Last month’s Vanity Fair, the one with Taylor Swift on the cover, included a long article I wrote revisiting the mania surrounding the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibition that toured the U.S. in the late 1970s, as well as the political and cultural forces that conspired to make the tour happen. I had fun doing the article and put a lot of work into it, but, based on the crickets-chirping non-response it elicited, hardly anyone read it. (Perhaps you will, now that it’s online?) Ah, well. This is much less of a crisis than the one Egypt’s tourism industry is currently suffering because of post-Arab Spring political instability in the Morsi era.
My Egyptophile sources tell me that, if you can summon the bravery and funds to get over to Egypt right now, it’s a great time to visit the pyramids, Luxor, and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, because hardly anyone else is visiting and the lines of years past are nonexistent. The Egyptian Museum is where the King Tut relics from the ’70s tour are currently housed, and all indications are that, tales of looting aside, the Tut stuff is intact and okay. (It’s my understanding that the Egyptians will never again let Tut’s famous gold mask travel, so Cairo is now the only place you can get to see it.)
Lots of eccentric plotlines and sub-plotlines of my V.F. story wound up on the cutting-room floor, among them the fact that singer Pearl Bailey, an ardent Richard Nixon supporter, muscled her way onto Nixon’s June ’74 tour of Egypt and the Mideast—his final overseas trip before he resigned—as the president’s so-called “Ambassador of Love,” performing for the president and his Egyptian counterpart, Anwar Sadat. A year later, when Sadat paid his first state visit to the U.S., hosted by Gerald Ford, Bailey subbed for an ill Johnny Cash—one of Sadat’s faves—as the entertainment, pulling Sadat out of his chair for a dance (he blushed), mugging in reading glasses borrowed from Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and in general acting genially bonkers.
The most poignant bit cut from the V.F. story is how Tut-mania represented a sort of high-water mark for U.S.-Egypt relations—or at least the hope for sustained, stable, mutually beneficial U.S.-Egypt relations. The Tut show was the first gesture of diplomatic goodwill that Sadat granted the U.S. after switching allegiances from the Soviet Union to America, and it’s not overstating things to say that the positive feelings this gesture engendered played a part in the lead-up to the historic Camp David Accords signed by Sadat and Israel’s Menachim Begin in 1978, on Jimmy Carter’s watch. (Personal note: It was at this point in my schoolboy life that everyone began addressing me as “Kamp David.”)
Sadat is to Egyptians a little bit like Mikhail Gorbachev is to Russians—an overseas rock star who doesn’t get much love at home. (A much bigger cult of nostalgia surrounds his nationalist predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser.) Yet he was was precisely the kind of strong, West-friendly leader that the U.S. State Department can only dream of Egypt’s having now. His assassination in 1981 was a violent bookend to the period of genuine U.S.-Egypt love that began with Nixon’s 1974 trip and crested with Camp David and Steve Martin.