Not just a river...

Not just a river...

Cruising down Egypt’s River Nile, Hugh & colleen gantzer get a glimpse of the country’s great heritage and mystical history

The cruise was cosseting; history was a fabulous add-on. And what history! Egypt’s past is the only one that can rival ours and Hollywood has really gone to town with the pharaohs and their lives, steeped in luxury and dark intrigue. We thought of Cleopatra bathing in asses’ milk to be fair and lovely. She had her eyes set on Julius Caesar and then on his usurper, Mark Antony, while she lolled in her royal barge, sailing down the Nile. Our ‘barge’ was much larger.

The multi-decked Marquis II was one of about 300 Nile cruise ships that ferry tourists down this surprisingly clean blue river.

We boarded at Aswan in Upper Egypt’s region of Nubia, stood on the pool deck in the late evening, and looked across the Nile to the west bank. There, catching the sunset was the iconic tower built by the Oberois before the hotel was acquired by Movenpic. The deck purred softly to the thrust of the engines, and we swung gently into the stream to begin our voyage north.

Most Caucasians had opted for the cruise to relax, escaping from the cold and drudgery of their wintry northern lands. They read and snacked, remarked casually on the landscape unfolding past. “How thick the palm groves are near the water! And yet, a little beyond, there’s a flat-roofed village rising out of arid dunes,” a slim man with a professorial manner remarked. “The houses have flat roofs because it doesn’t rain here, though on cool nights, there could be heavy dew.”

Then sunset blinked into a chill desert night with bright stars above and we began to head for a blaze of golden radiance on the left bank. A steward announced that we were approaching our first port of call and guides began to assemble their groups in a babble of languages.

“In ancient Egyptian times,” as our guide Mohammed prefaced most of his historic explanations, the floodlit 1,500-year-old Kom-Ombo Temple had been built as a twin shrine. It had, at one time, been damaged by the Nile and been rebuilt a thousand years later. One side was dedicated to Horus the Elder, the other to the primitive crocodile god, Sobek. Massive, horizontal blocks of stone were pinioned by wooden inserts, vertical blocks were stabilised by stone protrusions fitting snugly into holes in the blocks above.

Temple trip

This temple had been a great centre of healing, and carvings showed surgical instruments and a woman being delivered of a child as she sat on a birth stool. Another bas relief depicted Horus anointing a Pharaoh from a perfume bottle, shaped like one we had bought in Cairo’s great covered Khan el Khaleli market.

We returned to our ship, shared a table in the dining room with a couple from Malaysia and a cheerful American lawyer on a UN assignment in Africa. We slept in our comfortable cabin and wondered why we don’t have similar cruises on our great rivers at home.

We were up on deck on a crisp morning. We disembarked to visit what is reputedly the best preserved ancient temple in Egypt, Edfu. “This is also a fairly recent temple, by our standards,” a guide told his group of Australians, “only 2,300 years old. It was built by Ptolemy III in 327 BC.”

Two towering, flat-topped, blocks stood on either side of the entrance. Beautifully sculpted falcons, the protectors of the god Horus, guarded him and there were striking two-dimensional carvings on the walls. Vandals have tried to disfigure some of these bas reliefs, but from the solar disc and cow’s horns on the female figure, and the plumed crown on the male, we identified them as Hathor and her husband Horus. Effortlessly, we were absorbing some of the great heritage of Egypt.

As we sailed out of Edfu, we relaxed on the sun deck. Two senior ladies from Bangalore were playing a traditional game that must have been the precursor of draughts. A Canadian who seemed to have a felt hat fixed permanently on his head, remarked, to no one in particular, “That’s a new board game to me.” We enlightened him: “It’s probably older than Edfu. We’ve seen its board carved on the flagstones of a 2,500-year-old shrine in India.”

We smiled and closed our eyes in the shade of the awning of the sun deck. The ship purred under us, as soothing as a lullaby. We must have slept effortlessly, dreamlessly, through the long afternoon because we woke just in time to freshen up and join our table for dinner. It was our last night together and we reminisced like old friends, exchanged addresses and promised to keep in touch. We all agreed that it had been a wonderfully unwinding trip and though a belly dancer shimmered and gyrated her feathers, tinsel and ample assets, our cameras sulked and pouted. Perhaps, after being exposed to so much of the heritage of Egypt they didn’t feel that she was quite in the same league. Sometimes, digital cameras have minds of their own!

We disembarked, rather reluctantly, and for the last time, at Luxor. Even in its present ruined form, the great temple dwarfs visitors with its enormous statues of Pharaoh Ramses II and its soaring columns topped by papyrus-bud capitals. For many centuries, it was covered by a mound of sand and a mosque was built atop the dune. The mosque was left intact when the old temple was excavated. There were also interesting, though faded, Christian paintings on the walls from the time that the ruins were taken over by the Copts, Egypt’s small, Pharaonic, Christian minority.

We had returned, rather reluctantly, to the present, after glimpsing Egypt’s unforgettable past.

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