Party at the pyramids: A timely trip to Egypt

Some are coming to be in one of the world's most historical locations at the close of the millennium; others to witness a 12-hour electronic rock extravaganza at the foot of the great Giza Pyramids; and still others to follow Jesus' journey 2,000 years later.

Whatever the reason, a flood of visitors is expected in Egypt, which is preparing to be one of the world's top destinations for New Year's. More than 800,000 people are forecast to visit during December and January, a 33 percent increase from the same period last year, with hotels expecting 90 percent occupancy, according to tourism officials.

"The millennium is all about time and the most enduring symbols of time are the pyramids," says Rajiv Kaul, general manager of the five-star Mena House Oberoi hotel, which sits at the foot of the Giza Pyramids. "There's a saying, 'while everybody fears time, time fears the pyramids.' Things like this capture people's imagination."

Cairo is also gearing up for a busy Year 2000, with pyramids and much more waiting to greet arriving travelers. Not even the tragic crash of EgyptAir flight 990 on Oct. 31, which killed all 217 people aboard, will affect the onslaught of visitors expected in the coming year, tourist officials say.

For Egypt's main New Year's Eve celebration, the well-known French electronic-rock star Jean Michel Jarre will perform a 12-hour opera beneath the 4,500-year-old pyramids from sunset Dec. 31 to sunrise Jan. 1. About 50,000 people from around the world are expected to attend, paying $400 per person to dance until dawn while watching 1,000 performers on a laser-lit stage.

With a mix of Asian, Western, and traditional Egyptian songs, music and choreography, the opera will include fireworks, projected laser images on the pyramids, and other unique lighting effects. At midnight, a 30-foot high golden cap will be placed on the missing peak of the largest Pyramid of Cheops, flooding the area with rays of light to signal the beginning of the New Year.

Egypt's Ministry of Culture is paying for the $9.5 million extravaganza that will be broadcast live on the Web. With 60 countries buying television rights, the Egyptian government is hoping to upstage other Year 2000 celebrations around the globe. "It will be the very best of the glamour of the Occident and the Orient," Culture Minister Farouk Hosny said at a recent press conference.

But if you can't make it to Egypt at New Year's, the centuries-old antiquities and monuments will be here to greet you well after the festivities have ended.

The pyramids, located about a half-hour's car drive from downtown, are still perhaps the first place to visit. While visitors can take a guided tour, a favorite way to see the pyramids is by horseback, through the desert. Buyers beware, however: There are reputable stables, where horses are treated well and riders are guaranteed a safe ride, and less-reputable establishments, where flea-bitten horses are forced by whip to gallop through the desert.

The next stop on most visitors' agenda is the Egyptian Museum.

Located on Cairo's Tahrir Square, this large, peach-colored building houses an amazing variety of pharaonic antiquities, including the contents of

the pharaonic boy-king Tutankhamun's tomb, with brilliant gold jewelry

decorated with lapis lazuli and semiprecious stones, and the gold portrait mask that lay on the head of the king's mummy. The entrance fee is about $6, and for an additional $6, visitors can see the ancient pharaonic mummies exhibit, displaying such powerful pharaonic kings as Ramses II and Seti I, preserved for eternity by the ancient, highly developed process of mummification.

In the next year, many visitors will be seeking to retrace the steps of the Holy Family when they came to Egypt 2,000 years ago to escape King Herod. After hearing of Jesus' birth, Herod ordered all male children in his kingdom killed, fearing that the king of the Jews would take over his crown. The Egyptian government has issued a book retracing the Holy Family's flight through Egypt. It is also refurbishing some of the churches along the route and making all the destinations clear and accessible.

While Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus traveled more than 600 miles throughout Egypt, one of the highlights of their voyage is in Cairo itself, an area now called Old Cairo and considered the oldest part of the city.

Here, where the family rested for several days, there are two-dozen churches and monasteries, some of them with intricately designed wood and ivory carvings and centuries-old icon paintings. Others are dark and cave-like, making visitors feel as if they have just entered a sanctuary where few have tread.

There's so much to see outside Cairo that it's impossible to list it all, but highlights include Luxor, Aswan, and Abu Simbel. Luxor, the ancient capital of Thebes, houses the wondrous Karnak and Luxor Temples that can take a day to see. On the other side of the Nile is the unforgettable Valley of the Kings, where the pharaohs were buried with their jewels and earthly possessions to ensure their comfort in the afterworld. Here are brilliantly colored underground tombs, with wall paintings depicting the pharaohs and their gods in scenes of worship, war, and daily life.

Many travelers to Egypt enjoy taking a Nile cruise from Luxor to Aswan, stopping along the route to see more pharaonic temples, an experience so awe-inspiring that it immediately dissipates some commonly held fears that it's "too touristy." Some visitors even continue beyond Aswan to Abu Simbel and the colossal temple of Ramses II that reaches an astounding 108 feet high.

There's much more to see - Islamic Cairo and its mosques and markets, the Red Sea resorts, and Egypt's unique desert oases - but many visitors with limited time save these treasures for their second visit - and their third, and their fourth . . .

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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