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BOOK REVIEW : Going Where the Ancient and the Modern Meet : RIVER IN THE DESERT: Modern Travels in Ancient Egypt by Paul William Roberts ; Random House; $25, 394 pages


The "River in the Desert" is the Nile; the country at its edges is Egypt, which the author, an Oxford-educated Englishman living in Toronto, believes is essential to visit. "If I were to travel abroad only once in my life," author Paul William Roberts writes, "Egypt would be my destination."

The pyramids were old when the prophet Abraham visited, but Roberts must tread over sand that's been charted by writers since Herodotus, including Gustave Flaubert and Norman Mailer. He proves to be both smart and energetic; the book mixes his account of three months of adventures there with bits of history and literature.

Roberts bribes his way into spending a night sealed in the inner chamber of one of the lesser pyramids, and he sleeps in Agatha Christie's room in Aswan's famous Cataract Hotel.

He has a touching conversation with the governor of Al-Kharga, an unspoiled oasis in the Western desert, a long talk with Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz and an interview with Boutros Boutros-Ghali, now secretary-general of the United Nations, then minister of state for foreign affairs. It was news to me that Boutros-Ghali is a Christian and that his wife is Jewish.

Roberts is cocky--but awe-struck at the right moments, a good guide for the proverbial arm-chair traveler. "River in the Desert" is a worthy nonfiction companion to the rich selection of novels by English writers about Egypt. Like "Daniel Martin" by John Fowles or "Moon Tiger" by Penelope Lively, it describes lovingly the feluccas on the river, the minarets and palm groves.

Roberts has a hysterical description of the pilots' conversation on his airplane flight back from the Sinai. ("If you overshoot," Selim advised his co-pilot, "just head off left over the sea and try again. That runway's a bit short.") About one of his guides he writes, "Mohammed and I had not been getting along too well, largely because he was invariably wrong about everything," which contains an element of self-mockery.

At other times, however, in the tradition of Paul Theroux at his grouchiest, Roberts makes fun of the mistakes Egyptians make in English. This is getting a little tired. He also mocks the physical infirmities and oddities of his fellow travelers, particularly a German woman with large breasts.

More often, Roberts' opinions are useful. Don't give up after the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens; keep on to the Valley of the Nobles to see the Ramose reliefs. His take on safety has, unfortunately, become out of date in light of the recent bombings aimed at tourists. He speaks of Egyptian officials, "anxious to promote an image of tourist Egypt as a haven of safety, which it in fact is. . . . "

Roberts is dazzled by an amateur Egyptologist named John Anthony West and a German writer named R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz. As he summarizes their arguments--basically that ancient Egyptian science and medicine were much more sophisticated than scholars will acknowledge--the two don't sound terrifically trustworthy.

In slapdash fashion Roberts argues that Darwin must be wrong and West and Schwaller de Lubicz must be right because life in contemporary New York City is not an improvement on life in ancient Thebes.

There's a strong strain of despair in current travel writing, which may be the objective truth or may be the stance of a writer who is traveling in the Third World because he's fed up with the First and then doesn't find a lot to be hopeful about in the Third.

Here's a long and characteristically pretty passage from Roberts that yearns for the past and despairs of the present: "If, as Goethe suggested, architecture is frozen music, then Egypt contains some of the greatest symphonies in the world: compositions of soaring genius that mirror the grandeur of the universe and its Creator. Like the great cathedrals of Europe or the religious complexes of the Mayan or the Incas, these structures are gestures of the spirit, their continuing existence alone evidence of man's affinity with the Eternal--even in the soulless wastes of the close of the second millennium AD."

The modern Egyptians Roberts describes are mostly patient, polite and kind--and completely without hope. For him, it's ancient Egypt that is the essential destination. At one point, Roberts cites the wonderfully proud inscription on Tutankhamen's shrine: "I have seen yesterday; I know tomorrow." It's today we're not so sure about.

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