovered the long-sought valley temple of the pharaoh Cheops and the accompanying causeway, built for his funeral 4,500 years ago.
To solve these problems the government plans to move the village in the next 15 to 20 years to another site three miles away. While the shops can stay, when the homes fall into disrepair the people cannot rebuild them and must move, Governor Abdel Akher says. The government will give villagers land and they can get loans from the bank, but no compensation will be allocated for their relocation.
The EAO claims it has the legal right to uproot a town in order to protect the antiquities or to landscape the area around them. ``Even if I find monuments in a private house, I can confiscate them. They are the history of Egypt. They are our treasures. There is no place for settlements like this,'' says Gamal Mokhtar, former president of the EAO.
The Egyptian government has moved communities of people before, either to protect the Pharaonic antiquities or to develop an area. In Aswan, 600 miles south of Cairo, a community of Nubians - people from a former empire that encompassed southern Egypt and northern Sudan - was moved to build the Aswan High Dam in the late 1950s.
In Luxor, where some of the most important monuments are located, a village situated in the Luxor temple was relocated. Residents claim that they are yet to be compensated for the move. In Cairo itself, communities are uprooted to make room for government projects like Ain Shams University and the Foreign Ministry building.
THE villagers of Nazlet al-Simman are determined to thwart the government's attempts to uproot them. They refuse to move and have initiated a court case to fight the authorities. ``Even if we have to die, we won't move from here,'' says Omar Talib, a resident and marketing manager for a travel agency. ``We've been born here. We've opened our eyes to see the pyramids.''
The villagers claim the town is not on top of any antiquities. The area of Nazlet al-Simman was underwater during the time of the pharaohs, they say, and the ancient Egyptian kings and queens did not build in valleys but on hills and mountains. The recent archaeological discoveries contradict the vlliagers' claims (see related story).
There is no love lost between the government and the villagers. While officials claim the people are millionaires and thieves, who copy antiquities and try to pawn them off on tourists, villagers say the government is corrupt and only wants to move them in order to keep the benefits of tourism itself.
The villagers say they are willing to cooperate with plans to beautify the area by not building on top of possible archaeological sites and by painting their homes or cleaning the streets, but they refuse to relocate.
Nonetheless, the government has already begun improvements. It is covering a polluted canal that ran in the middle of a major road. It wants to renovate the thoroughfare leading to the pyramids and prevent cars, camels, and horses from going near the monuments. It also plans to build parks and a parking lot, and eventually to replicate the original entrance that used to run through Nazlet al-Simman.
The government's plan to uproot the community will not be easy, however. While officials claim to have the law on their side, the villagers have determination, cunning, and sheer numbers on theirs.
``It would be quite amazing [if the government is able to relocate the village] given Egypt's track record in moving large numbers of people in urban areas,'' says David Sims, an urban planner and longtime resident of Cairo.