Mummy's the word for the stayaways

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 June, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 June, 1994, 12:00am

EGYPT'S once-booming tourist trade, deathly ill from the violence of Islamic militants, has turned for help to 11 of the land's biggest celebrities - themselves already dead for 3,000 years.

They are the royal mummies, the corpses of some of ancient Egypt's mightiest pharaohs and queens, including Ramses II, the greatest monument builder of them all. They were exhibited until 13 years ago, when then-President Anwar Sadat tucked them away out of respect for the dead.

Now, in a move that these savviest of statesmen might well appreciate, Egypt has put them back on display in a bid to save the country's sinking economy.

The much-heralded return of the royals recently to state-of-the art, environmentally monitored, nitrogen-filled, American-made display cases is but one of the government's salvos in its fight to revive tourism, gutted during the last two years amid a string of Islamic attacks.

Blaming a foreign media conspiracy, the government has launched a US$42 million marketing campaign to convince would-be visitors that much of the country is perfectly safe.

Although only four foreign visitors have been among 350 people killed by extremists or police during the uprising, the violence has been enough to send tourism into a tailspin.

Officials say the number of visitors last year was off by more than 20 per cent from 1992 and the number of nights spent by tourists in Egypt down by about 40 per cent.

Merchants estimate the losses are actually much more dramatic. The tourism drop has reportedly cost the Egyptian visitor industry nearly US$1 billion a year, and deprived the country of a key source of foreign currency.

Only the bravest now venture to the fabulous pharaonic monuments of Luxor and Aswan in southern Egypt, a prime travel destination.

Up to three-quarters of the residents there earned their livelihood from tourism, but now many sit idly drinking tea in the bazaar. And the grand tombs of ancient kings and queens, once crowded with curiosity-seekers, are now little more than ghost towns.

The Egyptian government is also polishing up its renowned antiquities to woo visitors back to traditional sites. Lights are being installed in the Valley of the Kings, the magnificent complex of desert tombs outside Luxor, to allow night tours.

In Cairo, plans are proceeding for a museum of civilisation, which traces Egyptian culture back over the millenniums.

But the return of the royal mummies at Cairo's Egyptian Museum is the star attraction of the new promotion campaign.

First disturbed in 1881 after 3,000 years in a burial chamber under the ancient imperial capital Thebes in southern Egypt, they have been installed in a modern, dimly lit mausoleum of marble floors and limestone walls.

The mummies, displayed in low, illuminated cases, recline with arms crossed on their chests. Feet and fingers protrude from the wound wrapping.

Reigning at the centre of the chamber is Ramses II, pharaoh for 67 years in the 13th century BC, and king of Shelley's poem Ozymandias.

His left arm is slightly outstretched. His hair is wispy above the temples and his cheekbones are high.

Daily attendance at the museum this time of year has plummeted from 5,000 a day to about 2,000 during the last few years, according to the curator. Now, the museum is preparing to open another room with 16 more mummies.

Egypt took tourists, like the pyramids, for granted. No more. Now, by displaying the mummies, Egypt hopes to convey that the country remains a centre of civilisation despite the growing tyranny of Islamic extremism.