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 $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.
"In the past, our telephones never stopped ringing," said Laila Kandil, president of the tour guides union. "Now, nothing. We don't know when this will end. Only God knows."
Once, 280 cruise ships plied the Nile, jammed with foreigners who had reserved cabins months in advance, gliding by palm-fringed banks, timeless villages and remote ruins. Now, empty ships languish like relics by the riverside. Nile cruises have lost about 90 percent of their business, reversing a trend that had seen at least 120 new boats launched between 1985 and 1993, according to industry estimates.
Those boats that still sail often carry only a handful of foreign tourists. They are shadowed by the armed escort of a police motorboat. On at least two occasions, river police have exchanged fire with militants waiting in ambush amid thick fields of sugar cane.
Only the bravest now venture to the fabulous pharaonic monuments of Luxor and Aswan in southern Egypt, a prime travel destination for more than 3,000 years. 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.
Even around Cairo, 200 miles north of the violence centered in Assiut, travelers are few.
Spared from the general devastation are resorts on the Sinai Peninsula and along the Red Sea. Far from the fear of violence, these beaches are booming.
The Egyptian government, meantime, is also polishing up its renowned antiquities to woo visitors back to traditional sites. For one, lights are being installed in the Valley of the Kings, the magnificent complex of desert tombs outside Luxor, to allow for nighttime tours.
In Cairo, plans are proceeding for a museum of civilization, which traces Egyptian culture back over the millenniums. The Ministry of Tourism also has sealed deals with two Italian tour operators to introduce a new four-day cruise called the "Nubian Sea."
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 center of the chamber is Ramses II, pharaoh for 67 years in the 13th century B.C., 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.
The controversy over the display of the mummies surrounds only the royal mummies. When Sadat removed them from sight on the grounds that their display was un-Islamic, he had no trouble allowing the continued exhibition of the mummies of commoners. And they continue to be on view amid the jumble of the museum's regular halls.
The bare, dignified display of the royal mummies contrasts with the remainder of the building, a rambling, labyrinthine warehouse of a museum overflowing with ancient and magnificent stuff. Pharaonic statues clutter hallways or are left, seemingly forgotten, in dark corners. Thousands of priceless relics are jammed into display cases, often unlabeled.
Once, massive tour groups jostled for space on scuffed floors. Egypt took tourists, like the pyramids, for granted. No more. Now, by displaying the mummies, Egypt hopes to convey that the country remains a center of civilization despite the growing tyranny of Islamic extremism.
"The opening of the royal mummies is a message that nothing can prevent Egypt from leading a normal life," said Moussa, the tourist agency chairman. "This notion that religion is against normal life is a fallacy. This is a country of civilization and will continue to be a country of civilization."