Egypt: A journey on the Nile is made up of several intense pleasures, and one of them is spending time in and around the monuments of Luxor. The temples of Luxor and Karnak on the east bank, the valleys of the Kings, Queens and Nobles on the west bank and the nearby temples of Ramses the Great, Seti I, Hatshepsut and – my favourite – Medinet Habu, the temple of Ramses III…. There was more than enough to see, sketch and photograph, to wonder over and ponder. There was also more than enough to work the magic that makes the days vanish, so we stood on the deck of our Aswan-bound boat and watched in something near to disbelief as Luxor slid away. As the lotus-buds of the temple columns disappeared from sight, we were left to grapple with surprises, among them the fact that the pharaohs’ temples were originally painted as brightly as a fairground attraction and hung with as many flags, that Tutankhamen’s treasures were crammed into an insignificant tomb and that vaulted mud-brick buildings can survive three-and-a-half millennia…. “Welcome to the greatest river in the world,” one of the staff had chanted proprietorially when I first boarded the boat. “The Nile,” he explained, in case we didn’t know, “is the river of history.” As Luxor’s wonders slipped into memory, it was the river more than history that caught my eye, for however much recent development there has been along its banks and however many times I have seen it, the Nile’s lush, palm-fringed beauty still comes as a surprise. We had hardly passed the new bridge just south of Luxor when someone quoted Herodotus’s overused observation that Egypt is the gift of the Nile.
It may be a cliché, but it is still unarguably true: without the river there would be no country. Evidence to support this claim could be seen on both sides of the river, where green fields suddenly crashed into desert. Wherever the Nile waters reached – often now with the help of pumps – the soil was bountiful. Beyond, all was dead. Somewhere near Esna, I saw a farmer crouch beneath a tree and put a small pot on some burning sticks for his tea. This private ritual reminded me of a similar moment I had shared with a farmer a few hundred kilometres downstream. As he poured us shot-glasses full of thick sweet tea, the farmer asked what I thought was the greatest difference between our two countries. I considered the discrepancies of wealth, education, healthcare, technology… and then explained how the rain fell in my country. He was stunned. “You mean,” he asked, to make sure he had understood correctly, “you don’t rely on the river to irrigate your fields? Water comes straight from above, from Allah?” That meeting took place years ago and I wondered, as we glided upstream towards Esna, how many people the farmer had told since then that England is the gift of Allah. However generous the Nile, the glory that is Egypt is also due to the ingenuity of humans who learned to control the river’s flow. The ancient Egyptians did no more than mark the height and speed of the river’s rise, which gave them an idea of how abundant the following harvest might be. In the nineteenth century, barrages and a dam were built to control the flow and these were followed in the twentieth century by the two dams at Aswan.
The lock at Esna, the first main site south of Luxor, remains one of the most important along the river, for its limited capacity restricts the number of boats able to cruise the river. There is also a temple here, dedicated to Khnum, the ram-headed potter god credited with creating human beings out of Nile mud, even the foreigners who now come to see the remains of the ancients. Distances along this stretch of the Nile are not large and sailing times are surprisingly brief – just a matter of hours. By nightfall we were moored off the next great monument, the Temple of Horus at Edfu. Compared to the glories of Luxor, many of the monuments to the south are ‘late’, built by the Romans. But Edfu demands attention for being the best-preserved ancient temple in the country. Built by a descendant of Alexander the Great’s viceroy in the third century BC, the temple replaced an earlier structure. Unlike many ancient temples, it was not quarried after the ancient cults died out. As a result, few other places in Egypt give such a clear sense of how these buildings might have looked and functioned a couple of thousand years ago. Aswan, several hours by boat from Edfu, was ancient Egypt’s southern frontier.
The border had both a natural and a political logic, for this is where the land of the Egyptians joined the land of their neighbours, the Nubians, and also where the river is broken by the first of a series of cataracts or rapids. If you want to navigate south of here, you need to haul your boat over the rocks. Just north of these rapids, the desert closes in, the riverbed narrows and the stream is broken by several islands, which help to create perhaps the most beautiful stretch of the Egyptian Nile. In ancient times Aswan was a place of exile, but these days we willingly travel to a place where the habits of Egypt mix with the light and smell of Africa, where the living is easy and where the river flows gently and with majesty. But a cruise on the Nile does more than transport you from one time to another: it opens your mind to other possibilities. As I stood on the dock at Aswan, I let my thoughts run thousands of kilometres upstream to the river’s headwaters in the highlands of East Africa and then down, past all those treasures and all that beauty, down to Cairo and then on to the other world of the Mediterranean.
Hotels and Resorts in Egypt
Winter Palace The doyen of Luxor’s hotels, founded in 1887, combines old-fashioned elegance and modern facilities. Heads of state, Noel Coward and Agatha Christie have all succumbed to its Victorian charms.
Old Cataract Hotel This is without doubt one of the grandest hotels in Egypt, renowned for Agatha Christie’s stay while she wrote Death on the Nile. Perched atop a granite rock on the banks of the Nile at Aswan, its high ceilings, long halls, and Moorish decor transport the visitor back to Victorian Egypt. And the famous Terrace Bar affords spectacular views at sunset.
Oberoi Philae Cruise the Nile on this luxurious ship, embracing the elegance and style of days gone by. Its 54 deluxe cabins and 4 suites are furnished with oriental carpets, teak panelling and parquet floors, and each have a private balcony, so you can watch life unfold on the river bank in style.
Mena House Oberoi Once a royal lodge, this hotel is set in 40 acres of jasmine-scented gardens in the shadow of the Great Pyramids at Cairo. Arabesque Islamic design and furnishings are combined with modern comforts and conveniences to create one of ‘The Leading Hotels of the World’.
Basma Hotel Set on Aswan’s highest hill, this hotel benefits from commanding views of the Nile and Aswan. Decorated by two of Egypt’s top artists and located opposite the Nubian museum, take time to relax in the hotel’s Nubian bar and restaurant.
Le Meridien Pyramids Set in beautiful landscaped gardens, with unequalled views of the Giza Pyramids, the hotel has a spectacular swimming pool complex and health club.
Top destinations in Egypt
- Luxor Tread in the footsteps of pharaohs at the legendary Valley of the Kings, home to the secretive tombs of New Kingdom rulers including Tutankhamun. On the east bank of the Nile, venture around the remains of the mighty Karnak Temple, a 100-acre complex built over 1,300 years.
- Aswan Haggle for local handicrafts, souvenirs and spices in the bustling bazaars of Egypt’s southernmost city, the gateway to Nubia since ancient times. Aswan is also the base for trips to the temples of Philae and the Aswan High Dam.
- Abu Simbel Admire the monumental rock-cut temples of Rameses II and Nefertari, overlooking Lake Nasser.
- River Journeys Board a traditional felucca or a twin-masted dahabiah for a timeless and spectacular voyage down river.
- Riverside Temples Wend your way upstream, hopping from temple to temple at the towns of Kom Ombo and Edfu, the latter home to a cult dedicated to the falcon-headed god Horus.
www.ancientegypt.co.uk The British Museum’s informative site, with notes on Ancient Egyp