A four-day cruise down Egypt’s Nile River on a modern air-conditioned cruise ship, stopping along the way to visit ancient temples honoring pharaohs who lived thousands of years before Christ was born, provides stark contrasts between antiquity and modern life.
Our experience included seeing people bathe along the shores, wash clothes, water slap for fish, ride donkeys while talking on cell phones and maneuver boats with only two sails back and forth on the river like water spiders.
In the cities, we saw nestled up to the river’s edge apartment buildings infested with television dishes and bleating traffic swirling about on streets as crowded, congested and active as any American metropolis.
Refuge from urban chaos or rest from a full day of site walking was aboard Mirage, our German-built cruise boat with 62 cabins, each including a mini-bar, telephone with international line, private bathroom with a shower, satellite TV and double beds.
Buffet meals, a large shaded sundeck, a swimming pool with Jacuzzi, a library, discotheque, gift shop and sundeck bar contributed to comfort and service similar to a ocean cruise ship, but without neon lights, nightly entertainment or a casino.
This was the second part of an Egyptian adventure arranged by AAA Carolinas with its partner African Travel, and it came after we spent three days being awed by Cairo, the pyramids, the Egyptian museum and other famous sites.
We took a morning flight from Cairo in northern Egypt to Luxor in the middle of the country, with every transfer between airports and hotels eased by African Travel representatives. Sahar, a knowledgeable Egyptian archeologist turned tour guide, who took us around Cairo, accompanied us.
In Luxor, the first of our three ports, we spent the first afternoon visiting the Karnak Temple, a stunning complex of temples, obelisks, pylons, court colonnades, hall relief’s and sanctuaries that was constructed over a period of 1,300 years by 13 pharaohs, each eager to leave their historic mark.
The Hypostyle Hall at Karnak is the single largest chamber of any temple in the world, covering 53,318 square feet and big enough to include the Cathedral of Notre Dame, according to Napoleon’s savants, who measured it.
Connected to the Karnak Temple by a two-mile long Avenue of the Sphinxes lined with statutes and obelisks, is the Luxor Temple, which like Karnak, was a place to worship the sun god Amun.
That evening, after dinner on the Mirage – one of more than 50 river cruise boats lined up against the dock and each other – we wandered along the river sidewalk, visiting souvenir shops, a tobacco store and small stores with outside tables to drink Egyptian beer. Streets were well lit, cleaned of litter and children playfully said “hello” in English while adults smiled at us. Tourism is Luxor’s main industry.
The next morning we drove to the Valley of the Kings, where there are 62 principal tombs, including a burial place discovered in 1995 for Ramesses II’s many sons (he ruled for more than 60 years) and contains at least 110 chambers. Still being restored, it is not open to the public.
What we did see in this mountainous area, with its secrets and legends, was the tomb of King Tutankhamen, discovered in 1922 by archeologist Howard Carter and the only tomb not ransacked hundreds of years earlier by thieves. Tut, who died at the age of 19, is easily the most famous pharaoh outside Egypt.
More than 5,000 precious objects were found with the young pharaoh and many are on display in the Egyptian museum or on tour (see sidebar for the King Tut exhibit coming to Atlanta).
In his tomb, however, King Tut’s mummified body (he died in 1325 B.C.) is on display under a glass cocoon, with his long, disfigured toes displaying a possible defect caused by the pharaohs’ inbreeding.
Every pharaoh started building his (or her) tomb upon ascension into power, many dying before the tomb was completed. Typically, tombs have long elaborately decorated corridors, leading through chambers and false doors to the main burial chamber.
Hieroglyphics on walls and ceilings usually show the pharaoh passing the 12 gates of the 12 hours of night, past snakes, baboons, crocodiles, vultures and other malevolent creatures.
Finally encountering a delegation of gods at the Court of Osiris, the pharaoh’s heart is judged for purity and honesty. If found wanting, a hideous monster waited to devour the pharaoh, or, if judged worthy, the pharaoh entered the company of heaven.
We visited the tomb of Seti I, one of the valley’s best preserved, with the pharaoh’s story told in bold reliefs and still vibrant colors.
We also visited the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, a sloped three-terraced edifice etched into a rocky cliff with a huge natural amphitheater that takes 10 minutes for visitors to traipse across to reach the remarkably preserved temple. Hatshepsut was the first Egyptian woman to rule Egypt as a king, ruling for 15 years.
Like most of Egypt’s tourist sites, vendors have shops everywhere selling clothes, souvenirs, drinks, toys and other remarkably similar items, seemingly disregarding the capitalist mantra of product differentiation.
Before returning to the ship we took photographs of two gigantic Colossi of Memnon statues, each 62 feet and four inches high, guarding the entrance to the mountains. Humans can’t reach the sitting statues’ ankles.
Next was an afternoon cruise to Esna, where the Nile narrows and locks regulate the passage of ships, much like the Panama and Suez canals.
Waiting with more than a dozen other cruise ships for our turn to enter the locks, we were besieged by rowboats in the water with men hawking goods – mostly clothing – since Wednesday night the cruise ships have an Egyptian night, where everyone dresses up, many wearing the gallabiyya, the long single piece dress-like garment worn by men and women.
The boaters would throw clothes or other items wrapped in plastic bags onto the deck, passengers would examine them, and either return them or bargain a price and drop the bagged money overboard, with the boaters as adept at catching as they were accurately arcing bags 30 feet from the water to the boat deck.
After passing through the narrow locks, we docked that evening at Edfu, and the next morning we visited the Temple of Horus, the most completely preserved temple in Egypt. Scholars analyze the walls and ceilings, every inch carved with hieroglyphics telling of wars, politics, weddings and legends. It took more than 80 years to complete and was finished in 37 B.C.
Temples like that of Horus served as a meeting place to worship, teach and collect taxes. Horus, the Falcon headed god, was considered a “good” brother, as compared to Seth, the “bad” brother depicted in the temple’s hieroglyphics as a hippopotamus. (The bigger the hippo, the more evil Seth contributed to stories and events carved into temple walls. Horus couldn’t kill Seth, so Horus is often shown standing on the hippo.)
Later, we sailed to Kom Ombo, a strategic bending place on the Nile where routes from Nubia to the Nile Valley could be controlled. The dual temple in Kom Ombo, again depicting good and evil gods, dedicates the left side to the falcon-headed god “Heroeris” and the right side to the evil crocodile god “Sobek.” We looked down into Roman wells where scared crocodiles may have been kept and visited a birthing room, crypt and chapel. There are mummified crocodiles in one chamber.
That night we cruised to Aswan, where the high dam that was finished in 1960 after ten years of construction helps supply electricity and water to much of Egypt, using water from the second largest artificial lake in the world, which stretches 500 miles deep into the Sudan.
When Egypt needed financial help to build the 2.5-mile wide and 300-feet tall dam, the United States hesitated and the Russians, in an effort to embarrass the U.S. and build good will with Egypt, contributed the needed funds to construct it and which is one of the Mideast’s greatest public works projects.
Next, we motored to Elephantine Island opposite Aswan, to see the Temples of Khnum, once visited by Alexander IV, son of Alexander the Great. Here is the Nilometer, where the country’s tax rate was determined by the height of the water on a southern wall of the temple; the higher the water mark, the better for the crops and the higher the taxes.
We also visited Aswan’s granite quarry to view the unfinished obelisk, which cracked in the middle and would have rivaled the world’s highest single piece if it hadn’t split.
Later, we rented a felucca at the city of Aswan to visit the Botanical Gardens on Kitchener’s Island, given to him for his campaigns in the Sudan. English-born Lord Kitchener imported trees, flowers and plants from all over the world onto the island.
Our felucca captain glided around Aswan’s river islands, reading the winds like a bird, catching every breeze and zigzagging up and down the river, regardless of current direction. A young boy helped with the sailing and also offered an array of bracelets, necklaces and carved animals for sale to his captive passengers.
The next morning we boarded a plane back to Cairo prior to an evening airline flight to Nairobi, Kenya, to begin the Kenyan portion of our two-week African adventure.
(Part two of four. Next: Nairobi and the Mount Kenya Safari Club).