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Queen of the Nile

[whitespace] Egyptian statue What a Hunk: Egypt's monumental statues and architecture along the Nile often seem like they were created yesterday.

Christina Waters


A return to the primal source of all history provides elegant encounters with modern opera, the ancient past and the timelessness that is Egypt

By Christina Waters

WHEN YOU RETURN from a place as exotic, as mythically charged as Egypt, everybody wants to know what it was like. The short answer is that Egypt is huge, hot and haunting. Perfumed by the heady scent of roasted cumin, incense and urine, it houses every ancient monument and temple of your childhood dreams. It also more than matches your expectations.

After all the years of reading about the Pharaohs, being bombarded with King Tut media hype and learning about the annual flooding of the Nile, I thought I was prepared for this seductive land. But Egypt outwitted me at every turn.

The Nile was more sensuous and elegant than I'd imagined, slipping silver through turquoise date palm groves, its banks misted with smoke and the outlines of camels patiently hauling freshly harvested sugar cane. The heat was more dazzling than expected and frequently stopped our group of 11 Bay Area arts lovers sweating and puffing in its tracks. The tombs were more colorful than I'd predicted--in some cases bearing brush strokes that might have been painted that morning--a poignant testimony to hopes and beliefs that were alive three millennia ago.

Through everything, the Egyptians themselves--as warm, handsome, confident as their venerable land--charmed us.

Our primary excuse for this late autumn odyssey was a chance to see a rare, outdoor performance of Aida-- Verdi's great opera about Egyptian royalty and forbidden love--to be held at no less than the very doorstep of Queen Hatshepsut's magnificently preserved 3500-year-old palace. But we were also there because we all knew the remarkable art and antique importer Barbara Horscraft of Gravago, who--along with her companion, Luxor-born Elnuby Hassan--put together what was to be the tour of a lifetime.

Four hundred miles south of Cairo, Luxor embraces its slender stretch of the Nile like a courtesan. Its esplanade, dotted with henna trees, jasmine and mimosas in full bloom, seemed manicured from years of colonial occupation. We were a well-traveled bunch--not a continent had eluded one or another of us over the years--but we still let out a collective gasp at the first sight of Luxor temple with its columns and guardian sphinxes illuminated by moonlight. Even 24 hours of travel and four major airports couldn't numb our reaction.

This was why we'd come so far.

When Worlds Collide

OUR ENCHANTMENT with the past butted up against the infrastructure of the present, however, when we checked into our hotel--or our hotel-in- progress, as it turned out. No pool? Funny, the brochure clearly mentioned a pool, we all grumbled. Hot water? Well, never mind. Too tired to fuss, I fell into bed with my trusty Discman and my favorite Van Morrison CD.

From the 10th to the 25th dynasties--roughly 2000 to 750 BCE--Luxor was the happening place in Egypt. It had the two mightiest temples linked by a processional walkway that wound through the small town on the banks of the Nile. Across the river lay the lavish necropolis in which the pharaohs and their closest companions were buried with unimaginable treasures.

Today's Luxor--a pretty city of 60,000--is one of the top tourist destinations on the planet, acting as base camp and watering hole for the legions of international visitors drawn to the royal tombs and the magnificent temple ruins. From the roof of our hotel, we could gaze out across the surprisingly narrow Nile--a primordial, feminine river of silvery grace--to the white smoke of small fires in the sugar cane groves on the west bank.

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Eleven helpful tips that will make a Nile sojourn successful.

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Just beyond the strip of vibrant green--yes, the Nile really does create a narrow, fertile band of life on either side of its banks--the lavender-pink dunes of the Sahara and Luxor Mountain stand watch. The sun set through a braid of clouds with a splendor that would have pleased Akhenaton, the controversial pharaoh whose monotheism set the stage for Christianity 1500 years later. Impossibly romantic with their signature raked sails, fellucas threaded the serene river.

On the mundane side, we found ourselves using our sightseeing breaks to hit the pool at the Novotel across the street. Triple-digit temperatures provide powerful motivation for a swim. Since our personal bio-clocks weren't producing any jet lag problems--we were an entire day ahead of California time--we were all ready to cruise the neighborhood, quickly discovering the wonderfully tacky and tasteful AA Gaddis gift store, where tea towels stamped with Cleopatra images, stamps and postcards were all available.

Dynasty for Dollars

CLIMBING INTO OUR custom mini-van, whose blissful air conditioning tamed the heat, we made our first stop at Luxor Temple, a lovely warm-up for the magnificence that is Karnak and the spot where Napoleon picked up the obelisk now adorning Paris' Place de la Concorde. Our archaeological guide might have been irritating--rattling off dates and dynasties like a desperate game show contestant--but he was knowledgeable, especially about some of the astonishing hieroglyphics we were about to see.

Neither static nor redundant, the stylized bas reliefs are graphically eloquent in their recording of battles, love affairs and hopes for the afterlife. We came to love running our fingers over the ancient nooks of these sandstone incisions, communicating with ancestors who seemed to belong to each of us.

After our initial encounter with an Egyptian temple, we cruised Luxor's lively bazaar--scooping up colorful silk scarves for $2.30 each--and then enjoyed a group dinner of tomato, dill and cucumber salad, goat cheese, pita bread, garbanzo and fava stew, rice (always rice), well-done lamb chops and stuffed pigeon. Beer, not always available in Islamic Egypt, had to be sent out for. This menu didn't vary for two weeks, save for some grilled quail and outstanding felafels in Cairo. One does not go to Egypt to dine.

When our van left for Karnak at 8am--my personal destination in this pilgrimage--the temperature was already soaring. The great monument to at least six pharaohs' vanity shimmered in a veil of mirages like the remains of an alien visitation. Sensuous and confident, the great columns curve and bulge with erotic power. Sipping bottled water nonstop, we migrated toward spots of shade and feasted our eyes on the bits of ancient pigment still outlining images of falcons, conquerors and the poignant ankh, symbol for eternity.

A stupendous warren of colonnades, obelisks, pools and secret chambers, Karnak is a profound experience. Humbling the imagination with its splendid scale--the front gate is 40 feet thick and seven stories high--it is too big for a single day, and we returned two more times to be moved by its beauty.

But even Karnak's blazing temperatures didn't prepare us for the Valley of the Kings.

Too Hot to Trot

SO THIS IS WHAT the Sahara desert is like, I thought, almost incoherent in the 105-degree morning. Dignified and forbidding, it made the Mojave look like a botanical garden. Clusters of tour groups--each suffering the heat in a different language--hugged the shadows before plunging into the blistering air toward the tombs.

"Ramses IX" read the plaque over a doorway that immediately pitched downward for hundreds of feet. Only circulating fans and some lighting indicated the modern era. The walls seemed to dance and throb with the rhythms of the heat.

The journey through the forest of the 18th dynasty led to a huge chamber and one of the few stone tombs too massive to have been carted off by European curators during the last century. We entered tomb after tomb-- Rameses, Seti, Sennefer, Mena--each a time capsule of a culture obsessed with death and gifted with artistic vision. The highly visited Tut's tomb was a tiny gem, glowing with mineral pigments still vibrant with deep green, earthy ochre and blood red. It was easy to imagine what Harold Carter must have felt when he discovered this masterpiece.

The crown jewel of this cultural heritage was the breathtaking tomb of Queen Nefertari, wife of empire-builder Rameses II. A costly restoration hugely aided by Getty Foundation millions had uncovered, but not retouched, chambers completely decorated with narratives of the gods, the river Nile, the pharaoh and his wife--all of it so bright, so exquisitely depicted that it seemed we had entered during the artisans' lunch break. So fragile is the delicate paint that we were only allowed 15 minutes per group in the tomb. It was 15 minutes I'll never forget.

We finally did see the opera. Cleaning up from our monotonous fashion diet of khakis, hats and sunscreen, we put on the one dress-up outfit we'd each brought to Egypt and rubbed elbows with a multicultural jet set.

Our caravan of buses traveled slowly over a specially constructed bridge patrolled by military boats. Our buses were painstakingly checked for bombs--we were each ushered through metal detectors and required to show our numbered tickets. Armed guards created a human chain around the vast stage and stadium built for this single week.

The moon rose directly over my right shoulder in the Valley of the Kings as the spotlights wove gold and crimson light through the clefts in the mountain. Hatshepsut's stately palace had been extended by a set design that appeared to magically merge with the ancient structure. The gorgeous Wilhelmina Fernandez (of Diva fame) was in stupendous voice--though one cannot say the same for her feeble tenor lover--and at one moment during a lavish chorale I counted at least 800 singers, dancers and extras on the curved stage.

While the opera itself had been upstaged by the pharoanic tombs and the glory of the countryside, it would reverberate long in our minds.

Especially when only one week after our visit, 65 visitors just like us were massacred on the very spot where we sat.

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From the May 7-13, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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