Egypt touts spate of new historic findings to draw tourists as travel opens back up

CAIRO — Workers dig and ferry wheelbarrows laden with sand to open a new shaft at a bustling archaeological site outside of Cairo, while a handful of Egyptian archaeologists supervise from garden chairs. The dig is at the foot of the Step Pyramid of Djoser, arguably the world’s oldest pyramid, and is one of many recent excavations that are yielding troves of ancient artifacts from the country’s largest archaeological site.

As some European countries reopen to international tourists, Egypt has already been trying for months to attract them to its archaeological sites and museums. Officials are betting that the new ancient discoveries will set it apart on the mid- and post-pandemic tourism market. They need visitors to come back in force to inject cash into the tourism industry, a pillar of the economy.

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But like countries elsewhere, Egypt continues to battle the coronavirus, and is struggling to get its people vaccinated. The country has, up until now, received only 5 million vaccines for its population of 100 million people, according to its Health Ministry. In early May, the government announced that 1 million people had been vaccinated, though that number is believed to be higher now.

In the meantime, authorities have kept the publicity machine running, focused on the new discoveries.

Wowing the world with new discoveries

In November, archaeologists announced the discovery of at least 100 ancient coffins dating back to the Pharaonic Late Period and Greco-Ptolemaic era, along with 40 gilded statues found 2,500 years after they were first buried. That came a month after the discovery of 57 other coffins at the same site, the necropolis of Saqqara that includes the step pyramid.

“Saqqara is a treasure,” said Tourism and Antiquities Minister Khaled el-Anany while announcing the November discovery, estimating that only 1% of what the site contains has been unearthed so far.

“Our problem now is that we don’t know how we can possibly wow the world after this,” he said.

If they don’t, it certainly won’t be for lack of trying.

In April, Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s best-known archaeologist, announced the discovery of a 3,000-year-old lost city in southern Luxor, complete with mud brick houses, artifacts and tools from pharaonic times. It dates back to Amenhotep III of the 18th dynasty, whose reign (1390–1353 B.C.) is considered a golden era for ancient Egypt.

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