Visit with ancient kings

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He was a kid from a disgraced family, possibly assassinated and buried just off the beaten path in a tomb that, in pharaonic terms, is a broom closet.

But Tut's is among the most-visited holes in the ground of the Valley of the Kings, where the humidity down below makes the 105-degree September morning seem cool and refreshing when I re-emerge into the present.

The tomb is empty except for the boy king himself, tucked back into his sarcophagus in the wake of his most recent trip topside, for CT scans last January. Gazing in at the most famous teenager in world history, and the gods painted on the surrounding walls to guide him (and his two also-mummified children) to the netherworld, my mind reels at the tiny size of the burial chamber. How could all those coffins, shrines and relics possibly have been squeezed in here?

That staggering horde is what makes this poor little rich kid so famous. All his fat cat neighbors were robbed blind over the centuries, leaving their huge crypts pretty much as we see them today, empty mausoleums that could double as Miami Beach clubs.

Beyond and to the right I can see the opening into what was Tut's treasury, full of the most valuable riches when Howard Carter discovered this place in 1922. Another 2,000 artifacts were piled haphazardly around in the antechamber, where I'm now stooped, including a chariot. I saw most, marveled at many and touched some a few days earlier at the sprawling Cairo Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.

The most amazing are the four gilded nesting shrines in Cairo's Tut display. The largest is the size of a small bedroom, with a sun canopy and three other shrines in descending size lined up along Tut's main concourse.

Attia Shaban, our Egyptologist guide, explains that they were built inside the tomb itself, one over the top of the other, coffins within coffins, each with its own gilding, richly etched with drawings.

David Silverman, another Egyptologist with the Tut exhibit now in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., further adds that the limestone and shale cave must have been hewn out larger to allow worker access, and at least one stone wall built back up against the shrines to confound any discoverers.

It apparently worked. Although the outer chamber showed signs of grave robbers, the tomb and treasury caused a reassessment of ancient Egyptian wealth.

Meanwhile, in the fresh air above, Egyptologists and other would-be experts are waving the tourist crowds away from Tutankhamun's tomb, describing it as an extra-cost disappointment. And sure enough, if this were Palm Beach, it would be like paying a $20 premium to scope out Mar-a-Lago's carriage house.

Many of us make the trip anyway for bragging rights - and it's the only tomb with a body in it. Sam Guy, an experienced traveler among our group, says that back home near Atlanta, neighbors will be more interested in his tale of Tut's tomb than the huge and more renowned Seti I caverns we just climbed through. We make a final visual scan, and huff our way back up to the surface, where humidity is only 15 percent and the sweat dries off our bodies and clothes in minutes.

It's midmorning and the daily tour bus crowds, including ourselves, are reaching peak population. Guides like our Attia - he chafes at the label, being an accredited Egyptologist - deliver full-blown historical treatises to their impatient groups before pointing them toward the most interesting crypts. The group leaders are no longer allowed to lecture in the tombs - it created traffic jams down below, and the collective breaths turned the chambers into steam baths, and caused the paint to be stripped off the drawings and hieroglyphs (whose protective "varnish" is an egg-based coating).

Only about a dozen, or fewer, of the 62 tombs in the valley are open to tourists at any one time. Those on view are impressive, although in some cases the climb back up is a challenge for those with respiratory ailments, arthritis, bad knees or flab. Admission to the main concourse includes passes to any three of the open tombs, except Tut's. I checked out Seti I, Ramses VI and Merenptah (13th son of Ramses II), all amazing, before a final spelunking of Tut's place.

Disappointing? Not when you visualize yourself inside the Fort Knox of archeology - and that's a snap following an afternoon in the Cairo Museum. Tut's display is spread out on two concourses on the topmost third floor, still only a minor part of the museum's overwhelming collection. The open-windowed building is crammed with 160,000 pieces ranging from giant stone shrines, statuary, ancient boats, chariots, mummies (pharaohs, crocodiles, kittens), weapons, furniture, household items, jewelry, statuary and artistic riches.

There were a few things missing from Tut's Cairo stash. Small typewritten cards scattered among the displays said certain pieces were on loan here and there - mostly on the tour presently at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art. Among them is a 16-inch gold coffinette, normally inside the calcite canoptic chest that contained all of Tut's vital organs.

The chest has four sections, each with a stopper on top. One beautifully-carved stopper and the exquisite coffinette that held Tut's liver are missing. They're part of the tour; enlarged photos of the coffinette are the tour's main advertising vehicle.

The guards and soldiers stationed at virtually all Egyptian tourist sites offer no protection from vendors and opportunists. At the main pyramid of Cheops, four Bedouins on camelback galloped up to our group, offering rides. Joyce Recupido, who had her hand extended for balance, was scooped up and plopped behind the Bedouin, who turned and quickly rode off with her screaming and laughing.

A half hour later Joyce returned. "They wanted $20 to tour the place, and said they wouldn't let me down. I wound up giving them $5. The kidnapping was worth that," she laughed.

The three pyramids, built around 2,600 B.C., are a stunning introduction to ancient Egypt. Photos and movies don't quite prepare you for the massive scale and quiet dignity. The oldest and largest is Cheops, more than 450 feet tall, whose blocks are each man-sized. Alongside it is a new building housing the Solar Barque, the oldest boat known to man that once ferried the pharaoh's mummy to its final resting place, suspended in mid-air.

The middle pyramid, built by his son Chephren, still has a remnant of the outer, smooth limestone facade at the top. The smallest is the tomb of Chephren's son, Menkaure.

The three main pyramids are surrounded by smaller tombs of queens and other royalty. At the base of the hill is the Sphinx, equally impressive, who today stares across a short field at Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Cairo, a jumbled and still-expanding metropolitan area of nearly 20 million, has begun to crowd inside the monuments' shadows.

But just a few miles upriver, near the ancient capital of Memphis, the very first pyramid of Djoser stands out above small villages and crop fields. Djoser's Step Pyramid is surrounded by the remnants of a wall, and other monuments, and is an engrossing afternoon jaunt without the jostling crowds at Giza. On the way back to Cairo, we stop at a carpet school and watch students hand-making several grades of carpets before being ushered into the showroom. I am tempted but on a budget, and resist.

Pyramids, temples and ruins dot the entire Nile, but we fly over the central part of the nation en route to Aswan, where we board one of hundreds of riverboats. The eastern desert toward the Red Sea is stubbed with a craggy, forbidding jumble of mountains, and the Sahara stretches off to western infinity.

For much of the Nile's length, you can see the desert on both sides from water level. The Aswan dam stores eight years worth of water and supplies 55 percent of the nation's electrical power. Above the dam, Lake Nasser is a blue squiggle on the scorched Nubian desert. Below it, the water flows clear blue and cool almost to Luxor, where it becomes tea-like and then muddy brown from the runoff of civilization.

Village children play in the water, yelling and waving at passing tour boats, while mothers scrub laundry on the rocks of the banks. Ahmed, a Nubian musician aboard our ship, Grand Circle Travel's MS River Anuket, says there are not many opportunities for his people. Many of them were relocated here below the dam, away from the lake's rising waters. He gives us his phone number and asks us to find a Nubian back in America who will help his family emigrate.

Charles Alikakos and his niece, Cynthia (my wife), are adventuring pals who normally scoff at guided vacations, but this journey proved an enlightening exception. The boat trip is a 100-mile, weeklong excursion through ancient history, with daily visits to numerous temples. The Philae Temple, dedicated to Isis, was moved to an island above the water level created by the original Aswan Dam, built by the British in 1902. Next stop is the Temple of Kom Ombo, from the Greco-Roman period, where we peer in a tomb at the mummy of a crocodile. A short downriver sail is Edfu's Temple of Horus, which we eventually discover is the best preserved temple in Egypt. Dedicated to the Hawk-god Horus. Others on the itinerary are scattered along the river past the Valley of the Kings to Dendera.

Throughout the trip we note disfigured statues and bas-reliefs. Similar to what happened in Greece, succeeding generations of different religions and nationalities defaced the gods' and rulers' likenesses, often for superstitious reasons. In many cases, recent churches are built into or over the old temples. It is against religious and national law to remove them.

Luxor is where all the main attractions lie. We spend several days there visiting the Valley of Queens as well as the Kings, passing the Collosi of Memnon, tall and regal amid crop fields on the wide west bank.

A long boulevard flanked by statues of lions once connected Karnak with the smaller Temple of Luxor on the southern edge of town, where we are able to visit a well-preserved holy of holies, the innermost temple of the gods. Attia advises us to be quiet and respectful as we pass the room's sentinel on our way in. Even the likes of King Tut needed special clearance to get into a place like this.

If you go

Grand Circle Travel is among several package vacation companies offering Nile cruise excursions, and caters to Americans. GCT's 15-day Ancient Egypt and the Nile cruises start at $1,495, including air from New York. Included is a stay in Cairo with city, museum and pyramid tours, dinner with a local host family, plus optional day trips (hint: take the train to Alexandria), followed by a week aboard a riverboat from Aswan to Luxor and Dendera. For information, call (800) 959-0405; www.gct.com.

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