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Unforgettable hotel
Luxor, Egypt

By Cyrus Kadivar
October 10, 2002
The Iranian

The steps leading up the grand entrance looked elegant and graceful. In the bright lights the exterior resembled a fashionable 19th century European palace about to host a masked costume ball for European and Oriental aristocrats. Built in 1886 in its Victorian Colonial style it had once been a legend in its own time. Its portico was heavily embowered with verdure, its terrace overhung by palms. See photos

It was almost midnight in Luxor when our airport taxi stopped in front of our hotel. We felt a certain thrill as we ran up the stairway, entering the hotel through a revolving door like characters in a novel. That August my wife Shuhub and I had booked ourselves into the old Winter Palace, a pleasant building beside the Nile.

The desk clerk salaamed us with a bored expression that slowly transformed into a welcoming smile. Politely he asked us to wait in the lobby while our Thomas Cook agent took care of our registration. We moved to the nearby sofa and sat unceremoniously in front of a low table with a glass surface under which lay several Egyptian amulets made of coral pieces and lapis lazuli.

The atmosphere in the lobby was subdued, and detailed ironwork and two grand chandeliers created a mysterious air. Here and there I saw a Persian carpet hanging on a wall or covering the typical Middle Eastern tiles embellishing the floors. The design was friendly and it boasted a mixture of Moorish fittings and British interior design; the square pillars were adorned with Baroque motifs and cute salamanders gazing down at us with tiny green eyes.

A fat porter appeared. He was dressed in a red uniform and sporting a fez. Without a word he picked up our luggage and led us past a huge vase of exotic flowers. Avoiding the dominating staircase we turned into a corridor and got into a small elevator built especially for the deposed King Farouk who once occupied the Royal Suite on the first floor every time his yacht anchored in Luxor.

A very long corridor stuffed with soft armchairs and European antique furniture and paintings led to our apartments. Our bedroom was clean and pleasant with high ceilings and beige walls. There was also an enormous marble bath.

I paid the porter a few Egyptian notes while my wife collapsed on the bed, exhausted by the long trip. Opening the tall French window I stepped unto the balcony.

A half-moon danced above me somewhere between the dark linings of a palm tree. The air was dry but very hot and I could feel my sweat dripping slowly behind my back.

Stepping out of the bedroom light Shuhub moved towards me in the shadows like an enchantress. I held her in my arms as she gazed hypnotically at the sky above us. We were in Upper Egypt and the bright stars belonged to the goddess Nut.

In the stillness one could imagine Akhenaton and Nefertiti locked eternally between the Nile and the contours of the famous mountain that held in its valley the tombs of ancient Egypt's kings and queens. Where was Ramses and his consort Nefertari that night to celebrate the glory that was once Thebes?

We slept like children on that infernal night wrapped in cotton sheets. The constant whirl of the pathetic air conditioner and my disturbed sleep combined to agitate my dream. Egypt, I discovered, has a way of playing with your mind, twisting and distorting reality. In the cover of darkness the sky copulates with earth.

The knock on the door came as a relief. I stared at my watch on the bedside table. It was seven in the morning. There was a second knock followed by a third. I unlocked the door and motioned at the young boy to place the breakfast tray on the dresser and leave. Opening the shutter I welcomed the bright sun -- the giver of life and the object of worship at the temples of Luxor and Karnak.

The cool crystalline air enveloped my body as I stood in the shade. Sipping my strong coffee on the balcony I savoured the sounds and sweet scents drifting towards me. Wonderfully dilapidated old caleches clattered up and down the corniche, the drivers cracking their whips and vociferously soliciting business.

Birds twittered and sang in the branches. Already the Nile was alive with feluccas and pleasure boats cruising upstream with the mysterious pink limestone mountains hovering to the west above the lush green plain with its honey-combed treasures and secrets, legends and curiosities. What magic indeed.

How many visitors, I wondered, had seen the same scenes and experienced the same feelings as I was that morning? For my wife the view simply fulfilled her childhood dream when she used to sit by the Tigris and dream of tasting the waters of the Nile. How many times did I tease Shuhub that day saying that she was the reincarnation of Nefertiti for they shared a remarkable facial similarity?

Descending the main staircase that morning we glimpsed at the exotic garden through high windows framed majestically by enormous sash curtains. At the bottom of the stairs on a wall was an unusually fine portrait of Lord Byron in garish pose.

While loitering in the hotel I could not help myself, of course, to expect the ghost of Howard Carter to burst into the main lobby as he did in 1924 to announce the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb, probably the most famous archaeological event in history.

It was both marvellous and disheartening to find the old Winter Palace almost empty of visitors. At the height of summer there were only three or four couples occupying the 117 rooms while another dozen tourists preferred to stay in the new and modern part. A corridor connected the old with the new Winter Palace.

We explored the Victorian lounge before setting out to arrange a few tours with our local Thomas Cook. The heat was overwhelming and so after a brief visit to the gold and souvenir shops we jumped into a caleche and clip clopped down the Corniche passing the Luxor temple and glancing the palm-fringed shore.

Once in a while I spotted a few remarkable buildings with elegant facades on the edge of the Shari-el Bahr el-Nil. The small bazaar with its sounds and smell and crowded alleyways negotiated by our experienced caleche driver was exhilarating.

In the afternoon I visited the Gaddis bookshop next to the Winter Palace and bought myself a small bust of Nefertiti, postcards and a few books on ancient Egypt. Back at the hotel that evening I poured over the books trying to prepare myself for our first expedition to Karnak scheduled for the following morning.

We started early. After a substantial breakfast at the hotel we met our guide Tayeb in the main lobby. Tayeb, the son of the local sheikh at Deir el-Medina, was a small, round man with a beard and round glasses. He spoke excellent English and had a great sense of humour. From the beginning he took a liking to us.

Ancient Egypt was a religious world dominated by priests and priestesses who ran the complex temples of Luxor and Karnak. Once the main road linking the two centres were lined with sphinxes but after centuries only a few remained. After a relatively short drive we arrived at Karnak. Standing in the shadow of the First Pylon of the Temple of Amun, Tayeb rattled on about the colossal size of its columns.

We entered the vast precinct. Covering an area of 60 acres it once contained no fewer than 20 smaller temples and shrines. Thutmosis, Hatshepsut, Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, Horemheb, Seti and Ramses II had all left their mark here.

Walking through the Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak where Agatha Christie found inspiration for her classic murder mystery Death On The Nile I was overwhelmed by the size and beauty of the giant columns -- 137 if anyone is interested. If you looked carefully one could still see the faint paint that once adorned the temple.

By eight o'clock the heat was already intense but the temple once roofed and quite dark still provided pockets of shade beneath the pylons and illustrated columns. Here as Tayeb lectured my wife whose curiosity proved insatiable, I was suddenly reminded of an incident several months prior to our wedding at the Royal Albert Hall.

I had booked tickets for a performance of Aida, Verdi's overblown opera set between the old capital of Memphis and Thebes. It was a cold February evening and having arrived late my fiance had gone inside before me. The ushers had politely refused me entry asking me to wait in the lobby until the second half of the show. In my despair I had found myself listening to the music in the corridor.

Amusingly during various moments of the opera an army of extras had ran past me in various Egyptian costumes. A golden chariot without horses rolled gently in front of me. Then came eight or more bare-footed girls in scantily white cotton dresses who tiptoed down the dimly lit corridor as if they had been summoned by the High Priestess herself. I still recalled how relieved my future wife had been to see me later during the intermission. Now as I retold the story to her in historic Karnak we could only laugh at the absurdity of the situation.

Tayeb was keen to impress upon me the damage caused to the temple by the Persians in the Sixth Century when they sacked Thebes. It was left to Alexander, the man who burnt Persepolis, to set things right. The Ptolemies restored and continued to make additions to the temple which was to lure and fascinate European archaeologists. I could not help to marvel at the statue of Ramses and Nefertari and realise that this place was one of the wonders of the world.

While visiting a small enclosure Tayeb told us about an Iranian lady who had settled in Luxor after the Khomeini revolution. She was by all accounts an eccentric woman. "Her house is painted like a mausoleum belonging to some ancient Egyptian," he said. "I've known her for years and she is quite mad, you know. She is convinced that she is the reincarnation of the High Priestess of Karnak."

As we listened in disbelief Tayeb described how every year at midnight he would bring her to this place. Once she had put on her priestly robes the lady would light several candles and chant rhythmically in a mysterious voice and language.

On the south side of the temple was the Sacred Lake, a vast stretch of water surrounded with a magnificent view. Here the priesthood bathed and purified their souls.

Equally impressive at the northwest corner of the lake was a giant beetle shaped scarab. Made of granite, the scarab had been placed by King Amenhotep III to watch over the lake. In the symbolic world of the ancient Egyptians it was meant to represent the transforming quality of the sunlight that comes out of the darkness.

Soon my wife and I were running around the scarab joined by other tourists. Seven times we turned and made a wish in one of the oldest rituals known to man.

Luxor Temple while smaller than Karnak was impressive. Dedicated to Amun it was abandoned under the rule of Akenaten who moved the capital away from Thebes to Tell el-Amarna after rejecting all forms of religion except the worship of the Aton, symbolized by the sun disc. His reforms collapsed immediately after his death however, the capital returned to Thebes and the old priests resumed their old ways. The pharaohs were very much in evidence here.

As we strolled through the great peristyle court we passed a medieval mosque where Abul Haggag, a famous traveller from Baghdad, was buried eight hundred years ago.

Tayeb told us that he believed that great treasures were hidden beneath the mosque but that the government was still negotiating with the religious leaders to exavate. Cluttering the grounds were the heads of the colossi of Ramses, granite obelisks and damaged statues of a man and woman holding hands.

In the dark halls of the ruins tourists giggled at the sight of an image of Alexander wearing the crown of Egypt. On closer inspection we discovered the reason. Etched in the stone was the great Macedonian looking impressive no doubt. With his extended manhood he appeared to be donating his seed to the Nile.

Returning to the Winter Palace for lunch we felt tired but overwhelmed by the genius of the Egyptians. In the evening we visited a Coptic couple who ran a gold shop and my wife indulged herself in choosing a beautiful bracelet with precious stones.

Another day Tayeb drove us to see the Colossi of Memnon and the palace of Queen Hatshepsut set in a spectacular natural amphitheater of soaring pinkish purple cliffs. It was here that a few years ago Islamic terrorists gunned down dozens of European tourists in one of Egypt's worst attacks on foreigners. As we were admiring a portrait of Senenmut, the Queen's architect, an old German woman fainted under the sun. Fortunately, she recovered soon afterwards.

In the Valley of the Kings we decided not to visit Tutankhamun's tomb after Tayeb told us that all the treasures had long been transported to the Cairo museum. I recalled the sheer ecstasy I had felt on my last visit when staring at the young-king's death mask and his treasure of over 5000 precious objects including a gilded chair.

One needs to be armed with a vast imagination so as not to be disappointed by the tombs of the pharaohs. The valley itself is nothing but a vast emptiness with holes dug at various intervals. Upon closer inspection the holes are shafts cut into rock.

Inside the humid and claustrophobic tombs were gorgeous images of the king's life and achievements. The felaheens who milled around the hallways in their white turbans and blue robes and sandles looking for tips offered an exotic air to the place. In Cairo I had seen the mummies of Ramses and the others and often wished that they had been kept in their original resting home surrounded by their gold.

But it was the tomb of Queen Nefertari that captured my heart. My wife disagreed. She found the restored walls unauthentic despite the care taken by the Italians to use the same paint and ingredients used by the ancient Egyptians.

Nefertari's tomb was discovered in 1904 in the Place of Beauty known as the Valley of the Queens by an Italian archaeological mission directed by Ernesto Schiaparelli. When it was opened it was found to be empty, and in plan unremarkable.

However, its brilliant painted scenes made it a monument of great beauty. Thanks to the Nefertari conservation project (a joint enterprise conducted between the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation and The Getty Conservation Institute) the tomb was rescued from decay and the paintings restored to their original state. It wasn't until 1995 that the tomb was opened to the public after years of meticulous work.

Sailing down the Nile at sundown on a felucca one day I gazed at my wife, poised and regal as she sat on her cushion, her eyes, lips and cheekbones glowing in the warm rays. She seemed transformed by the slow journey as we journeyed up the timeless river. She and I were lost in a dream world of our own.

"A man without a wife is like a kitchen without a knife," said Captain Shakespeare.

We laughed. It was impossible to remain serious for any length of time without hearing our captain's latest joke. He was a thin man with the features of Charlie Chaplin except for his white hair and stubble. He could, he boasted, speak six languages. "I am the BBC's main correspondent in Luxor," he said.

When he discovered my Iranian roots he told me that he had been among the throng who had welcomed the Shah of Iran to Luxor shortly after his marriage to King Farouk's enchanting sister Fawzieh. They had all stayed in the Winter Palace.

One night while recalling our Nile trip over a drink in the plush red library bar of the Winter Palace all the lights went out. With all the curtains pulled it was very dark.

Minutes later the barman arrived with a few candles apologising profusely for the blackout but saying that they were conserving energy. Later as we sipped on our complimentary cocktails a Lebanese pianist appeared and dutifully played As Time Goes By.

There was also an unforgettable night when a salamander crept into our bedroom. While my wife hid in the bathroom I called the night desk for assistance in expelling the unwanted intruder. A man appeared with a large broom and masterfully guided the damn pink creature back into the air conditioner.

When not visiting the temples, tombs and shops, the Winter Palace offered a perfect way to relax. At times it felt like we were staying in a big mansion with servants attending to our every whim. There were many balconies and windows where one could admire the inescapable view. At night everything became magical.

One morning I asked to be shown the Royal Suite which is also known as the Presidential Suite since Egypt became a republic. To our surprise it turned out to be a large apartment with a tastefully decorated living room where King Farouk once entertained his friends.

There was a desk once used by Agatha Christie, a fireplace, carpets, paintings, vases and antique furniture. There was a kitchen and a bedroom with a small double bed and miniscule bathroom which I doubt Farouk could have fitted in.

But the balcony was fantastic and shaded with a giant canopy to protect you from the strong sun and if you looked to the right one could see the windows of the suites that used to house Farouk's mistresses. What parties must have been held here, I thought to myself. The list of famous guests who stayed here was endless but included such luminaries as Churchill, Montgomery, De Gaulle, and others. Omar Sharif, I was told, once rented the apartment for a whole year.

Nothing was more pleasing than to swim in the giant pool set among the largest palm trees I have ever seen. The lush gardens provided much relief from the heat and in the evenings it was customary to dine al fresco while being entertained by belly dancers and whirling dervishes. In the background a few sleepy camels added to the oriental atmosphere. And always above our heads was the moon, changing shape every night until it had become round and full.

We grew to love the Winter Palace and the staff who treated us with generous gifts. Once after returning from an impressive Sound and Light show in Karnak temple we arrived to find that our bed had been made and the white sheets covered in rose petals. Another time we were given a marble scarab by the desk clerk for good luck. Unfortunately it was quite ugly and my wife habitually kept it hidden from view in a closet. But every day it seemed to make its way under our pillow.

On our last night in Luxor I had ordered a meal to be brought to our balcony as a special treat for my wife. I gracefully opened a bottle of Omar Khayyam, a local red wine. A lantern was placed in a corner casting shadows and shapes against the wall.

On the candle-lit table beside the silverware and food was the bust of Nefertiti. As always the company and the view was exquisite. We were talking about the life ahead of us when a gust of wind blew out the candles. Abandoning our dinner we cleared the table as a dust storm invaded us.

We completed our dinner inside, puzzled at the strange change of circumstances. The next morning as we left the Winter Palace my wife remembered on the steps that she had forgotten the scarab. "Oh, let's forget it," she sighed.

Once in London we unpacked our bags and souvenirs. To our surprise tucked beneath a shirt lay the marble scarab. A year later it now rests on my bookshelf next to the devine Nefertiti and photos of our unforgettable hotel. See photos

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