Egyptian Sunset at Giza (c) Copyright 1996 Andrew Bayuk

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Millenium Pyramid Celebration

By Siona Jenkins

EGYPT: Where will you be for New Year's Eve, 1999? If you haven't made plans yet, don't despair: there's always the pyramids. While the rest of the world has been planning millennium celebrations and fretting about possible Y2K computer glitches for the past two years or more, the Egyptian authorities, confident in the drawing power of the world's most famous monuments, have waited until the last minute to announce their own millennial extravaganza; a12-hour spectacle at the Giza pyramids.

At sunset on December 31st, a gold-encased capstone will be lowered by helicopter onto the top the Great Pyramid, setting off a specially commissioned dusk-to-dawn music and laser show by the French musician Jean-Michel Jarre. "The opera will be called The Twelve Dreams of the Sun," Jarre told a news conference here, adding that he had turned down several other offers for the millennium for the "privilege" of performing at Giza. "The pyramids are a reflection of mankind and eternity," he said by way of explanation.

The idea for the celebration came from Pharaonic reliefs at Abu Sir, site of yet more pyramids (albeit ruined ones)
about 15 km south of Giza. There Dr. Zahi Hawass, the ebullient archaeologist in charge of the Giza Plateau,
discovered a scene depicting workers dragging a capstone with the hieroglyphic word for "white gold" written
underneath. He also found a relief showing women dancing. "Every household in the north and south of Egypt used to participate in the building of the pyramid by sending workers, food and grain," explained Dr. Hawass. "My
interpretation is that when the king finished building the pyramid they put a capstone on top and after that the people sang and danced because the nation's project was finished. That is what we are doing at the millennium."

What the pyramids' ancient builders would have thought of the modern version of their own, highly religious
celebration is impossible to guess. Perhaps they would approve of their god-king's tomb being the centre of world
attention more than 5,000 years after it was built, even if the millennium party is ultimately a secular event based on a calendar that is unrelated to their own. Or perhaps they, like others in Egypt and around the world, would see
the show as yet another indignity visited on the ancient structures. For the pyramids have suffered greatly over
the past century. As nationalist symbols of a glorious past and a money-spinning tourist site they appear in logos
for everything from newspapers to plastic brushes, and have been used as a backdrop for events ranging from squash tournaments to operas. No longer standing in awesome desert isolation, they have been all but swallowed by the megalopolis that is modern Cairo. When approached from the city, the immense stone structures are now obscured by shoddy high-rises. On their northern side they are flanked by a highway and an enormous housing development. A much-needed, but hotly-disputed ring-road is planned to hem them in only a few kilometres to the south. Only when approached from the desert to the west, with the city obscured in early morning haze, does the last remaining wonder of the ancient world appear as it might have for most of its long history.

Unfortunately, even that impression is dispelled upon closer inspection. Tour groups throng the basalt pavement
between the gigantic structures. As they move in large groups, shepherded by their guides, camel and horse drivers jostle to grab their attention. Postcard sellers call out. Individual tourists are continually harassed by aggressive would-be guides. On weekends and national holidays, cheerfully raucous Egyptian families picnic in the area, adding to the chaos. "The Giza Plateau is a zoo," Dr. Hawass admitted in a recent interview. He has been engaged in a long-running battle to clean up the area but a combination of bureaucratic inertia and the vested interests of the hundreds of touts that swarm the area have combined to make it a Herculean task.

The millennium celebration has provided him with a much-needed deadline and by the time New Year's Eve rolls
around he vows to have the infamous horse and camel drivers banished from beside the pyramids to the desert beyond. Vehicles will be forbidden at the site and visitors who do not want to walk will be ferried by electric carts.

How easy it will be to see all this on December 31st remains to be seen. Even before the celebration was
announced travel agents around the world were using the pyramids as a selling point, offering everything from
new-age meditation at their base to "Bedouin" picnics in the nearby desert. The few hotel rooms still available
around Giza are going fast, although prices have yet to be set. Nobody yet knows how the millennium spectacular will be organized, how many tickets will be available or how much they will cost.

But Dr. Hawass is confident that Egypt's millennium party will be a success: "The pyramids were built in the third
millennium BC and we are celebrating the third millennium AD and therefore this is something that the whole world will watch."

Copyright IRISH TIMES 18-APR-99


The Plateau - Official Website of Dr. Zahi Hawass