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Passage through antiquity

The ancient and the modern on the Nile's ebb and flow

Email|Print| Text size + By Joan Lukey
Globe Correspondent / September 25, 2005

CAIRO -- A ribbon of butterscotch shimmered across the horizon, the final remnant of a glorious setting sun. Nightfall comes rapidly on the Nile, and the remaining feluccas hurried past, seeking anchorage before darkness. In three millennia, the single-sail, gaff-rigged vessels have not changed. Today, as in 1000 BC, they skim the water with seamless grace, still devoid of running lights.

From the pool deck of Abercrombie & Kent's 18-stateroom Sun Boat III, we gazed west across the Nile at a scene unchanged since the feluccas first sailed. Yet behind us, where our boat was berthed, sprawled the metropolis of Aswan, with 1 million residents and home of Egypt's technological marvel, the Aswan High Dam. It is the departure point for an equally compelling marvel: the transplanted temples of Philae, now enshrined on higher ground on the tiny island of Agilkia on the Nile. The setting epitomized what we had come to expect in seven nights on this river: extraordinary antiquities quietly coexisting in the shadows of an encroaching modern world.

We were in a land of paradoxes. That much we certainly knew. What we could not possibly know was that, in just a few weeks' time, the landscape of Egypt would figuratively change in tragic fashion. In July, a series of explosions would kill 88 people, mostly tourists, in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik. A destination that had come to be considered relatively safe for Westerners, in an instant, was no longer so.

I am thankful that my daughter experienced this wonderful country with us, and sorry that others will now hesitate to do the same. Few locales in the world can reach into one's soul as deeply as does Egypt. None of us can make such a decision for others; but, I, for one, would make the journey again.

The mind-boggling juxtaposition of the old and the new is apparent to any visitor from the moment she or he sets foot on Egyptian soil. For those who are not feeling skittish, the logical start point is Cairo, in part because the Giza Plateau lies just across the Nile. No Egyptian landmarks are more famous than the Sphinx and the pyramids, those ancient tombs of megalomaniacal pharaohs who had yet to discover that the more ostentatious their burial sites, the less likely their treasures would be available to them in the afterlife.

Tomb-raiding became a veritable sport in ancient Egypt, contributing to the later practice of laying pharaohs to rest in hidden underground tombs at the Valley of the Kings. Even the smooth outer layer of stones has been carted away from all but the highest levels of one pyramid, leaving the visitor to imagine the luster that the polished surfaces must once have known.

Detracting far more from their luster, however, is the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant less than a hundred yards away. Zoning and land use planning are, to put it mildly, not a strong suit of the Egyptian government.

From Cairo, we boarded a short flight to Luxor, which, along with Aswan, is a departure port for the riverboats that ply the Nile. The boats look like paddleless Mississippi River boats and carry as few as 35 passengers (as was the case with the Sun Boat III) and as many as 100-plus.

The overarching fact one learns in short order is that the Nile is truly Egypt's heart and soul. Ninety-five percent of the population lives along the river and on the banks of Lake Nasser, the man-made wonder created by the Aswan High Dam. The rest of the country is inhospitably arid. Indeed, at one stop along the way, we were told that the last rain had fallen in 1994. Apocryphal or not, it is difficult to dispute the premise that the vast majority of the country is a virtual wasteland.

The banks of the Nile, however, are another story entirely. Significant portions of the riverbanks are sparsely populated, a fact that is particularly apparent for those who sail north from Luxor before reversing direction for the more heavily traveled Upper Nile. (One of the great paradoxes is that northern Egypt is known as Lower Egypt, and southern Egypt as Upper Egypt because everything is tied to the Nile, and the Nile flows south to north.) The black, fertile soil supports lush palm trees and verdant farmland, set against a more distant skyline of dusty hills and plateaus, reminiscent in color and design of our own Badlands National Park in South Dakota, or of Australia's Red Center.

The few scattered villages that exist on the Lower (i.e. northern) Nile appear frozen in a bygone time. Horse carts are more prevalent than cars, and farm animals wade side-by-side with splashing children on the river's edge. As has been the case since time immemorial, the squat, unadorned houses are built of mud brick. Before completion of the first Aswan Dam in 1902, or certainly the Aswan High Dam in 1971, the houses often washed away in the flooding caused by monsoon rains in Ethiopia. This is said to be the reason Egyptians long valued their tombs more than their houses.

Today, the houses are not threatened by rising waters, yet few give a sense of permanence or even of completion. From the flat top of most houses, here and throughout Egypt, clusters of reinforcing rods reach skyward, as if an entire village lost its top floors, or construction was somehow interrupted everywhere at once. In truth, the explanation is twofold: First, when the next generation of extended family is in need of a home of its own, that home simply will be added atop the floors below it. Secondly, houses are not taxed in Egypt until they are complete. If the structure is always awaiting another floor, it is never complete.

As we sailed at a distance from the cities, we were often struck by the silence, and more so by the occasional sounds that broke it. Few villages were without at least one mosque, and the plaintive calls of the muezzins are often enhanced by electronic speakers installed on each minaret, causing the sounds to carry with unusual force over the still, shallow waters of the Nile. Otherwise, the silence was interrupted only by the sputtering of small gasoline pumps, servicing primitive irrigation systems for each individual patch of farmland.

Our first stop was Abydos, the principal sanctuary of the god-king Osiris. The ancient city and sanctuary of Abydos are essentially gone, but one of the more appealing aspects of the country's antiquities is that they are, with a few very notable exceptions, allowed to exist in their natural state of ruin. A melancholy elegance in these ruins can be much more beautiful than any 20th-century reconstruction of past glory. The temples of Ramses II and Seti I were a fitting kickoff to a week of ever more spectacular antiquities. These temples, built in approximately 1300 BC, a thousand years after the Great Pyramids were completed, are endowed with particularly well-preserved paintings and hieroglyphics. The vibrant rust reds, stunning and varied blues, and brilliant yellow-golds have withstood the test of time extraordinarily well.

Because the riverboats follow the course of the Nile, the visitor must be prepared to bounce back and forth through the centuries, and indeed the millennia, as if transported by an off-kilter time machine. It is not feasible to tour the sites in chronological sequence, and it is therefore virtually impossible for the uninitiated to keep the gods, kings, and periods straight. My personal suggestion is: Don't even try. Just (literally) go with the flow.

If I were relegated to a single day to visit the antiquities, I would select our third day, when we visited both banks of the Nile in the vicinity of the lovely little city of Luxor. Typical of the simple logic that prevailed in ancient Egypt, temples and monuments to the living are on the east bank, where the sun rises, while tombs and mortuary temples are on the west bank, where the sun sets.

Instead of following the sun ourselves, we spent the morning at the west bank's Valley of the Kings, where pharaohs of the New Empire (1555 BC to AD 960) are interred in crypts intentionally hidden well beneath the ground. This attempt to evade the tomb raiders no doubt saved many, though not all, treasures, but surface grandeur is definitely lacking. Nonetheless, the magnificent colors have endured in these hidden passages to the netherworld. In particular, the shades of blue, ranging from baby blue to darkest sapphire, are stunning. The one mortuary temple that rises majestically above ground, with its third floor built into the mountain that separates it from the rest of the valley, is that of Hatshepsut, Egypt's only pharaoh queen. Dressed as a man, right down to an artificial beard, she ruled the country for 22 years of peace and prosperity.

Apparently, the gender reversal didn't sit too well: Her mummy has never been found, and her name and image have been systematically defaced on virtually all remaining structures.

The trip through the Edfu lock a day or two later was an interesting one, as much as anything because a seemingly helter-skelter ''system" somehow worked. All the boats needing passage, in either direction, must pass through a single narrow lock and a horizontal drawbridge that swings sideways. The passage is narrow, and the backup significant enough to cause each captain to ride breathtakingly close to the stern of the preceding boat in an apparent effort to minimize lost time.

Edfu was our disembarkation point for the Temple of Horus, the most intact pharaonic temple in Egypt. Built by the Greeks during their period of control beginning in approximately 300 BC, all but the highest points were covered for centuries by sand, and eventually houses, until French archeologists discovered the site in the 19th century. In one of the earliest examples of urban relocation in Egypt, new quarters were found for the residents of 550 houses to allow the excavation to proceed. In addition to the well-preserved tale, in hieroglyphics, of Horus's successful quest to avenge the death of his father Isiris, the temple has an ancient lighting system (rectangular openings strategically cut in the ceiling and walls) and the ubiquitous ''Nileometer," a subterranean measure of the Nile flood level, pursuant to which taxes rose and fell in unison with the floodwaters.

The last two days of our magic journey gave new meaning to the notion of ''saving the best for last." On both days, we saw the incredible intersection of ancient and modern, brought about through a concerted world effort. The impetus for the international cooperation was the realization that construction of the Aswan High Dam, and the resulting creation of Lake Nasser, would flood some of Egypt's most impressive ancient sites: the island of Philae and the extraordinary temples of Abu Simbel.

The temples on Philae were moved to the higher island of Agilkia with great care, taken to ensure that even those portions of the structures that were in ruins were re-created exactly as they had existed on the sacred isle, considered to be the domain of the goddess Isis.

Most magnificent of all of the ancient sites is Abu Simbel, a short plane ride from Aswan, in the heart of Nubian territory near the border of Sudan. Here, in what may be the greatest act of self-glorification of all times, Ramses the Great (Ramses II) dedicated a temple, at least theoretically, to Amon-Ra, Harmakes, and Ptah. But in fact, Ramses honored himself, most notably with four absolutely massive, virtually identical, seated statues carved into the mountain, guarding the entrance to the larger of two temples. Inside, almost 200 feet from the entrance, are statues of Ramses II and the three gods whom he purported to honor. Twice a year, we were told, the sun penetrates the long corridor and bathes the seated figures in light for a scant five minutes -- supposedly excluding Ptah, the god of darkness.

Perhaps even more amazing than the initial construction of the temples was the modern, meticulous relocation of the entire site. Lake Nasser would have engulfed these amazing structures, along with many other Nubian antiquities, but for the extraordinary international consortium of engineers and archeologists who made the project possible. Here, again, the entire massive complex was cut into pieces and reassembled on higher ground, exactly as it existed in its original state, right down to the placement of fallen pieces of sculpture dating to an earthquake in Ramses's own time.

Even for the most experienced traveler, Egypt qualifies as a potentially life-altering experience. The artistic and engineering acumen of a people who preceded us by more than 3,000 years is both inspiring and humbling. That so many of the country's remarkable antiquities are accessible from the beautiful Nile is a bonus that sets Egypt apart from the locales of other ancient cultures.

What a shame it will be if world events deprive others of the opportunity to visit.

Joan Lukey is a lawyer in Boston.

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