Cruising the Nile in Egypt


It was almost dusk when we arrived at Luxor Airport from Cairo. The Temple of Luxor was illuminated by the time we got to the hotel. The city was the start of our journey up the Nile to see the temples and tombs of New Kingdom and Ptolemaic pharaohs. (When I say “up the Nile,” I mean in a southerly direction, which I’ll explain later.) I had no idea that Luxor would be as large as it was, inhabited by a half million people. Good, bad or indifferent, this part of the city along Khaled ibn Al Walid looks to be developed for tourism. I could see the Nile just behind our hotel, the Sonesta St. George.

The easiest way for tourists to see the ancient sites of Upper Egypt is to take one of the many Nile cruise ships that they can call home anywhere from a few nights to as long as a week. The sailing on our first vessel, the Steingenberger Legacy, was for four nights from Luxor to Aswan. I have to pause every time to fix in my mind that Upper Egypt refers to the southern part of the Nile because the river flows northward toward the Mediterranean. The designation turns my convention upside down of visualizing upper with top, lower with bottom. We also moved to another cruise ship later (Steigenberger Omar El Khayam) that sailed on Lake Nasser from Abu Simbel to the Aswan High Dam.

In the span of ancient Egyptian history, the period of pyramid building was very short, confined to the Old and Middle Kingdoms. The greatest and most enduring pyramids were built during the fourth dynasty, lasting over a hundred years. But the glories of Egypt are not limited to the pyramids or else visitors would mostly be staying in Cairo. Millions see the grand and beautiful temples and tombs of Upper Egypt. My grandson, who is 10 years old, was envious that we would be going to Abu Simbel, for he had been reading about it and found it fascinating. He also strongly recommended we go to Alexandria, but it was not on our itinerary.

Of the sites we visited and experiences we had along the Nile, the following stand out. Rather than write a post for each, I’ve chosen to aggregate them in one (longish) post. Although I can include them as part of the Nile experience, I’ve posted about the temples of Seti, Hathor, Karnak and Edfu separately.

The Nile

I felt the majesty of the Nile as soon as I boarded the Steigenberger Legacy in Luxor that I didn’t feel whenever we got a glimpse of it from land. It was something to realize I was on the longest river in the world. There was the feeling of wonderment, too, that it was so historically important that Egyptian civilization as we know it would never have existed.

Outside the Nile’s narrow verdant zone, ninety-five percent of Egypt is desert. I was glad I wasn’t here in summer. Since it was February, our tour experienced very pleasant weather. Aswan, which soars into the 100s in June through August, was in the comfortable 80s.

Cruising on the Nile made me imagine the millions who sailed on it before me for subsistence, commerce, war and pharaohs. I saw farmers tending to their fields, boys jumping into the water, mud brick homes, papyrus, palms and domesticated animals hugging the shore. If it’s true that giant blocks of red granite were transported downriver from Aswan, how did they do it? How must it have looked?

From the balcony of our stateroom, I saw a cluster of other cruise ships in front and astride, like a convoy headed to the same place. Millenia ago, boats made of papyrus, cedar and acacia, some with sails, would have been plying these waters.

The Nile was ever serene. Thank goodness, the mosquitoes warned by some previous travelers were only a minor nuisance. On partially cloudy days, the sunsets were spectacular.

Waleed, Papyrus Maker

Among many of Waleed’s talents is his ability to make papyrus paper. At least, he did so in the past. At the Isis 2 Papyrus Museum in Luxor, he demonstrated how the paper is made. And how thoughtful of him to give us who didn’t buy anything a sample papyrus painting.

The fine art of making papyrus paper

Valley of the Kings

Valley of the Kings

In a way, entering the tombs of the New Kingdom pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings is like entering a pyramid. There is a descending passage in all of them, as if symbolically going down into the underworld. The dimensions though are much larger than those of the pyramids, accommodating two-way human traffic and requiring no stooping over. There are 63 known tombs; only 20 of them contained the mummies of kings (the others were tombs of other royal personages, including wives, and high priests). They were all carved into the hillsides with varying degrees of complexity, depending on the ambitions of the kings.

The three-dimensional representation of the tombs in the visitors’ center

One ticket allows visits to three tombs. Not all are open at any given time; only 18 can be visited at all. King Tut’s requires a separate ticket. I entered the tombs of Rameses III, Rameses IV and Rameses IX. In all of them, I stared in amazement at the ceilings and walls, beautifully decorated with religious images and texts. The colors are still vivid after thousands of years.

Inside the Tomb of Rameses IV
Engraving of the pharaoh, Tomb of Rameses III
Tomb of Rameses IX

In Rameses IX’s tomb, Andrew pointed out the engraving of Amun that Egyptologist René Schwaller de Lubicz established was a Pythagorean 3-4-5 right triangle. This means that the Egyptians mastered geometry before the Greeks. Andrew (in his book The Cygnus Key) argues this classic triangular shape was important in siting the three pyramids on the Giza plateau. The depiction does draw attention to itself in the odd way Amun is tilted backward at an angle (36.9o, to be exact) with arms outstretched and a snake bent at an equally strange 90o, not to mention the defilement of Amun/Min’s phallus.

A 3-4-5 triangle can be drawn if the perpendicular sides are represented by the right-angled snake and hypotenuse is the line touching the backs of Amun’s headdress and outstretched legs.

We visited the Temple of Hatshepsut. She was the most powerful and influential female pharaoh in Egyptian history. Near the Valley of the Kings, the temple is located in Deir el-Bahri, where the 1997 massacre of tourists took place. The temple is quite impressive with two long ramps that bisect three levels of wide terraces with double colonnades. Carved into the towering hills behind it, the complex is all the more visually impressive. Her tomb is the longest of any pharaoh at nearly 700ft/200m.

Temple and tomb of Hatshepsut
Pharaoh Hatshepsut
Hatshepsut as the ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt
Queen Hatshepsut sphinx, Egyptian Museum (Cairo)

Even stripped of their riches by tomb robbers, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a treasure that I was fortunate to visit.

Security

A policeman hopped into our tour bus en route to the Saqqara necropolis and occupied the passenger seat. Waleed informed us that he was a kind of security escort who could occasionally become a passenger on any given tour, usually accompanied by a police lead vehicle. There was quite a ruckus when our tour bus drove through a town north of Saqqara. Police vehicle sirens were blaring, I’m guessing to let the townsfolk know to make way so the bus could get through quickly. I never felt unsafe anywhere in Egypt but, of course, very few of us ever do until something happens.

The closest we ever got to a problem happened when we were headed to the Nabta Playa stone circle in the Western Desert near Sudan. After we stopped for a break at a cafe literally in the middle of nowhere, there were reports that a ‘suspicious vehicle’ had entered that area. This wasn’t to be taken lightly since extremist groups in the past have smuggled arms from Libya and launched deadly attacks on the army and police in this desert. As a precaution we were not permitted to continue on to Nabta Playa.

Rest stop somewhere in the Western Desert

Instead, we went on to an area of rock outcroppings and mesas where we just wandered, looking and picking up rock samples, and meditated. I doubt if we could do this in the summer.

Rock outcropping, possibly mudstone, somewhere in the Western Desert

This desert had to have been in a marine environment millions of years ago, judging from the manganese nodules scattered everywhere. It was odd to see these black spherical formations, none more than an inch wide, all over the desert floor.

Manganese nodules

It’s unfortunate that security is found to be necessary to protect tourists. In 1997, Egypt was rocked by a terrorist attack at Deir el-Bahri that killed 62 people, most of whom were tourists. The country has an uncompromising policy against terrorism. There was security everywhere we went. It was obvious that the number of men occupied by this sector, which includes the military, is very high. It explains why Egypt has one of the world’s largest standing armies. Soldiers and guards carried weapons, which may make some tourists feel edgy, others reassured.

Rameses II, a Megalomanic?

Rameses II is considered the greatest pharaoh who ever lived. He ruled Egypt at the height of its power for 66 years, the second longest in pharaonic history. However, he liked to have big statues made of himself. For instance, the Ramesseum, his mortuary temple, features a colossal syenite statue. Now broken apart at the waist, it otherwise would have been 56ft/17m high and weighed a stupendous 1,000 tons. Fragments, including a single piece consisting of his head and upper torso, are scattered nearby.

Fallen statue of Rameses II, Ramesseum. Notice the deep engravings on the right arm.

Rameses had more statues made of himself than any other pharaoh, all enormous. The most famous, of course, are at Abu Simbel, four of his humongous likenesses at 69ft in height in a seated position, while his wife, mother and children are miniaturized at his feet.

Abu Simbel

Rameses was not content to immortalize himself in statuary. He commanded that his cartouches be deeply engraved in stone so they couldn’t be easily vandalized, not only at the Ramesseum but wherever he built temples or whenever he added his cartouches at existing ones.

Rameses II’s cartouche, Karnak Temple

His tomb in the Valley of the Kings is the most elaborate, containing some 50 rooms. It is the largest in terms of area at a staggering 8,800 sqft/820 sqm. Are these examples of a giant ego or simply one-upping what previous pharaohs did before? I am leaning toward the former.

Surgical Precision

Built in Ptolemaic times, the Temple of Kom Ombo is different from other Egyptian temples. It commemorates two gods (Sobek and Horus the Elder), each with his own dedicated half. As if not to favor one over the other, there are two separate, identical entrances, Horus’ on the left, Sobek’s on the right. Each half of the temple is a mirror of the other, a unique design in Egyptian temple architecture.

Temple of Kom Ombo

What I found very interesting was a relief toward the rear of the temple that depicts ancient Egyptian surgical tools, including what looked like scalpels, bottles and scissors. Egyptian medicine was far advanced for its time.

Surgical and medical instruments, Kom Ombo Temple

Ever wonder how those huge architectural stones in ancient Egypt were held together? At Kom Ombo Temple, I didn’t expect to see a smoking gun, but there it was. The builders used metal clamps. Adjacent stones were hollowed out in dovetails. Metal clamps were used throughout the ancient world, including as far away as Bolivia (Puma Punku). A few of them I saw at Kom Ombo had wooden ones inserted in the cavities. But those have neither strength nor longevity to be remotely useful, so they must have been put in at a much later date (as a practical joke?).

Nubian Village

We arrived at ‘Nubian Village’ in the late afternoon by motorboat, after having spent the earlier part of the day visiting the Temple of Philae and stopping at a local market in Aswan. The boat ride from Aswan let us see several interesting things along the river.

It’s generically called ‘Nubian Village.’ Organized tours don’t use its actual name, Gharb Seheil (or Soheil), for some reason, but I suspect it has to do with marketing. Located opposite Seheil Island on the west side of the Nile, a visit to it or another village might be included in a Nile cruise package. 

The village had to be created when the Aswan High Dam was built in 1964. The project displaced 50,000 Nubians in Egypt (and likely more in Sudan). Villages like Gharb Seheil were peopled by Nubians who refused to leave for government-sponsored resettlement houses in Kom Ombo. The loss of ancestral lands must linger in the hearts and minds of Nubians old enough to remember the diaspora.

We passed open-air shops in the marketplace area selling all sorts of merchandise, including fabrics, clothing, food products, scents, jewelry, spices and crafts. The hawking was as vigorous as anywhere else in Egypt.

Besides shopping, camel riding is very popular with tourists.

Although the market stalls and buildings were awash in color, as if an enthusiastic artist had free rein, the predominant color was deep sky blue that seems to suggest the Nile, a river as historically important to Nubians as Egyptians. In its way, the blue color scheme reminded me of Chefchouen in Morocco.

Crocodiles were visible, too, skins mounted on walls and live ones kept captive. One was languishing at the bottom of a pit in a Nubian family’s home while we were served tea in the courtyard. Whoever thought I would hold a baby croc?

At the end of the visit to Gharb Seheil, I sampled a delicious glass of doum juice at an outdoor restaurant.

Towel Art

It must be an art form that housekeepers on cruise ships learn. I first encountered towel art on a cruise ship to Alaska. A bath towel and/or bed cover would be folded to create whimsical figures, typically animals, and placed on your stateroom bed. Anything else in your room to augment the main creation would be fair game. Our Egyptian counterparts didn’t disappoint.

Party Boy

It so happened that Waleed’s birthday fell on a date during one of our cruises. Alicia arranged for a celebration at dinner. As it did for other birthday observances, the wait staff entered the dining room while singing the birthday song and got Waleed to dance with them. Our group happily joined in to honor our tour leader who was like a family member to us. In fact, he called us Family from the beginning, a name we’d hear time and again when he needed our attention or in casual conversation. He took care of us and made sure we had everything we needed, including ministering to those of us who had ailments of one kind or another. How could we not show our love and respect for someone who became a huge part of us? 

Postscript

Our group was one of the last to travel to Egypt before the global pandemic shut everything down. When this post was published, the world was abiding by a long and extremely cautious social contact and masking protocol that can’t help but shape our future behaviors, even toward travel. For something this crippling, memories will not be short. I know I won’t go anywhere soon. It’s sobering to realize that tourism as we know it, or rather as we knew it, may not recover for a long time. Countries like Egypt that depend heavily on tourism will suffer a great loss from a very important economic sector. I feel regret toward a country that welcomed me with open arms and allowed me to experience its treasures.

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