Egypt: Adventures on the Nile River

In Africa & The Middle East, Destinations by Susan Watkins

“Welcome, madam” smiles a refined young man, bearing a tray of cold pomegranate cocktails.  I survey the cool marble lobby of the Aswan Movenpick Hotel and once again am impressed by the gracious hospitality of the Egyptian people.  We have just arrived from Cairo, where we had a wild time riding camels at the Pyramids of Giza, exploring the treasures of the Egyptian Museum, visiting the Citadel, the Muhammad-Ali Mosque and shopping for spices in the Old Cairo bazaar.  Here in Aswan, we are ready for some rest at this beautiful location on Elephantine Island.  Tomorrow our Nile River Cruise adventure begins!

As the next morning dawns with pale blue sky and blazing sun, we board the M/S Nile Dolphin for our cruise north to Luxor.  The cruise vessels which populate the waters of the Nile are not what we Americans think of as a cruise ship.  They are smaller, but very elegant.  Our five-star floating hotel has 65 cabins and is equipped with every modern convenience.  We’re welcomed to our spacious cabin by a pair of crocodiles – well, green and white towels fashioned into crocodiles, I should say.  We will be constantly amused over the course of our cruise at the creative “towel art” offered up by our cabin steward, Noor.

We settle into the lazy rhythm of life on the Nile.  Time seems to stand still here.  As we navigate down the river, I sit poolside on the top deck of our boat, enjoying the shade of an awning, sipping a cool drink and watching the passing countryside.  It is the picture of serenity – peaceful water divides the quiet delta, lush with date palms.  The year could be 2013 AD or 2013 BC –  I imagine the scene to be the same.  Along the banks of this beautiful river, we occasionally see donkeys hauling carts among the reeds, tended by children, young men, or women.  The gentle music of a lute and the breeze in my ears are the only sounds I hear.  As I gaze on this ancient river my mind wanders back in time to the days when Cleopatra and Pharaohs of this great civilization traveled these waters, surveying their kingdoms.  A small felluca boat quietly passes by with sails unfurled.  I can tell by the looks on the faces of its passengers that they too are under the spell of this river.

In the coming days, we will see the commanding evidence and remnants of an ancient and noble civilization.  Our boat’s first stop is at Kom-Ombo.  I am fascinated that archeological jewels like this have been sitting out in the middle of the blazing Egyptian desert for millennia, only to be rediscovered in more recent times.  Kom-Ombo is the site of the famous double temple – one to the falcon-headed god Horus and the other to the crocodile god Sobek.  The setting of these temples is particularly beautiful, because they sit right on the banks of the Nile.  Although some of the temple area has been eroded over the years by the ebb and flow of the river, it is still lovely.  The area is known for the Nile crocodiles which sunbathed at this site in ancient times, and there is a Crocodile Museum nearby where you can view over 300 crocodile mummies.  Only in Egypt!

Our next stop is Edfu, where we are transported to the Temple of Horus by horse and buggy.  We share the road with goats, trotting through the little town which for the most part looks like it hasn’t changed in 200 years.  When we arrive, we stroll through the area where shopkeepers entice us with their local wares, and then we see the enormous Temple of Horus.  Built in the Ptolemaic period between 237 and 57 BC, it the most complete ancient site in Edfu, and one of the best preserved temples in all of Egypt. It is impressive in its grandeur.  We wander the area, learning from our guide as we go, snapping pictures which we know will never capture the enormity of what we are seeing.

The highlight of our Nile River Cruise is our arrival in Luxor.  In ancient times, it was Thebes, the celebrated capital of Egypt from 2000-1500 BC.  Here, both banks of the Nile boast splendid sites.  On the east bank are the Temples of Luxor and Karnak, and on the west bank, the famous Valley of the Kings which bears the tombs of the Pharaohs.

We start with the mysterious Temple of Luxor, finished by Rameses II in 1250 BC.  Here, we pass by sitting sphinxes and stand in the shadow of the legendary Sitting Ramesses II Colossus.  Gazing upon his noble face, I’m transported to the past and imagine the civilization which he ruled with such great power.  The area is also full of imposing obelisks, some of red granite and ingeniously designed.  We photograph one such obelisk, whose twin we have seen in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

We move on to the Temple of Karnak.  This place has been seen in many movies –   Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, James Bond’s The Spy Who Loved Me, and Lara Croft Tomb Raider were all filmed here.  Seeing them in the movies has done nothing to prepare me for the enormity of these storied temples.  They are mammoth!  The complex is like one big open-air museum built of Nubian sandstone.  The largest of these imposing temples is dedicated to Amun-Re, the chief deity of Thebes.  There are statues, pillars, columns, colonnades, sphinxes and some of the largest obelisks in Egypt.  We stand in the shade of the towering columns as Lillian, our guide and consummate Egyptologist, relates the history and stories of this place of antiquity.

The next morning brings mild sunshine.  In the summer, it can be SO hot here, but we are lucky to be enjoying May weather in the low 80s.  Even so, the sun is intense and we disembark armed with hats and sunscreen, the accessories of every wise traveler visiting here.  We travel to the west bank of the Nile, arriving at the burial temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the only woman to ever rule Egypt.  Next is the Valley of the Kings, and let me tell you, I’ve never seen anything like it.  Here, the pyramid burial sites for the Pharaohs of old are so massive, so vast, so magnificent that words fail.  From the 16th century to 11th century BC, these tombs were constructed for the Pharaohs and powerful nobles of the kingdom.  The most famous tomb here is that of Tutankhamen, which is a must-see.  The treasures discovered here are world renowned and have traveled the globe in special exhibits.  We saw even more of these treasures at the Egyptian Museum when we were in Cairo.  It was intriguing to picture them all here in this tomb as they were originally discovered.

There are over 63 tombs and chambers at the Valley of the Kings, and we have time to visit just a few.  But oh, those few!  The royal tombs are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology and have been the subjects of study for years as they reveal much about Egyptian life, religion and funeral customs.  As we descend into the pyramids, we are captivated by the bright colors of the hieroglyphics which have never seen the light of day.  The scarlet, teal, canary and indigo are as clear and bright and beautiful as if they were painted yesterday.

Tonight aboard the M/S Nile Dolphin we celebrated with an Egyptian party.  For the occasion, the ship’s passengers took the opportunity to purchase Egyptian garb from the ship’s shop.  There was a beautiful sunset over the Nile tonight, and in our flowing robes and headdresses, we swapped stories from the day and feasted on lamb, curries, an array of salads and a dessert bar featuring my favorite, baklava.  Lots of pictures, a hookah pipe and our hilarious attempts at belly dancing after dinner made for a festive and memorable time.

With our journey on the Nile coming to an end, we prepare to return to Cairo for our flight home.  Egypt is an exotic country, rich in history and tradition.  Its ancient civilization’s contributions to our world are many, and I feel privileged to have visited here. “Salam alekum”, “Peace be with you”, Egypt, and thank you for the adventure.