The longest river in the world, the stories this river could tell, the ancient civilisations it witnessed and the countless lives of this fascinating country. The mysterious and the worshiped Nile, the bringer of life and death, the passageway for Pharaohs and peasants alike… and now us!
Background to trip:
In June 2010 I had just graduated Uni and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no money either. I knew that I wanted to travel but didn’t really know what was possible and so began saving up to go to New York as our big hurrah before joining the “real world”. So my parents decided it was time for one last family holiday after a 5 year gap and offered to pay for us.
So, having a holiday paid for you, you can’t really complain. But it means you have no say on where and who with! The things was, over the last 5 years we had been to a few places and had built up some independence when it came to travel, we had roamed the streets of Paris, Lisbon and London on our own and loved that freedom!
We felt we were gaining confidence as travellers (seems funny now given the amount of travelling we have done since), but these were our first real steps into the big bad world on our own! The my parents decided they wanted to go to Egypt. Epic I thought, we can finally see the Pyramids and wander the labyrinth of Cairo’s streets and bazaars.
Err, no! It was an all inclusive Thompson holiday they were booking! I mean, it’s free OK, but I hate package holidays, queuing up for food like school dinners and being ferried around in air conditioned coaches like children who need their hands holding! Not for me, I don’t understand the compulsion to pay so much more to be patronised and have your freedom taken away…But my protests fell on deaf ears, they seemed to fear the freedom and unpredictability we crave!
We boarded the plane to Luxor surrounded by “Barrys” and “Sharrons” off to top up their tans, veg out by the pool and eat their body weight in buffet every evening! It felt like we were off to a holiday camp in North Wales not the exotic land of the ancient pharaohs! The obligatory lads chanting at the back of the plane, already on their 6th can before we had even levelled off! Well, I thought, at least it was a new country and our first time in Africa!
Waiting at arrivals for our coach allocation I couldn’t help but feel out of place surrounded by panicking tourists, already confused and ready for the bacon buttie and Yorkshire tea waiting at the hotel! I just wanted to leave them all behind and explore! I was excited by this alien land, but they clipped my wings, warning us of the “dangers” of wandering unattended, I couldn’t help but laugh at how pathetic that was, whilst the others drew breath and swore not to disobey!
Once on the ship it didn’t seem so bad, our coach was threadbare after dropping the rest of at “water world hotel” and the like. It looked like something from an Agatha Christie novel, a 1920’s steamer, death on the Nile! I was beginning to feel the romance of sailing down this famous river in this ancient land, I wasn’t sure what the next week had in store but I was determined to at least make the most of it and experience as much we could…
This of course included going out after “lock up” most evenings and excursions to explore Luxor and other towns on our own terms, we felt like convicts dodging the search lights and patrolling Thompson rep to make a break for freedom, what fun!
Overall reflections and feelings:
I will be honest, for all the things that I would change about the trip, the ignorance and lack of interest from some others for example, I actually enjoyed it in the end. We got out everyday on trips, both organised and extra curricular and often that added to the sense of adventure. We saw and learnt so much, exploring millennia’s old temples and peering into the culture of this fascinating country by riding along it’s shimmering and murky backbone.
Yes, I would have liked to have the time to explore on our own and would have loved to have visited these temples unaccompanied so we could have experienced them at our own pace. I would still opt for that option every time given the choice, but you have to make the most of every opportunity too.
One highlight was our guide Mohammed Mohammed, a lecturer at Cairo university in Egyptian history. Not only did he give us an unrivaled account of the stories and saturated history of these intriguing constructions but each night after dinner he hosted what could only be described as a seminar where we would discuss and debate the turbulent politics and history of Egypt.
This was an interesting time for the country, just before the riots and Arab spring, Mohammed told us of the tensions in Cairo and how the people felt, how the country was teetering on the edge of revolution. It felt far more intellectual than any other all inclusive holiday I had been on!
Standing in the footprints of Pharaohs thousands of years before, buildings steeped in significance, venues of history and greatness, the imagination running wild, a meeting of past and present. For all the idle chatter and hawking, for all the fish and chip buffets and cheap souvenirs, nothing can remove the magic that experiencing these magnificent temples fills you with.
Sailing down the Nile – Unforgettable!
One of the most memorable things about the trip was not just the visits to the temples and historic sights, but the experience of sailing down the Nile itself. The changing and diverse landscape that we travelled through was something we couldn’t take our eyes off, it was an insight into a country like we had never seen before.
Such beauty and such poverty, from the sand dunes and desolate plains to the oases providing life along the riverside, wide open vistas under red sunsets to dotted tree covered islands inhabited by solitary aging farmers.
Whole towns and cities, some built up out of ramshackle concrete and corrugated metal to ancient wonders carved from golden stone. The little villages and isolated farms, nothing more than a leaning wooden hut and a couple of goats. Industrial locks and wandering camels, peacefully passages to intense haggling by pirate like traders throwing there wares onto the boat!
The baking sun glistening in the river of life, children splashing and playing. One ran the length of an old wooden pier, leaping and diving off the end to swim alongside the boat to wave and whoop! Whilst the older men spread out their sajjāda to pray as the sun rose above the skyline, Many we came across had marks on their foreheads such is their devotion.
Many would also shout for money from the side of the river or send children begging on rafts to the side of the boat. It’s hard not to feel for them, this once powerful and grand country a relic of itself, now crumbling and collapsing. We had never before seen such basic living conditions as the huts we witnessed, built out of dried mud bricks and tin rooves, animals and humans sharing these simple but contented conditions.
Explorations & Memories
What an experience, we took a long, meandering walk from the docks through the winding streets of the Luxor, often run down, half built and resembling a shanty town. We were followed on a few occasions and pestered some more, either trying to sell us something or just confused by our presence! The signs turned from English to Arabic, the clothes from jeans to Dishdashas, it was a refreshing look at a new culture and beyond the tourist saturated Luxor!
We ended up getting a horse carriage ride back to the boat as by this time we had no clue where we had ended up! The guy was dodgy as anything, he hardly looked at the road and instead kept turning around wanting us to take his photo and asking us all number of questions about! A gruesome death seemed inevitable!
One of the things that sticks with you is the heat, this was by far the hottest place we have ever travelled to, the sun was dry and relentless baking. Stepping outside was a wall of heat hitting you in the face, within minutes the midday sun would become unbearable, I remember buying an ice cold drink and only minutes later it being as warm as bath water! It was at least 40°C which meant most trips were in the morning, sailing throughout midday and we would explore by ourselves in the afternoons and evenings
Of course, we all got ill too! I usually have a high tolerance for germs but as best as we tried, it got us! Now as much as this isn’t ideal, I think it’s all part of the experience and seems to be one of the things we laugh most about years later! It’s a weird one though, it didn’t stop us doing anything but it would just come on out of nowhere, the key was knowing where your nearest toilet/ hole in the ground was at all times and having some coins readily available!
Itinerary and experiences:
Temple of Queen Hatsheput
The epic mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut consists of 3 monumental layered terraces covered in intricate hieroglyphics, carvings and shrines documenting the details of her unique reign. It is quite a sight to see and impressively imposing for the tomb of the only woman to rule over Egypt as a Pharaoh with it’s elegant columns painstakingly carved into the surrounding cliff face. It was a great introduction to the wonders of this county and truly awe inspiring.
Gigantic Colossi of Memnon
These twin statues seem to just appear by the side of a main road and are a quite random sight, they once guarded the entrance to Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple of which very little remains. These Colossi depict the king seated on his throne wearing the royal headdress and looking towards the rising sun, carved from sandstone they are dated at around 3,400 years old. At a massive 23m high you can just imagine the scale of the temple that once stood here!
The Valley of the Kings
Next onto the Valley of the Kings, the famous tombs along the Nile’s west bank. I had grown up reading about the tales of the cursed Howard Carter and King Tutankhamen. The mystery, the wonder and the allure of the romance of discovery drew us to this place. The heat was almost unbearable as we explored some of the 63 burial chambers, some dug high up in the cliff sides accessed by traversing rickety bridges above the vast space below, others deep inside the humid bedrock of the valley, down a maze of steep centuries worn steps.
The chambers themselves range from the ornate and highly detailed, covered in hieroglyphics and reliefs to the simple and rather plain, as is the case with the most famous resident of this Valley, King Tutankhamen. The inner sanctums of these chambers once filled with treasures and riches many pillaged way before modern discovery and others now sitting in museums across the world.
The use of this valley dates back to the 16th century BC and held 500 years worth of pharaohs and powerful nobles. The age of these tombs at times feels too much to comprehend. We often group “Ancient Egypt” together as though a period in time such as the Victoria era, but the most astonishing thing is realising the time between each distinctive era,Tutankhamen having lived around 2000 years before Cleopatra for example, and then consider that the Pyramids are even older… mind blowing!
A truly memorable experience visiting these historic tombs usually consisting of chamber after chamber deeper into the rock, intended for no one to ever see again. There was a total ban on cameras within the valley, so the photos here are taken from wiki and Lonely Planet!
The ancient city of Thebes, the world’s greatest open-air museum, home to temples and tourists alike it is a strange mix of old and new, of historical grandness and modern downturns. One of the most notable incarnations is the constant archaeology that cuts through its roads to reveal the ancient path from the Luxor to Karnak. Sphinx lined avenues once lost to the sands of time and the developing urban sprawl lie precariously close to the bustling carriageways.
The city is also a fascinating one to explore on foot. Grand hotels and museums back onto countless alleyways of shanty towns and warren like markets where the haggling is almost deafening, punctuated only by the enchanting call to prayer. The sweet smell of pilled high spices fills the air as dust and shishaa smoke dance with the passing rush of the white robed locals.
Temple of Luxor
Dwarfing the modern buildings surrounding it this ancient temple built in 1400 BC was to honour the gods Amun, Mut and Chons. The entrance is huge, walking through those gates you really get the awe inspiring shivers of time, of Amenhotop III and Ramses II, of Cleopatra and the Romans after her, these halls have seen history itself. The impressive 75ft red granite obelisk that stands alone, it’s missing counterpart sitting in Paris since 1833, flanks the entrance alongside the two remaining colossus statues of Ramses II a quite amazing sight!
Temple of Horus, Edfu
We then sailed on to Kom Ombo and the mammoth temple dedicated to Horus, the falcon headed sky god in Edfu. This temple is one of the best preserved in Egypt having been built between 237 and 57 BC and as such provides a great insight into the original conditions of the many temples we visited. The colossal gateway is guarded by two large granite falcons and leads onto maze of exquisitely carved halls, courtyards and colonnades which was a joy to explore and examine.
Temple of Karnak
The world’s largest man made temple complex that took 1,300 years to complete, each pharaoh leaving their mark on this mammoth construction! As a result this temple is a mixture of different sanctuaries, chapels, obelisks and monuments and is one of the most impressive and breath taking constructions we have ever seen! The main focal point is the 13 BC Great Hypostyle hall, the size and scale of it’s 140 pillars absolutely is immense.
This enormous hall covers an area big enough to fit both St Peter’s basilica in Rome and St. Paul’s in London, standing in its centre you get an overwhelming feeling of wonder!
This temple is now set of Egilica island having been moved stone by stone from the flooded Philae island and surviving with it’s pillars and towers undamaged. The walls of this temple tell the story of the Egyptian civilisation from gods and goddesses to war and peace and is dedicated to Isis, the goddess of nature.
Aswan High Dam & Lake Nasser
A modern day engineering marvel built in the 60’s it has transformed the way in which the river can be used and controlled. Gone are the seasonal floods and now the Nile can be used for planned irrigation and provide electricity for the whole country! At over 300ft high it reflects the mammoth constructions of the ancient world for new and more complex purposes, it took 11 years and 35,000 workers to complete!
After a skeptical beginning, what an experience sailing the Nile turned out to be, from bartering with our local souvenir dealer and ending up eating twinkies whilst he had a hair cut, to wandering the ancient wonders of a time long past. Watching the changing landscape go by as we floated down the longest river in the world whist the world cup was on and having to barricade the door after wearing Germany shirts on a ship full of English!
The twilight excursions and mid day explorations, being followed and pestered down every street, an unforgettable look into a place unlike any we had been before and a great yearning to revisit for another taste of this melting pot of old and new. I lost count of the number of UNESCO sights we visited on this trip!