With a shudder, a judder and a heart-in-the-mouth whoompf, our Egypt Air flight from Cairo touches down in Luxor.
The passengers clap. It’s been a bumpy flight. Disturbing too. One of the engines on the left hand wing wobbled so violently, it was a wonder it didn’t just snap off. The sense of relief evaporates as the plane veers sharply off to one side, as if avoiding an obstacle on the runway. The applause ceases mid-clap, then as we taxi to a halt, it resumes somewhat less enthusiastically. A sutra from the Koran glows at us from the screens dotted around the cabin and I notice that quite a few of the passengers are immersed in reading their own pocket versions. We have arrived, it seems, on a wing and a prayer.
Luxor airport sits on the fringes of the fertile Nile flood plain. To our left is desert, a rolling wasteland baking under the unforgiving sun. To our right is the ultramodern international terminal, a long tinted-glass box, wrapped in an intricately cast concrete web composed of letters that serves both as façade and sunscreen.
Although it is close enough to walk, a convoy of articulated buses waits to whisk us away. As I step out of the plane, fumbling for my sunglasses, I’m hit by a blast of sand-scented heat that fills my head with the promise of ancient Egypt. Luxor, the glittering heart of what was for thousands of years the world’s greatest empire, lies just on the other side of that glass box. Images of dusty tombs, spectacular temples and golden death masks dancing before my eyes, I enter the intensely air-conditioned terminal.
Luxor is blessed with the largest concentration of UNESCO-protected heritage sites in the world but my first impression of the city the Greeks called Thebes is the horde of sunburnt tourists thronging the terminal. Lobster-coloured European women with straw-coloured hair, permed beyond all recognition, squeezed into improbably tight tank tops and incredibly short shorts. Men sporting heavy jewellery and the long back and shaved sides haircut last popular in 1985 (when, coincidentally, most of them were in their twenty-something prime) and wearing T-shirts that only barely disguise faded tattoos of daggers and lions, the name of their favourite football team or some former girlfriend.
Romantic notions of afternoon tea at the Winter Palace and Nile sailboats at sunset, of glittering death masks and magnificent statues, of Howard Carter and Lord Caernarvon, Thutmosis and Tutankhamum, are instantly vaporised and I am disoriented.
My disorientation increases as I am abruptly beset on all sides by insistent taxi drivers, who apparently expect me to pay the equivalent of six months’ wages to take me to the Al Moudira Hotel, my destination on the other side of the Nile. A few choice phrases in Arabic later, my driver and I come to a price we can both live with and as I settle into the back seat, the glory of the Nile Valley begins to unfold.
And it is glorious. Luxor itself may be disappointing at first sight –squat, ugly buildings and lines of towering, smoke-belching hotel riverboats obscure the view from the waterfront Corniche - but the first flashes of the caramel-coloured hills and the lush fields on the western side of the quicksilvery Nile, are mesmerising.
There, on the other side lie some of the world’s greatest treasures. The valleys of the Kings, the Queens and the Nobles. The temples of Hatchepsut and Medinat Habu. Deir el-Bahari and Deir el-Medina. The Ramesseum, the Colossi of Memnon and dozens of less important but equally stunning monuments, temples and tombs that have sheltered under those hills for millennia.
So when my ride to the Moudira takes longer than I had expected, I don’t really care for once I break free of the town and cross the river, I find myself on a narrow highway lined with soaring eucalyptus that meanders through palm groves and fields of startlingly green sugar cane. My fellow travellers are now old men riding donkeys, children driving cattle-carts piled impossibly high with hay, white-turbaned fellahin in their grubby yet graceful abeyas and policemen in their crisp white uniforms and jaunty black berets. Luxor, with its traffic jams and dirty streets, its flashy fast-food outlets, crud-coloured buildings and herds of tourists, melts away.
After what seems like a million years, but is probably only 25 minutes, the taxi bumps its way down a rutted, twisting track, through the Suzanne Mubarak village, through the fields of cane and wheat and heads towards those dusky hills, aglow in the light of the setting sun. We have arrived.
The Moudira shelters behind towering walls that reveal little more than the tops of a few trees and the odd snatch of a dome or a rooftop. As I pass through the towering entrance, I find myself not only in a different place, but in a different time as well.
Zeina Aboukheir’s hotel is a lush affair. Laid out in a series of ochre-coloured pavilions separated by courtyards dotted with fountains and antique wooden screens, the Moudira is set in several acres of gardens. There are palms, eucalyptus, hibiscus, bougainvillea and jasmine and on the far side of the compound, a swimming pool, the Turkish bath and a massage centre.
The hotel itself is perhaps best described as a Middle Eastern reverie. Ms. Aboukheir spent years tracking down each and every one of the furnishings, a mixture of the classic and the kitsch. There are Turkish carpets, antique sofas and lavishly woven fabrics, Belle Epoque portraits of men with neatly clipped moustaches and jaunty red fezzes, Daguerreotype prints of the Levant, Ottoman glassware, Syrian woodwork, North African lanterns. A turn-of-the-20th Century traveller would feel immediately at home but the sprinkling of mod cons; telephones, air-conditioning, Internet and television ensure that turn-of-the-21st-century travellers do too.
The Moudira’s 54 suites are testament to Ms. Aboukheir’s whimsical side. Part bedroom, part stage set, each is uniquely decorated. Number 3, for example, comes with a fountain, strewn with soft cushions in the middle of the sitting room. Number 25 with a spectacular golden cupola over the four-poster bed and Number 16 with its own throne. There is a Pharaonic room covered in hieroglyphics and royal murals, a Damascene fantasy with gilt muquarnas and carved cornices, a pseudo-Mamluke concoction and a room from the Alexandria of the Ptolomeys. Multiple visions of a Middle East that was last seen at the Treaty of Versailles.
Having settled into my room with its hammam-style (and hammam-sized) bathroom and sprawling four-poster bed, I found myself with a dilemma. Should I mark my first night with a cocktail in the cozy Colonial Bar, with its creaking red leather chairs and painted Levantine scenes or with a mint tea in the enticing Eastern Room, with its embroidered cushions and fabrics emblazoned with Koranic quotations? Unable to make up my mind, I decided to do both and opt for an al fresco dinner in the main garden courtyard in between.
Sat at my candle-lit table, pleasantly mellowed by my visit to the Colonial Bar and the heady scent of flowers on the air, my mind begins to drift. Perhaps it was the surroundings, the jasmine or the Kir Royale (or more likely a misspent youth and an overly active imagination) but as my first course arrived, shaking me out of my daydreams of ancient Thebes, for a split second, I could almost swear that at the table between the American couple and the French woman and her German partner, Caernarvon and Carter sat planning their next dig, eating loukum and drinking cups of Turkish coffee.
Originally published in Bespoke