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Ancient Egypt ... by way of San Jose

The armless goddess, like an Egyptian Venus de Milo, stared out from behind protective glass. This 18-inch likeness of Neith, the goddess of war, was carved of wood 2,500 years ago.

"If she could speak," my mother said, "she would say, 'Rah-em-pet,' which means 'The sun is in the sky.' " A free workshop in hieroglyphics had turned her into an instant expert on the everyday sayings of Egyptian deities.

I'm the incurable Egyptophile in the family, and I lured my parents, Bobbe and Royal, along on a trip to satisfy my craving for pyramids, hieroglyphics and mummies. There's been much to fuel my interest in the news lately. The blockbuster exhibition "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" is to begin its tour this week at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In recent weeks scientists also completed a forensic reconstruction of the young king's head and archeologists unearthed a new group of mummies at the massive necropolis at Saqqara.

For my fix, though, we didn't have to go as far as Cairo. One of the largest displays of Egyptian artifacts in the western United States is at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum & Planetarium in San Jose.

We joined our fellow Egypt enthusiasts in a surprisingly long line of visitors on a rainy day in February. The museum entrance is a dramatic, albeit scaled-down, replica of the forecourt of an ancient Egyptian temple. In the courtyard's fountain was a life-size statue of the Taweret, the upright hippo-like goddess, standing as if dipping her toes in the water. Inside, I expected an altar with white-robed priests and burning bowls of frankincense or myrrh. Instead we found a tomb.

A dark archway from the central mummy room led visitors down into a replica of a Middle Kingdom (before 1000 BC) tomb, each shadowed chamber flowing downward into another. I descended until I reached the lowest room, which held a pharaoh's sarcophagus poised above a pit. For the Egyptians, this room symbolized the duat, or underworld, where after death the king's soul would regenerate and climb back toward the akhet, or horizon.

The space inspired respectful awe. Kids stomping down the first set of stairs grew increasingly quiet as they descended. By the time they reached the dim duat, with its echo of ancient mysteries, they were whispering.

The extensive collection of artifacts belongs to the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, a group based on ideas from European and Eastern mysticism. The American sect was founded in 1915 by H. Spencer Lewis, who later moved its headquarters to San Jose.

Lewis was fascinated by Egyptian history, particularly the Amarna period (about 1350 to 1330 BC) dominated by the pharaoh Akhenaten and his beautiful wife, Nefertiti. Lewis' interest led the Rosicrucians to fund excavations in the 1920s, and excavated artifacts donated in return were the start of the collection. The current Egyptian-style building opened in 1966.

Mummies and jewels

Besides the 4,000-object museum collection, the grounds include a research library, a planetarium and the Peace Garden. The garden's elaborate layout is based on one discovered in archeological excavations at Amarna, the capital during the reign of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.

The curators arrange the holdings into exhibits on various aspects of daily life in ancient Egypt, such as tomb-building, household life or religious worship. Free gallery lectures, workshops and children's games bring the history to life. The galleries are packed with mummies, jewels and funerary carvings in wood or stone. Miniature figurines working on farms, feasting, brewing beer or sailing boats were placed in the tombs as well so such pleasures would accompany the dead to the next world.

On a carved limestone panel among the Amarna relics, the ever-fascinating Akhenaten prays to his one god, the solar disk Aten, while seven small hands extend from the sun's rays, holding the ankh, or symbol of life, to the pharaoh's lips.

Crouching in another nearby case is a mummified baboon, or at least a purported baboon. Egypt's temple priests did a lively trade in selling pre-wrapped, mummified animals to pilgrims as offerings at Egyptian shrines. Modern X-rays have shown that many were stuffed with sawdust. This offering had a real baboon's head but an X-ray revealed a clay jar body wrapped to look like a monkey. Even in ancient Egypt, you didn't always get what you paid for.

After a walk in the Peace Garden with its ancient plants and replica statuary, we headed across town to the Winchester Mystery House. If San Jose ever had a pharaoh, she would have been Sarah Winchester, heir to the rifle fortune. Like Egypt's rulers, she believed that building brought immortality, and in 1884 on the advice of unseen spirits, she bought an eight-room farmhouse and began a 38-year building spree. Her architects were the spirits she heard during nightly séances.

Guided tours explore the dim warren of endless rooms and their windows onto nothing, stairways to nowhere and cupboards that open on blank walls. Such architecture might have been comprehensible to ancient Egyptians, who designed similar puzzles and architectural traps to foil tomb robbers. When Winchester died in 1922, her rooms were so packed with possessions that it took eight moving vans per day working for eight weeks to empty the house.

And there's more

Although I was in San Jose to see the Egyptian Museum, the city offered other treasures, including UC Santa Cruz's Lick Observatory, the San Jose Museum of Art and dozens of wineries in the surrounding hills. San Francisco Bay is about 55 miles northwest.

San Jose is known as the capital of high-tech Silicon Valley, but from 1849 to 1851 it was the capital of California. It was founded in 1777 as a Spanish settlement, and many of the city's historic buildings still stand, including the 1797 Peralta family adobe and the 1859 Fallon house.

We stayed at the Hotel Montgomery, which was done in a Renaissance Revival style. The oldest hotel in the city, built in 1911, the Montgomery has been scrupulously renovated. Inside the style is Art Deco, and our room in butterscotch and bronze was elegant and comfortable. There were a few glitches over the room price and a $15 valet parking charge we thought was excessive, but the hotel and its location were worth the trouble. The 1st Street tram ran right by the front door, easily connecting us to Japantown, the civic center and the airport.

Our memorable dinner at the hotel's Paragon Restaurant was a balance of well-made classics and more adventurous combinations. Mother was impressed with her maple-glazed pork loin chop with herb spaetzle and jalapeño corn bread; Royal praised his braised pot roast with garlic mashed potatoes. My pan-seared scallops in apple cider jus with creamy leeks were delicious, and the service was excellent.

Our favorite lunch place was the Art Museum Café, two blocks from the hotel. It served creamy quiches with a variety of salads and homemade soup. A perk was the museum gift shop next door, which carries a selection of art books for children.

Just before leaving San Jose, we returned for another walk through the Rosicrucian Peace Garden. The clouds parted at last, and after days of rain, Aten lighted up the turquoise ceramic tiles and the feathery papyrus that clusters around the Akhenaten Temple. As Neith would have said, "Rah-em-pet."

Facts and artifacts

Expenses for three on this trip:

Lodging

Two rooms for one night, plus one

room for one night, at the

Montgomery Hotel, with tax $525

Meals

Dinner at Paragon Restaurant $68

Dinner at Shalimar Restaurant $62

*

Other meals

Hotel, IHOP, Museum Café and

Applebee's $110

Entertainment

Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum $22

Winchester Mystery House

(for two) $37

*

Total $824

Distance from L.A. 342 miles

WHERE TO STAY:

Hotel Montgomery, 211 S. 1st St., San Jose; (866) 823-0530, http://www.hotelmontgomerysj.com . Double rooms $109-$179.

WHERE TO EAT:

Shalimar Indian Cuisine, 167 W. San Fernando St., San Jose; (408) 971-2200, http://www.shalimarindiancuisine.com .

Museum Café, San Jose Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St.; (408) 993-0765. Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. only, Tuesdays to Sundays.

WHERE TO GO:

Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, 1342 Naglee Ave., San Jose; (408) 947-3636, http://www.egyptianmuseum.org . Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Winchester Mystery House, 525 S. Winchester Blvd., San Jose; (408) 247-2000, http://www.winchestermysteryhouse.com . The house is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

— Susan James
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