Egyptian Adventure: The Nile, Forever New and Old

The Nile, forever new and old,
Among the living and the dead,
Its mighty, mystic stream has rolled.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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View of the Nile from the top deck of the MS Amwaj Livingstone

Longfellow always had a penchant for saying volumes with only a few words. Not gifted with his talent for brevity, I will attempt to describe in this post what it was like to cruise down the Nile. To balance between the present and the past that coexist in an endless panorama of waterfowl, fishermen, and forsaken gods.

We were up early to catch a flight from Cairo to Aswan. Our tour coordinator, Ramzy, was waiting in the hotel lobby to escort us to the airport, asking how we enjoyed the pyramids and what we thought about Egypt so far. In heavy traffic, the journey from Giza to the international airport can take nearly an hour, so Ramzy helped fill the time with an impromptu tour. He enthusiastically pointed out landmarks we had missed on the first airport transfer and insisted that we return to Cairo. “The Grand Egyptian Museum will be finished soon,” he enthused. “You will not want to miss it! It will be the greatest museum in all the world!”

With reassurances that, although we were currently in Egypt, we still wouldn’t take Egypt off our list of future travel destinations, Ramzy seemed satisfied. He praised us again for traveling carry-on-only and facilitated a lightning-quick security check, waving goodbye as we strode toward our departure gate.

In Aswan we were greeted by another friendly Emeco Travel guide, Osama, who ushered us onto the waiting van and began extolling the virtues of Aswan over those of Cairo. “This is a friendly town,” he said. “Not a city that forgets your name. Just look. No traffic!” And he was spot-on correct. Aswan had an easy feel about it that reminded us of a Chattanooga as compared to a New York. You know, if Chattanooga and New York were both in the middle of a desert.

We arrived at the Corniche el Nile, essentially a concrete platform stretching down the riverbank where several cruise ships waited at their moorings alongside smaller sailing craft and brightly painted river ferries. Our ship was the MS Amwaj Livingstone, and we were welcomed aboard with all the courtesy of an ocean-going luxury vessel by attendants in crisp attire reminiscent of a more refined age of travel.

The cabin was spacious and outfitted with superior furniture and fixtures, with an entire wall of glass looking out onto the Nile. This was the sight I had come to see.

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Mike looks out the window of our stateroom aboard the MS Amwaj Livingstone

The Nile is the epitome of relentless inevitability. Although the regular floods that once made Egypt the breadbasket of the Roman Empire have been tamed by the Aswan High Dam, the flow of the river remains steady, unwavering, like time itself. I narrowed my vision to watch a kingfisher balance on a blue water lily, a felucca sailing by in the near distance, net makers singing on the far shore. A scene that could have existed four thousand years ago.

Like all cruise ships, the Livingstone provides three buffet-style meals every day in a communal dining room, on-board entertainment that, for us, included a belly dancer and whirling dervishes, and alcohol that is not part of the package price. We were prepared to pay a premium for drinks on the ship but were pleasantly surprised when we encountered $3 beers, $5 whisky pours, and a decent sparkling wine at $25 per bottle. Although we knew there was an upcharge, we dismissed it as a vacation tax and had no qualms about indulging within reason.

Our tour guide for the river portion of this trip was Ahmed, a man I would first admire for his encyclopedic knowledge of history and religion, and who I would soon come to know as a gracious and generous friend.

We also met our fellow tour members, comprising some of the few native-English speakers on the ship. Keith and Marj were a retired couple from Canada, and (Kiwi) Keith was a solo traveler from New Zealand. We instantly hit it off with all three of them and found ourselves sharing every meal in their company, often talking late about travel, politics, and adventure.

Ahmed gathered us all up for our first outing in Aswan. During a quick tour of the Aswan High Dam, I learned that Lake Nasser is not only one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, it is also infested with Nile crocodiles and quite dangerous for swimming. For this trip, however, we would be cruising on the relatively crocodile-free Lower Nile. Back at the docking platform, we all boarded a felucca for a short sailing tour around the river island of Elephantine, so named because of the grey, misshapen rocks that line its shores.

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Sailing on the Nile

Ben, Keith, and I all tried our hand at navigating the small vessel through one of Egypt’s famed cataracts. Little more than a slight riffle on the surface of the water, it was a cataract nonetheless. So, check it off the list: Sailed on the Nile.

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Ben navigating the cataracts in a felucca near Elephantine

While still in Aswan, we also visited the Temple of Isis at Philae, relocated to an island in the Nile by UNESCO due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Not only a wonder of original Egyptian art and engineering, the relocation effort itself was amazing. To reconstruct such a beautiful site, stone by stone, without evidence of a disturbance, is surely a marvel of modern ingenuity.

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A relief of the goddess Isis at her temple in Philae

Philae was the first of many temples we would visit during the early portion of this cruising tour, including those at Kom Ombo, dedicated to the crocodile god, Sobek, and the world-renowned sites in and around the city of Edfu. After spending the night still moored to the dock in Aswan, we would cruise down the Nile during the early morning to arrive at Edfu in time for breakfast. Only a short horse-drawn carriage ride from the port, the Temple of Horus was reclaimed in 1860 from the sand and silt deposits after centuries of abandonment, its ominous facade now towering to a height of 108 feet.

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Ahmed displays the entrance tickets to Edfu during our ride in a horse-drawn carriage

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Ben, Marj, and the Keiths are dwarfed beneath the facade at Edfu

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Ben in the outer courtyard at Edfu, the second-largest temple in all of Egypt

For the rest of the day, we cruised down to Luxor, watching the lush green and blue of the Nile valley slip around us, with the far encroaching desert and forlorn escarpment impotently threatening to dry the river up, like it has done since the dawn of time.

We napped on the open-air pool deck, chatted with our fellow tourists, and made fast friends of the crew members, exchanging Facebook profiles and expanding our knowledge of Arabic. During the conversations, we shared with Ahmed, Hassan, Mahmoud, and several other crew members that this trip marked our wedding anniversary and that Egypt had long been at the top of Angela’s travel list.

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The brightly painted boats that ferry passengers across the Nile

The following morning in Luxor, our group loaded into one of the river ferries, and we crossed to the west bank of the Nile to begin a tour of the Valley of the Kings, stopping briefly to gaze at the 60-foot-tall Colossi of Memnon. Ahmed pulled me aside and insisted that I borrow his formal galabeya for dinner. “You will want to dress up tonight,” he intimated. “There will be a special presentation.”

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The Colossi of Memnon on the way to the Valley of the Kings

Photography is prohibited in the Valley of the Kings, so we don’t have any to share with you here. While several rules in Egypt are disregarded with a wink, this is one they seem intent to enforce. We saw security guards chase down a couple who tried to sneak photographs in one of the tombs, so we played it safe and kept our cameras tucked away for this one.

The tombs are in pristine condition. Hieroglyphs remain essentially unmarred by man or time, still displaying the bright colors put down by the original artists over 3000 years ago. And that was what captivated me the most about the visit. I’ve seen ancient monuments all over the world, and, for the most part, one must simply try to imagine the original vibrance that once adorned them. Not so in the Valley of the Kings, as it’s right there in all its glory.

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Ben and Angela in front of the Temple of Hatshepsut

We migrated just down the road to the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, where photography is not only allowed but encouraged, with local men posing in traditional garb to add a human element to an otherwise sterile backdrop. The local models were something we experienced at nearly every temple. While they can’t officially charge you for taking their photograph, it is an unwritten expectation that you give them a small tip, known locally as baksheesh. I would recommend setting up the shot you want, then politely asking one of the men to pose. And take a pocket full of 10 LE bills (about $0.57) as there is no reasonable expectation for them to make change.

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We returned to the ship as the sun was setting and had just enough time to wash off the dust and sweat before dinner. As promised, Ahmed brought his galabeya for me to wear, and I happily obliged. Angela and I drank far too much Egyptian whisky, laughed with the other guests and cruise staff, and, toward the end of the meal, were presented with an anniversary cake handcrafted by the ship’s pastry chef.

It was a fantastic evening all around. I danced. Badly. In a galabeya.

And we stayed up until the early morning, talking about life in Egypt, family, religion, and world travel. I came to understand this country and its people on a more personal level that night. Friendships were forged, and I appreciated their predicament. They were here, on the uncertain spear tip of a history that extended backward into the fading glory of time.

Tonight, we would sleep. Tomorrow, we would say goodbye to our new friends, but only after flying over the Valley of the Kings in a hot air balloon.