A Thousand Miles Down the Nile
A cruise along Egypt’s mighty river uncovers chapters of a rich and deep history
On a dewy morning on the second day of my cruise, I stood on the deck captivated by the scene in front of me. The steel guardrails were cool to touch, the air tasted of sand and dry, yellow hills of the Egyptian countryside were just visible through the mist. The river—the mighty Nile—appeared almost nonchalant in the face of all the activity around it: boats on the water, dense green foliage on the banks, and flocks of egrets in the shallows. The scene made me think of the millennia of civilisation this river has witnessed—I signed up for this cruise to peek into stories of human history along these banks.
For years, travellers have cruised the Nile. The earliest humans flourished in its floodplains. Over centuries, they coalesced into agricultural colonies that metamorphosed into one of the world’s oldest civilisations, inhabited by commoners and their pharaohs, priests and their gods. A tell-tale record of this time remains in the temples and tombs scattered along the Nile.
My journey began yesterday in Aswan. Though 6,695 kilometres from source to mouth, cruises on the world’s longest river ply 238 kilometres between Aswan and Luxor. On meeting my guide Ashraf at Aswan airport I was told that his main vocation is archaeological restoration, and being a tour guide was a hobby that earned him good money. “Restoration is different from preservation, which is different from excavation,” he added. Clearly, history and its preservation was a big deal here.
Our cruise liner was set to depart at midnight and in the meantime we headed out to see the High Dam of Aswan. After having travelled this far, seeing a dam was not on my list but I let Ashraf guide me. Constructed in 1960, the dam serves almost half of Egypt’s electricity needs. “It is heavily guarded since it would wash most of Egypt into the Mediterranean if it burst,” Ashraf explained driving me through security posts. The concrete lines across the Nile made me wonder if this river, that once had god-like status, had been domesticated. As I struggled with that thought, a water taxi arrived to take me to the 690 B.C. Temple of Philae. This temple to the Goddess Isis used to stand on what is now an island in the middle of the river. However, like the 1,00,000 Nubians, who once lived along the banks were resettled in the nearby government-built village, the temple was also moved. Rising waters from the dam construction threatened to submerge the temple, and it was relocated in its entirety to the redesigned Egilica Island in 1971.
On the structure’s outer walls I spotted dark lines, remnants from when the temple was partially submerged. The oldest part of the temple, a 60-foot-high pylon built by Nectanebo I, leads to a courtyard flanked by stone columns about 20-foot-tall. Commoners would assemble in this courtyard, while the adjoining inner sanctum of the gods was reserved for priests and pharaohs. Though separated by thousands of kilometres, it was interesting to see this Egyptian temple echo the design philosophy of many Indian temples. Inside, reliefs on the stone walls showed temple rituals and scenes from everyday life. The faded colour on some indicated that in its glory days this structure was bright and colourful, while crosses inscribed within the hieroglyphs were a sign this temple being used as a church in the Byzantine era. The inner sanctum lies bare; the statue of Isis was moved to a Florence museum long ago.
By the time I ended my tour of the Temple of Philae, the afternoon sun had drained me out and the air-conditioned car-ride back to the cruise liner was more than welcome. On the way through the city of Aswan, I saw men sitting outside their mud huts enjoying sweetened hibiscus tea and shishas.
The hum of the engine woke me up early the next day. Yet, despite the whir and the motion of the cruise, there was a calmness around me.
Over the next two days, I visited sites short distances away from the Nile’s banks between Aswan and Luxor. The first stop was the complex of the temples of Sobek, the crocodile god, and Horus, the falcon god. Built between 180 and 47 B.C., the complex is divided by a central axis, each half dedicated to a god. A common front courtyard opens into a hypostyle hall, beyond which lie two inner sanctums, one for Sobek and another for Horus. Etched into one of the courtyard’s walls [A3] is an elaborate calendar, stating the offerings to be made to the gods each month.
The image of Sobek, a humanlike god with a crocodilian head (Horus had the head of a falcon) made me think of the crocodiles of the Nile. Often considered the second largest of the species, the Nile crocodile has been revered in Egypt since ancient times. I had hoped to see a few soaking up the sun but so far had seen none. “And you won’t,” clarified Ashraf as we left the complex, “for all of them have been moved to the other side of the High Dam, so that people can use the water.”
We sailed about sixty kilometres north that day to Edfu. Here, a short horse-cart ride takes visitors to one of the best-preserved temples in Egypt, also dedicated to Horus. Built between 237 and 57 B.C., it remained buried in sand and thus untouched until its excavation in the 1860s. The first thing anyone sees when approaching this temple is the 118-foot-high pylon with statues of Horus on either side. The most remarkable feature of this temple, however, is in the inner sanctum. Behind a replica of the wooden barque, which was used to carry the statue of Horus out of the temple during festivals, is a granite block so well-polished it shines like metal. “In those times silver was more expensive than gold,” Ashraf explained. “They made this piece of stone shine like silver to indicate the splendour of this temple.”
That night, the boat moored in Esna. Here, the Nile has an elevation difference of 26 feet, similar to the Panama Canal. The engineer in me was most excited as the boat had to be brought down to the lower level of the river. Built on one side of the river is a ‘water-lock’ system where the boat enters a locked-in barrage, and water is pumped in or out to adjust the level at which it floats.
“This stop used to be a bottleneck. We had 300 boats cruising on the Nile every day. Now there are only about 50 and even those are not full,” Ashraf told me. Looking at the people on board—about one-sixth of the boat’s capacity—I knew he was right. For a traveller like me, the lack of crowds makes visiting Egypt now a rewarding experience. However, for a country dependent on tourism such fall in numbers could be crippling.
The cruise’s unhurried progress continued until, at last, Luxor’s illuminated minarets lit up the dusky sky.
We first docked on the west bank to visit the UNESCO site of the Valley of the Kings. Like the pyramids, the Valley of Kings is a burial site housing the tombs of pharaohs and nobles of the New Kingdom. Of the 63 tombs excavated from the 16th century B.C. till date, 18 can be visited and every day only three are kept open to minimise exposure. Depending on their state of preservation, they are categorised from class A to C, and the most famous is the Class B tomb of the boy pharaoh Tut Ankh Amun (Tutankhamun). In 1922, it was found intact and full of the royal’s treasures by British archaeologist Howard Carter. While the treasure—most of which is in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum—is quite something, it was the colourful hieroglyphics and scenes carved on the tomb’s stone walls that captivated me. Painted predominantly in shades of ochre and blue, these are undisturbed and still bright. Ancient Egyptians believed that on resurrection the pharaohs would need guidance to reach the house of god. The hieroglyphic text and scenes from the sacred Book of the Dead are meant for that.
Leading me to the Class A tomb of Ramses IV, Ashraf told me that he had contributed to its restoration. A fact that, I gathered from his demeanour, satisfied him deeply. As I admired the neat carvings, like millions had done before me, I understood the feeling—I was able to see this history preserved today thanks partially to the man standing next to me.
On the last night of the cruise, we docked on Luxor’s east bank and that evening, after bidding goodbye to Ashraf, I decided to explore parts of the city on foot. I walked past the ruins of 14th-century B.C. Luxor Temple, which has two enormous seated figures of Ramses II, the last pharaoh to have work done on this temple, flanking its entrance. A muezzin’s call, from the mosque just outside the temple, reverberated through the air. On the square in front, children played football, while the parents watched from a distance sitting in the grass with their shishas. Built on the erstwhile historical Thebes, Luxor has no swanky malls or multiplexes and people often seek these open spaces to unwind.
I walked on to the souk, about 20 minutes away, where cheeky shouts of salesmen and the smell of the spices filled the air. Amidst the hullaballoo, I sat at a café and ordered a cold hibiscus tea. Despite the distractions, my thoughts were on the journey so far. Egypt may always be at the mercy of the river, but I felt gratitude for her too. The Nile is our connection to a grand bygone era, and in her flows a history so deep that we seem too transient to carry it.
A version of this story appeared in National Geographic Traveller