The Nile Cruise: The ideal foretaste, companion, and souvenir

A river Nile cruise is a trip through history. Sailing on the longest river in the world of 6, 825 kilometers, one can experience the ebb of one of the greatest waterways of humanity and certainly one of the richest civilizations the world has ever known. Cruising down the Nile, you will see landscapes whose beauty appears untouched by time.

The ancient Egyptians sailed their earliest boats on the River Nile by the year 3,200 BC. During the 19th century, traveling to Egypt became fashionable in Europe. In those days, the only way to ascend the Nile from Cairo was by means of a “dahabiya,” a house boat manned by 10 or 15 sailors and staffed with a cook, a waiter and the inevitable interpreter known then as a “dragoman.”

In the midst of the Egyptomania caused by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Thomas Cook, an astute British entrepreneur organized the first tour group to Egypt. The two steamers, he hired for the occasion, were the Nile’s first cruise boats, which paved the way for planned tours. Ever since, a Nile cruise has become one of the top 10 travel destinations.

If you have not dreamed of taking a cruise along the Nile, Jenny Jobbins, author of the recently published, “The Nile Cruise, An Illustrated Journey,” (AUC Press), will definitely incite you to add it on your travel wish list.

Traveling on the Nile through the pages of a book is so easy compared to the standard cruise where one visits tombs and temples just after sunrise and learns basic facts about ancient history.

Nile cruises are a huge business, and the Nile is often crowded with huge flat-bottomed barges transporting hundreds of passengers. This happens especially at Aswan and Luxor, where these floating hotels are parked in three and four rows along the riverbank. Consequently, the passengers arriving on the last boat have to cross three other vessels to land on the shore.

The other alternative is to travel on the Nile the old way in a “dahabiya” fitted with all the modern conveniences. Two centuries ago, John Murray III, one of the most famous travel guide writers of his days, said that a “dahabiyya” should be sunk before every cruise to eradicate rats and other insects. Although “dahabiyyas” today seem far older with the dark wood, beamed ceilings and brass wall lamps, they have all been recently built.

Anyone who has enjoyed watching “Death on the Nile,” which was filmed on location, will enjoy being pampered with a luxurious cruise through ancient history from Luxor to Aswan. Amelia Edwards rightly says in her classic travelogue, “One Thousand Miles Up the Nile,” which was published in 1889: “the more one knows about the past history of the country, the more one enjoys the ruins.” In this beautifully illustrated Nile cruise, Jobbins, gives us the most important information along with some timely quotes and anecdotes.

Luxor, Egypt’s capital in the Eleventh Dynasty and again in the New Kingdom, was named Thebae by the Romans and dubbed “AL Uqsur” (the Palaces) by the Muslims due to its wealth of grand temples and tombs. The Town of Luxor expanded over and around the temple so that after the monuments were cleared from the sand, the 13th century mosque, once at street level, can be seen poised on top of the columns. Incidentally, one of the two red granite obelisks, which were originally placed at the entrance of the temple, can be seen in the middle of the majestic Place de la Concorde in Paris. The Karnak Temple truly symbolizes the beauty and grandeur of Pharaonic monumental architecture and the best way to appreciate it is to attend the Sound and Light show.

On the way to Aswan, the boat sails past Esna and  Edfu where the Temple of Horus is located — one the best preserved temples in Egypt. Further ahead, you can visit Kom Ombo, famous for its Temple, which stands near one of the most beautiful sceneries on the Nile. In the film “Death on the Nile,” Peter Ustinov and David Niven rode over the sand on camels from the riverbank to the temple, while Angela Lansbury was perched on a donkey. Nowadays, there is a paved road from the quay.

Aswan is a fitting town to end or begin a Nile cruise. The mighty river narrows between towering black cliffs and sandy hills creating one of the most breathtaking landscapes in Egypt. From the terrace of the iconic Old Cataract hotel, kings, presidents and film stars have admired the magical sunsets. Even when he was very ill with cancer, the late president Francois Mitterrand enjoyed the enchanting and timeless atmosphere of the city. Winston Churchill also stayed at the Cataract Hotel in 1902, after the inauguration of the First Aswan Dam, and returned with Roosevelt after the Casablanca Conference in 1943. His homburg and umbrella hang in one of the suites. Margaret Thatcher stayed at the Cataract as well and the Aga Khan loved it so much that he stayed in Aswan until his death. He is buried in a white mausoleum facing one of the many islands of the Nile.

According to Jobbins, Elephantine and Botanical Island capture the serenity and ambiance of a 19th century “dahabiyya” voyage on the Nile. “The gardens on Botanical Island, also known as Kirchener Island, are a tranquil haven where one is part of the backdrop, not a mere viewer,” she writes.

A visit to Aswan should include a visit to the awesome Nubia Museum (which won the 2001 Aga Khan award for architecture) and the Aswan quarries (which provided the granite for the monumental statues, columns and obelisks). You can view the unfinished New Kingdom obelisk, partially cut from the rock, and subsequently discarded because it contained a deep fault. Had it been completed and erected, the obelisk would have been the tallest and heaviest in the history of Egypt at 75 meters (137 feet) and 1,168 tons.

“It is perhaps fortunate for us that the obelisk was never finished, as scientists have been able to study the means by which it and other such monuments were quarried,” writes Jobbins.

The book is beautifully illustrated with the stunning photographs taken by Sherif Sonbol whose previous work can be seen in “Egyptian Palaces and Villas, 1800-1960” (AUC Press). “The Nile Cruise, An Illustrated Journey” is a fitting tribute to the Nile, a tempting foretaste of a classic journey and the perfect handbook or souvenir from an iconic voyage along the Nile. – Bbcnews