Egypt's well-trodden attractions can still stun the traveler

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As I contemplated my first trip to the Pyramids, I could see myself, if not exactly astride my faithful camel, at least getting my initial glimpse of the great monuments as the sun set, bathing them in a soft pink light.

But reality presented a different picture. I had imagined the elegant repose of the disfigured sphinx, but not the chaotic traffic of Cairo, or the sheer noise of a Mideastern bazaar.

And I found that Giza, where the Pyramids are located, is not a lush oasis at all, but a suburb of Cairo. The broad boulevard leading out to the Pyramids is lined with hotels, nightclubs, and even a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. The Pyramids are surrounded by tour buses disgorging tourists and by Egyptians offering to sell one the country's very last, priceless, plastic scarab.

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Under such conditions, it's hard for even the imposing Pyramids to live up to expectations. The tourist must arm himself with an appreciation for ancient history and forget the scarab hawkers, tour buses, and even Moses' souvenir shack down the hill.

The ascent into the Great Pyramid of Cheops pits tourist against tourist in the seemingly endless sauna generously called a tunnel. Less than four feet wide and four feet high, the passageway tests the mettle of even the most intrepid traveler.

The passage eventually opens, and at the end is an empty chamber - empty, that is, except for Cheops's vacant sarcophagus and dozens of milling tourists. This, too, could seem a disappointment.

Yet, here again, pause to consider the labor that went into constructing the chamber's stone walls and ceiling, the grand procession that must have accompanied the departed pharaoh to his final resting place, the thieves who robbed him centuries later. Realize that all this occurred thousands of years ago, and all those milling tourists can seem miles and ages away.

The Museum of Antiquities in Cairo boasts an extraordinary collection of ancient Egyptian art. Yet because of the sheer number of artifacts on hand, the museum is too small to present its treasures. Artifacts fill every available space. Some are nestled into corners; others are partially hidden behind larger treasures. But in spite of the haphazard display, the museum's treasures are stunning. There are rooms dedicated to papyrus, including marriage and property contracts. There are wonderful collections of statues and sarcophagi. And there is a small mummy exhibit. Out of respect for ancient beliefs, many of the mummies in Egypt's museums are being returned to their original tombs. Consequently, the Cairo museum contains few.

Another must for the visitor to Cairo is the Kahn Kalili bazaar. Young by Egyptian standards, the bazaar began around 1400. This jumble of shops and artisans is not nearly as chaotic as those in Morocco, nor are the shopkeepers as aggressive.

Yet here the liveliness of this dynamic city seems to unfold before your eyes. The market comes alive with the colors of fruits and vegetables, the bolts of bright cloth, the din of the metalworkers, the raised voices of the shopkeepers, and the smell of exotic spices.

Even the shortest trip to Egypt should include a stay in the city of Luxor - once known as Thebes. The area is filled with temples, monuments, and tombs. The greatest spectacle in Luxor is the great Temple of Karnak, once the holiest temple in Egypt. It was constructed over a period of years, and eventually covered more than 40 acres.

From the massive columns of the hypostyle hall, constructed to make men think they were walking through the gods' papyrus marsh, to the great obelisks of Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt's first woman pharaoh, the temple can seem a little awesome. A nightly sound and light show helps put the temple in perspective.

There are 57 tombs in the barren Valley of the Kings, including that of King Tut. The tombs here and those in the Valley of the Queens are primarily empty rooms tunneled underground. Yet the hieroglyphics and paintings decorating the walls tell fascinating stories of the lives of the pharaohs and their times.

Anyone planning a trip to Egypt should invest some time in brushing up on ancient Egyptian history. Even a rudimental knowledge will help sort out which of Egypt's 300 pharaohs built this particular temple, or which deity was considered most powerful at a particular period. This background, together with an experienced tour guide who can decipher some of the hieroglyphics, can make the 4,500-year-old monarchs and their times come alive. Otherwise, after a few days of temple-hopping, one pharaoh-temple-statue-hieroglyphic begins to look much like the next.

A book I found quite helpful is ''A Complete Guide to Egypt and the Archaeological Sites,'' by A. Hoyt Hobbs and Joy Adzigian (William Morrow & Co., New York, 1981).

It would be a shame to get carried away just speeding from temple to monument in Egypt. Strolling along the Nile, or sitting on its banks in Luxor or Aswan, is delightful. Graceful feluccas, or Egyptian sailboats, glide against a background of rolling hills and desert - a restful and beautiful sight.

The final ''must see'' in Egypt is the temple of Abu Simbel. The temples of Ramses II the Great and that of his wife, Queen Nefretari, were intended to scare warring tribes from the Sudan into thinking twice about invading Egypt. The four imposing statues of Ramses at the temple's entrance stand over 65 feet high. And for decades, foreign tribes did think twice about invading.

The Aswan High Dam, 200 miles downstream on the Nile, posed a greater threat to Abu Simbel in the 1960s than the marauding Sudanese ever did. The rising waters of Lake Nasser threatened to inundate the temple.

An international effort saved the monument. Engineers cut it into blocks, moved it to higher ground, and built a mountain behind it to preserve its original appearance.

There is only one way to get to Abu Simbel, and the traveler begins to feel like he's been on a cattle drive by the time it's over. One is herded onto a bus , driven to the airport, herded onto an Egyptair jet, flown to Abu Simbel, herded off the plane and onto another bus which takes you to the temple.

He then stands in two lines to buy tickets and sets off to find a tour guide who speaks his language. He is shown the temples, as well as the engineering marvels which moved the temple to its present location. Then he's herded back on the bus and begins the process in reverse. The entire round-trip operation takes only about 21/2 hours.

Practical information:

After waiting for hours in the Egyptair reservations office and looking at forlorn tourists struggling to find a room, it became clear that the best way to visit Egypt is on a package tour. The logistics of traveling here, combined with the language barrier, will make you glad you did.

A tour leader should also see that you are set up with a competent guide, and may even help fend off some of the scarab hawkers.

Although many reasonably priced tours are available from the United States, be sure not to scrimp too much on the tour price. There is a great difference between deluxe and first-class hotels.

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