Myth and magical realism on the Nile
by Laura Gelder | 25 January 2018
Arriving in arid Aswan it’s clear there is a long way to go before tourism to Egypt recovers. The Nile appears suddenly, like an uncoiled green and blue snake resting in the desert. A&K’s luxurious ships, including our Sanctuary Sun Boat III, sit in their own dock, gleaming white and spotless. But as we drive into town we pass countless others - empty and moored one after the other, sometimes three-abreast, with hulls unpolished, canvas dirty and decks empty. They make for a sad and spectral sight.
Night falls fast on the Nile so we race to its most famous sunset spot, the Old Cataract Hotel. From its terrace a timeless scene unfolds framed by palm trees. Ice cubes chink above a low hum of G&T chatter and a distant imam warbles. White-sailed feluccas slip silently through the water as the horizon turns rose-gold and the bright blue-paint of the Nubian houses on the opposite bank fades to black.
You can see why Agatha Christie put this place in Death on the Nile. Inside, it’s a cross between an E.M Forster novel and Arabian nights, with antique telephones and star-cut Aladdin lamps along its endless corridoors. The grand dining room is like a domed mosque-turned ballroom and has hosted guests ranging from Winston Churchill to Tsar Nicholas II. It could hold hundreds but only a handful are dining under its enchanted ceiling tonight. We linger at the top table, imagining it being us at a state banquet, stroking the wondrously soft tassels on the heavy velvet curtains and probably appearing slightly creepy.
From the comforts of this time machine, we head to the souk to purchase some of the famous local cumin and saffron. Salesman tempt us at every turn with everything from cotton shirts to scarab beetle trinkets but we push on through to the spice market and fall under the spell of one of the sellers there who takes us energetically through his mounds of herbs, teas and spices, making us smell snapped cinnamon, rub rose buds between our palms and taste the local desert-baked peanuts. No one asked about the pile of 'viagra', which looks a bit like the dried porcini mushrooms which Jamie Oliver puts in a risotto, but we leave with bulging bags of herbs, spice rubs and snacks.
Back on board, cold towels and even colder cocktails await, followed by a sumptuous dinner. Over the next two days we drift from temple to tomb, east bank to west bank - the Egyptians believed the sun represented the cycle of life, worshipping where the sun rose and being laid to rest where it sets. George, our Coptic Christian Egyptologist guide, attempts to give us a snap shot of a civilisation which ruled for hundreds of years and still stands thousands of years later. “This, oh this isn’t that old,” he says with a dismissive wave of his hand at one point. “about 2,300 years.”
We start at peaceful Philae, an island of temples with towering gates carved with falcon-headed god Horus and dark cloisters topped with statues of Hathour, the cow goddess. Later we motor to Kom Ombo, a temple dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek. It was discovered with its cellars stuffed with the mummified remains of this revered and feared reptile and you can now view the swaddled beasts in its adjacent museum.
On board, the chilled towels, beers and bowls of peanuts keep coming if you want them to. The top deck has day beds swathed in white cotton and a plunge pool for cooling off. Lunch is served on the rear deck and is a huge buffet of crisp Arabic salads, barbequed meat and fish and other dishes like aubergine stew and potato gratin, followed by an unavoidable dessert selection.
The Nile is lined with a fertile strip of green fields where farmers and their children are seen tending to their buffalo but beyond is desert. I stay up as we pass through a lock at around midnight and then retire to my four-poster bed, lying in the dark and watching the neon lights of unknown towns sweep by.
As time goes on, the gods and their triumphs and tragedies become as real as the kings and queens and the line between the fantastical reality and legend becomes blurred. Sky goddess Nut, always hugging the earth in a yoga-style pose, seems as plausible as Queen Hapshepsut and her vast funerary temple. Lined with almost perfect statues in her image, it looks like a luxury hotel rising out of the Valley of the Queens and its paintings of Red Sea fish and Sub Saharan creatures are still incredibly vivid with colour some 3,500 years later.
No photos are allowed in the deep tombs carved into the Valley of the Kings. The corridors that lead to the burial chambers are painted with stories in vivid blue, ochre, green and red. It’s still Tutankhamun’s resting place which gives everyone the biggest shivers, not because of its beauty – it was never finished because he died so suddenly - it’s imagining being Howard Carter, mere days from the end of his fruitless five year search, when a small boy and the son of a grave robber runs to tells him he’s found some steps…
In the colossal temple complex of Karnak it’s not the towering statues of Ramses II, the cathedral-like columns, or the vast manmade lake which impresses on me most, but the desecrated faces of Hapshepsut. I’ve come to admire this queen, who dressed as a king and had to prove she had just as much right as a man to rule Egypt. Her stepson was clearly threatened by her because he tried to erase her from history.
From here we head into town following the Avenue of the Sphinxe - once an unbroken line of around 1,350 human-headed lions connecting Karnak and Luxor. After a puff on some shisha and a sip of a grainy coffee in an alleyway cafe, the fiery sun has sunk below the horizon and by the time we reach Luxor Temple, dodging skinny horses and their carts across the street, it’s pitch black.
Perhaps it would have been just another temple if it was day, but at night the lights animate the statues, throw dramatic shadows on the hundreds of columns and imbue the whole scene with even more mysticism, despite the fact that modern city sounds penetrate the walls. The layers of history are tangible - ancient Greek graffiti slathered over Egytian reliefs and a modern-day mosque adorned with fairylights at the centre of the temple.
Back on board, the last night could be a scene from an Agatha Christie novel, as we all dress up in gallibayas for a grand final dinner topped off with a giant baked Alaska in the shape of three pyramids, carried in by two of our beaming chefs to a standing ovation. The night is rounded off with entertainment from a belly dancer and a whirling dervish and thankfully no one is murdered.
In fact, no feels unsafe at any point and we all agree that Egypt really is back. It helps to be swaddled in the luxury of A&K’s unbeatable service, but no matter where you go, Egyptians are welcoming and its treasures enthralling. They will probably stand for thousands more years but now is the time to go, to help get this country back on its feet.
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