Luxor, Egypt — When she started a temple here at the Nile's edge more than 3,500 years ago, Pharaoh Hatshepsut wanted to shore up her shaky political status as Egypt's first female ruler by building an impressive temple to the Egyptian god, Amon. Egypt's harassed modern government now hopes to use the Luxor Temple, built on the same site and somewhat the worse for its millennia of wear, to help shore up the sagging Egyptian economy.
For 10 nights beginning Saturday, if all goes as planned, the temple's imposing entrance pylons will serve as backdrop for lavish performances of Giuseppe Verdi's opera, ``A"ida.'' Placido Domingo and a cast of hundreds are expected to sing nightly before some 3,500 people.
Staging the opera in a Pharaonic setting certainly seems poetically appropriate. Verdi's A"ida is an Ethiopian slave girl in Pharaonic Egypt. Forced to serve Pharaoh's daughter, she falls in love with an Egyptian military commander, who she tempts into passing her military secrets about a planned Egyptian attack on Ethiopia. He is discovered, and sentenced to be entombed alive. A"ida secrets herself in the tomb, determined to die together with her love.
Even before opening night, Egyptian Cabinet Minister Atef Ebeid is speculating rapturously about the possibilities, if ``A"ida'' is a hit, for vastly expanding Egypt's lucrative but sporadic tourist industry .
``If we succeed in managing that efficiently,'' Mr. Ebeid says, ``it would be the start of a continuous flow of tourists. We could have `A"ida' every year.''
But the government's enthusiasm for ``A"ida'' is not shared by all. In fact, at least one Egyptologist is not sure the temple can bear the burden of even the 10 scheduled performances, much less of annual revivals.
``The worst-case scenario, of course, is that the pylon could collapse,'' says Dr. Lanny Bell, Egyptologist-in-residence for the past decade at Luxor's Chicago House archaeological institute.
Neither poetic appeal nor commercial promise moves Dr. Bell.
``After all,'' he snaps, ``Verdi probably had Karnak Temple in mind, if he had any temple at all in mind when he wrote the opera. Luxor Temple hadn't even been excavated yet.''
Bell's perspective, understandably perhaps, is colored by his own approach to the temple. He and teams of Chicago House experts before him have spent 60 years painstakingly copying down the intricate hieroglyphs that adorn the walls and columns of a single room of the temple, recording for posterity what they are convinced will eventually disappear forever from this earth. Chicago House experts can be found most days perched high on ladders, patiently and silently inking in photographs of fading hieroglyphs as they inch along the massive walls.
``My standard death-and-destruction pitch is that in 200 years there won't be anything left of Luxor Temple,'' Bell says with grim cheeriness. ``The walls are going to fall down, the decoration on them will have flaked off. Egypt is just too poor to afford its antiquities. The government spends 15 million Egyptian pounds (US$20.4 million) per year on maintenance of monuments now, just trying to hold these things together.''
Ebeid, in defense of the government, argues that only through increasing tourism can Egypt raise its revenues and hope to find the money to preserve its vast store of Pharaonic treasures.
``Tourism is a real potential source of income - we have idle capacity,'' Ebeid says. ``From October to April, we can promote the facilities for the United States and the Europeans. From May to June we can promote trips for the Arabs. We can fill hotels in the winter and the summer. All that is needed is some kind of imagination and a marketing effort. `A"ida' is the kind of effort we need by private businessmen willing to take a risk.''
Bell, again, is unimpressed.
``The daily visit count to the temple in a good year is under 2,000 per day,'' points out the bespectacled, T-shirted Bell. ``When you think about having 3,500 in the audience, plus 900 in the orchestra, [and on] the stage 1,000 Egyptian infantry, 100 horsemen in one very tight, restricted space - well,'' he says gloomily, ``I wouldn't care to be under it [the pylon].''
According to Bell, the massive stones of the pylon are not nearly as sturdy as they look. In fact, he says, the whole temple is not nearly as serene and eternal as it appears.
Due to rising ground-water levels caused by the Aswan Dam and the failure of the Nile to flood and recede the way it did for thousands of years, Bell says, ``the temple is basically swimming on top of a lake on the edge of the Nile.'' The monument's limestone ``drinks up the water'' from the ground, ``which makes a higher and higher concentration of salt in the stone and eventually destroys its binder.''
This gloom-and-doom scenario is dismissed by Dr. Muhammad Soriar, director of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities in Luxor, who says he is certain the performances of ``A"ida'' will come off without a hitch.
``The stage is outside of the temple,'' Dr. Soriar points out. ``We staged a ballet there last year and nothing was damaged. There are places sufficient for all the people.''
Out in the temple itself, built during the reign of Amenhotep III in Egypt's age of greatest splendor, teams of Egyptians are putting the finishing touches on the stage. Other quieter teams carefully pump mortar between stones where a lot of the original is missing.
Luxor's hotels already are booked to capacity for the performances, and its hordes of guides to the funerary temples across the Nile are looking forward in eager anticipation to the thousands of tourists they expect to descend on the area.
``I could be wrong,'' Bell concedes, without conviction, to his visitors as they get up to leave. ``I hope I am.''