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History

Egypt: Cruising the Nile and walking in ancient footsteps

06 Mar 2024 | Written by By Jenn Millard
The Joy Club member Jenn Millard shares her experience and highlights of visiting Egypt…

Leaving Heathrow on a grey October day, we arrived late into the night in Luxor, Egypt, to temperatures of 25 degrees Centigrade at midnight. The ship’s crew and manager welcomed us on board and we were quickly escorted to our cabins where snacks and drinks awaited us and our luggage mysteriously appeared. Too tired to unpack, we washed and fell into pyjamas and bed with a note to awaken early the next morning.

Our tour guide Majid – Mr Magic – shepherded his bunch of sleepy tourists onto the air conditioned bus the following morning and prepared us for the Valley of the Kings. He brought history alive with snippets of information during the short drive. Fascinating scenes unfolded from the bus windows and I watched traffic weave in and out of the road in front. Children played outside houses or on the road side. Mothers hung laundry in small courtyards and the occasional glimpse of a donkey or goats being herded alongside the road added to the enchantment of this vibrant, busy and dusty area of Luxor.

Cruise ships in Egypt are small, 60 cabins, and we had a delightful tour group made up of young, mid to late thirties and (in the main) the older contingent.

Cruise ships

Arriving at the Valley of the Kings, multiple tour buses filled the car park and I was a little dismayed at the thought of this commercialism and the crowds. However once our party had been escorted onto elongated golf buggies with tickets at the ready, we moved quickly forward towards the entrance of the valley. A vista opened up in front of us – stark, sandy hills and carved into these, the entrances to tombs. Orderly queues were already forming, despite the early morning. The heat was beginning to build and waiting to enter the main tomb, I noticed other excavation sites high up on the surrounding hills. Egypt is still discovering further tombs and treasures, this is a land of ancient mystery and discovery mixed with the hubbub of daily life.

We were told that the colours in the tombs have faded with time, they were vibrant when originally painted. These hieroglyphics tell the story of each dynasty and its movement from the river to villages. The building of the tombs are depicted on the walls and tell a story of the Kings and their possessions being laid to rest.

Inside the Valley of the Kings

High up on another hill is the Temple of Hatshepsut. Too steep and too hot to climb, I opted for an iced coffee while my other half climbed and bagged the best photographs. Onward by bus to the Colossi of Memnon. These gigantic statues sit on a plateau surrounded by a good viewing platform. Not yet as busy, we disembarked and walked around, marvelling at the sheer enormity of these granite statues. In the sky above and over the nearby hills, hot air balloons floated by. These enormous colossuses sit silently in sharp contrast against the hills as the balloons float silently overhead.

Back on board the ship we gathered on the top deck to meet our fellow guests and prepare for sailing onward down the Nile to the next stop. Mr Magic made his way between the groups answering questions with a ready smile. One particularly well dressed elderly gentleman kept us entertained throughout the trip with his array of well cut linen and different colour jackets and suits. His wife made me laugh when I remarked on his outfits. She rolled her eyes and told me he was “a peacock” – gently said with a smile and a pat on his arm.

The Nile is incredibly wide, with unexpectedly blue water and rich green growth on the banks. Gently cruising along, we spotted sheep and goat herders urging their flock along. They dress in traditional white robes and carry the long old fashioned shepherd’s crook. Children frolicked on the river bank and swam happily in the shallows. We questioned Mr Magic about the famous Nile crocodiles and he laughed, explaining that these have all been caught for their skin and their meat, hence the children freely swimming without fear of those deathly jaws. Suddenly we hear shouts, and see a swiftly paddling boat come up alongside the ship. A rope is expertly thrown and anchors the boat to a low rail. Bobbing perilously in the water alongside the ship, wares for sale are brought out and held up. Bright tablecloths flap in the breeze, statues and jewellery follow. For any passenger indicating they want to buy, a price is shouted and the haggling begins. Eventually they reach agreement and the item is placed into a basket and winched up another rope to the ship. Money is placed into the basket and the transaction is complete. A crew member arrives and shouts to the sellers. The rope anchor is swiftly detached and they fade into the distance waving happily as the ship moves on.

We dock at Esna. The streets alongside the quay are alive with scooters, horse drawn carriages and taxis, all vying for a piece of the road. Calls to prayer ring out across the city and the sounds mingle with the bustle of the busy streets. A short excursion to the Temple of Esna, which was built to worship Khnum, the ram-headed god associated with creation, fertility and the annual flooding of the Nile. Meanwhile, our captain and crew negotiate the Esna Lock, constructed to control the flow of water and preserve agriculture on the Nile.

Back on board we sail further onto Kom Ombu. Docked, we gather and follow Mr Magic. On the quay we are immediately jostled by the local people selling trinkets, pictures and the famous Scarab beetle for luck. A firm “La, Shukran” (No, thank you) deters them and we make our way through trees and music upwards towards the temple. Kom Ombu is an enormous temple built on a hill and appears as a magnificent presence against the late afternoon pink sky. The crocodile god Sobek and a falcon-headed god Haroeris drew worshippers to this temple. Much of the temple was covered in sand and was eventually uncovered and fully restored in 1893. There is also a crocodile museum, showing that even the crocodiles were mummified. Dark, fascinating and a little scary, we are glad to escape into the cool of the evening. The temple begins to glow against the ball of fire of the setting sun and comes alive with carefully placed lights. A beautiful end to another perfect day.

Kom Ombu

Fellucas at sunset

 

Waking during the night, I open our cabin door and lean out over the railing. We are sailing on inky black waters, onward to Aswan. The morning takes us on a short bus ride to another quay and smaller boats take us to the Temple of Philae, situated on an island on the lower Aswan dam. This beautiful structure is dedicated to the goddess Isis, the mother of fertility, magic and protection. Long columns of ornate buildings are dotted on the island. Dainty Egyptian cats of all colours lie in the sun or follow the tourists in the hope of a snack. The ride back to the dock takes us past the hotel where Agatha Christie penned her famous novel “Death on the Nile”. Looking at the enormous rocks on the sides of the water and the graceful sailing Felluca’s all around us, I can only imagine how enchanted and inspired she must have been by these vibrant surroundings.

Boats near Philae

Columns at Philae

Philae from the water

It’s another early start and the bus takes us through the quiet streets of Aswan, past universities and schools and a military area and onto the High Dam of Aswan. We alight on the dam walls. This is one of the world’s largest embankment dams, built between 1960 and 1970. It is also the tallest earthen dam in the world and the sheer scale and size leaves us almost silent and in awe.
Back in the air conditioned bus, we doze and chat quietly on the three hour journey across the desert to Abu Simbel. The desert sand encroaches onto the tarmac and the dunes close by are small. There are areas of agriculture which Mr Magic points out to us, acres and acres of irrigated crops. And then more desert.

Situated on the western bank of Lake Nasser, Abu Simbel is both a wonder and a feat of engineering. This enormous temple was constructed to worship the Pharaoh Ramses II and was also intended as a show of power towards the conquered territory of Nubia. The four colossal statues of Ramases II greet visitors on the approach and can be seen from quite a distance as we approach. The world’s largest dismantling and reassembly project began in 1964. In order to rescue the ancient temples of Abu Simbel from the waters of the Nile, block by block this entire structure was removed and relocated. The sheer size of these statues are awe-inspiring. Inside, the temple is cool and the hieroglyphics are well preserved with ornately decorated ceilings. This is, for me, most definitely the highlight of the tour and having seen photographs, nothing prepares me for the humbling experience of “I am here!”

Abu Simbel

Inside Abu Simbel

 

Once again on board, we set sail back to Luxor and prepare for the end of the cruise. The tour groups are exchanging photographs and telephone numbers or email addresses. We have made a new friend and had the most incredible trip. Late in the evening, the memories are crowding in as I lie in the cabin listening to the ship’s engines and the sound of the water gliding silently by.

Sadly we missed an important element of our holiday which was to be Cairo and the Pyramids, due to one of our family becoming very ill on the last day of the cruise. Another trip for another year to be planned?

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