Words by Belinda Jackson
Observing the ancient and the new along the River Nile is an out-of-this-world experience. At sunset when they sky and the water are a soft rose gold, feluccas sail by, fluid and languid. Young fishermen draw their nets in the last light and a man pulls his old motorbike off the highway to pray, head touching the dirt at the road’s edge.
Since its Arab Spring revolution in 2011, Egypt has changed, yet at the same time it hasn’t. The classic cruise is still a journey down the River Nile, between Aswan and Luxor, which is a three-day passage on the Sun Boat IV.
Onboard, we settle in with our guide Bob (“My name is Ehab, but everyone calls me Bob”) for days of ancient history and nights of Egyptian buffets. “Don’t start with salad – by the time you get to the main course, all the meat will be gone,” advises a buffet-savvy passenger.
After two days of visiting the temples of Philae, Kom Ombo and Edfu – taking Egyptian cooking classes and enjoying post-prandial drinks in the cabanas on the uppermost pool deck – we have sailed into Luxor and back to mass tourism.
Buses buzz about, disgorging their guests so they can ogle ancient tombs and 2500-year-old mummified crocodiles. But the hordes are nothing like the pre-revolution numbers, which saw over 14 million tourists visit Egypt at its peak in 2010. It’s now possible to get that haunting photo of a towering temple with just a lonely hares – a temple guardian drawn from the nearby villages – who swishes past expertly, picturesque in his floor-length galabeya. The itinerary is packed with visits to the West Bank’s Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens, while the east is the site of the Karnak temple complex and Luxor temple.
Walking up to the temple of Hatshepsut, the October sun beats down on our heads. It’s a gamble which tombs will be open in the Valley of the Kings – like carefully guarded celebrities, they’re rotated to avoid overexposure. To my mind, the most beautiful belongs to the boy king, Tutankhamun, whose mummified body lies in state for us to view. It’s a sad room, and I’m embarrassed to be staring so hard. Shrivelled and blackened, his toes poke out from beneath a linen sheet, teeth large and ungainly in his shrunken skull.
But where there is death, there is also life. Tutankhamun’s immortality will ensure Luxor retains its status as one of Egypt’s great tourism sites, and the country continues to weave the stories of the ancient superpower while it re-establishes itself in the hearts of adventurous travellers.
- The River Nile flows from south to north. From Uganda, Egypt is the last country it traverses. So, sailing from Luxor south to Aswan is described as sailing ‘up the Nile’.
- Egypt’s new wonder, the Grand Egyptian Museum, is under construction near the Giza Pyramids. When complete, it will be five times larger than the current Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It is touted to open sometime in late 2018, or perhaps 2019.
- With the exchange rates ridiculously favourable, travellers will get more bang for their buck.
- Upper Egypt - from Luxor south - roasts in summer, with temperatures constantly surpassing 40 degrees Celsius. Time your visit for spring (March-April) or autumn (October-November).
- The glamorous Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan was built in 1899 and was recently renovated. Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile here, and the guest list includes Winston Churchill, Princess Diana and Egyptologist Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.