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Thursday, 23 October 2008

TRAVEL - Egypt /Nile

The Secrets of a Great River - A Cruise down the Nile by Nathalie Kyrou

Forget the pyramids. Cruising along the still waters of the Nile, stopping at temples along the way, is the perfect and most relaxing way to get a real sense of prevailing Egyptian history. The journey down the longest river in the world offers an authentic sense of Africa in Egypt. Only a couple of hours flight south from Cyprus lies an entirely different world, a photogenic land and river whose cultural depth and historical magnitude are stupendous and awe-inspiring.

Modern-day Luxor, otherwise known as the ancient city of Thebes, was Egypt’s capital at the beginning of the 18th dynasty and remained a religious centre even after the capital moved to Memphis and, later, the Nile Delta. Luxor is where most of the cruises for floating hotels along the river begin, sailing southwards to their final destination, Aswan, in what in ancient times was referred to as the region of Upper Egypt (in term of the Nile’s northerly flow).

After settling into our rooms on our ship, the M/S Mojito, we had the entire day to tour Luxor, before lifting anchor the next morning. After getting the schedule break-down from our own personal guide, Abdulla, who was to accompany us on the entire trip, we hopped into our own private mini-van and crossed the large gates of Luxor into the surrounding countryside.

In the ancient Egyptian cosmos, the realm of the dead lay beyond the western horizon. Across the Nile in western Luxor, a succession of New Kingdom rulers had tombs cut into cliffs. Here you can find the tomb of the famous Tutankhamun and the Temples of the Nobles. The legendary Queen Hatshipsuet of the 18th Dynasty - the only queen to rule Egypt during the time of the Pharaohs - built her temple at Deir el Bahri, and although Egyptologists have yet to find her body, some believe it lies in the nearby valley. The famous Queen Nefertari, known from the myriad of representations of her in temple reliefs, was also buried in the nearby Queen's Valley. Her tomb is considered to be the most beautiful of all queens' tombs, both for its design and its brilliantly coloured painted decoration.

After a brief stop to take pictures at the Colossi of Memnon (where two enormous statues of seated figures are all that remain of the monumental avenue leading to the temple of Amenhotep III), we arrived at The Valley of The Kings, one of the main attractions of the region, and a major tourist spot. There, nestled amongst gargantuan, rocky mountains, lie prehistoric rulers’ carved-out tombs, once stocked with goods for the afterlife. The renowned Ramses II (a.k.a Ramses the Great, of the 19th Dynasty, ca. 1539-1075 B.C), who restored traditional beliefs and fought a succession of foreign foes during his reign, was buried here and had his temple erected nearby. The Valley of the Kings was impressive - I was most amazed at the intricate and beautiful hieroglyphics, especially at the enduring vibrancy of the originally used colours.

On our return journey into town, we stopped off at an alabaster factory in the village of El-Korna. Four young Egyptian men, sitting on the floor outside, were working on crude slabs of locally collected alabaster, from which they were producing refined sculptures and assorted containers. We were explained the working process in detail, after which we were left to wander around the shop (I later regretted not purchasing one of the exquisite works of art from there, as prices at the airports for comparable souvenirs were quadruple the cost and the selection limited). I accepted a tiny piece of alabaster as a gift from one of the men, only to be told afterwards, to my amusement, that I must give him money for it. This was only one of the many times where I was reminded that tipping is extra, regardless of whether your trip covers all expenses. Although being expected to disperse cash to everyone around you at all times can take some getting used to, it is important to realise that people out here survive on tips. Thank goodness for our guide, who could advise us how much to give and to whom.

Abdulla, in his early thirties and originating from Aswan, was the ideal guide. A history guru, excited to talk continuously about his country – and not in the least bit weary from already having done it countless times before – he told us that the Nile supports nine countries, each of which allow water to pass downstream, on to the next. He also mentioned, to my surprise, that it only rains here every five years or so, and only for only a few minutes. No wonder most of the huts around us had no roofs! I knew this was desert country, but where did so much of the river water come from then? I discovered that the Blue Nile, which rises from Ethiopia, provides most of this water, while the rest comes from the longer White Nile which rises in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, from its source at Lake Victoria. In fact, the Nile flows some 6,695 km from the meeting point of the two rivers (which merge near Khartoum in Sudan), to the Mediterranean, where it ends in a delta that empties into the sea. Another interesting fact: the word "Nile" comes from the Greek word Neilos (Νειλος), meaning river valley.

As we were visiting Karnak Temple later that afternoon upon our return to Luxor, Abdulla proceeded now to relate the history and importance of (and thus reason for) the cornucopia of temples in this country. Mediator between the Egyptians and their gods, the ruler of ancient Egypt was the country’s highest priest as well as its head of state. By building temples and making offerings, he continually reconfirmed his devotion to the gods. In response, the gods maintained the physical world and all who lived in it. As a result, from Luxor to Aswan, history reveals itself in the form of ancient temples, adorned with symbols and pictographs, their giant columns visible from afar.

At Karnak, riches bestowed on the principal state god, Amun-Re, brought increasing influence to priests at the main temple. Carved from stone, many examples of the monumental art of Luxor can be found in this breath-taking work of architecture which took more than 2000 years to build. Karnak temple was so fascinating and colossal that I was gravely disappointed we only had a short time to explore it - I could have spent days wandering amongst the gigantic columns, sculptures, statues and obelisks, losing myself in the maze of enduring ruins, and in the archetypal hieroglyphics which glittered like gold in the afternoon sun.

However, dusk was beckoning us back on board, where rest and dinner were to be had before our night-time traditional horse carriage ride through the streets of old Luxor. This is perhaps the most popular thing a visitor here can do, and it proved to be an excellent way to get a real feel for the town and its inhabitants – the highlight being Luxor’s marketplace, open until the early hours of the morning. Hidden beauty can be found in even the poorest of places, and Luxor market is the perfect example: baskets of colourful spices and tiny Egyptian lemons, neatly arranged in rows, adorn the streetsides, beautifully laid out alongside racks of shoes and hanging clothes and materials; motorbikes, bicycles, horses decorated with bells - their backsides shaved into designs - and pedestrians of all ages weave their way around basketed goods and horses; ironmongers, shoe-makers and other merchants go about their daily work, while groups of men huddle around roadside fires. It was an enchanting and unforgettable outing, well worth the 20 USD extra per person, even though it is possible to bargain for a cheaper ride. My only advice: don’t get off the carriage at any point, or attempt to walk anywhere in town without your guide, or else you will be hassled incessently by locals wishing to sell you their goods or simply asking you for “bakshish” (Arabic for tip or gratuity).

We didn’t have time to visit Luxor Temple the next morning, but we did watch it from a distance as we set off south on the first leg of our cruise. As we disentangled ourselves from the rows of cruise ships stacked next to each other like sardines in a tin, and moved away from the fleet of ships setting off in a cruising parade, I started to notice the scenery changing. As we left the town behind, urban imagery was replaced by rural landscape. This is at this moment when I began to get a genuine sense of the river Nile.

Watching cattle grazing lazily on the tall grasses of the river bank, while small fishing boats, piled high with stacks of sugarcane, dotted the beaches, I was reminded of Egypt’s past. The country was once a savanna roamed by elephants and gazelles, where humans hunted and gathered their food. About 7,000 years ago the climate changed and all but the land closest to the river turned to desert. This is how two great forces – the Nile River and the surrounding desert – shaped one of the world’s most enduring civilisations. Settling by the Nile, people began to farm and form communities. Each year the river overflowed its banks and deposited a fresh layer of rich earth across its floodplain, nourishing its people. Now, thousands of years later, farmers still harvest the fertile surrounding ground, and the Nile was, and still is, used to transport goods to different places along its long path.

We passed by several old villages, their cubic shaped houses of mud and brown clay, occasionally painted in pastel pinks and blues, lining the coast. Barefoot children seemed happy, playing on muddy banks. Roofless huts made from yellow stalks, bunched and tied together to form sheltering walls, speckled the foreground, while in front of them groups of women wrapped in brightly coloured scarves gathered by the river, filling their containers with water and waving to us as we drifted along by. Other women were washing clothes and carpets in the olive green stream, while men, dressed in long, loose white tunics, their heads wrapped in turbans, walked along dusty paths, balancing large baskets of goods on their head. Others sat on rickety rowing boats, fishing for unknown treasures. Further on, in between villages, palm trees, filled with sweet and succulent dates, crowded the shoreline, while patches of dessert sand lay beyond. Everywhere I looked, donkeys and camels were scattered across the lush vegetation, living in harmony with nature and humans.

As we cruised along over the next couple of days, the Nile widened, then narrowed, then widened again, offering us an abundance of breathtaking panoramic views and contrasting scenery: clouds of smoke billowing out from amongst verdant fields, banana plantations covering the red earth, river weeds swaying in the wind, and in the distance, on the eastern side, clusters of date palms interspersed along the vista of beige, rocky mountains looming high above the occasional silhouetted mosque. To my surprise, at one point a speeding train whizzed by out of the stillness on a railtrack that appeared out of nowhere, rushing along to who knows where. The only thing I noticed swimming in the river, throughout the whole journey, was a large brown cow – and I never even knew cows could swim! Long narrow islets also kept cropping up in the midst of the river, upon which a variety of birds would perch themselves, resting on their golden sands. A nature photographer’s and wild-life enthusiast’s paradise, I discovered the Nile to be the perfect haven for foreigners wishing to escape the bustle of modern city life.

We stopped for a while in Esna, where we were accosted by a throng of merchants trying fiercely and relentlessly to sell us their goods directly from their rowing boats beneath our ship. They would throw up samples of material and ask us to throw them down some money. This went on for hours and was a bizarre and remarkable sight! We then headed south to Edfu, where lies what is known as ancient Egypt’s best preserved temple, dedicated to Horus, the falcon God. A horse driven carriage brought us to the entrance of Edfu Temple, where a chaotic mass of carriages and screaming drivers continuously gather to drop off tourists who need to be extremely prudent to avoid getting lost, stolen from or trampled.

Nevertheless, Edfu temple, begun by Ptolemy III and finished by Ptolemy XII, is worth the hassle. Abdulla informed us that a picture of the temple can be found on a 50 pound Egyptian note, and that from anywhere you stand in or around the structure you are able to see the image of the king carved somewhere. While exploring the interior’s impressive engravings, we learnt that one of the best jobs in that era was that of a writer, and that the hieroglyphic symbol meaning the sound “shhh” was the equivalent term for the word we use today of ‘writer’ (this being because writers worked best in silent conditions, thus “shhh” was a reminder to others to be quiet around them). Interestingly, the word ‘hieroglyphic’ itself actually derives from ancient Greek, where Hieros (ἱερός) = sacred, and glyphikós (γλυφικός) = engraved.

Further down along the Nile, we passed by the Temple of Kom Ombo, where, as with the rest of the places of worship visited during our trip, we were faced with ornate stone engravings revealing details of a culture that still inspires marvel. We ended our cruise in Aswan, located in lower Nubia (which may have gotten its name from the word ‘gold’ – or nub in Egyptian), a region which in the past provided Egypt with ebony, ivory, leopard skins and incense. It was here at the First Cataract, or rapid, near Aswan that ancient Egyptians erroneously believed the source of the Nile to be. The city itself is a much larger urban centre than Luxor, with about a quarter of a million inhabitants, and most men here are dressed in modern clothes, as opposed to the more traditional jallabehas (floor-length gowns), although all women still wear hejabs covering their heads. As with everywhere else we had visited so far in Egypt, only men seemed to be working in public.

Before flying back home from Aswan via Cairo, we visited the High Dam - the world’s largest - which controls and stores a copious amount of water, and produces electricity. The dam helps locals reclaim land and avoid relocation due to flooding, also aiding to preserve Nubian archaeological sites that would otherwise be destroyed. The neighbouring Lake Nasser, at approximately 500km x 30km, is the largest fresh-water, man-made resevoir in the world. To my astonishment, Abdulla informed us that it is also filled with 36,000 protected crocodiles! From Aswan and Lake Nassar, it is possible to discover some lesser-known temples of the Nile, with the exception of the Temple of Abu Simbel, which is one of Egypt’s priceless treasures.

Despite the enormous size of this all, the highlight of Aswan for me was the short sail we took along the coastal town that morning. The felucca, a traditional sailboat, was captained by a man called Ousama who steered us towards Elephantine island, which takes its name from ivory trade and the islet’s surrounding naturally shaped rocks which resemble elephants. After buying a few village hand-made souvenirs from a selection offered to us by the young ship mate, we sailed to shore, where we docked and continued our tour. Aswan is known for its perfumeries, and at Essence of Life, where we stopped next, one can select different samples to buy from a plethora of oils and glass ornate containers. You can even create your own perfume blend right there, as you get a neck and shoulder oil massage while listening to a guided explanation of all that is on offer.

On the whole, this was definitely a trip worth taking, despite the lack of professionality and service from our local travel agent Xenos Travel. Overall, Nugget Tours, on the Egyptian side, were more helpful and accommodating to our needs. In general, all Egyptians were exceedingly friendly and courteous. The cruise boat itself was nothing remarkable but the staff were pleasant and the food better than average. Perhaps the only real entertainment on-board worth noting though was Oriental night, where guests came dressed up in traditional Egyptian costumes, and were presented with a traditional buffet and entertained by a humorous tribal dancer, although it was the memorable swirling Sufi dancer who truly stole the show.

All in all, hotel accommodation in Egypt was filled with unfamiliar (and to me, slightly eccentric) touches: a leaflet in my room advertising Koran praying carpets available for hire; being woken up daily by loud prayers at sunrise; shower heads by all the toilets (I discovered this is because it is customary to wash one’s backside before praying); the man walking around the entire boat at meal-times, sounding his gong to remind passengers that dinner is being served; the souvenir shop owner asking for my sister’s hand in marriage in exchange for 100 camels! Even funnier was the fact that it took me ages to realise that Egyptian hotel staff were not talking about poultry when they kept saying “Chic – en”, but were referring to check-in! What I loved most was trying the odd but delightful combination of flavours on the breakfast buffet, from freshly made orange and carrot jams to foules (fava beans) and pomegranates.

Yet it is the actual cruise on the river, rather than the boat itself, which offers one a true taste of the real Egypt. As your ship navigates past palm groves, temples, sand dunes, villages, and monuments, thousands of years of history unfold before your very eyes. So far as the Nile seems endless, its history seems never-ending. Yet, for something so immense, the Nile is strangely peaceful. It is a river with real presence – its character coming alive once you have cruised along its sparkling and tranquil waters. Like the hieroglyphics which are engraved on the walls of antiquity, the Nile will remain etched eternally in the memories of those who have been fortunate enough to experience it.

Copyright © Nathalie Kyrou 2008

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