Egypt uncovered: A Nile cruise through history

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Rory Ross sets sail from Aswan to Luxor on a luxury cruise fit for a pharaoh, stopping off en route to marvel at Egypt's grandest sites – and pay his respects to Tutankhamen

Egypt stands at the spaghetti junction of the world. Poised between Africa, Asia and Europe, Egypt's rulers could once justly be said to hold sway over the entire planet. At least, that's what Napoleon thought, and so did several of Egypt's jealous neighbours. When Vasco da Gama opened up a new Asian trade link around the Cape of Good Hope, he avoided Egypt altogether. Egypt answered back with Suez in 1956, restoring the country's geopolitical pre-eminence.

The world's crossroads also happens to be where two of the most inhospitable deserts meet: Sinai and the Sahara. Egypt's saving grace, however, is the Nile, source of energy, creation and meaningful life in the nation. Seventy-eight million Egyptians live on just 5 per cent of the country's land, and most of that is within sight of the Nile. So, the best way to see Egypt is clearly by boat.

I had decided to travel with my son Alexander, 11, who was on half-term and had been studying the pharaohs at school. Good to show him where history begins, I thought as we arrived in Cairo. Although he took great pains to appear underwhelmed at all times by the National Museum, the pyramids and the Sphinx, I noted from his post-trip chatter with his friends that these experiences left a deep and positive impression. He also bought a fez for the equivalent of £2 at a market stall, which thrilled him.

From Cairo, we flew south to Aswan, our port of embarkation on to the Nile, gateway to Nubia (the "land of gold") and home of the High Dam and the older Low Dam. Alexander was particularly impressed that the High Dam – 3,800m long, 980m wide and 111m high – had been built to withstand nuclear attack.

The 125-kilometre stretch of Nile between Aswan and Luxor covers most of pharaonic Egypt's greatest hits, including Kom Ombo, Edfu, Karnak and the Valley of the Kings. Five years ago, the government stopped issuing new licences to operators of cruisers, pegging the fleet to just over 300 vessels, which provides healthy competition but isn't enough to clog the river.

Before cruising took off in the 1980s, it was the preserve of the elite. A few early steamers still operate, notably SS Karim, which dates back to 1917 and once belonged to King Farouk (the penultimate king of Egypt and Sudan, and friend of the British, whom Nasser overthrew in 1952). It's a floating, living museum of brass, teak and Art Deco glass. Externally, the majority of cruisers today adhere to the same basic template but are much larger and boxier in silhouette, looking rather like floating council tower-blocks. Inside, they come in various guises, from the very smart and luxurious at the top end, via faux-luxury in the middle, to those with minimal amenities, poor food and token service at the bottom.

The latter-day SS Karim is the Sonesta St George I, built in 2006 and the ultimate in contemporary Egyptian luxury, with 47 air-conditioned cabins, nine presidential suites and one royal suite (in which Egypt's President Mubarak stayed in December 2006). As we stepped on board, we were greeted by a preponderance of marble, teak panelling, elaborate inlays and gilt flourishes. Our cabin, meanwhile, was a compact, comfortable, clean teak-lined affair, with a small shower room, and large sliding windows that opened directly on to the river. You could just about swing a kitten in the room, if not a cat.

The handsomely appointed dining room was attended by indestructibly cheerful bow-tied waiters, and the sitting room was the last word in well-plumped sofas, armchairs and soft furnishings. Having said that, the majority of the Sonesta St George's guests headed straight towards the top deck, with its two bars, swimming pool, potted-plant garden, table tennis, sun-loungers, statues, awnings, sprays of cooling water, and views of the Nile scenery. Everything about the St George was spotless. Even the cooking was done with mineral water.

Within a few hours of embarking, the chief steward and waiters had familiarised themselves with Alexander's dietary habits, especially his fondness for going off-menu and ordering chicken, chips and tomato ketchup. "You are here as our guest," beamed Samir Ahdy, the "floating hotel manager". "We don't just serve tea; we serve it with a smile. Most other boats are run by big groups. We are an independent boat. We like to create a family atmosphere."

The food was a praiseworthy exercise in international box-ticking, attempting to cater for as many tastes, dietary regimes and religious proscriptions as possible. Indeed, the cosmopolitan cornucopias with which we were presented at mealtimes clearly made Alexander feel like a Dickensian urchin gone to Heaven. It would be churlish to add that the wine list was a trifle underwhelming, but there are a couple of Egyptian wines that make one want to try more.

The equally cosmopolitan passenger list included a party from Australia, two small groups from the Far East, and several tables of honeymooners from Europe. Each party was allocated its own dining-room table, but aside from a fancy dress evening, there was no enforced jollity. Nor was there any paying with money. (Everything gets put on your bill at the end, when tipping of the staff is expected.)

We throbbed north towards Kom Ombo. Under power, the St George conveys little sense of actual motion, so there's no danger of seasickness; this is not a maritime experience. In essence, it is a floating boutique hotel, with all the amenities – sauna, gym, beauty salon etc – albeit in token form.

Having visited the souk in Cairo, we had witnessed the ferocious mercantile zeal of the Egyptians. "On no account stop at any of the stalls," our guide Tamer Farouk had cautioned us as we made our way through this medieval market. "If you make so much as eye contact with a stallholder, he will have his entire stock room turned out for you to inspect, and we will never get out." Now, from the top deck of the St George, a very different pattern of Egyptian life unfolded.

A timeless rural tableau floated by, like a hieroglyph come to life: farmers in biblical linens rode donkeys, boys fished from skiffs, women washed clothes among the papyrus, shaded by date palms, acacias, mimosa and sycamore. A pair of egrets flapped alongside. A concentration of kingfishers flashed sudden blue as they strafed the water – something about the wash of the St George drew the fish to the surface. Every now and then, a felucca, a single-sailed conveyance that looks like a giant butterfly, would hove into sight.

"Egyptians are farmers," said Farouk. "Theirs is a simple way of life. Everywhere you go, you feel poverty, but also happiness. Hospitality is important, so, too, a sense of honour. We have a saying, 'You meet me well, but don't feed me', meaning, 'It is better to welcome me well, but you don't have to accommodate me'."

For farmers, the ancient Egyptians were remarkably ingenious. Far from simply stopping at animal husbandry and irrigation, they went on to give the world cosmetic surgery, brain surgery, paper, writing, astronomy, architecture, geometry, philosophy and mathematics. The "Dream Book" even shows them groping towards Freudian psychoanalysis. For 3,800 years, the great pyramid of Kafhre in Giza stood as the tallest man-made object on Earth, until the spire of Lincoln Cathedral eclipsed it in 1300, although it wasn't until the Eiffel Tower was completed that Kafhre was dwarfed.

We arrived at Kom Ombo, a cult centre to Sobek, the crocodile god associated with fertility. The temple at Kom Ombo gives directly on to the Nile, where crocodiles once basked and were fed meat. Ancient Kom Ombo also doubled as a medical centre. Hieroglyphics show the pharaonic NHS in rude health, equipped with scissors, sponges, bandages, cups, dental instruments, forceps... "And saws for brain surgery," added Farouk.

Dental equipment is a common theme in Egyptian carvings. In one temple at Saqqara, just outside u oCairo, I saw an image of a cow having its teeth fixed. Ramses II, I was told, had terrible teeth and is believed to have died from tooth infection. But, as the pyramids of pastries and cakes that greeted us every morning aboard the St George attest, the Egyptian sweet tooth has lost none of its bite.

The next landfall, Edfu, is the most intact ancient temple in Egypt, a relative novelty built during the Ptolemaic period (305BC-30BC), which is strictly post-pharaoic, post-Alexander the Great. We confronted a large fortress-like edifice covered in images of kings making offerings to Horus, patron of the living pharaoh. A pair of hoopoes played among the colonnades. "The various King Ptolemys didn't believe in the story of Horus," said Farouk, "but the temple helped give them power over the people, while it was paid for by giving money to the priests. So everyone was happy: the pharaohs got their power, the priests got their money, and the people went home with a story. Politics was pretty straightforward in those days."

A bird-lover, Alexander was engrossed by the hoopoes. Temples and pyramids notwithstanding, Egypt is superb for bird-spotting, being an important migratory stopover between Africa and Europe.

We steamed north towards Luxor. As we passed the by-now familiar scenes of Egyptian rural life, it occured to me that cruising the Nile is the closest thing to time travel that you will find, after just a four-hour flight from London. It is like a journey through a land that time forgot. On the mud huts that we passed, there were no satellite dishes or mobile-phone transmitters, just an ancient rhythm of life being played out.

At Luxor, the St George reached its stopover for the Valley of the Kings. Many tombs in the valley are periodically closed to let the moisture from the breath of visitors dissipate, but we found Tutankhamen's tomb open. Descending the steep passage carved into the rock, we arrived at the burial chamber and gasped to find ourselves staring straight into the eye sockets of the dead king himself, supine, with just his blackened head and feet showing beneath a white sheet, his toothy expression showing the overbite characteristic of the Thutmosid royal line.

Until Tutankhamen was returned to his tomb in November 2007, only some 55 people had ever seen his body, which Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb in 1922, dismembered during its removal from the sarcophagus in the 1920s. Now, King Tut's tomb is the only one occupied by its rightful inhabitant. He lies in a climate-controlled glass case to prevent warmth and moisture from visitors decaying the body.

If pharaohs' tombs are meant to reflect real life, then Tutankhamen's clearly represented a teenager's bedroom. When Carter found the tomb, the interior was crammed with more than 5,000 pieces of kit that King Tut needed for the afterlife, all piled up anyhow, including trumpets, games and a boomerang. Seeing photographs of the chaotic contents, Alexander felt instant sympathy with the teenage pharaoh. "See that, Dad? Even pharoahs had untidy bedrooms!" King Tut's is the smallest tomb in the Valley of Kings, but not the most recently discovered. In August, two new finds were announced, although details are shrouded in mystery.

"The pharaonic era ended with the loss of the idea of divinity," says Farouk. "They carried on building until 1,600BC, but realised that it was no longer worth it because of robbers and the discrediting of the idea that the pharaohs came from God to a Holy Land blessed by a river from Heaven."

I'd go a stage further. With its sequence of 31 dynasties, dating from the first unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in 3,200BC to Alexander the Great's arrival in 332BC, ancient Egypt is the prototype soap opera. By the time Alexander the Great turned up, the pharaohs had become obsessed with cosmetic and dental surgery. People were screaming out for a new plot and fresh characters. If you look at the themes and images of pharaonic culture, nothing changed for 2,500 years.

Once people twigged that the pharaohs were human beings after all, the whole edifice fell apart. "Yes we can!" (or something like it) was replaced by "Inshallah!" (God willing). "Today, Egyptians never make long-term plans," said Farouk. "The faith of the pharaohs was very different."

Getting there

The writer travelled with Excedo (0845 246 2666; excedotravel.com). The eight-day Palatial Egypt Tour between Aswan and Luxor starts at £850 per person, including return flights from Heathrow to Cairo, internal flights, ground transfers, and accommodation with breakfast. With a personal guide, it starts at £1,500.

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com); BMI (0870 60 70 555; flybmi. com); and Egyptair (020-7734 2343; egyptair.com) fly to Cairo from Heathrow.

Red tape & more information

British passport-holders require a visa to visit Egypt (unless visiting resorts in the Sinai Peninsula). These can be obtained from the Consulate General of the Arab Republic of Egypt, 2

Lowndes Street, London SW1X 9ET (09065 508 933, calls £1 per minute; egyptianconsulate.co.uk), and they cost £15 for a single-entry tourist visit.

The Egyptian Tourist Office: 020-7493 5283; egypt.travel

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