In October, two wedding parties were held at two of Egypt’s most renowned ancient landmarks, the Karnak Temple Complex in Luxor and the Philae Temple in Aswan, both UNESCO world heritage sites. The two parties stirred much controversy among residents of both cities and on social media and triggered a wave of contradictory official statements while the question of how detrimental such actions are to the country’s most valued sites remained hanging.
Mohamed Abdel Aziz, director of the Central Administration for the Antiquities of Upper Egypt, denied that the event held at the Karnak Complex was a wedding and explained that it was a dinner in celebration of a wedding. “The wedding was held in a hotel in September, but that was a dinner attended by the couple’s friends and family members,” he said. “The misunderstanding started because a marriage registrar was at the dinner and gave a talk about marriage in Islam so many assumed that was the wedding.” Abdel Aziz added that the dinner was held under the supervision of antiquities inspectors and all entities involved in protecting the complex.
Tharwat Agami, head of the Chamber of Tourism Companies branch in Luxor, slammed the Ministry of Antiquities for approving the event, which he called “a farce,” and called for opening an investigation into the matter. “Throwing a party with more than 300 guests in the midst of the temple complex is unacceptable and needs to be prevented in the future,” he said. “The ministry can’t just make money through turning historic landmarks into wedding venues.”
Moustafa al-Saghir, director general of the Karnak Complex, objected to Agami’s statement. “The dinner was approved by Minister of Antiquities Khaled al-Anani as well as all relevant security and antiquities entities,” he said. “The event also abided by all the rules and it did not have loud music like some claimed.” Saghir said that the dinner was not the first event to be held at the complex and accused Agami of contradicting himself by objecting to it. “Agami organized many events of that type including a fashion show at the Luxor Temple three years ago.”
The Philae party, which was part of a three-day legendary wedding in which dignitaries and public figures were invited, stirred a similar debate that also focused on whether the actual wedding took place at the temple. According to Abdul Moneim Saeid, director general of Aswan and Nubia antiquities, only a dinner that was one of the wedding’s many events was held at Philae. “The dinner was held on the Philae Island, not at the temple itself. It was next to the cafeteria and the place where the sound and light show is held, which means guests only had a view of the temple,” he said.
Saeid noted that approval was contingent upon a number of conditions that both the company organizing the event and the hosts agreed to and that were documented under the supervision of the tourism and antiquities police. “These included staying in the area allocated for the event and not wandering around the temple, not using glaring lights, posters, or any ornaments, and not holding any event other than the dinner,” he said, adding that an insurance amount was also paid to the Ministry of Antiquities.
Abdel Nasser Saber, former head of the Tour Guides’ Syndicate and currently a tour guide, argued that it doesn’t matter whether the event was a wedding or a dinner. “In both cases, such events ruin the landmarks which are of a priceless cultural and historic value not places for partying, dancing, and eating,” he said. Saber added that these events also tarnish Egypt’s image since they affect the tourism industry. “Tourists come to Egypt to visit these places and attend the sound and light shows then they are told that the temple is closed for a wedding.”
Saber expressed his disappointment that the Ministry of Antiquities did not ban such events after the Karnak Complex controversy. Ashraf Bushra, head of the Tourism Department at the Aswan Investors’ Association, agreed with Saber. “I am all for organizing different activities in touristic cities across Egypt because that promotes tourism, but anywhere except historic landmarks,” he said. Bushra cited the example of the popular Egyptian TV series Grand Hotel that was filmed in Aswan and which made the city popular. “Turkish soap operas did the same, but none went near heritage sites.”
Journalist Samar Salah al-Din noted that in 2016, the secretary general of the Supreme Council for Antiquities issued a decree that allows the regulated use of historic landmarks for fixed rates. “These include throwing parties and shooting films,” she wrote. “Since then parties have been organized close to landmarks, but not inside them until the last two parties that did take place inside the landmarks and were much publicized on social media.
Then it became obvious that the sites were endangered.” According to Salah al-Din, this practice started unofficially during the Mubarak era. “Members of the ruling clique and their cronies threw parties in different historic sites. This started with an official close to Mubarak’s son Gamal throwing his wedding party at the Mohamed Ali Pasha Palace in Cairo and the obsession with historic places kicked off since then,” she explained.
The Ministry of Antiquities only responded to the Karnak incident through issuing a statement declaring that Moustafa al-Waziri, secretary general of the Supreme Council for Antiquities, filed a complaint with the tourism and antiquities police against the company that organized the party for violating the original terms of the agreement. According to the statement, the company got an approval for a dinner not a wedding so the ministry will stop dealing with it and the inspectors in charge of supervising the event were referred to a disciplinary committee. The ministry, therefore, seems to have admitted it was indeed a wedding party. No official action, on the other hand, was take n regarding the Philae event.