Nile’s better by far
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
Part of the temple complex at Karnak, spread over more than 60 acres