The afternoon Egyptian sun is hot. A few people splash languidly in the swimming-pool on the upper deck as the boat glides placidly up the Nile. One or two passengers lie sunbathing, but the majority sit reading, or talking quietly under the shade of the canvas awning.
At four o’clock precisely, a white-jacketed steward sounds a discreet chime on a gong, and everyone starts stirring. It’s been nearly fifty years since the British left Egypt, but they left a legacy of their occupation … the strict observance of the ritual of Afternoon Tea.
It sounds relaxed and lazy, and so it should be with the shade temperature in the ‘Hundreds’. Any contemplated activity should be done in the early morning or the evening. That’s the way the operators of Nile cruises plan it.
The appointment of the boats varies according to the price paid, but the layout is fairly standard. The usual pattern is a wide, multi-decked, shallow-draught craft slightly reminiscent of a Mississippi river-boat.
Our cruise started from Luxor. First, we were driven down-river to the Temple of Hathor at Dendara and the Osiris temple, at Abydos. These were the oldest temples to be visited, so it was thought logical to start from there. Our boat sailed from Luxor to meet us, and returned us there to see its sights on our second day.
Back in Luxor, we visited the Luxor and Karnak temples, then drove across the river to see the Valley of the Kings and the Hatchepsut temple. This isn’t the hassle it used to be. There’s a new bridge, the West Bank can now be reached by coach rather than a crowded ferry.
On the third day, we left Luxor feeling that we’d learnt more about temples than we really wished. But, there’ll be no more temples until the boat has passed the Esna Barrage. There’s only one lock … another was under construction … so boats usually have to wait at Esna for some time. It’s a pity that Esna is a rather shabby remnant of what appears once to have been a rather grand esplanade. There’s a temple, but it’s unremarkable, and few of the tour companies bother with it.
After Esna, the next call was the Temple of Horus at Edfu, the best-preserved temple found so far. A photo-call by the statue of the hawk-god Horus (which, in truth, looks more like a gigantic canary!) by the entrance is almost obligatory for visitors. The guides usually arrange a transfer from the boat by horse-drawn calèche … an experience to be tried at least once!
At the next stop, Kom Ombo, the boat moored almost in the shadow of the temple, which can be reached by a short walk. This one’s different. It’s really two temples combined; one dedicated to Horus, and the other to Sobek, the crocodile god.
Finally, the boat arrived in Aswan. It could go no further, for the massive Aswan dams bar the way. We sailed across the river in a lateen-sailed felucca, then hiked up the hill to the Aga Khan Mausoleum, on the West Bank.
In Aswan itself, there was the market. Egyptian markets are a treat for eyes, ears and nose. Carpets, leather goods, clothing, spices … all are on offer, and the price is often negotiable! And, even if you don’t want to buy anything there’s the reminder that Egypt, in spite of all its remembrances of a bygone age, is still colourful, busy and alive.
In ancient times, the civilised world ended at Aswan. Then, however, the civilised world consisted of a long, narrow strip of territory on the banks of the Nile. In places, a keen hiker could have walked across the civilised world in a day!
The barrier was a set of rapids, the first of many encountered in the river as you proceed southwards. With appealing simplicity and unarguable logic, it was called the First Cataract.
You can’t see it today. It’s submerged beneath Lake Aswan, created when the Old Dam was completed in 1902, and Lake Nasser, held back by the more modern High Dam.
Up until 1994, those dams presented as formidable a barrier to the southbound passage of the Nile cruise-boats as the cataracts did to the boatmen of old. The tour operators solved the problem in exactly the same way as the old Egyptian navigators did; they built more boats above the obstacle. But, that’s another cruise!
One of Aswan’s most popular sights is the Temple of Isis. Now high and dry in its new location on Aghilikia Island, it’s easily visited by boat. In one of the best Sound and Light shows in Egypt, Isis herself tells of the original construction of her temple, and of the coming of dams and lakes, and the temple’s relocation and rebuilding.
In Aswan, I visited the Old Cataract Hotel, where they’ve attempted to preserve the art-deco ambience of the golden age of travelling. They showed me the desk upon which Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile … I’ll bet they say that about all their desks. And, at the appointed hour, they served afternoon tea!