‘Disney’ at the Pyramids upsets Egyptians

By Caroline Hawley
01 January 2000

At the pyramids of Giza, the last remaining wonder of the ancient world, the new millennium was ushered in with an technological extravaganza of sound and laser light composed and choreographed by the French musician, Jean Michel Jarre.

The Pyramids Plateau was transformed for the event, with new roads, a parking area for 4,000 buses, as well as exclusive tents for those paying as much as £250 for the night’s entertainment. “It damages the site and it makes Walt Disney of a necropolis,” complained one Egyptologist.

Egypt was the only Muslim country to lay on celebrations on such a scale; the government, which spent £5.9m on the project, saw the millennium as a chance to use the pyramids to promote Egypt abroad. Tourism here went into a nosedive after Islamic militants massacred nearly 60 tourists outside a temple in Luxor in 1997.

This time, the authorities were taking no chances. Soldiers were out in massive force to guard an estimated 50,000 guests. Metal detectors were installed in the desert, and for days in advance hundreds of military police and soldiers practised security drills.

Controversy has surrounded the celebrations, partly because they fell in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Many Egyptians felt they were an extravagance in a country where only a tiny minority could afford the price of the cheapest, £10, ticket. Until last year, few Egyptians had heard of Jean Michel Jarre. “It is a provocation, an attempt to Westernise the Islamic identity of the Egyptian people,” said Islamist Mamdouh Ismail.

Sensitive to the criticisms, Jean Michel Jarre decided to incorporate the Muslim call to prayer into his performance. The government also banned the sale of alcohol, although it is usually served to foreigners during Ramadan. Meanwhile, a storm of protest forced the authorities to cancel the planned climax of the event – the lowering of a golden cap onto the biggest of the pyramids at midnight. Some MPs and archaeologists argued it could damage the pyramid.