The King and I: An audience with Tutankhamun

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After the bustle of Cairo, what better way to explore the land of the pharaohs than on a cruiser gently floating down the Nile

Cairo can get to you. There are 19 million souls in the most populous city in Africa and sometimes it seems as if they are all inside your head at once.

Clamouring to flog you a postcard here, a scrap of papyrus there, Anubises and scarabs, dancing camels and King Tut tat – they tug and hiss, they plead and bully. Tourist Cairo is hot, dusty and relentlessly in your face. There are times when, like Greta Garbo, you just want to be alone.

For such exigencies I suggest making a beeline for the most famous space in the city. I am standing inside the tomb chamber in the centre of the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Giza. It is 46 feet by 16. The three other tourists who were here have just scrambled into the access tunnel on their hands and knees. They have taken their echoes with them.

The pharaoh's vandalised sarcophagus seems to glow in the half-light. Otherwise the chamber is stark and featureless. The walls seem to condense time and mass. The weight of history is physical – the granite ceiling beams weigh between 50 and 80 tons each. A further two million huge blocks of stone encase the chamber. The whole pile has stood for 4,500 years. The numbers are boggling. And then they reduce to one – just one breathless entity in the epicentre of the most famous building in history. I am within kissing distance of immortality.

Transcendental moments come with the territory when you are chasing nearly five millennia. Gathering my composure I descend the grand gallery, which requires only a hologram of Lara Croft to complete the illusion of having strayed into a virtual world. Instead of Lara, though, I find myself making way for an immaculately turned-out coachload of Japanese pensioners – hats, white gloves and jackets – huffing upwards. Tomb Raider it ain't.

Howard Carter's haul from the tomb of Tutankhamun makes him arguably the most successful tomb raider of all time. Some of the Tut galleries in the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo remain exactly as the legendary archaeologist laid them out.

The vast bulk of the spoils from the tomb are here, though his mummy has been returned to its original resting place. The death mask itself, with its striped gold and blue glass nemes headcloth, is familiar from a million verisimilitudes in every trashy souvenir shop in Egypt. The real thing has an extraordinary effect on the throng of visitors. Jaws slacken, conversations stop and sentient humans take on the demeanour of small rodents caught in the light of a thousand suns.

I too fall under the spell of the boy who was once 18 but is now 3,500 years old. An unbidden thought must surely cross the mind of anyone who gazes into his unblinking eyes – will there still be people standing before this mask lost in wonderment 3,500 years on?

Amazingly, despite his celebrity, Tut's treasures are displayed in conditions that seem more apt to a secondary school history project. The absence of some items from the galleries (on tour around the world) is jotted in hand-scrawled notes torn from an exercise book. The tatty display cases seem nearly as antique as the treasures themselves. Loaves, baked 1,500 years before Christ, are crumbling to dust in cabinets that don't appear to be airtight or climate-controlled. The hoard is set to move within a couple of years to the glitzy Grand Egyptian Museum under construction in Giza, but for all its inadequacy I will miss the dusty charm of the Victorian-era building.

The rest of my pharaonic journey is by boat – I join my fellow passengers and our tour manager, Neveen, in Luxor for the six-day cruise to Aswan. Our boat, The Musk, is a small craft (sleeping just a dozen guests) compared with the industrial-strength Nile cruisers we can see berthed on the far bank – some are tethered to each other six deep from the jetty. The Musk is a dahabiyya, having the appearance of a traditional steamer and could easily serve as a floating set for another remake of Death on the Nile. In truth, though, The Musk is less than a year old and the romantic-looking (largely cosmetic) sails serve to conceal the fact that below decks the boat is an up-to-date motor cruiser equipped with such mod cons as air conditioning, spacious shower cubicles and flush toilets.

The first day anchored in Luxor is enough to test a dilettante's commitment to Egyptology. It is a daunting progression through the Valley of the Queens, the Valley of the Kings, the colossi of Memnon, the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut ("Try saying 'hat and cheap suit' quickly," offers Neveen), the Luxor Museum and the monumental Luxor Temple. Luckily, this is by far the busiest day. The highlight for me is Tomb 62 in the Valley of the Kings – Tutankhamun's.

Maybe the 100 Egyptian pounds (about £12) extra cost of the Tut ticket deters the vast majority of the tour parties, but the entrance to the tomb is astonishingly empty. It is all but obscured by the giant mausoleum of Rameses VI just above it – a reminder of Tutankhamun's lowly status among the great pharaohs.

A narrow-inclined passageway takes me down. Immediately, inside the antechamber I find King Tut on my left. Not an effigy, a painting or a waxwork – but the pharaoh himself in a glass case. There is no splendour and little else to see; I can understand how ticket-paying visitors might feel cheated by the almost bare tomb. The guard inside, fishing for a tip, shines a torch into King Tut's body cavities. Stripped of his treasures and his dignity, Tutankhamun looks every hour of his 3,500 years – tiny, brittle and desiccated. Bored now, the guard wanders out for a few minutes and I am alone with Tut.

He is often referred to as the most famous Egyptian ever but that hardly does him justice. (Who might the second most famous be – Mohamed al-Fayed?) Tutankhamun transcends both time and nationality. I am having a private audience with one of the biggest names in history – older than Genghis Khan, Jesus, Emperor Augustus, Alexander the Great or Socrates – and here he is, inches from my incredulous eyes. It is another spine-tingling, goose-bumping, epiphany-inducing moment.

After the frenetic rush of Luxor, the cruise settles to a gentler rhythm. The exquisite landscape is unchanged from pre-biblical times. In the morning, a blue haze still hangs on the river. Sometimes, the Nile widens and takes on the proportions of a lake – the banks are lined by date palm, banana, clover and sugar-cane fields. Farmers bob along the levees on scrawny donkeys. The pharaohs would still recognise their Egypt.

Birdlife is abundant. I scour the banks for garrulous pied kingfishers – common as sparrows. There are also flocks of little egrets, at least five species of heron, and vivid polychromatic bee-eaters.

Meals are served on deck as we float along. Time seems to slow. There is a moment of passenger discord when we moor up for the night next to a busy road in the dusty, fly-blown town of Esna. The unflappable Neveen takes it in her stride and arranges a more picturesque stopover. The resulting sunset cruise turns out to be a highlight of the trip. Dinner is served as the night envelopes us. Huge Death Star Nile cruisers loom out of the pitch-black river, jarring as a shopping mall, before the quiet darkness reasserts itself.

The dreamy drift to Aswan is interrupted by regular hot-and-bothered excursions to historical sites. Though still ancient, the temple of Edfu was built in post-pharaonic times. Dug out of sand and silt by a French archaeologist after being abandoned 2,000 years ago, the temple looks as fit for purpose as it ever was. Another Ptolemaic temple in Kom Ombo has the most spectacular location on high ground at a bend in the river. And, finally, the temple of Phylae moved stone by stone in the 1970s, in an engineering miracle to rival the pharaohs' own projects, to save it from mud and inundation caused by the Aswan dam.

The truth is by the time we reach Aswan I have temple fatigue. The scale, the richness and the sheer profusion of antiquity have induced torpor. Wonders, taken individually, that I would cross continents for have become a daily occurrence. On arrival at Aswan I am grateful for other distractions.

The souk is a welcome blast of bathos. Traders have put up signs saying "no hassle" or "no hassel" in 12 different languages, which is a sure sign of trouble. The salesmanship is inevitably high pressure but some of the shopkeepers are unexpectedly funny. "Everything in my shop – free," shouts one. To Marilyn, a diminutive member of our group, another pleads: "Why, small person, do you not want to look in my shop?" Tina, a doctor from a Bangladeshi background gets: "Indian Lady – why so angry face? Come into my shop."

And the clincher .... "No one will hassle you here – except me."

In the evening from the terrace of a local café we survey Aswan. Falookas dance on the Nile, palm trees throw shapes, and the ever-present desert rises on the far bank. Sadly, the new Isis Island Hotel, a hideous multi-storey pink affair, has brought a touch of Benidorm to an otherwise fabulous view across the old cataract. But the quotidian world is held at bay as the sky turns gold and red and the great disc of the sun, once called Aten and worshipped by Pharaoh Akhenaten, finds its vanishing point on the western horizon.

Compact facts

How to get there

Bales Worldwide (0845 057 0600; balesworldwide.com) offers a 12-day holiday to Egypt from £1,995 per person, based on two sharing. It includes return flights with British Airways (ba.com); internal flights with Egypt Air (egyptair.com); three nights in Cairo; a seven-night Nile cruise aboard a luxury dahabiyya; transfers; most meals; and tipping. Book before 31 July to qualify for Bales Worldwide's various offers, including free nights at the new Villa Belle Epoque in Cairo and free excursions to the Pyramids and Egyptian Museum on selected dahabiyya departures.

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