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Footloose in Luxor

Long, Long Ago and Pharaoh Away

September 28, 1986|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

LUXOR, Egypt — Nothing in all of nature quite prepares you for the grandeur, majesty and overpowering sense of the ancient world one finds here on the banks of the Nile. Not the roar of Niagara, the sweep of the Sahara, Himalayan peaks or the color and contours of the Grand Canyon--they weren't made by man.

Luxor, home of Homer's "hundred-gated Thebes," and the adjoining village of Karnak astound the most jaded traveler with a galactic collection of temples, colossal statues, obelisks and a superb museum of Egyptology. Plus the Valley of the Kings, gigantic Temple of Queen Hatshepsut and 64 Pharaonic tombs scattered just across the Nile on the West Bank.

Luxor was settled 2,700 years before Christ and rose to the heights of power during the 17th Dynasty in 1650 BC, when it became capital of the Egyptian Empire and home of the Pharaohs. Its influence continued until the twilight of the 20th Dynasty, about 1085 BC.

Alexander the Great had himself proclaimed Pharaoh here in 332 BC, Roman emperors ruled from three centuries later until AD 619, yet it was Napoleon's expeditions and those of his travel-promoting counterpart in the 19th Century, Thomas Cook, that opened Upper Egypt to the Western world in great numbers.

Visitors today still marvel at the achievements of one of the world's greatest civilizations.

Here to there: Seven foreign carriers fly LAX-Cairo with a stop in their home countries, a number of domestics to New York for a change to Egyptair. A cab from the Luxor airport will run about $3.75, but set the price before getting in.

How long/how much? A minimum of two full days, and plan on plenty of walking. Even the best hotels here are inexpensive, dining the same. Getting around town by gaily decorated horse carriages is most reasonable if you bargain hard, which is expected.

A few fast facts: The Egyptian pound was recently worth 74 cents U.S., about 1.34 to the dollar. October through February are best for an Upper Egypt journey, December crowded with European visitors. Dress light, take a hat and sun screen. And always stick to bottled mineral water, even in the best hotels.

Settling in: Right on the Nile in town you'll find ETAP Luxor ($24 double) a modern place, every room with balcony overlooking river, pool and gardens. Very pleasant dining room and outdoor cafe, convenient walking to Luxor and Karnak temples.

New Winter Palace (on Nile; $30 double B&B) is more a traditional European hotel with gigantic rooms, high ceilings, marble lobby, pool and gorgeous gardens of Egyptian roses, date palms and mimosa in profusion. These two are your best bets within town. Movenpick Jolie Ville ($36 double) is rather remote on Crocodile Island about three miles from center, a resort-type place on acres of grounds.

Regional food and drink: We found Egyptian food's mix of Turkish-Greek, other Mediterranean and native elements both unusual and delicious. The native staple is fool or foul , a fava-bean specialty served any number of ways, including fool midammis , a chili-type version we became addicted to at breakfasts.

Koushari is almost as popular: lentils, macaroni and rice cooked in olive oil and tomatoes, an onion-and-garlic ta'leya sauce on top, the whole works often served with grilled fish or prawns.

Hamam mahshi, braised pigeon stuffed with crushed wheat, is Egypt's most acclaimed dish; karkade a popular drink made of hibiscus flowers and served hot or cold, excellent for high blood pressure or circulation, we were told.

Moderate-cost dining: Restaurant Marhaba (beside Winter Palace Hotel and Luxor Temple) is the town's best. Dine upstairs inside or on terrace overlooking the Nile on Egyptian dishes, the haman mahshi superb. Our forays into the dining rooms of ETAP and Winter Palace hotels were most satisfying, Jolie Ville rumored to have some of Egypt's best food.

Going first-class: One of the best ways to see the Nile Valley's primitive beauty and almost biblical scenery is from a cruise boat leaving from Luxor, Cairo or Aswan. Abercrombie & Kent, an Oak Brook, Ill., international tour operator, Hilton International, Sheraton Hotels and others have programs on these hotels afloat, provide on-board Egyptologists and shore guides. First-class staterooms and food, often a pool on deck make your cruise an utterly comfortable one.

On your own: The Temple of Luxor was built by Amenophis III to emphasize his descent from the great god Amon. Rameses II added to the temple, including enormous twin obelisks, one of which was removed to Paris' Place de la Concorde.

Even with the temple's size and magnificence, it is overshadowed by the Temple of Karnak, particularly the Great Hypostyle Hall of 134 massive columns each 69 feet high. Visit it once by day and don't miss the spectacular sound-and-light show in the evening, an awe-inspiring history of ancient Thebes.

Save a day's outing for the West Bank with its funerary tombs and temples, certainly that of Tutankhamen. The small museum between the temples is exquisite.

We can't emphasize too strongly the potential frustrations of striking out through the Nile Valley and 3,000 years of history without expert guidance, so a tour or cruise makes good sense.

For more information: Call the Egyptian Tourist Office at (415) 781-7676, or write (323 Geary St., San Francisco 94102) for their literature on the Nile Valley and Luxor. Or call Abercrombie & Kent at (800) 323-7308, American Express locally or your travel agent for brochures on touring Luxor and the Nile.

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