It was a bewildering combination. Aboard the boat, we sailed upriver cocooned in a slice of Edwardian England, a splendid well-ordered make-believe world that protected us from the heat and the dust and the unsettling questions of Egypt. We chatted about home, about other travels, about quails and London. We enjoyed fine lunches, we took afternoon tea, we played cards on the sun deck, admiring the picturesque panorama of the riverbanks. We gathered for drinks before dinner.
But mornings ashore were another matter, another world. Out there, beyond the chaotic Egyptian towns, where the horse buggies rattled through dusty streets, beneath a merciless sun, in the ancient temples and tombs, lay profound questions of life and death, of meaning and belief. At Abydos we gazed at images of gods in the inner sanctums of the temple. In the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, we watched souls being weighed against a feather and kings confidently embarking on their journey into the afterlife. Among the great halls of Karnak we were confronted by the most fundamental of questions — are the gods listening, or is the universe indifferent to us?
I had no idea. And neither did the ancient Egyptians. They were just guessing. But such wonderful guessing. Who knows if Osiris actually did anything for them beyond the tomb but this side of things the beautiful reliefs, the staggering temples, the elaborate rituals, the bizarre gods are fascinating and life-enhancing and strangely beautiful. It is as if Tolkien and JK Rowling had been asked to get together to invent a religion, and then commissioned Piranesi to come up with the temple designs.
On the boat, I found my own transcendence in the panorama of the riverbanks. In the early mornings, they were as soothing as a murmured prayer. A low sun struck through the palm groves to lay a nave of light across the water. A file of women, washing pots on their heads, followed paths of white dust draped with gossamer mists. When they waded into the river, their skirts rose around them in billowing domes of colour. The voices of children drifted like chanting across the water echoing, elongated, disembodied. A man in a white jellabiya, as stately as a prophet, appeared on the edge of a village, the houses a cubist study, the minaret ringed with garish lights, a moored ferry boat nuzzling the bank, awaiting passengers. Two boys unfolded nets in a side channel where the water was the colour of apricots. Divine clouds mottled the surface of the river and egrets flew upstream, like fleeing angels, so low their feet trailed their own reflections.
For millennia travellers have been drawn to Egypt for a glimpse of an antique world, and for the ancient Egyptians’ fantastical take on things — the cow-headed goddesses, the bejewelled pharaohs, the rich paintings in the depths of tombs. Tourism here is half as old as the pyramids. It began with the ancient Greeks. When Herodotus came up the Nile in the fifth century before Christ, his postcards home were crammed with superlatives. When Henry Morton Stanley stopped off on his way to look for Livingston, he was delighted. “Those who wish to borrow one month of real pleasure from a serious life,” he suggested, “should come and see the Nile.”
At the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th, Egypt was the great dinner party trump card to silence people droning on about their visit to the Eiffel Tower. By the 1880s Thomas Cook steamers were ferrying eager visitors all the way to Aswan, seemingly the end of the known world. Women beneath parasols and men in linen suits, trailing guides and hawkers, peered into dank tombs, wandered through columned temples and had their pictures taken in front of the pyramids. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 gave Egyptian tourism another huge boost. With immaculate timing, Thomas Cook had just ordered a new fleet of river boats.
In the winter of 1933, Agatha Christie, her husband, the archaeologist, Max Mallowan, and her daughter Rosalind made their way through a crowd of porters, passengers and hawkers brandishing week-old antiquities to board one of the Thomas Cook steamers in Cairo for a leisurely journey up the Nile. For Christie, it should have been a welcome break from convoluted village murders.
Ninety years later, two things survive of their trip. The first is a story, Christie’s book, Death on the Nile — she wasn’t taking a break after all. Published in 1937, it is still in print. The second is the boat on which they sailed, the SS Sudan, a relic of a more storied age. Just over a century from her launch, the Sudan still sails the Nile, oozing nostalgia, the most elegant of boats on this most elegant of rivers. When they came to film the second of the three movie versions of Death on the Nile, starring David Suchet, she played herself, albeit temporarily renamed the SS Karnak, to match the name in the book.
I boarded the SS Sudan — the SS stands for Steam Ship — at Luxor and was ushered into a splendid cabin with a brass bedstead, a velvet sofa, shuttered windows, bevelled mirrors, a framed photo of King Farouk and the sense that I should really have packed an ivory-headed walking stick and a monocle. Wicker chairs framed the tables on the promenade deck between the splintered palms in their brass planters.
Among the book-lined shelves and the leather armchairs of the lounge, waiters in red tunics and fezzes ferried drinks while up on the sun deck afternoon tea was served every day punctually at five pm. Sailors swabbed the dark teak decks morning and evening while midship passengers could peer down at the boat’s great pistons shining with oil or outside to the two side paddlewheels churning the Nile (many of the engine parts are original though it is no longer powered by steam). On the Sudan, there was always the sense, call it a suspicion, that if I turned my head suddenly from my G&T at the bar I might glimpse Poirot’s familiar silhouette mincing past the etched glass of the lounge windows.
After the second world war and the collapse of Egyptian tourism, the Sudan lay docked and abandoned for half a century before being restored by a French tour operator in the 2000s. But the ship’s age draws us naturally back to travellers of an earlier era, long before the river’s modern cruise boats that look like London tower blocks, tipped on their sides. The parade of visitors to Egypt over the centuries offers a cast of characters as diverse as an Agatha Christie novel — Napoleon, Florence Nightingale, Mark Twain, Thackeray, Gustave Flaubert, Vita Sackville West and the wonderful Amelia Edwards, novelist and arguably the mother of Egyptology. All shared the one precious thing that we are in dangers of losing — a sense of wonder.
The stretch of the Nile from Luxor upriver to Aswan is packed with ancient ruins. Add in a diversion downstream, to take in Abydos and Dendera and you have most of the great monuments of the New Kingdom and Ptolemaic Egypt. At Luxor itself, the temple of Karnak, constructed over 1,300 years, bestrides the bank on a leviathan scale. Maxime du Camp, the early French photographer, who had travelled extensively in Italy and Greece, wrote home “never, ever, have I seen anything to compare to Karnak”. Florence Nightingale who visited in the same year, 1850, said she loved Karnak because it made her think.
Across the river on the west bank, among a staggering collection of beautiful temples and monuments, are the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, their walls swarming with phantasmagorical paintings of the underworld, with figures of pharaohs and gods, with elegant hieroglyphics, with details of secret rituals that will ensure passage into the next world. After visiting the tombs, Nightingale wrote, “It is very hard to be all day by the deathbed of the greatest of your race, and to come home [to the boat] and talk about quails or London.” I am not so sure. After a bewildering day in the underworld, I think a bit of banal chit-chat about quails and London is very welcome.
Upriver from Luxor, roughly a day’s sail apart, are a series of temples — Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo — which have delighted generations of travellers. But when Gustave Flaubert arrived at Esna, also in 1850, he had had enough of temples, enough of confronting the eternal. He didn’t want to think; he wanted to feel. He ended up in the house of Kuchuk Hanem, a prostitute who had been exiled here from Cairo. She performed the Bee, having first blindfolded her musicians, a dance that was meant to drive men wild with desire. It seems to have worked with Flaubert. “One learns so many things in a brothel,” he wrote, “and feels such sadness, and dreams so longingly of love.”
Aswan marks the end of most Nile journeys. Well into the 20th century, travellers arriving here felt they had reached the limits of civilisation. In the alleys of its bazaar are odours and goods from the heart of Africa. Yet Aswan has none of the melancholy transience of a frontier town. It is easily the most delightful place on the Nile. I stayed in the comforting embrace of the Old Cataract Hotel. Built in 1899 by Thomas Cook, it shares the Sudan’s retro charm. Its terraces are viewing platforms for the river, here in its picturesque form, narrowing towards the First Cataract, threading among islands, between banks of pale sand and dark smooth granite. Aswan is a town of boats; everyone comes and goes on the water. At sunset, the lateen sails of the feluccas are spread to the north winds that have carried boats up the Nile, against the currents, since before the time of Cheops.
Just upstream from Aswan are the ruins of Philae, everyone’s favourite temple complex. When the High Dam was built in the 1960s, Unesco oversaw its move, stone by stone, from its original site on Biga Island, where it would have been submerged, to nearby Agilkia Island. Built by Ptolemaic and Roman rulers, keen to associate themselves with the cult of Osiris, it is a surprisingly harmonious blend of Pharaonic and Greco-Roman architecture. The sylvan island setting, the arrival by boat and the way some parts of the site still feel solitary give Philae a special atmosphere. Despite the move to a new island, Egyptologist Amelia Edwards’ description from the 1870s could be penned today.
“The approach by water is quite the most beautiful,” she wrote. “The island with its palms, its colonnades, its pylons seem to rise out of the river like a mirage . . . If a sound of antique chanting were to be borne along the quiet air — if a procession of white-robed priests bearing aloft the veiled ark of the God, were to come sweeping round between the palms and pylons — we should not think it strange.”
I wandered down to the Gate of Diocletian at the remote end of the island where I found myself alone with the ancient world. I took off my shoes and stepped down into the shallows of the river. Images of gods were looking blindly down on me. The Nile pulled at my ankles. This river has its own eternity.
Stanley Stewart was a guest of Original Travel. Its 10-day Taste of the Nile trip costs from £3,565 per person, based on two sharing and including return flights from London, transfers, four nights’ hotel accommodation, five nights’ all-inclusive accommodation onboard the SS Sudan and guided tours. The SS Sudan has 24 guest cabins; Original Travel also offer Nile cruises aboard the seven-cabin La Flaneuse du Nil, from £4,800 per person
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