Alone among pharaohs
Nile cruises beckon, but with a caution
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