CAIRO - The monuments may be glorious, but visiting Egypt's famed Giza Pyramids has long been a nightmare, with hawkers peddling camel rides and pharaonic trinkets hustling tourists relentlessly at every turn.
But now the hustlers are gone, as Egypt unveiled on Tuesday the first stage of an elaborate project to modernise the site and make it more tourist-friendly, while also putting in improved security - including a 20km chain-link fence with cameras, alarms and motion detectors surrounding the site.
"It was a zoo," Dr Zahi Hawass, Egypt's chief archaeologist, said of the usual free-for-all at the pyramids. "Now we are protecting both the tourists and the monuments."
The three Giza Pyramids have long been unusually open for a 5000-year-old Wonder of the World, especially compared to other world-renowned sites like Greece's Acropolis, Jerusalem's Western Wall or Rome's Colosseum, where security is tight and the movement of visitors is controlled.
The pyramids stand on a desert plateau that was once isolated, but in the capital's expansion in past decades slums have been built right to its edge, separated only by a low stone wall in parts. The rest of the area was wide open to the desert.
Hawkers - many from the nearby impoverished neighbourhoods looking to benefit from the tourist dollar - have had free rein, and have become notorious.
Tourists undergo a constant barrage from peddlers selling mock-ups of pharaonic statues and scarabs, T-shirts and other trinkets, or are followed by men on camels selling rides or photos - and rarely taking no for an answer. Young men even try to force their way into taxi cabs carrying foreigners to the pyramids, looking to steer them to nearby horse stables for a ride around the site.
But tourists have taken their own liberties as well. Since the 19th century, climbing the Pyramid of Khufu, the biggest of the three, was a favorite pastime for visitors, continuing into the 1970s - with the occasional fatal fall of an inebriated tourist.
Kamal Wahid, the site's general director, said the new system would ensure vendors and tourists "be good", and more importantly would greatly improve security at the site.
The long metal chain-link fence around the plateau reaches a height of 4m at some points. "Intruders can't jump over this," Wahid said. It is dotted with infrared sensors and motion detectors that set off alarms at a control room on the plateau.
Tourists enter through a new brick entrance building, where half a dozen gates are equipped with metal detectors and X-ray machines. Once inside, their every step is closely watched by 199 closed-circuit cameras covering every corner of the sprawling plateau. The images go back to the control room, where guards monitor a bank of 24 screens around the clock.
Wahid said phasing out the hawkers would not be sudden or "unkind". He added that an area nearby would be designated for horse and camel riding for tourists - with the pyramids as a dramatic backdrop for photos.
The changes are part of a $26US million ($38 million) project that began seven years ago to improve the site, Hawass said.
Still to come are a new lighting system, a cafeteria, and a visitors center and bookshop that will give better information on the pyramids, where tourist guidance is sparse.
Hawass insisted none of the innovations will diminish the experience of the visit. "We are giving back the magic of the pyramids," Hawass said.