Ass's milk may be off the menu but there are other ways to feel like Cleopatra, writes Belinda Jackson.
It's a truism that to become beautiful, you become sinfully ugly in the process. Take, for example, this Egyptian treatment that promises to turn me into a velvet-skinned vixen: strip naked, feed the skin a sticky marinade and get mummified in papyrus. Sooo attractive. This is one of the treatments on offer in the hushed sophistication of the Four Seasons First Residence, a moneyed pile set on the Nile, with views of the Pyramids. On a Monday morning, the spa is empty, which is just as well because I've forgotten my swimmers and the disposable bikinis are a travesty of fashion and modesty. But the sauna is divine and the scales friendly to the tune of a couple of kilos. Beautiful liars.
The spa might be in Cairo and the treatment might be purely Egyptian but my sombre therapist is still Thai, in keeping with the global trend for the most desirable nationality to lay hands on you.
Before we start, she parades the marinade's ingredients on a little table. Warmed yoghurt, honey, dried mint. "And do you know this one?" she asks, shaking a bowl of bright-yellow seeds.
"Hmm," I say, before brightening. "Egyptian bar snacks!" My mind flees the serenity of the spa for a happy memory of chewing on the fleshy seeds and spitting out their skins in Cairo's secretive, rough-and-ready local bars. From bar to spa. How quaint. However, Egyptian women, whose skin is generally fabulously smooth and unlined, swear by termis (also known as lupin) seeds, mashed up for a DIY face mask.
The seeds are crushed into a gooey mess with the honey, yoghurt and mint and smeared on my skin. I look and smell like a marinated chicken fillet. Then the therapist wraps me in a massive sheet of papyrus, lays a few towels over for extra warmth, slaps an eye mask on and I am baked for 25 minutes. I can't move. I can't see. I am mummified. If anyone starts waving a brain-seeking hook anywhere near my nostrils I will surely scream.
Unlike Turkey or Morocco, Egypt has forgotten its history of hammams - public bathhouses. Most now are decaying old rooms that are rarely frequented.
For the most part, you'll find yourself in the pricey five-star hotels if you're after a spa in Cairo. Happy news: most hotels line the Nile, so views of this great river are included in the price.
Beauty has been the talk of the town since the Egyptian queen, Nefertiti; then there was the legendary Elizabeth Taylor, sorry, Cleopatra, who made a career out of being the most devastatingly gorgeous woman in history and gambled her country on her looks.
Legend has it that Cleopatra bathed in asses' milk. Well, there certainly are enough donkeys wandering around Cairo to issue a tub a day.
Until recently, several hotels, including the Four Seasons, offered a Cleopatra milk bath but the milk powder wreaked havoc with spa mechanisms, so it's off the menu for the moment.
Instead, you could try a mud pack, with mud drawn from the Nile, at another riverfront five-star hotel, the Grand Hyatt. The mud is mixed with oil, rubbed on and then, after it has dried, scrubbed off to leave your skin sparkling. From dirty to delicious, the old mantra of what we do for the sake of beauty comes pounding back.
Massages using poultices filled with chamomile and mint are also big in the sister Four Seasons property, Nile Plaza,where the scents of Egyptian spa treatments are the fragrances of the Middle East: jasmine, rose, almond and lotus. Like most of their Mediterranean counterparts, Egyptian women use threading - hair removal by a twisting spiral of cotton over the skin to create perfect brows - and a sticky sugar paste called, appropriately, "sweet", instead of waxing the body. All the body. They gaze at foreign women's unwaxed arms with delighted horror, itching like a 1980s beautician faced with Brooke Shields's bushy brows. Expect to pay from $US25 ($27) for threading in hotels or about $US5 on the street if your sense of adventure and shaky Arabic lead you into a hairdresser, known locally as a coiffeur. Look for signs featuring photos of heavily made-up Middle Eastern beauties and a few plump blondes.
I muse this over as I lie mummified in papyrus made from reeds gathered in the Nile near Aswan, where the water is cleaner than the rushing brown river out the city window. The paper's said to draw out toxins and nourish the skin. It also heats up the sticky marinade, so when I'm unwrapped, the termis has clung to my skin like globs of dried couscous. I head to the shower, leaving in my wake a sticky trail of dried mint and termis.
As I wash, I chant the spa mantra once again: "To become beautiful, I must be ugly in the process ..."
After a shower and massage with warm lotus-scented oil, I touch my newly fed skin. I am as smooth as an Egyptian market trader's patter or a yacht's flight over the Nile. A Cleopatra without the kohl eyes.
Now step aside, I have a city to conquer.
Belinda Jackson was a guest of Four Seasons First Residence spa.
The fastest route from Sydney to Cairo is via the Gulf states with Qatar Airways, Emirates or Etihad Airways.
Papyrus wrap, $US132 ($144) for one hour. Four Seasons. Phone +20 (2) 3573 1212, see www.fourseasons.com.
Pharonic massage, $US169 (80 minutes), Four Seasons Nile Plaza. Phone +20 (2) 2791 7000.
Natural mud treatment (15 minutes), £E375 ($75), Grand Hyatt. Phone +20 (2) 2365 1234, cairo.grand.hyatt.com.