Life on …the Nile
It’s nearly 100 years since archaeologist Howard Carter made the sensational discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, yet our fascination with Egypt’s incredible sites and stories shows no sign of dimming. And the heart of it all, says Egypt expert Anthony Sattin, is the Nile.
Nile river scene, Aswan
A thought threading a dream is how Byron’s friend, the poet Leigh Hunt, described the Nile and seen from the top of a pyramid or hill, or from the air, it’s easy to see why; the river threads a thin line through a dream sequence of green fields, palm groves and gold-brown desert. The thought that is threaded is the wonder of it all. The valley is so thin, the desert so close… and yet, from it, Egypt has spun its long and glorious past, achieved with the help of strong men, strong queens – none more so than Cleopatra on her burnished barge with its purple, perfumed sails – the boy king and unknown millions of farmers, boatmen and weavers, scribes and sculptors, all making the most of this thin strip of land. There is no other place where the past is so visibly dead, so thrillingly alive and so gloriously encountered, never more so than from the deck of a boat.
A Nile cruise for ancient Egyptians, for Cleopatra or for the Romans who followed her upriver, would have meant weeks being sailed, pulled or punted away from the Mediterranean. We now take just a few hours to fly into Cairo, where we encounter the glories of the Old Kingdom (2,670- 2,200BC), the most obvious of which are the pyramids. First built some four and a half thousand years ago and for reasons that are still disputed – was it self-aggrandizement? Religious fervour? Star mapping? Job creation? Who built them? And how? – within a century Egyptians went from the try-out of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara to the stunning perfection of the Great Pyramid at Giza, the only surviving wonder of the ancient world. Nearby and nearing completion is a modern wonder: the Grand Egyptian Museum, a $1bn home for the treasures of these Old Kingdom kings as well as those of the more famous New Kingdom rulers who followed them, none better known than Tutankhamun.
Sphinx and pyramids, Giza
To see where the British archaeologist Howard Carter found the boy-king’s treasures almost a century ago, you must hop upriver to where the Nile plain is wide and the limestone of the desert hills glimmers under the sun, and glowers in moonlight, to the place that served as capital of the Egyptian empire for more than five hundred years – to Luxor. The Nile here is a broad barrier between the sun-rising east – the land of the living and now of Luxor city – and the abode of the dead in the west. On the east bank stand the temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor, separated by a four-kilometre long avenue of sphinxes. The grandeur of these temples, particularly the home of the god Amun at Karnak, dwarfs anything that has been built there since and still has the power to stun visitors into silence. Work began at Karnak around 2000BC and was still going on seventeen hundred years later, when Alexander the Great’s half-brother commissioned a new sanctuary for the god. The beauty of the stones eclipses any details I could give you, but it seems not to eclipse our fascination with some of the pharaohs who built here. To get closer to them, you must follow the sun across the river to the west.
Statue of Rameses II, Luxor
The line of limestone hills that separates the western floodplain from the desert has been cut with thousands of tombs, some royal, many from nobles and a few commoners. In front of these tombs stands a line of temples. Unlike Karnak and Luxor, where the temples were homes for the gods, these west-bank temples commemorate New Kingdom pharaohs (1,530-1,075 BC), kings who were so desperate to keep their mummies and treasure intact that they had themselves buried in a remote desert valley while they were honoured in their temples. Among the mortuary temples you pass on your way to the Valley of the Kings are those of Queen Hatshepsut and Ramses II – the famous Ramesseum – while tucked away to the side is Medinet Habu, the temple of Ramses III. These monuments would be enough of a reason to visit Luxor, but there is more. Beyond them, you reach the valley. Here you can step into the tomb of Tutankhamun (as well as a perfect replica placed nearby); of Tuthmosis III, the so- called Napoleon of Egypt; of several Ramses; and of many other pharaohs, although the most spectacular is that of Seti I, a cathedral cut into the mountainside, its colours stunning, the art some of the best Egypt ever produced.
The temples that are strung between Luxor and Aswan are quite new by Egyptian standards; they belong to the Greek and Roman period. But although they are ‘only’ two thousand years old, they still have the power to stir, none more so than the ‘house’ of the falcon-headed god Horus, at Edfu. One of the best-preserved ancient temples in the world, its roof is still intact, the dim interior still carved, its muted colours in striking contrast to the brilliant valley-greens, desert-yellows and sky-blues outside. Further upstream, the temple of Kom Ombo sits above a bend in the river where crocodiles once basked. The ancients believed one of these ferocious creatures was an incarnation of the god Sobek. Once identified (and what a job that would have been!), the croc would be cared for inside the temple and then, when it died, was mummified. Then the search began for a replacement. Some of these incarnations can now be seen, unwrapped, still terrifying, in the purpose-built museum.
Temple of Kom Ombo
By the time the ship reaches Aswan, the broad flat valley has been reduced to a sliver of farmland and an ever-thinner line of palms until there is just sand and rock. The light is different here and so too are the inhabitants, a mix of Egyptian and Nubian. Even the river is different, now forced between high granite banks and islands that water can neither wear down nor break through. This barrier is one that ships cannot pass – in the days when all ships had sails, they used to be hauled over the rapids with ropes and only when the river was high. These rocks made an obvious natural frontier for the ancient Egyptian and Roman empires and also a good place to measure the rising of the annual Nile flood, from which the annual taxation was calculated. If the Nile was high, the taxman knew the harvest would be plentiful and set the rates accordingly; if low, the burden was eased.
The thought that has threaded its way along the river of history is the one thing that has not changed. Even in Aswan there is still so much wonder. On the southern point of Elephantine, the largest island in the Nile at Aswan, you can see the remains of the ancient city where slaves, ivory, camels, ostrich feathers, spices and much else was traded. More surprising is the beauty of Philae temple, home to the goddess Isis. This was the last pagan temple to function in Egypt, perhaps in the empire – the goddess was said to have been worshipped here in the sixth century, long after temples in Rome, Athens and elsewhere around the ancient world had closed or been converted to Christian churches. And it was here, on 24 August 394AD, that a scribe by the name of Esmet-Akhom carved what is believed to be the last temple hieroglyph, dedicated to the great god Horus. After that the thread broke, the dream ended, the old world fell silent and the journey ends.
Recommended C&K tours
Splendours of Egypt 8 Days & 7 Nights
This introduction to the highlights of Egypt combines visits to the Pyramids and Egyptian Museum in Cairo with a 4-night Nile cruise, taking in the sights of Upper Egypt including the Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Karnak and the Aswan High Dam.
Egyptian Grand Tour Nile Cruise 11 Days & 10 Nights
Begin with time in Cairo to explore the sites before embarking on cruises on both the Nile and Lake Nasser. This comprehensive tour visits Lower Egypt, Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia, and is ideal for those wishing to see Egypt’s greatest sites in style.
To find out more or plan a tailor- made itinerary, please either call one of our specialist tour consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.