REVIVAL ON THE NILE
As new hotels and cultural centres get ready to throw open their doors, ANTHONY SATTIN lays out why it’s a good time to be a tourist (again) in Egypt
As new hotels and cultural centres get ready to throw open their doors, Anthony Sattin lays out why it’s a good time to be a tourist (again) in Egypt
Acouple of years ago, I climbed out of Tutankhamun’s tomb at midday to find myself alone in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings, not another visitor in sight. Where was everyone? For the valley’s unique, spectacular and inspiring tombs to be abandoned was a sign of just how badly Egypt’s tourist trade had been hit by the Arab Spring and the events of the following years. But this appears to be changing, and we are each of us, per the soundtrack to Chanel’s recent Egypt-inspired fashion show in New York, an “Egyptian lover, baby”.
Go to Luxor now and you’ll be far from lonely: on a recent visit, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were busy, the guards back to their old ways of encouraging everyone to move through quickly, the touts happier yet just as persistent. And the revival is not limited to Luxor: Cairo hotels are raising their rates, a clear sign that business is beginning to boom, and river cruisers and beaches are filling up.
Cairo has seen more changes these past eight years than any other part of the country, not least because of President Sisi’s decision to build a new capital city. While the new city is under construction, the old one does what it has always done: it struggles, it morphs and comes out stronger, an ethos that a group of visual artists have channelled into their new design store and art gallery in Garden City called Cairopolitan
( 0020-2-2793 1153, cairopolitan.com). Even the old is getting a new sheen: the most spectacular cultural opening will be the AED 3.6bn-plus Grand Egyptian Museum ( 0020-2-3377 7263, gem.gov. eg) near the Giza pyramids. It is hoped this vast new home for the finest of Egyptian antiquities will attract even more visitors to Egypt. Already muchdelayed, its opening has now been confirmed for early 2020. But whatever happens elsewhere, downtown Cairo is not being abandoned. The old Egyptian Museum ( entry from AED 12; 0020-23377 7263) is being tidied up while, nearby, the Maspero triangle has been levelled to make way for a masterplan from British architects Foster + Partners. More immediately interesting – opening in February – is the Tahrir Cultural Center ( 00202-2615 1000, aucegypt.edu), an art, cinema and performance complex on the old American University in Cairo (AUC) campus on Tahrir Square, which will provide an opportunity for new talent to tread the same boards that Oum Kalthoum, Taha Hussein and Naguib Mahfouz once walked. The exhibition space joins what is already a rich contemporary art scene in Cairo that includes Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art ( 00202-2578 4494, mashrabiagallery.com), Gypsum Gallery ( gypsumgallery.com) and, most vibrant of all, Townhouse Gallery ( 0020-2-2576 8086, thetownhousegallery.com), now fully reopened after its main building was damaged.
Also opening in February will be The St. Regis Cairo ( marriott.com), the brand’s debut in Egypt. With luxurious rooms designed by Michael Graves, river views, top-end dining and the signature St. Regis butler service, it will be a rival for nearby
The Nile Ritz-Carlton ( doubles from AED 899; 0020-2-2577 8899, ritzcarlton.com), which opened a couple of years ago in the shell of the old Nile Hilton on Tahrir and is also seeing business grow. The other big Cairo hotel (re)opening will be out at the pyramids. Marriott Mena House ( doubles from
“THE MOST SPECTACULAR CULTURAL OPENING WILL BE THE AED 3.6BN
PLUS GRAND EGYPTIAN MUSEUM NEAR THE GIZA PYRAMIDS”
“IF YOU GO TO LUXOR NOW, YOU’RE GOING TO BE FAR FROM LONELY: THE TOMBS ARE BUSY, THE TOUTS HAPPIER BUT JUST AS PERSISTENT”
AED 719; 0020-2-3377 3222, marriott.com) was originally built in 1869 to accommodate visitors for the opening of the Suez Canal and has since looked after a huge range of royalty from Europe and Hollywood, including, famously, Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia. Although the garden rooms are currently functioning, the historic “palace” rooms, which look spectacularly straight on to the pyramids, are the subject of a major refurbishment that will take this historic hotel up to today’s luxury standards.
Luxor, which contains as much as 30 per cent of the world’s antiquities, has been among the worst-hit by the tourist downturn, although archaeologists have provided a steady enough stream of new discoveries to keep it in the spotlight. Luxor has always been on a continuity and so it remains. The best hotels are still the Al Moudira
( price on request; 0020-95-255 1440, moudira. com), extravagantly decorated, independently run and one of the most interesting hotels in the country; the old colonial Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor ( doubles from AED 734; 0020-95-238
0425, accorhotels.com), a grand building with a beautiful garden; and the Hilton Luxor Resort & Spa ( doubles from AED 422; 0020-100-600 1270, hilton.com), on the Nile near Karnak Temple.
There has been more change on the West Bank, across from the city. A short stroll from the ferry landing, a shop called Sa Re ( 0020-109-750 7767, sa-re.net) is selling Egyptian foie gras – “since 2450 BC” is their strapline – perfect for a picnic on a day at the tombs. The nearby Luxor Art Gallery ( 0020-111-125 8045, luxorartgallery.com) showcases a range of works, from Wael Nour’s watercolours of local buildings and monuments to wood sculptures by local artist Mahmoud Salem, and oils of local and ancient scenes by Alaa Awad who painted some of the strongest murals in Cairo during the Tahrir protests. And west of there, near the edge of the agricultural land, you can see how archaeologists are painstakingly recovering whatever survives of the massive funerary temple of King Amenhotep III, fronted by the famous and colossal twin seated statues of the pharaoh.
Although there were no incidents and few travel advisories regarding safety on the river, Nile cruising was badly hit by the unrest, and many of the 300 floating hotels that cruise between Luxor and Aswan have been tied up since 2011. The best have remained in service, among them The Oberoi
Philae ( doubles from AED 2,883 per night on a four-night cruise; 0020-111-974 0600, oberoihotels. com), having been completely refurbished in 2016. Some of the dahabiyas (luxury sailing boats) have also been thriving, none more so than Nour el
Nil ( five-night cruises from AED 5,815 per person; 0044-20-3239 0923, nourelnil.com). Their eightand 10-cabin boats, with distinctive red-and-white sails, provide an elegant alternative to even the most luxurious floating hotels and will sail you to Aswan in five deliciously slow days and nights.
Fast or slow, desert or valley, a walk through Cairo or a laze on a beach along the country’s ample coastline, there’s no shortage of new and old things to see and do and never a better time to do it. Returning to that Chanel soundtrack: Egypt, “it’s not just a name, it’s an adventure”.
From left: Al Moudira hotel in Luxor; art in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. Opposite, clockwise from top left: Jannah Tea Bar in the Hilton Luxor Resort; a guard in the Karnak complex in Luxor; a cabin’s sumptuous bathroom on The Oberoi Philae; the upcoming St. Regis Cairo
From left: The Theban Necropolis near Luxor; Luxor Art Gallery. Opposite, clockwise from top: Pyramid views from Marriott Mena House inCairo; a guest room with views in The Nile Ritz-Carlton; items in design store Cairopolitan