Like Jerusalem, Trieste and Istanbul, Santa Fe is a complex cross-cultural Gordian knot of a city, wound up tight with electricity of different life styls, beliefs and faiths.

There are Pueblo Indians, whose claim to the place extends back millenia; Hispanics, who have been there for a good 400 years -- so long that their folkways contain Moorish elements from the faraway days of Queen Isabella, Columbus and El Cid; and Anglos, ranging from the descendants of 18th- and 19th-century trappers, cowpunchers and land boomers, to latter-day artists, Hollywood expatriates, Texas oil tycoons (northern New Mexico is the Riviera of western Petro-Texas), and robed and bearded New Age mystics.

Each group claims the soul of the place as its own; each holds a deep and heartfelt claim to that ancient adobe pueblo in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo, the Blood of Christ, Mountains; it is a situation that makes the sparks fly -- sometimes beautiful, sometimes too hot to handle.

Consider, for a moment, the history of the place, circa 1890. Secret Hispanic societies like Los Gorros Blancos ("The White Hats") and Los Caballeros de Ley y Orden ("The Knights of Law and Order"), originally formed to resist Anglo See SANTA FE, E4, Col. 1 SANTA FE, From E1 landgrabbing, spent so much time knocking off one another's leaders that historian Richard Maxwell Brown described the city of that time as "the only place in America where assassination became an integral part of the political system."

At the other, equally unedifying, end of the ethnic rainbow lay the so-called Santa Fe Ring, headed by S.W. (his detractors claimed the initials stood for "Stolen Wealth") Dorsey. The Ring's specialty was defrauding the old-time Spanish and Mexican Land Grant holders out of their real estate, and they were extremely good at it: State Surveyor General George W. Julian wrote that the Ring "brooded over New Mexico like a pestilence . . . and subordinated everything to the compelling greed for land."

Well, all is still not beer and skittles, or maguey and tortillas, today -- read John Nichols' funny, touching novel, "The Milagro Beanfield War," for an insight into the scamming and feuding that persists through the present -- but much of the old harshness has softened with time. There is an undeniable edge to Santa Fe, a jostling of prides, sovereignties, dreams, but the consequences now are more likely to be charming than violent or destructive.

Take a 10-minute stroll around the Plaza, the core of the old city, and the delightful variety of the place hits you from all sides. A middle-aged Pueblo Indian matron with a face as round and calm as a full moon sits against an adobe wall, selling her burnished black bowls, each one an object of Aristotelian perfection. A hawk-eyed Spanish man in dusty denim and Stetson, with wrinkles in his face so deep you could sink silver dollars in them, spine as straight as a plumb line -- he could be 50 years old, 70, even 90 -- strides by; he spits in the dust with a sound like a 22-caliber pistol going off. A sensuous woman in a NO NUKES T-shirt and designer jeans sits on a park bench reading Antonin Artaud. And in one of the town's many tony art galleries, not far off the Plaza, a local wealthy matron of Lone Star stock comes in, checks out a semi-abstract canvas with a high five-figure price tag for a few minutes, then takes a swatch of upholstery fabric out of her purse, holds it up next to the painting, nods approvingly at the match and writes out a check on the spot.

Is that Jessica Lange, with the dreamy cerulean angel's eyes, going into Fred Libby's Haagen-Daz ice-cream parlor? And do those strange Hispanic mystics called Penitentes really crucify a member of their sect every Easter on that stark ridgeline northeast of town? Is that blanketed Indian in the Vuarnet sunglasses a shaman, a tramp, or both? In Santa Fe, you can never be sure.

The best way to explore Santa Fe is to throw away your plans, and let your sixth sense pull you along; still, a few things should not be missed, if you can help it.

The world-class Santa Fe Opera, for instance: The season lasts from the first weekend in June through the last weekend in August, and advance reservations are almost always necessary. If you are going to be there at the right time of year, try and go: Arias 7,500 feet above sea level have a special fire.

Santa Fe is the nation's oldest capital (1610), and the historic core, touristy as it has become, still contains some of the quintessential classic architecture of the Southwest: the Palace of the Governors, St. Francis Cathedral, San Miguel Mission . . . When the earthen walls catch the evening light, it is easy to imagine, as the early Spanish explorers did, that you are in one of the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola, carved out of raw gold.

If you want to dig even deeper into the depths of Santa Fe's past, visit the prehistoric Pueblo Indian ruins at Bandelier National Monument, north on State Rte. 4, or -- even better -- tour one of the living Pueblo villages in the area: Tesuque, 10 miles to the north, or Santo Domingo, 30 miles to the southeast, for instance.

Try to time your visit to coincide with one of the great cyclical ritual dances that still propel the Pueblo way of life, keep it rolling along. The Aug. 4 Green Corn Dance at Santo Domino is the grandest and most spectacular of the lot, but the Christmas and Easter dances held at almost every Pueblo village are compelling events, too. This is neolithic in full flower: massed dancers stamping up plumes of dust, turquoise flashing, parrot feathers shimmering, long raven hair shaking, to the thud of the drum, the sough of tiny bells, the seismic chant of the shamans' choir. Photography, incidentally, is forbidden at these dances, on theological grounds: Recording the magic diminishes it, in Native American eyes.

Getting back to Santa Fe proper, what gives the place much of its unique air, I think, is the paradoxical way it combines the charm and primitive vigor of a village, pueblo, with the glimmer and glamor of a city: With only 45,000 inhabitants, Santa Fe still has that unmistakable feel of an urban center, a place of great expectations, of big and beautiful things aborning. Somehow, Santa Fe has that style but minus the numbers, the masses: a sleight-of-spirit, metropolitan life without the metropolis. Parenthetically, I have always harbored the secret idea that Santa Fe should be made the capital of the United States, because of its age, its beauty, and the sanity that comes from breathing crystal-clear, rarefied air.

Part of this magnetic quality is due, of course, to the town's long-standing tradition as a center for the arts. According to one local joke, when the first Spanish explorers came to the site of Santa Fe, circa 1600, they found an Indian sitting in a brush shelter, serving brie and chablis and offering a collection of petroglyph-emblazoned stones for sale. At any rate, the town is a bona fide creative epicenter.

Georgia O'Keefe, Queen Mother of Southwestern Modern Painting, resides in Abiquiu, just to the north. Local galleries feature everything from second-rate photorealist paintings of rodeo cowboys and Noble Savages, recycled Remington retreads (favorites with the moneyed Texas crowd), to the grim Expressionist urban Indians of Fritz Scholder and company, to the subtle Hopi weavings of Ramona Sakiestewa, to the illuminated swatches of literal desert terrain, exhibited musuem-style, by Rita Albuquerque, works at once funky and iconic.

Pound for pound, person for person, the Santa Fe art scene is a lot more interesting and various than New York's, really. In addition to the visual arts, there is the opera, the Chamber Music Festival, a low-keyed but burgeoning traditional Hispanic folk music scene and the city's Film Festival, one of the top half-dozen in the world, enriched by Santa Fe's expatriate Hollywood colony, including such cinemavens as Amy Irving, Steven Spielberg, Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard.

On a recent visit, a friend and I drove the mountains north and east of the city, through the tangled gorges and canyons with their ancient, slumbrous villages -- Chimayo, Arroyo Hondo, Espanola, Taos, Embudo, Dixon, places that the 20th century forgot, and the 19th and 18th, too, for that matter. Orchards along the rivers, ditched cornfields, watered with snowmelt, sweet pin on woodpiles, adobe houses with bundles of dried peppers hanging like giant Chinese firecrackers on the porches . . . Take away the pickup trucks, the lizard-like low-rider sedans and the TV antennae, and you might have been . . . where? Tibet? Medieval Spain? Morocco? Afghanistan?

The brush in the draws was the color of Ice Age amber; the cottonwoods glowed topaz. The rain clouds performed their black jujitsu over the cold summits of Wheeler Peak, Truchas, Santa Fe Baldy . . .

We stopped at a certain sulphurous hot spring, on a certain remote mountainside, and soaked, naked, in the steaming waters. By the time we emerged into the chilling air and drove back down into Santa Fe, it was evening, and the town was lit up like ten thousand candelabras. Why do the night lights of Santa Fe always look so peculiarly soft, so delicate, like the luminosity of a Paul Klee painting? I do not know, but they do.

We ate Mexican nouvelle cuisine -- chicken enchiladas in white wine, a cloudlike flan, bottles of dark Dos Equis -- at Jackie Onassis' favorite Santa Fe restaurant, a place I am sworn not to reveal. Our waitress had a long, Modigliani face, with eyes that hinted of tremendous passions and sorrows. When we went outside again, the night was cold, and rife with silver stars. It must have been a vision, but I swear a lowered, chopped '55 Chevy slid by, scraping up sparks from the pavement, with a sombrero'd skeleton at the wheel . . .

We went back to our hotel room, on the Plaza, a room the color of parrots and orchids, and climbed into an antique brass bed as big as a lifeboat. I doubt if we slept more than an hour or two that night, before the first light came up over the Sangre de Cristos, and in our window, and the birds in the trees began to sing.