The Tears of the Sphinx

Camels at the side of the road in Giza, Egypt, Feb. 9, 2011.
CBS/Erin Lyall George
CBS News correspondent Terry McCarthy reporting from the pyramids in Giza, Egypt.
CBS News correspondent Terry McCarthy reporting from the pyramids in Giza, Egypt, Feb. 9, 2011.
CBS/ Erin Lyall George

The pyramids at Giza talk to each other. And if you stand on a hill in the early morning and look down on the Sphinx, you can see it is crying - particularly these days. Or so said Farag abu Ghanim this morning, as we rode his horses up to a hill that overlooks the pyramids from the south. 

The army has locked the gates that normally grant access to the 4,000 year-old monuments, but Farag has been working here guiding tourists on his horses for 25 years, so he knew a way around the enclosing wall and up a hill that gave us a breathtaking view. In front of us was the Pyramid of Menkaure, and behind that the Pyramid of Khafre and to its right the Sphinx, and behind them all the great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), the biggest pyramid in Egypt, which was built in 2570 BCE with 2.3 million limestone blocks, each one of which weighed about two and a half tons.

Farag was born in Giza, and is deeply attached to the pyramids - he says that on nights when he cannot sleep he comes out and sits down in the desert just to look at them, and that brings him calm. These nights have been particularly bad for him - since the protests began there have been no tourists, and that means he earns no money. He has 35 horses, 10 staff looking after the horses in the stables, and 15 guides who accompany tourists on the horses to the pyramids. Normally each guide would take three or four tourists, sometimes as many as six on a busy day. Since the protests started? "Nobody. Not one. Already I am borrowing money to feed the horses, pay my staff." 

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There are thousands more like him in Giza, people who depended on the tourists for their livelihood. Egypt gets about 12 million tourists a year, and about 10 percent of the working population depends on tourism. 

camels in Egypt,
Camels wait to be hired at the side of the road in Giza, Egypt, Feb. 9, 2011.
CBS/Erin Lyall George

Now that business has dried up like a bottle of water emptied on the hot desert sand - according the government about 1 million foreigners, mostly tourists, left in the first week of the unrest. Farag is faced with a dilemma over the horses. They cost about 50 Egyptian pounds (U.S. $10) a day each to feed, he says - but with no income from tourists he is losing money just keeping them alive. He could sell them, but who would want to buy the horses now? And even if he found a buyer, then how would he earn his living once the tourists finally come back?

A short distance away we met Mustafa Imran. He has a single camel - he calls him "Charlie Brown", in a good-humored nod to his American customers - and he too worries every day about getting money to feed his camel and his wife and four kids. He says the camel is worth 12,000 Egyptian pounds, ($2,400) - but that in the area around the pyramids these days nobody is buying camels, any more than horses. He doesn't have many political views, but he says the demonstrations in Tahrir Square are bad - carried out by rich people, he thinks, who have plenty of money to spare. But they are destroying his business.

We had tea in a small cafe in Giza before we left - we were the only customers all the time we were there - and the owner repeatedly came out to us to apologize for all the problems in his country. He wanted to see Mubarak go as much as the protesters in Tahrir Square - but please could it happen quickly, so he could get some customers back? As we drove away, it was easy to see how one could imagine tears on the face of the Sphinx.

Terry McCarthy is a foreign correspondent for CBS News. You can read more of his posts here