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  • Brian Johnson

Egypt: Nile River Cruise


We were up and out of bed at 6:30 am to watch the boat go through the Esna Lock. It was a fascinating process as we moved from a lower level of the Nile to a higher level. Once through we proceeded to the ancient town of Esna and docked before departing on a walking tour through the little town to visit the Temple of Khnum, a huge Greco-Roman construction built in the early first century and designed to resemble a much earlier temple built there. The cartouches of several Roman emperors are inscribed on the facade of the hall, starting with Claudius, the builder. Over the centuries the site was buried under mud and silt by repeated flooding of the Nile and the town was built over it. Excavations began in the 1860s and today the site sits over 30 feet below street level in what is essentially a huge ditch. Work continues to the present day and it was interesting to see the excavation in progress.

On the way back to the boat we walked through the old town on a sort of slice of life tour and stopped to see a place where sesame oil is still made by traditional methods. They let us turn the huge stone wheel used to grind the seeds, and they joked that Lynn had a real talent for it and I should leave her. We haggled for a bit but couldn’t agree on a camel price.

Back on board we had breakfast and spent several pleasant hours floating on the Nile before stopping at Edfu to see the Temple of Horus, the falcon-god, built over the course of over 150 years beginning in 237 BCE. The temple itself is a huge, imposing structure and the best preserved Ptolemaic structure in Egypt, no doubt due to the fact that it was buried under sand and silt for almost 2,000 years. The interior contains elaborate carvings of pharaonic battle scenes and tells some interesting stories as explained by our guide. But as interesting as the temple was, the trip through the town itself was the highlight. We were transported from the river through the town to the temple site and back by horse drawn carriage, accompanied the whole way by the 23 day old foal of the mare pulling the carriage. Since the large Nile boats are now effectively banned from the docks, it’s a very traditional Arab town not as affected by tourism as other river towns. The ride through the bustling downtown was an adventure. Traffic was a mix of cars, trucks, horse drawn carriages, even donkeys, and people everywhere, in all manner of dress ranging from modern to very traditional full hijabs with full veils, with a cacophony of noise from honking horns and people shouting and haggling in the open markets, the full show of life on display in apparent seething chaos. I loved it all.

Back on the boat we set sail again. Literally this time. For the first time they deployed the huge traditional sail and separated from the tug boat that had been pulling us. I wish I had the words to describe how soul stirringly beautiful it was to sail up the Nile in complete peace, with the only sound the gentle lapping of the water, as we floated by ancient scenes of desert and palm and papyrus, banana trees and sugarcane fields, donkeys, farmers, and fishermen, in a panorama essentially unchanged for thousands of years. But I have no more words.

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Our boat unmoored from our peaceful spot on the riverbank promptly at 6:30 am and made the short cruise to the quarry of Gebel Al-Silsila and Shrine of Horus. The shrine was cut into the rock along the riverbank, and while not imposing from the outside it had some interesting decoration, not least of which was 4,000 years of graffiti. The associated quarry had provided much of the stone for a lot of the temples and monuments we had seen, and the required workforce had numbered many thousands and had been brought in from all over the huge Egyptian empire and beyond. These workers had chiseled images from their homelands in the rock, apparently for fun, and figures of ostriches, giraffes, and dolphins, none of which are native to Egypt, had been found. More recently, some Europeans in the 19th century had felt a need to leave their names and year of visitation.

I asked our guide, Walid, where all these workers had lived, as the surrounding area was all inhospitable desert. He pointed across to a lush green island in the Nile and said they lived n similar areas nearby, leading me to surmise that they must have had daily traffic of hundreds of boats to do all this ferrying. He reminded me that they had transported a huge statue of Ramses II downriver, estimated to weigh a little over a thousand tons. That’s 20 MILLION pounds, if it helps to conceptualize it. Meaning they could build really big boats, and they had boats that could ferry 500 to a 1,000 workers at a time. Mind blown.

We also got a lesson in stone cutting. The Egyptians had copper, bronze, and gold, all soft metals, but no iron. So how does a civilization with no iron tools manage to carve out millions of blocks of stone? Good question. The answer is, with harder stone. There was a hierarchy of stone tools. Granite cuts sandstone and limestone, durite cuts granite, and diamond cuts durite. So you can see that while this was not the most visually impressive site we have visited, it was hugely educational.

After cruising upriver for a few hours we next stopped at Kom Ombu to see the double temple of Horace, the falcon, and Sobek, the crocodile. This complex is unique in ancient Egypt in that it housed two adjoining temples, side by side, separate but together, dedicated to the worship of two gods. The story as told by Walid is that in ancient times there was strife between the followers of each god and the local authorities, in an effort to prevent further violence constructed a double temple. The current complex was constructed in the second century BCE by Ptolemy VI and sits on sand dunes overlooking the Nile. It was known as a healing center and contains carvings of the first known medical instruments, including forceps, needles, and saws, as well as depictions of women giving birth. The first successful caesarean procedures were performed here and apparently had better outcomes then later procedures performed by Romans and others because the ancient Egyptians knew enough to keep their surgical instruments clean, as depicted in the rock carvings. As is common throughout Egypt the site is still being excavated and adjacent to the temple is a large area laid out with rubble piles the archaeologists are sifting through in search of more artifacts.

The other fascinating thing Walid pointed out were the pharaonic depictions of defeated enemies, which were present throughout all the temples and tombs we visited. The pharaohs wanted to know the numbers of enemies killed in battle, to magnify their glory, and some scenes show headless enemies, as the heads were cut off and counted. This was cumbersome as heads are heavy to transport. Other scenes show enemies with one arm cut off, but apparently some generals were not above fudging the numbers and cutting off both arms. Tongues were tried, as a body has only one, but again, this was susceptible to fudging as tongues could be cut from dead Egyptians. So they needed a way to be able to identify dead enemies to the pharaoh that was not subject to fudging. But how do you identify dead enemies from a body part that is unique to your enemies? It turns out that the ancient Egyptians were the only ones at the time to practice circumcision. I’ll leave it your imagination to complete the picture…

We paid a quick visit to the little museum next door, to see the sacred mummified crocodiles, before boarding the boat again for a couple of pleasant hours of cruising before stopping at an island in the middle of the Nile to walk a bit and see some local life. A few people lived there in reed huts and raised some cattle and fished, surviving much as people had for thousands of years. This would have been our chance to swim in the Nile, but the water was too cold, so we settled for wading up to our knees.

After dinner that evening a special surprise awaited me. Unbeknownst to me Lynn had brought birthday candles from home and asked the crew if they could put them on a piece of cake or other sweet and bring it out after dinner. Instead the crew and the only other people on board, an elderly German couple, had all conspired to go into town at our last stop, while we were visiting the temple, and bring back a birthday cake. So the crew all came out after dinner carrying a cake with lit candles and laughing and singing! My heart was touched beyond words. Soon we were all up laughing and dancing. I was unaware at the time that Walid recorded the entire scene, including me dancing. Having now seen the video, I am convinced that it should never see the light of day.

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Our first stop of the day was the Aswan High Dam, built over the course of 11 years starting in 1960. As with many things in Egypt, the scale is mind boggling. It’s over two and a half miles long, 364 feet high, and 3,214 feet wide at its base. It contains more concrete than there is stone in all the pyramids. A really impressive feat of engineering and construction. Too bad we declined to help them build it, so they had to turn to the Russians for help.

After the dam we took a little boat out to the Temple of Philae, built on an island in Lake Nasser. After the High Dam was built the original complex was flooded and the whole thing was taken apart and reconstructed at its present location with the help of UNESCO, a massive undertaking that took nine years. The complex contains several temples and monuments dating between the 4th century BCE and the 4th century CE, a span of 800 years. The centerpiece is the huge Temple of Isis, built during the Ptolemaic and Roman period and combining ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman architecture. The temple was used up until the early Christian period and still contains a Christian altar. Other notable buildings include the Gate of Hadrian, inscribed in 394 CE with Egypt’s last known hieroglyphics, and the Temple of Hathor, containing reliefs of musicians playing various instruments, a baboon playing guitar among them. That was my favorite.

Continuing on, we made a stop at the Darwish Cotton store, a place that sells various clothing items made with famous high quality Egyptian cotton. This was for me, as I wanted a genuine Galabeya, a long traditional Arab robe. If you drop in on us at home some evening you may find me lounging around in it. I look fly in it.

The next stop was the Aswan quarry to see the famous Unfinished Obelisk. Aswan was a source for granite used in many of ancient Egypt’s obelisks. They were carved out of the stone and shipped downriver to be used in various temple complexes. They became prized possessions for later invaders and a number of them were carted off and can now be found in various cities around the world, including Paris, London, New York, and Istanbul. The Unfinished Obelisk was meant to be the largest, but while chiseling it out of the surrounding stone it developed a crack and was left where it was and is now a famous tourist attraction as it shows how the whole process worked. After visiting the quarry we headed back to the boat for a fabulous lunch and a rest before the afternoon’s excursion to a Nubian village.

After lunch on board the boat we drove in to Aswan to catch a smaller boat to carry us out to a large island in the Nile which is home to a Nubian village. Southern Egypt today is home to a large group of African Nubians who are nominally Egyptians but who maintain separate communities and a completely separate culture. They continue to speak their own ancient language, which is more similar to ancient Egyptian than it is to modern Arabic, and take great pains to maintain a separate cultural identity to the point of forbidding their children to intermarry. A visit to one of their villages is like visiting a different country, a different world really. The boat ride to the village takes you through the first cataract, where granite outcroppings in the water make the Nile impassable to large boats. After navigating a channel through tall reeds that make you feel like you’re in deep Africa, you eventually reach open water and are treated to a visual feast as you approach the village. The buildings are all brightly colored, and villagers and camels shared the dirt streets with visitors of all races and nationalities.  Nowadays the village survives partly through tourism, and small shops and open air stalls sell all manner of trinkets and spices.

Walid, our guide, took us to visit a Nubian home that was open to visitors. We were welcomed to look around and invited to sit and have some traditional Nubian mint tea. Although the floors were hard packed sand, the houses were spotlessly clean and impeccably maintained. Beautiful woven rugs were laid in some of the rooms. The most unique feature was the crocodile cage. Crocodiles play a large role in traditional Nubian culture, and children were taught from a young age how to hunt them. Today they are often kept as, well, not pets really, but they’re kept, and the house we visited had a large cage. Lynn and both were able to hold a live, small, alligator. I’m not sure exactly what they do with them when they get too big to keep, but they do seem to sell a lot of leather goods…

We wandered the streets for a while, taking in the sights and sounds and browsing the stalls. I told Lynn I wanted one of the carved African masks as a souvenir. She rolled her eyes - I get that a lot - but gave in. We also visited the language school, where Nubians are taught Arabic, and watched a man giving a demonstration. The several camels we passed seemed to take all the visitors in stride. It was a wonderfully exotic experience but eventually we had to tear ourselves away and head back to Aswan. On the way we passed the Old Cataract Hotel, famous for being where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile. On the way upriver we had also passed a riverboat that used to be the yacht of King Farouk, and on which the old movie had been filmed, so that was fun for us, being Christie fans.

Back in Aswan we headed for the bazaar. Walid took us to a spice store where an old gentleman explained to us the medicinal value of various spices and teas, and somehow talked us into buying more spices and teas than we could have ever imagined. He was obviously a master of his craft. We continued on through the colorful bazaar and I reveled in the sights, sounds, and smells. As if the place needed any more local color, there were even some old cats smoking from big hookahs. We eventually made it back to the boat totally exhausted after a long but really fun and fulfilling day. Another one of those special days you hate to see come to an end. But really every day on this trip has been like that.

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