Originally created 07/04/99

Ancient treasures



CAIRO -- When the novelist Virginia Woolf sought truth about some of the problems that plague humanity, she went to London's British Museum. So do millions every year, though generally for less elevated reasons. They stream into the sprawling neo-Greek temple to see the Magna Carta, the Elgin Marbles and, above all, the mummies.

The mummies are the centerpiece of the museum's vast Egyptian collection, 100,000 objects strong. The museum got its first embalmed Egyptian in 1756, followed by troves of papyri (ancient paper documents); statues and stelae that left the country during the reign of an accommodating early-19th-century pasha; and, in 1801, the Rosetta Stone, taken off a French ship in the harbor at Alexandria.

Together with the Louvre in Paris, Berlin's Charlottenburg Palace Museum, the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy, and the Met in New York, the British Museum is a mandatory destination for amateur and professional Egyptologists.

Outside Egypt, of course. Happily, Egypt itself still possesses more relics of the astonishing civilization that sprang up along the Nile River 5,000 years ago than anyplace else. I should know. I went there in April on a tour led by Carol Andrews, assistant keeper of Egyptian antiquities for the British Museum.

Many museums -- Washington's Smithsonian and the Museum of Natural History among them -- offer tours escorted by expert guides. But I chose a British Museum tour because, after I'd looked through other catalogs, the renowned English institution's trips seemed most compelling. My 10-day "Easter in Egypt" tour cost about $2,940 (including single supplement) and visited sites within driving distance of Cairo. (A three-day extension to Luxor was also offered for about $556, but I wasn't able to join it.)

The price troubled me at first because since the 1997 massacre of 58 foreign visitors at Luxor by Islamic extremists, tourism in Egypt has dried up, making it a prime spot for budget travelers. But it was my first trip to Egypt, and

I wanted to do it right.

Dr. Andrews is the author of five books on Egyptological themes and one of about 50 scholars in the world conversant in an ancient Egyptian language known as demotic. The trip she designed included activities most tourists don't get to do, such as climbing into the first true pyramid (at Dahshur, about an hour's drive southwest of Cairo), visiting Fort Rashid, east of Alexandria (where the Rosetta Stone was found), and inspecting vivid tomb friezes at Saqqara (about a dozen miles south of Giza).

The tour price didn't cover lunches and dinners (which seldom cost more than $10) or baksheesh, the little tips Egyptian toilet and tomb attendants seem to expect. But it did include eight nights at the comfortable Ramses Hilton, located at a chaotic intersection in central Cairo some call "spaghetti junction"; one night at the historic (but somewhat down-at-the-heels) Cecil Pullman Sofitel on the waterfront in Alexandria; and breakfasts, transportation in a 23-seat Toyota van, guides, entrance to most sites and round-trip air fare from London to Cairo.

These days, some people wouldn't go to Egypt at all. When I left, the most recent communiques from both the U.S. State Department and England's Foreign Office spoke in decidedly warning tones. But street crime in Cairo is extremely rare, and since 1997 the Egyptian government has gone out of its way to protect foreign visitors. Now visitors have started to return, even to some of the country's diciest provinces, like Minya and Asyut. While I was there, I never felt in danger, partly because police convoys often escorted our group, occasionally with sirens blaring.

To fully appreciate how old the Nile civilization is, consider the fact that the Sphinx was already more than 1,000 years old when Pharaoh Tuthmosis IV found it, buried in sand, about 1400 B.C. and embarked on its first restoration. Centuries passed, and the Sahara Desert engulfed it again; 30 dynasties of native-born kings wore the white and red crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt, followed by Persians and Greeks; the Roman Empire put an end to Pharaonic Egypt in 30 B.C., when Cleopatra VII, the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty, committed suicide after the Battle of Actium.

Our tour manager, Rosalind Phipps, who speaks Arabic, was a delightful and extremely capable Englishwoman who lives in Cairo with her Egyptian husband. And then there was Dr. Andrews, our very own expert, comedian and muse, with bouncy gray hair and a purposeful gait. Dr. Andrews has a passion for hockey, command of at least a dozen languages and the most colorful English vocabulary I've ever heard. "Big Ram" was the way she referred to Ramses II, the 19th Dynasty pharaoh who left more monuments to himself around Egypt than anyone else. She didn't like him very much, but she had a thing for his father, Sety I, by virtue of his mummy's splendid profile and aquiline nose.

More important, though, her nightly lectures were terrific, consistently attended even after long days of touring. They covered subjects such as Egyptian gods, the architecture of the pyramids, hieroglyphics and, on the final night, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Mummification But Were Afraid to Ask."

During the latter, we learned that ancient morticians put the stomach, lungs, liver and intestines of the deceased in canopic jars and made prostheses for mummies when jackals stole limbs off embalming tables.

Interestingly, Dr. Andrews wasn't allowed to serve as our guide when we visited sites. By law only Egyptians can do so. The Local guides were attentive and helpful but clearly intimidated by Dr. Andrews' presence and the fact that we were from the British Museum.

The schedule was rather hectic. Ms. Phipps routinely left us 7:45 a.m. wake-up calls, giving us just enough time to get ready and hit the Hilton's big breakfast buffet before departure. Often we didn't stop at noon, lunching in the van on cheese sandwiches, pastries and fruit we'd swiped at breakfast. There was no time for shopping or venturing on our own into crazy, crumbling Cairo, but I was occasionally able to take a dip in the Hilton's pool before the evening lecture.

We sometimes went to restaurants near the hotel as a group, and sometimes dispersed, exhausted, to eat room-service dinners while watching Egyptian TV (which one night featured Citizen Kane with Arabic subtitles).

Toward the end of the tour, some of us wearied of being constantly on the go, and a few of the sites we spent hours to reach, like the 21st Dynasty capital at Tanis (in the Nile Delta north of Cairo), didn't seem worth the trip. Though it has major historical significance, as Dr. Andrews explained, there wasn't much left to see. And before you climb into a pyramid, doubled over at the waist to avoid banging your head on the ceiling, it's worth knowing that you're unlikely to see much once you get to an inner chamber: tomb robbers and archaeologists got there first.

On the first day out, at Dahshur, we saw the Bent Pyramid of Snefru, who built himself three pyramids. We climbed into the belly of another Snefru pyramid just to the north. We toured mosques, Coptic churches and the imposing Citadel of Cairo (built in 1176), and visited the extraordinary Cairo Museum. There we saw the Narmer Palette, which bears witness to the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt about 3000 B.C.The evocative friezes in the private tombs of two noblemen at Saqqara show commoners and kings going about their daily lives: mothers breast-feeding babies, fishermen sauteing catfish. The paintings, so vivid that they could be photographs, offer proof of the ancient Egyptians' zest for life, which they took with them to the grave, hoping that the afterlife could be just as good.

I still have no solutions to the great problems that plague humanity. But thanks to the British Museum, I learned how Egyptians lived and thought of their world 5,000 years ago, which is good to know as the new millennium approaches.

If you go

For information on British Museum tours, write The British Museum Traveller, 46 Bloomsbury St., London WC1B 3QQAP. Send e-mail to traveller@bmcompany.co.uk. For a brochure, call (0171) 636 0190 and for other information, call (0171) 323 8895 or send a fax to (0171) 580 8677.