Mummy-filled museums and River Nile cruises: One writer’s guide to exploring the historic treasures of Egypt

WT Writer
Oct 12, 2020

To see the land of the pharaohs in five-star style needn’t cost a king’s ransom. Nick Redman knows the shipshape way to Egypt’s extraordinary secrets

Except for a few old stiffs, the Royal Mummies Room at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt, was full of life, with an upbeat swirl of tourists from around the world. If I’d thought there’d be a gloom over the capital and the country following years of political upset and the plague of terrorism, the diversity of visitors was as reassuring as it was overwhelming. I crossed paths with couples from Taiwan, a group from Greece, a bunch of travelling friends from Brazil and a party of 20 from India, all maximising the opportunity to experience Egypt without the crowds that used to flood in. Good to know that the global star power of the pharaohs is as strong as ever. 

There was even something alive about the dead among us — or at least something a little undead. I could quite imagine those mummies creaking out of their cases once the doors were shut at night and hopping about to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. If you only saw one room in the museum, I’d make it this. King Tuthmosis III (ruler circa 1479-1425BC) seemed frozen in an awkward mid-karate chop. On her withered face Queen Nudjmer (1070-1044BC) had ceremonial eyebrows of real hair. The great Hatshepsut (circa 1497-1458BC) extended a thumbnail at us, as long and pale as a jackal’s tooth. Finally, I found the remains of Ramses IV (1152-1145BC), who, the signage explained, hit the afterlife with a skull full of resin, an abdomen stuffed with lichen and two small onions for eyes. I like to think it’s what he would have wanted. 

Goddesses on a wall of the Kom Ombo temple
Goddesses on a wall of the Kom Ombo temple. Credit | Istock

The lunatic magnificence of mysterious lives, belief systems and incomprehensible rituals enacted millennia before our own brief sojourn on Earth — that’s the shiver-inducing spectacle of Egypt, as if some remote civilisation were trying to signal to us across the gulf of galaxies. It should be compulsory to visit. To see it all — Cairo and the major attractions along the Nile — you’re going to need a week or so. On a tour-operator-organised journey you’ll likely fly into Cairo for a two- or three-day whirlwind circuit of the city sights first. But it’s possible, if you’d rather, to transit straight on to Luxor or Aswan, the cities that bookend the standard cruise. Then you could wind up in the capital before flying home. 

I’ve travelled to Cairo before with people who’ve quickly been overwhelmed by the heat, the fume-spewing sluggish traffic and the characterless, clay-coloured high-rises ricocheting off for miles. In places it looks like Miss Havisham’s take on Los Angeles, with those endless, dust-grey highways and grim, coiling flyovers apparently strangling whole neighbourhoods like gigantic vines. Despite it all I’ve never been less than exhilarated, and you can dodge the mayhem with, say, a hookah pipe on the balmy lawns of the Ritz-Carlton, or drinks Nileside after dark in the chi-chi Zamalek district. 

Be sure to contemplate the Pyramids from far off before you pay a visit. Their size, strangely, is less apparent the closer you get. They’re 5km out in Giza, blurring with Cairo’s sprawl, and glimpsing them distantly rising from a smoggy horizon, dwarfing the outskirts, you fully appreciate their dimensions. Upper-floor rooms of the Four Seasons Hotel at The First Residence have great views, as I recall. The Sphinx is awesome up close, saddled with some apocryphal stories. (Was the nose really shot off during Napoleon’s campaign? Oh, stop it.) 

Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor, Egypt
Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor, Egypt. Credit | Istock

Also read: A guide to spending a long weekend in Cairo

Cairo done, you’ll fly south for a couple of hours, to Luxor or, further south still, to Aswan. (You can set off from either, or sail both ways, which spaces out the sightseeing and helps to reduce daily temple overload.) I strongly advise Aswan as a departure point, as you can follow in the slipper-steps of Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie with a stay at the Old Cataract hotel.

Sipping a drink on the terrace, above a bend in the river, where willow-masted feluccas drift like angelfish in the silver dusk light, you’ll agree it’s one of the world’s underrated grandes dames, lovely, lonely and lost in time. You may even recognise it from its bit part in the 1978 film Death on the Nile, vying for screen space with Mia Farrow, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith and Peter Ustinov among the key players. All in all, unmissable. 

Cruisers, which cover the monuments concentrated between both towns in three, five or sometimes seven days, come in all shapes and sizes, from multi-storey gin palaces to small vessels modelled on the dahabiya, the type with masts and sails that tourists took in the 19th century. Lack of demand in recent times has meant the mothballing of many ships. They made for a dispiriting sight — lifeless and massed by the riverbanks — as we headed out of Aswan, realising the impact that low traveller numbers has had on already fragile livelihoods. 

Boats sailing along the River Nile
Boats sailing along the River Nile. Credit | Istock

Also read: ‘Free Trip to Egypt’: The film that brings Americans to the Middle East

More optimistically, Sanctuary Sun Boat III, on which we’d be sailing to Luxor, put paid to any preconceptions of cruising as uncool. Reclining in the rattan chairs on its shady back deck, we could have been suave Agatha Christie detectives as we sipped rosé. Communal rooms radiated elegant nostalgia in old chests, ablution ewers and a trumpet-speakered gramophone among other antiques from Cairo auctions. I was happy to be aboard a mid-size, upmarket ship; too big (and cheap) is a false economy, as you’ll soon realise, jostling with the masses for every attraction and cold drink. (We even had exclusive mooring times for attractions.) Besides, with the exchange rate, Sanctuary’s prices are pretty good value (for an adventure so once-in-a-lifetime — superb food, excursions and guiding included. 

In October, the heat was about 25C as we visited our first temple: Philae, just beyond Aswan. There, George, our guide, gave us a crash course in hieroglyphics (which became a recurring game), pointing out what looked like two kings, an egg and a falcon. It spelt Isis, name of the original Philae goddess. ‘Iz-eeez, please,’ George enunciated. ‘Not Isis.’ A point not lost on us, mindful of the destructive reach of the Islamic State — although it was, in fact, early Christians who obliterated the old Isis cult at Philae to create a place of worship, carving crosses and erasing faces on columns. 

We began the gentle thrum to Luxor, 180km or so north. The top deck was perfect for the idle hours between temples, for tanning on sunloungers. The horizons sprouted palm thickets and electricity pylons, desert-yellow hills and low-rise villages the liver-pink colour of hippos. We heard the lowing of cattle, the whoops of kids and the incantations from small mosques. Egyptian beers were served by Zezo, the friendly waiter, in glasses white with freezer ice, between dips in the oasis-shaped plunge pool. A Nile cruise, it’s important to underline, is as much about indolence and indulgence as it is about date-littered history. But those rays were powerful and I’d think twice about June, July and August, when temperatures can reach 40C. If you’re bent on a bargain, though, the price does drop in summer — the converse of rates in the popular balmy winter months.

Pillars of the Great Hypostyle Hall from Karnak Temple
Pillars of the Great Hypostyle Hall from Karnak Temple. Credit | Istock

Also read: The local’s guide to visiting Cairo

Lunch was served under the breeze-ruffled awnings of the back deck: barbecued chicken skewers, tagine-cooked pumpkin pud as sweet as treacle tart; then coffee, as the skeletal temple of Kom Ombo materialised among palms to the east under a cloudless sky. All 30 or so guests negotiated the gangplank, to find ourselves the only tourists on shore — delightful for us, if not for the vendors of shawls and statuettes. I’m pleased I had handfuls of small notes to exchange for a bagful or two of mementos to offer nieces and others back home. 

Kom Ombo may not be the biggest of the bunch — Karnak and Luxor temples dwarf it in both size and complexity. But it’s magnificent to contemplate alone (for which, simply hang back as the guide leads the group onwards and in a minute or two you’ll be plunged into silence). It’s a double (mirror-image) structure to Sobek, the Crocodile God, and Haroeris, a deity of the sky in falcon form. ‘A temple to good and evil,’ said George. With a knowledgable leader, we gained crucial insights into Pharaonic zoolatry — the belief that gods disguised themselves in animal form to see off danger, from which the cults of creature worship evolved. Sobek, jawed Lord of the Waters, was revered as a predictor of the river’s annual inundation level — crocs built nests above the flood’s reach — ergo crop fertility. Revered, but also feared; in a gallery, mummified reptiles leered eerily at me from behind glass. 

Great Sphinx of Giza, Egypt
Great Sphinx of Giza, Egypt. Credit | Istock

That night, like all the others, the black Nile seduced us gently onwards. Over dinner at the stern, the air carried scents of burning wood, almost vanilla-sweet. Once or twice a public ferry — a commotion of white-lit, crowded decks — crossed ahead, then faded to tranquillity, the sky powdered with stars and the neon-pink flash of a far-off minaret. On Bedouin cushions in the boudoir Sahara Room, new friends joked over drinks as — wallflowers, you have been warned — staff urged us to don camp, complimentary djellabas (those traditional unisex robes). 

In Luxor, the final stop, you have some of the most celebrated sights in the country — the world — to immerse yourself in. Karnak is a sensation, particularly late in the day, as shadows creep up the cinnamon flanks of this hulking complex. With origins some 4,000 years old and dedicated to Amun-Ra, it is the largest temple in Egypt. I’d make for the Great Hypostyle Hall, a space reminiscent of a Star Trek set, all towering columns like vertiginous mushrooms. Were their carved capitals levered into place? Dragged up ramps of sand? Who knows? But they’re huge and a hell of a long way up. 

For me, the Temple of Luxor offered more of the same — something to note if you’re getting pharaoh fatigue. But the Valley of the Kings, lying opposite on the sunset side of the Nile, is the drumroll finale to your cruise and the reason you should take the voyage in this direction: for the wide, columned Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, facing you like a deathlyJoker’s grin from the unsparing rockface as you near; but most of all for the tombs of the greats. Deep inside one, I met Tutankhamun, the mummy, unrecognisable from the face on the golden mask I’d seen at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The nose had been eroded by millennia. The eye sockets looked like the insides of old conker husks. But he was still a shining star, undimmed by time. Just like the sights we’d seen and the Egyptians we’d met on our journey to get here. Just like the extraordinary land in which he lay.

To book a future trip, call 800 DNATA or visit dnatatravel.com.