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Sunday, August 14, 2022

Adrift on the Nile: What to expect from Egypt’s luxurious Nile cruise

Between Aswan and Luxor, there is only one way to experience everything that Egypt has to offer — by being on the river at the heart of its ancient civilisation.

July 11, 2016 8:25:53 pm

As our EgyptAir flight lands on the tarmac early in the morning, Aswan seems a world away from the bustle of Cairo. The air is redolent of rest and languor at Egypt’s ancient southern frontier and the Nile is at its most magnificent here. Hemmed in on either side by dramatic granite banks and fertile Nubian villages, the river is the protagonist of this leg of our adventure. Between Aswan and Luxor – our travel itinerary over the next three days – there is only one way to experience everything that the region has to offer: by being on the Nile.

The earliest cruises on the Nile began in the 1880s and flourished under the stewardship of Thomas Cook of the eponymous travel agency. Cook’s introduction of modern steam ships cut down the customary three-month cruises on dahabiyas – large houseboats with cross sails – to a sleeker, more negotiable 20 days. One of his fleet – the SS Sudan – that crime fiction writer Agatha Christie was a guest on, would go on to become the setting for her book, Death on the Nile, published in 1937. The SS Sudan has recently been restored and reintroduced as a luxury ship, but our destination was the Oberoi Zahra, a decadent luxury liner plying along nearly the same route.

egypt nile cairo_759_SC The Nile in Cairo. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

For intrepid travellers, a cruise, like a packaged holiday, is mostly a thing to be kept at an arm’s distance. It’s a vacation where your experiences are curated to your taste and you are insulated from the thrill and the vexation of making your own way through an unknown city, country or continent. After the Arab Spring, tourism in Egypt is on shaky ground. For a country in churn, a luxury cruise can turn out to be the best way of seeing its many splendours without having to negotiate its drawbacks. And, as we would soon discover, a cruise has its own way of throwing up surprises, should one get acquainted with its unique set of rules first.

Rule No. 1: Get used to the pampering. There’s something to be said for having every little detail planned out to perfection without having to lift a finger. In this self-contained cocoon of luxury, our days began with a hearty, unhurried breakfast, following which the staff on board would hand us an itinerary for the day, a chilled bottle of water and a sun hat and wave us off board with an Egyptologist. It would take an entire morning of traipsing through Aswan and a motor boat ride to the spectacular island of Philae downstream of the Aswan Dam for us to arrive at rule No. 2: On a cruise, you see a lot more than you would ordinarily get around to – so, wear practical shoes, replenish that water bottle, slather the sunscreen and be prepared to be floored.

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Oberoi Zahra Our cruise ship, the Oberoi Zahra. (Source: Paromita Chakrabarti)

It’s difficult to put into words the utter gorgeousness of Philae, even if we came to it under a baking sun. Originally located near the First Cataract of the Nile, Philae housed a temple complex dedicated to Osiris, the ruler of the underworld and the Egyptian god of the dead. As part of an UNESCO project, the temple complex was later dismantled and relocated to the nearby Agilika Island to save it from being inundated following the building of the old Aswan Dam. The Osiris myth has been central to Egyptian mythology and the story of his murder at the hands of his evil brother Set, his brief resurrection by his wife Isis, who becomes pregnant with his son Horus during this period, and the subsequent defeat of Set by Horus is scripted in hieroglyphics on the temple walls.

egypt abu simbel_759_SC The temple of Neferteri in Abu Simbel, further south of Aswan. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

If Philae set the bar high, next day, Kom Ombo, with its unusual twin temple to the crocodile god Sobek and the falcon god Horus, lived up to it. Nile was once known for its crocodiles and the temple dedicated to Sobek, built during the time of Ptolemy VI, was a mark of veneration for the sacred animal. In the museum that adjourns the temple complex, there are still mummies on display of the animal, including those of hatchlings and even of eggs. Hours ago, on the boat to Philae, we had all enthusiastically trailed our hands in the cool waters of the Nile. Do crocodiles still abound in this part of the Nile, we ask our Egyptologist. Ahmed is quick to allay our fears – the man-made Lake Nasser, further south, is where the reptiles now home. Apparently, there are more than 15,000 Nile crocodiles in Lake Nasser. Later, a Lonely Planet entry would tell us that at least one adult crocodile is known to be present in the Nile around Aswan.

egypt kom ombo_759_SC The Kom Ombo temple. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

A visit to the temple of Edfu later, that evening, we found ourselves on the sun-deck of the cruise, dipping our toes in the deliciously cool waters of the pool, sipping hibiscus tea and staring up at the changing colours of the Egyptian sky. On either side, the malachite river banks glided past. Women washed clothes on the shore, water buffalos with egrets on their backs leisurely waded ashore, a wedding party with loud music wound its way along the village road, the call of the muezzin wafted in from a distant mosque – the steady hum of daily life that we had ignored in our rush to take in Egypt’s hypnotic past now came to us in mellow bursts.

egypt edfu_759_SC The Edfu temple (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

After a good night’s sleep, we were ready for the adventures of the day. On the cards were the Colossi of Memnon, the temples of Luxor and Karnak and then, after a few hours of rest and recuperation, the crowning glory – the Valley of the Kings and Queens. Our itinerary now seemed like an extraordinary sleight of hand – every place was worthy of marvel, each destination had a colourful tapestry of its own. Perhaps, a cruise is not a bad idea. How else would one know what to fit in with such dexterity?

egypt luxor_759_SC The stunning temple of Luxor at night. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

The landscape of Luxor is a study in starkness – most of the ancient edifices here are made of Nubian sandstone, the colour of dull gold, from the Gebel el-Silsila region in south-western Egypt. With the ardour of the bewitched, we wandered through the hypostyle hall in the Temple of Karnak, marked by 134 massive columns in 16 rows; at the near-deserted Avenue of Sphinxes in the Luxor Temple, we stopped to see the shadows linger.

But nothing that you see in Egypt can prepare you for the Valley of King on the West Bank of Luxor. The desolate burial ground of the ancient Pharaohs and Egyptian nobles is set in the heart of the hostile Theban mountains. When we reach late in the afternoon, the area is bathed in gold-dust, nearly blinding in its luminosity. Heat hangs heavy and the silence – for there are few other tourists besides us – is almost deafening. It is here that the boy-king Tutenkhamun and the legendary Ramesses II have their burial chambers.

egypt From the sun deck_759_PC From the sun deck of the cruise. (Source: Paromita Chakrabarti)

Away from the blinding light, the darkness inside the tombs is absolute. Then, once you get used to it, you take in the dim lights and the awe-inspiring artwork covering every surface of the walls and the sarcophagi – in some, there are depictions of the Pharaoh’s coronation and his eventual journey to the underworld, every step of the procedure painstakingly etched out on the walls. In others, the cerulean ceilings have stars painted on them. Everything is larger than life, everything speaks of grandiloquence. It seems almost a travesty to be where no man was intended to be. It is befitting that the Valley of Kings is our last destination on the cruise. When we make our way out finally, the sun is beginning to dip behind the horizon. It’s a magical hour in which imagination and reality have enmeshed with utter perfection – the Valley seems alive, throbbing to an ancient beat of its own. It demands silence and gratitude, and on the ride back to the cruise, all of us are quiet.

egypt nile_1500_SC A sunrise on the Nile. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

That evening, standing on the sun deck one last time before disembarkation, I look out at the shore in wonder. A cruise is a great place for discoveries big and small – where else would I have learned that, sometimes, the easy way out can well be the best way? How else would I have forged a bond with a river as wise and ancient as the Nile? Sometimes, it’s a good idea to tread on the beaten path. A luxury cruise taught me that.

(The writer was a guest of the Egyptian Tourism Department)