Floating back to 'ancient Egypt' on Dr. Ragab's Time Machine

Hassan Ragab is the Walt Disney of Egypt. Or at least he hopes to be. After 10 years and $6 million, the gregarious Egyptian has built a Disneyland-style Pharaonic village on an island in the Nile, about three miles from the fumes, dust, and noise of Cairo.

The brainstorm for this living museum, which recreates everyday life in ancient Egypt, came to Dr. Ragab 20 years ago when he was an adviser to the Ministry of Tourism.

''It never occurred to me then,'' he muses, ''that I would be the one to do it.... Everyone thought I was crazy. Even my wife did not believe me.''

In 1974, the entrepreneur and former diplomat decided to give the Pharaonic village a try after he successfully recreated papyrus - paper made from the pith of the papyrus plant, which the ancient Egyptians used for writing.

''When I made my first sheet of papyrus, I had spent $50,000, so I had to recoup,'' he explains. Now he sells papyrus paintings depicting scenes from mythology and the Bible.

''That was so successful that it made me think the village would work, too. I had seen Epcot Center and Disneyland, but they seemed too mechanized and computerized. There was nothing human about them.''

His 33-acre village on Jacob's Island is behind schedule and needs a few kinks ironed out, but it is operating.

For an hour, visitors sail on a ''floating amphitheater'' down various canals and view scenes of Egypt's golden age, between 1500 BC and 1070 BC. The vessel, ''Dr. Ragab's Time Machine,'' is really a large barge with rows of seats, pulled by a small, motor-propelled dinghy.

To board the barge, patrons must walk through a papyrus museum, a two-story houseboat anchored to the bank of the Nile at the well-to-do suburb of Giza. Its walls are covered with Ragab's papyrus paintings, making it ever so easy for the tourist to come away with a souvenir costing anywhere from $5 to more than $100.

More often than not, visitors can watch Ragab himself demonstrate how to make papyrus, an exercise he performs with great relish and authority in several languages, bounding from display cases to work tables.

The floating amphitheater begins its journey by plying its way down the ''Canal of Mythology'' where the papyrus plants are growing so well that they often poke into the boat and brush the theatergoers. Over a scratchy amplification system, a narrator with an excruciating northern British accent points out, one by one, painted plaster statues of 12 ancient gods.

She explains why these were Egypt's most important gods and how they came to be revered. For example, Horus, the falcon-headed sun god, was believed to have done battle with his wicked uncle in order to maintain the balance of forces in the universe.

To keep the village ''ancient,'' Ragab has had more than 5,000 trees planted around the perimeter of the land leased from the government to block out any vestige of modern life.

But this wasn't enough to recapture the old sufficiently to please this man who speaks six languages, writes in hieroglyphics, holds a doctorate in engineering, and served as his country's first ambassador to China.

Many of the plants and animals that were native to Egypt in ancient times have fled with the onslaught of development. So neighboring Sudan will provide the ibis birds, Nile crocodiles, and hippopotamuses to authenticate the surroundings. He also has brought back 12 kinds of lotus flowers and geese as well as the papyrus.

After leaving the first canal, tourists get their first lessons in everyday life in the Egypt of 1550 BC. Men in loincloths and knitted caps resembling the hairstyles of the time toil on a farm. The 13 farmhands spring into action, plowing with an ox and sowing seeds by hand just a fraction of a minute after the boat rounds the curve. Some of the ''farmers'' feel sheepish clad as they are, but they persevere until the amphitheater chugs out of sight.

Some of the 150 Egyptians who perform and work at the village also live there. Ragab dreams of the day when about 300 will live there in the old-fashioned way, giving the village authenticity around the clock rather than just during working hours.

When there is not a tour sailing, many actors work on finishing the construction. They are not specially trained to act out their parts, but are rather just ordinary, if not lucky Egyptians, who have better-than-average jobs in a country where underemployment is rampant, and places to live are expensive and hard to find.

Further along, more men in loincloths build papyrus boats, spin cloth, bake bricks and bread, manufacture perfume, mill wheat, and chisel statues.

Finding out just how it was all done was a major task for Ragab. He spent years traipsing through museums worldwide such as the Louvre, the British Museum , Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There were and are plenty of Egyptologists, he says, smoothing his white mustache, but ''these Egyptologists, these academics are interested only in the history.

''What I wanted to know was how did the king live, what did the windows look like, what did his house have in it?''

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