Nile’s bet­ter by far

The Jewish Chronicle - - TRAVEL -

essence of the Nile is sight­see­ing. Each day, guides led us to ex­plore the most awe­some sights of the an­cient world, the great­est of them in and around the Pharaohs’ old cap­i­tal of Luxor.

All the life of this busy town is be­side the wa­ter. Crowds saunter along a tree-lined prom­e­nade edged with leisure ships. Dom­i­nat­ing the city cen­tre, Luxor Tem­ple jum­bles faiths to­gether, with Egyp­tian and Ro­man tem­ples, a 1,000-year-old church and a 13th-cen­tury mosque that is still in use.

Just across the river, the Val­ley of the Kings turns out to be a bar­ren, ma­jes­tic land­scape bak­ing un­der a desert sun. Its steep, rocky slopes were the hid­ing place of the Pharaohs’ tombs, scores of them dug along the nar­row val­ley.

Over the cen­turies, their se­cret graves were found and robbed, but one es­caped. In 1922, the small tomb of Tu­tankhamun was dis­cov­ered in­tact, packed full of trea­sures. He reigned only briefly, but be­came the most fa­mous of all the Pharaohs. Inside the tomb is his gilded cof­fin adorned with a death mask. Ankhe­se­na­mun, his de­voted sis­ter and bride, laid a bunch of flow­ers on it for him. They were still there 3,246 years later.

Might­i­est of the tombs are those of Ram­ses I, IV and IX, whose nar­row cor­ri­dors and steps de­scend deep into the earth, their walls and ceil­ings cov­ered with hi­ero­glyph­ics and vividly coloured scenes of the af­ter­life.

Even grander by far is Kar­nak. A stun­ning tem­ple com­plex spread over more than 60 acres on the edge of Luxor, it is the largest re­li­gious site ever. Dat­ing back 3,600 years, it re­mained in con­stant use for 2,300 of them, right up to the Arab in­va­sion. Ev­ery­thing is on a gi­ant scale, nowhere more so than the eerie Great Hall of Col­umns, seen in Death on the Nile.

At the en­trance, a plan shows how the tem­ple was laid out. It closely re­sem­bles the Tem­ple in Jerusalem. At its heart, the Holy of Holies could be en­tered only by the High Priest — or the Pharaoh if he de­cided to take on that role — on one day each year.

A re­turn visit to Kar­nak at night was be­witch­ing, its story told in a soun­dand-light show as we were led around the ru­ins by hid­den voices. Other ex­cur­sions in­cluded trips by camel and in felucca, but best of all was a one­hour dawn out­ing by hot-air bal­loon, waft­ing silently over river and fields as the sun climbed and the world awoke.

Sight­see­ing by day, cruis­ing at night, we ar­rived at Aswan. The river had be­come vast and still, with large is­lands in mid-stream. The bril­liantly sun­lit town stretched along the river bank, where dozens of cruise ships were berthed and count­less smaller craft made their way to and fro. Though the name of Aswan is now syn­ony­mous with a huge Nile dam, it has been a re­sort for more than 100 years and is one of the most in­ter­est­ing towns on the Nile.

At Aswan, where Egypt meets Nu­bia; and the Mediter­ranean world meets Africa, the ship lin­gered for days of re­lax­ation and out­ings. A mo­tor boat skimmed the wa­ter, tak­ing us to the Tem­ple of Phi­lae, a lovely is­land tem­ple ded­i­cated to Isis, God­dess of Fem­i­nin­ity. A felucca, sailed by a tooth­less old man and his small grand­son, car­ried us silently over to Kitch­ener’s Is­land,

en­tirely cov­ered with the lush botanic gar­dens and neat path­ways laid out by Lord Kitch­ener him­self.

A cen­tury ago, visit­ing aris­to­crats and dig­ni­taries would stay at Aswan’s leg­endary Cataract Ho­tel, a lav­ish red­brick palace of Vic­to­rian op­u­lence in Moor­ish style.

Over­look­ing his­toric Ele­phan­tine Is­land, it is still the height of old-fash­ioned lux­ury and style. As the sun dipped and the river re­flected a glori- ous sun­set, I sat on the Cataract’s ter­race with the sump­tu­ous Set Tea, just as Agatha Christie did in the 1930s. Ser­vice was fault­less, views breath­tak­ing, and it cost only £5 to be taken there by river taxi from the cruise ship.

Af­ter-dark en­ter­tain­ment on board rarely ex­tended be­yond party games. I pre­ferred to sit on deck in the vel­vety African night, lis­ten­ing to the river splash­ing gen­tly and the dis­tant sound of time­less vil­lages on the shore.

The Tem­ple of Ram­ses at Abu Sim­bel

PHOTO: ANDREW SANGER

Part of the tem­ple com­plex at Kar­nak, spread over more than 60 acres

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