The Nile River is the lifeblood of Egypt, flowing north from Central Africa. It is a picturesque river and I enjoyed my journey from Aswan to Luxor, exploring the ancient temples and tombs along the way.
The unrest in Cairo and Alexandria following the revolution has, for the most part, not touched Aswan, Luxor, or the areas in between. The people there still talk about the revolution and are eager to see the changes, but they are removed from the riots and protests. However, they also suffer from a lack of tourists. While it is devastating to the local economy, it once again gave me a chance to experience these amazing sites in a way that few people can — often with only my fellow journalist alongside me, reveling in the quiet of the ancient wonders. (Read more about my travels in Cairo here.)
The best way to experience the Nile culture is to book a cruise on the river. There are dozens of options now available for cruisers going between Luxor and Aswan, usually for 3-, 4- or 7-night trips. I embarked on a 3-night trip, starting at Aswan and traveling to Luxor. The cruisers range from modest to luxurious. I was on a mid-range boat that was adequate, but not one I would recommend or use on a future trip. One of the most highly recommended cruises is the luxurious Zahra, operated by Oberoi Hotels (http://www.oberoihotels.com). The Zahra is an all-inclusive, 7-day trip. The ship is an all-suites ship with only 27 suites. It has a full-service spa onboard, a hairdresser, and room service in addition to the restaurant and bar. The pricing is steep, a little over $11,000 for the week, but includes all meals and drinks, all service charges, taxes, airport transfers, and excursions. Even on the smaller boat, I was on, it was really nice to explore the temples and tombs during the day then spend the evening up on the top deck, feeling the wind blow off the Nile as we moved slowly through the water, the stars overhead. If the Zahra is out of your price range, there are many others offering cruises. Check out the Egyptian Tourist website for information on Nile cruises at http://www.egypt.travel.
I started my Nile River adventure in Aswan. The small airport was easy to navigate and our guide met us and whisked us away to the High Dam south of Aswan. The area between Aswan and the Sudan border was once called Nubia, home to a proud group of people who still adhere to very strict traditions and marry only within their own tribe. The area was flooded to make way for the dam and is now a massive lake — Lake Nasser on the Egyptian side and Lake Nubia on the Sudanese side — covering approximately 2000 square miles. The High Dam itself is not particularly scenic, but it is interesting to see the size of the project for the small fee of 20 Egyptian Pounds (LE), approximately $4.
Close by, between the British-built Aswan Dam and newer High Dam, is Agilkia Island and its Temple Complex of Philae. Because of the dam flooding, the temple complex on the Island of Philae was moved stone by stone to the new island. The best way to get there is to take a taxi from Aswan. Once you arrive at the dock, the price for a boat to the island is about LE32 roundtrip. Admission to the temple complex is LE50.
The largest structure on the island is the Temple of Isis. There is also a Temple of Augustus and an unfinished Temple of Hathor. Roman influence is obvious at the temple. The Romans built a colonnade leading to the Gate of Ptolemy II on the Temple of Isis and there are crosses inscribed on almost every column inside the temple. The Romans also built a small Christian altar inside. In 540 AD, Roman Emperor Justinian I ordered the temple officially closed and turned it into a church.
After checking onto the boat, we had the afternoon to explore Aswan. One of the best ways to see the area is by boat. A popular rental is the Felucca or traditional wooden sailboat. We chose a small motorboat. The going price is about LE60 for an hour plus a tip of about LE20 for the pilot. We went for two hours, so the total cost was less than $30 for a great afternoon excursion. Some of the highlights we saw during our ride:
- Elephantine Island houses the 3000 Nubian villagers who resettled here after their lands were flooded with the building of the High Dam. There is a museum and village you can visit.
- Kitchener's Island is a botanical garden that was established by Lord Kitchener in the late 19th century.
- Dotting the West Bank of the Nile is the Tombs of the Nobles. Perched on the hilltop above the tombs is a small tomb structure for a local sheik. If there's time, it's possible to hike to the top. I'm told the view is incredible from that vantage point.
- Visible high above Aswan is the Mausoleum of Aga Khan. It's the burial site of the 48th leader of the Ismailis, Muhamed Shah Aga Khan III, and his French wife. He died in 1957 and she lived in the home there and placed a single red rose on his sarcophagus every day until her death in 2000.
We left Aswan late in the evening and started our slow trip toward Luxor. The next day included a stop at the Temple of Horus at Edfu. The Temple of Horus was one of the last big temples built in Egypt. It was started in 237 BC under Ptolemy III and finished about 140 years later under Ptolemy XII. The temple has an amazing story of discovery. It was completely buried under the village when it was discovered by a French Egyptologist in 1863. It took 40 years to clear it out. A 118 foot high First Pylon welcomes you to the temple. The entrances are adorned with giant statues of Horus as a falcon.
To get to the Temple of Horus from the cruise boat docks, you will need to take one of the horse-drawn carriages, known as fiacres. You arrange the transportation at the dock, remember your carriage number, enjoy your visit to the temple, then take the same carriage back to the dock. It's about a 10 or 15-minute ride from the dock to the temple.
After leaving Edfu, the boat continued along the banks of the Nile throughout the day. Watching the daily life on the banks was intriguing. Children played in the water's edge, water buffalo grazed, men fished, women hung laundry. We arrived in Luxor at night, the hillsides surrounding the Valley of the Kings brightly illuminated in the distance. Luxor, or Thebes as it was known in ancient times, is divided by the Nile. The East Bank, built under the rising sun symbolizing life and rebirth, held the living areas and religious centers of the community. The West Bank, in the land of the setting sun associated with death, held the Valley of the Kings, the Tombs of the Nobles, and the Valley of the Queens. We spent our first day in Luxor exploring the West Bank.
Valley of the Kings
The white-washed dusty moonscape that is the Valley of the Kings is home to at least 63 known tombs of Pharaohs from Egypt's New Kingdom, including that of the famous King Tutankhamun. To get to the Valley of the Kings, you must go with a tour group or hire transportation as it is a good distance from the city. Once at the parking area for the Valley of the Kings, you should leave your camera safely locked in your vehicle. Photographs are not allowed. Although no one could tell me why at the time, I've since been told it is out of fear that the light from flashes will destroy the hieroglyphics on the tomb walls. The walk from the visitor center up to the tombs is long and hot, so I was eager to take the motorized cart up the hill when I was there in July. It's only about LE4, which is less than $1 each way.
The tombs are not what I expected. It is bewildering how these tombs were ever discovered in the rocky barren ground. They are tunnels dug deep underground. To make it easier to get inside, each one has handrails and either steps or wooden rails that take you down into the tombs. I never felt claustrophobic because the tombs are actually quite wide and high. One impressive tomb is KV43, the tomb of Tuthmosis IV, great grandfather of King Tut. The grave was discovered by Howard Carter in 1930, 19 years before he uncovered Tut's tomb, literally just steps away. I can't even imagine what he must have thought when he realized the magnificent tomb of Tut was right there that entire time. Tuthmosis' tomb is large and deep with two sets of stairs leading to the burial chamber. When I visited in July, it was extremely hot. Be sure to take plenty of water and save time to rest in the shade between hikes. You can view any three tombs for LE80 (about $16).
You can also view the tomb of Tutankhamen (KV62) for an additional LE100 (about $20). The tomb is small, but when it was originally discovered in 1922, it was filled with treasures. Most of the original contents are at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but the tomb still houses Tut's outer stone sarcophagus and his mummy. There are some beautiful tomb paintings, but I did feel a bit of a let-down after viewing the larger tombs and having seen the Tut exhibit at the Egyptian Museum.
An unexpected sight on the roadside back into Luxor is the twin statues of Amenhotep III. The massive statues, each one 59 feet high, are all that remain of what the Pharaoh built to house his mortuary temple. Archeologists believe it was possibly Egypt's largest temple, but it was built in the Nile flood plain and only the statues remain.
After another night in Luxor, and some time exploring the city, I paid my last visit to an Egyptian temple, and we definitely saved the best for last. The temple at Karnak is a huge complex of temples that includes the Great Temple of Amun-Ra and several smaller temples. The majority of the temple complex was built around 1500 BC, although some of it dates back to about 2000 BC and some is as recent as 395 AD. The Great Temple was built by Seti I and added to by Ramses II.
The Great Temple of Amun has a Hypostyle Hall with 134 columns. The 12 in the center are 69 feet high and the others are all 49 feet high. The Hypostyle Hall is a total of 54,000 square feet, making it the largest single room of any religious building in the world, even today. The entire complex covers 61 acres and could hold the equivalent of 10 average-size European cathedrals. There is also a Sacred Lake where it is believed Amun's priests bathed for purification. In its glory days, there were dozens of identical sphinx lining the road the entire two miles from the temple at Karnak to the temple in Luxor.
I stood in front of Luxor Temple that afternoon and looked around me. Cars and taxis were flying past, while a young boy guided his donkey calmly in and out of the parked cars. Horse-drawn carriages passed scooters, and wagons filled with vegetables made their way through the winding streets. The temple walls stood tall against the sky, with a sign for cellular phone service and an Internet cafe hanging nearby. Western women visiting Luxor darted across the street in summer dresses and shorts, while Egyptian women hurried about with their heads covered and garments closely guarding their arms and legs. Men sat around smoking their shisha and vending machines touted Coca-Cola. The world of modern Luxor is a world like so much of Egypt — caught somewhere between the past and the future, trying to carve out a place for itself in a society that is changing far faster than those of the ancient civilization ever could have imagined.