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Egyptian history a foreign concept

Many Egyptians ignore their country's historic sites.

An ancient sculpture of a bird is seen in front of the Queen Hatshepsut Temple in West Bank of Luxor, some 900km (550 miles) south of Cairo on September 20, 2006. Many of Egypt's historic sites are mainly visited by foreign tourists, not by Egyptians. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

CAIRO — Beaches along Egypt’s north coast were jammed. It was a long weekend, and vacationers of all socioeconomic stripes had decided to soak in the rays by the Mediterranean. Cairo felt empty. Trains to the north coast were sold out. The highway was bumper to bumper.

But in the middle of the cheek-by-jowl working class beaches and the posh resorts stretching for hundreds of miles along the Egyptian coast, the hills over El Alamein stood empty.

Incredibly, these forlorn hills were the site of one of World War II’s most significant battles, often considered a critical turning point in the war. It was about the El Alamein battle that Churchill famously said: "This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

It was here that the Allies first defeated Erwin Rommel’s infamous Panzer fleet.

Today in El Alamein, a museum and two quiet cemeteries — one for the British one for the Germans — mark the battle site. They’re packed with history, tributes, and foreign tourists. Just one thing is missing: Egyptians. Suzan El Ayoubi had broken the trend. An Alexandrian living in Cairo, this lawyer had also come to the north coast to dip her feet in the water. But to her, visiting El Alamein was an important detour.

“Many Egyptians, they don’t go to see their monuments or to see what history left for them because of they’re ignorant,” she told me.

Egyptians may have become "spectators to their own history," as Author Fouad Ajami recently put it in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, referring to Arabs who are perpetuating the Middle East’s political paralysis. For Egyptians, this can apply as equally to the country's fabled past as to present-day politics. 

It’s not uncommon in Cairo to meet a taxi driver who hasn’t strolled the grounds of the pyramids, or talk to an upper class student who’s never visited the city’s ancient market.

The Egyptian government has tried to help. At all historical sites, it offers one price to foreigners and another to Egyptians.

To visit the Great Pyramids at Giza, for example, it costs foreigners around $12. Egyptians pay 40 cents.