Alone among pharaohs

Nile cruises beckon, but with a cau­tion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - MEM­PHIS BARKER

SHORTLY be­fore dessert, on my third day aboard The Oberoi Zahra luxury Nile cruiser, I was passed a mo­bile phone to have a word with the cus­tomer manager of the tour­ing com­pany that had or­gan­ised the trip.

“Mem­phis,” the voice said cheer­fully, as I sat by my­self in the dining room, “am I speak­ing to the pharaoh of the boat?” He was, in a way. I owe my name to an an­cient Egyptian city and at that mo­ment my king­dom oc­cu­pied the whole of the ship, from the pool to the cigar room — in­clud­ing a pop­u­la­tion of 45 staff, though not a sin­gle other guest.

A touch of the lone­li­ness Ramesses might have felt washed over me. For days the only peo­ple I had spo­ken to were be­ing paid to at­tend to my ev­ery wish. Pleas­ant com­pany, but li­able to throw them­selves at any­thing I might hap­pen to drop — such as a tea­spoon — as if it were a live grenade.

All other 26 cab­ins on board were empty. The sched­uled cock­tail par­ties had been can­celled. There was no hub­bub in the dining room. I gave the phone back and looked for a mo­ment at a freshly de­liv­ered creme brulee.

Depend­ing on your so­cial in­cli­na­tion and/or po­lit­i­cal views, there hasn’t been a bet­ter time to visit Egypt. The flow of tourists has turned to a driz­zle since the revo­lu­tion in 2011. News­pa­per re­ports have of­fered a con­cern­ing im­pres­sion: protests, and then, in the sum­mer of 2013, a massacre. The mil­i­tary coup that brought Ab­del Fat­tah el-Sisi to power left be­hind a trail of dead Mus­lim Brotherhood sup­port­ers.

Once, Swedish CEOs rubbed shoul­ders with Saudi princesses on board the Zahra. Now there was only me, who may or may not have ful­filled the “el­e­gant” dress­code re­quired for din­ner.

What splen­dour it was though, not least in my dark wood and mar­ble pres­i­den­tial suite. The jour­ney ran smoothly, with the four-deck cruiser mov­ing at a pace which felt like some­thing be­tween a trun­dle and a jog. The city of Aswan — once a colo­nial hub for the English — bus­tles to­wards the port, from where we de­parted. Up the river, north to Luxor, the towns give way to great stretches of farm­land on ei­ther side.

Each morn­ing, I would drag back the suite’s cur­tains, which cov­ered the ceil­ing-to-floor win­dows, with priest­like care. The view had some­thing rev­er­en­tial about it. The wide river. Trees on the banks, like the scrub on an up­turned tooth­brush. Small birds. The odd felucca.

Af­ter break­fast, Wael, the ship’s tour guide, would lead the way to one or other of the tem­ples that sit, squat and daunt­ing, close to the river’s edge. Kom Ombo (circa 2400 years old); Edfu (c. 2250); Kar­nak (c. 5000). Each cuts through the com­pla­cency of a ca­sual tourist, the glaze brought on by know­ing one ought to ap­pre­ci­ate some­thing. To walk through the py­lon fa­cade of an Egyptian tem­ple is to be spo­ken to not only by the grandeur of the ar­chi­tec­ture but, more re­mark­ably per­haps, in a lit­eral sense. Hi­ero­glyph­ics cover the walls – di­rec­tions on how and when to sac­ri­fice what, of­fer­ings from rulers (Ptolemy, Seti, Thut­mose) to gods (Ho­race, Thoth, Min).

The col­umns and the slabs and the al­tar-rooms all throb with mean­ing, a phi­los­o­phy no longer fully de­ci­pher­able. Oc­ca­sion­ally Wael would stop and read, turn­ing a duck or a bee­tle into vow­els. So clear is the iconog­ra­phy — of­ten so well pre­served — that the ef­fect is a plea­sur­able shift­ing of the sands. You can go in think­ing there is no god and that the sun is a ball of flame, and find your­self, deep in the dark, open to the idea that the god­dess Nuht’s belly stretches out to form the sky and that all evil can be traced back to a god, Sobek, with a crocodile head.

Luxor, the home of Kar­nak, was the an­cient city of Thebes. It brought agri­cul­ture and civil­i­sa­tion to Egypt. “Royal Thebes, Egyptian trea­sure house of count­less wealth, who boasts her hun­dred gates/ Through each of which, with horse and car, two hun­dred war­riors march,” wrote Homer in The Iliad.

Across the Nile is the Val­ley of the Kings. The tombs of the pharaohs lie down slop­ing tun­nels, cut into the moun­tains of Luxor. In­side, colours; four-mil­len­nia-old paint of a fe­roc­ity — a verve — that makes one feel that a cen­tury can pass in the click of a fin­ger.

Twelve ba­boons adorn a wall in Tu­tankhamun’s fi­nal rest­ing place. Each rep­re­sents an hour and of­fers the soul of the young ruler a piece of ad­vice on how to reach the next one, so that he can make it into the af­ter­life through the first, cru­cial night af­ter death. I would not now be ut­terly sur­prised if I see a ba­boon when my time comes.

Ev­ery­where we went, at least when I pressed Wael on the topic, he would lament the lack of tourists. As we walked to the edge of the up­per dam in Aswan, he ges­tured to a tiny clus­ter of Amer­i­can tourists and said, close to anger: “Be­fore, you wouldn’t even be able to stand here — there would be too many buses!”

Now he works a sliver of what he did be­fore. Like many Egyp­tians, any rev­o­lu­tion­ary spirit he might once have pos­sessed has dimmed. “Af­ter four years and no jobs,” he said, “you are tired of pol­i­tics.” Sisi — a for­mer gen­eral — of­fers se­cu­rity, at least.

At the sou­venir shops of Cairo air­port, T-shirts em­bla­zoned with the date of the up­ris­ing against Mubarak — Jan­uary 25 — are now hid­den be­hind racks of oth­ers and sold at a steep dis­count. It’s thought that the min­istry of an­tiq­ui­ties, which is re­spon­si­ble for the up­keep of

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