Letters home


Augusta Petrone and Rick MacMillan are seen at the Mena House in Cairo in front of the Great

Pyramid. The 455-foot-tall Great Pyramid, or Khufu’s Pyramid, is the last of the Seven Wonders of

the Ancient World still standing. It is 4,500 years old.

Aida, the slave girl and heroine of Verdi’s opera by the same name, captures the romance and intrigue of today’s Egypt, a country steeped in tradition, evolving into the modern world. We made the commitment months ago to travel to this cradle of civilization. We shared modern expressways with donkey-pulled carts; traveled busy intersections jammed with tour buses and water

buffalo; saw guarded entrances to treasures of antiquity; and met warm and gracious hosts to brigades of tourists.

“Aren’t you a bit nervous about traveling over there?’ was the question we had both encountered from concerned friends before sallying forth to the Middle East last month. It turned out that many of the 85 members of our Egypt tour from places like Australia, Iceland, the Netherlands and Switzerland had encountered similar concerns from friends and family.

What we discovered was that although the country had indeed suffered a couple of isolated terrorist attacks in the recent months, we never in that wonderful 2½-week visit felt any concern for our safety. Because tourism is a major factor in the Egyptian economy, the current government is clearly pro-tourism. Safe tourism! We even noticed an unobtrusive police escort was often seen out the front window when we traveled to temples or pyramids by bus.

The Egypt that we discovered was full of fun, laughing, joking inhabitants and ancient, even mysterious, monuments. A favorite “shtick” of some of the ubiquitous vendors at these monuments was to say, when the temperature was above 107 degrees (we were there in low season, meaning it was hot), in excellent English: “Welcome to Alaska” … causing great merriment all around. Wherever there was a temple, monument or bazaar, there were eager but friendly vendors using their English phrases, such as “special price” or “good quality” (which it often was!) or, our favorite, “one doll-ah.”

For the first few and last few days of our visit, we were at Mena House, a lovely sprawling property with flowering trees, green lawns, plants, palms and pools — just four-tenths of a mile from the three most famous pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. Mena House had recently been acquired by Marriott. The hotel had begun in 1869 as a hunting lodge of a British couple, who had added a small hotel. The property grew, and before Marriott arrived just two years ago, it was owned by the Indian Oberoi Hotels company. It boasted Egyptian charm, with a lobby adorned with gilded chairs and a gilded canopy over the bar, but also many American amenities. The hotel even had a nine-hole golf course, adjacent to it …under renovation we were told, but scheduled to reopen in 2021.

Breakfast, with the pyramids for a backdrop, was a dazzling array of breads, salads, meats, humus, eggs, fruits and more. A revelation for most of us, beyond the delectable guava juice, was the purple hibiscus juice.

After an introductory tour of the Giza plateau and obligatory camel ride, we flew south to Aswan to spend a week on the Nile. Because the group, led by Boston University professor Robert Schoch and his wife, Katie, was so large, we actually had the whole boat to ourselves. We stopped at temples and monuments and were bused to small villages. On board, we had nightly entertainment: lectures, a belly dancer, a whirling Dervish twirling inside an enormous cape, a guitarist, and a sun deck with pool. After each day’s outing, we were greeted back on board with cool washcloths and a refreshing citrus drink by the boat staff. Travel by boat was also an ideal way to get to know some of the interesting, fun members of the tour — including the ever-gracious Schochs.

Each day, we disembarked early after breakfast to mount a bus or a horse cart or a small motor boat to visit the land of pharaohs and gods and goddesses. We got to visit everything from the temples of Karnak and Luxor, to the Valley of the Kings, which included an underground visit to King Tut’s unadorned mummy, now in a glass case, to a shop where the making of papyrus was demonstrated, to Abu Simbel, where UNESCO and a consortium of dozens of countries had moved the statues and interior temple of Rameses II to higher ground when the Great Aswan High Dam flooded the area. We climbed around the legendary Elephantine Island and saw where reputedly the Ark of the Covenant was parked after removal from Jerusalem.

On return to Cairo, we visited the Cairo Egyptian Museum, repository for hundreds of statues, mummies, sarcophagi and King Tutankhamen’s treasures; and the lesser-known Red and Bent pyramids. The last day of our “official” tour, we were treated to an up-close-and-personal visit to the Great Sphinx at sunrise, followed by an unheard-of visit to the ancient Temple of the Great Sphinx. This latter edifice was formed from the huge blocks of bedrock limestone extracted during the Sphinx’s construction. Later that day, our adventure culminated with (lots of bending) a climb inside the Great Pyramid named for Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops). We marveled at the narrow and steep shaft ascending to the Queen’s Chamber, and the 20-foot high “Grand Gallery” leading to the King’s Chamber. Only a few of us (those who could still bend their knees) dared descend to the “pit,” a chamber below the base of the pyramid, easily 200 feet down.

While the official tour ended with the Great Pyramid excursion, we were not through. Intent on finding Aida, we coaxed a jewelry merchant from the hotel to take us to the Cairo Opera House. Uber would not have sufficed for this trip. Set in the large complex of the National Cultural Center on Gezira Island in the middle of the Nile, this modern theater opened in 1988 and was a gift from the Japanese, replacing the original Cairo Opera House, which burned in 1971. While Verdi’s classic “Aida” was written and was to be performed coincidental with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the props and costumes coming from France were detained by the Franco-Prussian war. As a result, Verdi’s “Rigoletto” got the nod to be the inaugural production. We did, however, find an accommodating staff member of the opera house, Maya, who gave us a personal tour.

The 1,200-seat four-tier main theater is entered through an extravagant marble-lined foyer. Inside, a bevy of grade-school children eagerly watched and awaited completion of rehearsals and staging of a scaled-down performance. Our tour continued through the opera house’s museum, displaying models of the original structure and costumes from early productions of “Aida.” We returned to Mena House thrilled and satisfied.

Our professor, Robert Schoch, has been breaking archaeology’s dishes with his books for several years now. His research has pushed back the “established” date of the carving of the Sphinx from 2,530 B.C. to roughly 10,000 B.C. Using geology, seismic, and water-erosion studies, Schoch now posits a great coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun in 9,700 B.C. as the cause of the end of an earlier, advanced civilization, centered on the Giza Plateau. Schoch also makes the case that that solar CME was likely the factor that caused the last ice age to end.

We clearly got the impression that although archaeological authorities resist such notions, Schoch’s theses are increasingly gaining currency. He points out that the recent authentication of a 12,000-year-old site in southern Turkey, called Gobekli Tepe, is validating his assumptions.

So did we find Aida? Literally, maybe not; figuratively, yes. Our sojourn’s experience, exploring an ancient land standing up to, yet adapting to, modernity, creates an enigmatic problem of its own. When was the Great Sphinx built? What drove the ancients to create their massive temples and statuary? How did they do it? Aida was torn between loyalties to her roots and her lover. Are we similarly stretched between our conventional “truths,” and ever-evolving knowledge? Reflection on this fascinating journey leads us to realize there is so much we just do not know.

Rick MacMillan is president

emeritus of Raylynmor Opera, which will be producing “Aida” next spring; Augusta Petrone, also from Dublin, is an inveterate

student of ancient cultures and supporter of Raylynmor Opera.