The Nile River pro­vides a fab­u­lous jour­ney through splen­did desert scenery, an an­cient civil­i­sa­tion and the hub­bub of con­tem­po­rary Egypt, writes Brian John­ston.

Travel Bulletin - - CONTENTS -

Most of Egypt is silent desert, blaz­ing sun and rock red as the dawn of time. Then sud­denly the Nile River flows, a great pump­ing artery of wa­ter in the bar­ren­ness, and on its banks erupts a whole civil­i­sa­tion: an­cient tem­ples and glass sky­scrapers, fields of rice and feath­ery date palms, roads, railways and vil­lages of mud brick. This gift in the wilder­ness is Egypt, with 90 per cent of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion packed into just three per cent of its land­mass. For thou­sands of years the river has been a life­line – and a lure to trav­ellers. The Nile of­fers tem­ples and tombs from a daz­zling civil­i­sa­tion that owes ev­ery­thing to the river’s slug­gish majesty. The Nile is both the symbol of an­cient Egyp­tian cul­ture and the heart­beat of a mod­ern na­tion, and you’ll never tire of its chang­ing river-scapes. Travel its banks by train, float along it on a cruise ship, walk its prom­e­nades, and the whole of Egypt un­folds. The most im­por­tant stretch of the Nile flows be­tween the cities of Aswan and Luxor in Up­per Egypt, where the river is lined with the world’s great­est col­lec­tion of an­cient palaces and tem­ples. Luxor is the an­cient cap­i­tal of Thebes, and the Nile River neatly di­vides its sights in two: the for­mer cap­i­tal and its grand tem­ples on the east bank, pharaohs’ tombs and mor­tu­ary tem­ples on the west bank. The con­trast is star­tling. The west bank is im­bued with a brood­ing calm, the desert sands punc­tu­ated with worn-down stat­ues and silent gap­ing tombs, while the east bank’s mod­ern town is full of hub­bub, street mar­kets and ho­tels. The river­side prom­e­nade known as the Cor­niche gives you a grand­stand view of the Nile and its sail­boats and river-cruise ships. Along the prom­e­nade’s length, horse-drawn car­riages clip-clop past, old men per­am­bu­late and street-smart hus­tlers sell felucca tours and stat­uettes of cats and pharaohs. Luxor is the de­par­ture point for a Nile cruise to Aswan, which usu­ally takes three days. Ships sail be­tween the red, rocky hills of the desert. Vil­lages and neat farm­land slide by, al­low­ing you a glimpse of ru­ral Egypt you mightn’t oth­er­wise see. The days fiz­zle out in sunsets that turn the sur­round­ing desert or­ange, pro­vid­ing the beau­ti­ful mo­ments that travel is all about. Along the way, grandiose tem­ples loom. At Edfu, the Tem­ple of Horus is one of Egypt’s best pre­served an­cient build­ings, guarded by brood­ing gran­ite fal­con stat­ues and cov­ered inside with friezes and hi­ero­glyph­ics. Fur­ther south, an­other grand tem­ple stands on a bluff above the river at Kom Ombo. Wall in­scrip­tions de­pict the crocodile-headed god Sobek, and you can in­spect the re­mains of macabre mum­mi­fied croc­o­diles in side build­ings, a re­minder of how the Nile per­me­ated ev­ery as­pect of an­cient Egyp­tian life. Other gods have the heads of hip­pos and ibis, and the great sun god Ra was rowed

across the heav­ens in a boat. Whether you travel by road or ship, Aswan is usu­ally the last stop on the river, which nar­rows here be­tween sand hills and giant gran­ite boul­ders, mark­ing the south­ern­most point of the nav­i­ga­ble Nile. Cataracts once flowed above the town, now tamed by the Aswan Dam. Aswan’s set­ting is one of the loveli­est in Egypt. Climb into a felucca – a sail­ing boat scarcely changed since the time of the pharaohs – and ex­plore the slug­gish river’s scat­tered is­lands. The Is­land of Plants has dusty botan­i­cal gar­dens and bril­liant views over the sand dunes and tombs of the west bank. Ele­phan­tine Is­land, named be­cause its gran­ite boul­ders re­sem­ble bathing ele­phants, is home to three Nu­bian vil­lages. You might also want to in­spect the nilome­tre, a se­ries of 90 steps com­plete with pharaonic mark­ings and in­scrip­tions. In an­cient times the nilome­tre was used to cal­cu­late the river’s rise be­tween June and Septem­ber when mon­soon rains washed down from Ethiopia. The an­cient Egyp­tian calendar was di­vided into three based on the river’s cy­cles: akhet or flood­ing sea­son, peret or grow­ing sea­son, and shemu or har­vest sea­son. When the river and fields were flooded farm­ers were un­able to work, leav­ing a plen­ti­ful sup­ply of labour for mas­sive build­ing projects. Even the glo­ri­ous tem­ples that line its banks are the re­sult of the Nile’s bounty, with­out which all of Egyp­tian civil­i­sa­tion would never have hap­pened. Aswan was known as Swenet in an­cient times. The name sim­ply meant ‘trade’, and trade flowed down the Nile to the Mediter­ranean in the one di­rec­tion, and by car­a­vans of camels to Nu­bia and the rest of Africa in the other. The ru­ins of Swenet are some­what unin­spir­ing, and you’ll get a bet­ter flavour of life in an­cient times by head­ing into the town’s street mar­kets a few blocks be­hind the river. Nu­bians in long blue robes barter with Be­douin traders and Egyp­tian mid­dle­men, squab­bling over glasses of tea as spices, salted fish, cot­ton and car­pets are sold. It’s the Nile alive with trade and chat­ter as it has been for thou­sands of years, and eter­nally fas­ci­nat­ing.

View over the Old Cataract Ho­tel and Nile River at Aswan (©Brian John­ston) Shop­ping in the streets of Aswan © Egyp­tian Tourist Au­thor­ity

A Nu­bian vil­lage on the west bank of the Nile op­po­site Aswan © Egyp­tian Tourist Au­thor­ity Tomb of Ram­ses II in the Val­ley of the Kings at Thebes near Luxor. © Egyp­tian Tourist Au­thor­ity

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