In the Son et Lumière show at the Temple of Philae, the actor playing the Nile River spoke with a British accent, and what a booming voice he had. I detected a note of erotic innuendo, too: “When I embraced your walls, your columns faltered,” the Nile told the goddess Isis. Still, they did not seem well suited for their parts as they went declaiming around Philae, lighting up the pillars, then the façade, then a hall. The great French archaeologist Jean-François Champollion came in now and then sounding like Hercule Poirot.
I was content to admire the view from my balcony at the Cataract Hotel in Aswan the next morning, and relieved that the Nile was sticking to gurgling noises. There is nothing wrong with seeing a ruin from a distance, I mused, sizing up the Aga Khan mausoleum, golden-dust–colored amid the arid dunes of southern Egypt. A turbaned old gentleman engraved on an intricately inlaid artwork right above my bed appeared to be pondering what he would sell me that afternoon in the souk. The French doors to my wood-enclosed balcony creaked suggestively as the wind pushed them open. At other luxury hotels, immense staffs of engineers make sure creaking is eliminated. But here, in deference perhaps to Agatha Christie, it’s permitted. Christie wrote parts of Death on the Nile at this hotel, then continued aboard the steamship Sudan, which I was to board the next afternoon to cruise the Nile for four days, from Aswan to Luxor.
The brocaded walls of my historic room in the hotel’s old wing were littered with representations of ladies on pink satin settees in wonderful sitting rooms enclosed by those ubiquitous accessories of Moorish architecture and pleasure in general, wooden moucharaby lattice screens. Arches opened onto lush gardens. I could have done with a little settee myself a few hours later at the souk in Aswan, while looking at scarves and capes and djellabas, my head swimming from the variety to which my relentlessly kind merchant subjected me. This is, of course, what is meant to happen. One is not there, as in a mall, merely to get what one needs. One is there to engage in a personal relation with a fellow human being. And once you engage in it, you cannot go off thinking the one next door is better. In a souk, destiny draws you to the merchant who has the slightly lesser shawl, or the slightly more expensive one. No matter: destiny draws you there and there you stay, settee or not, and usually, especially if you don’t find exactly what you require, you will emerge with several things you definitely did not need, and a vague sense of fatigue and disappointment and duty done that a cup of tea will set to rights. That is how a souk works. The next day you return to look for the scarf or tablecloth you didn’t see the first time around, but which the drawn-out shopping spree of the day before has washed your eyes to appreciate.
In the Moorish dining room of the Cataract, called 1902 for the year it was inaugurated, a waif in a white dress with a zigzag hem and bare legs sang “Strangers in the Night” to a backing track coming out of a karaoke machine, whose knobs she fiddled with between songs. Studying the menu, I didn’t know whether to have the fish just so I could have rice in a little pyramid with its top sliced off, or the lamb just so I could have the okra. Some childhood twinge made me yearn for a plate of rice and okra like my grandmother’s cooks so regularly produced in our house in Alexandria, where I was born. The menu listed a dish dedicated to Lord Mountbatten, tender veal cubes for Princess Diana, and a fish named after Princess Feryal.
Ahmed, the guide who came to escort me to the boat the next day, said I was the first person he’d ever met who didn’t think the light show at Philae the most thrilling thing ever. It made me feel jaded. But I had started traveling through Egypt while still in my mother’s belly, and my father had driven through the night on the desert road from Cairo to greet my arrival in Alexandria, so I felt I had some excuse.
We drove all the way down the corniche, past dozens of boats: the Nile Beauty, Nile Romance, Nile Odyssey, Nile Legend, Nile Ruby, and a number of King Tuts—I, II, and III. Finally we stopped at what seemed like the end of the more crowded docks before the biggest boat of them all, a vast hull with darkened windows. It became clear that we had to go through its belly—through a grandiose lobby with flowery silk damask on the walls and a few windows of glittery gold and diamond jewelry—to reach the Sudan. We passed through another boat, this one more modest. Beyond it, quietly pretty in the most moving way, was the Sudan. It was the perfect ship, the ship I’d dreamed of, on two tiers with 23 cabins and five suites, overlooking wide generous decks equipped with tables and wicker chairs from which to admire the slow-moving scenery. On the top deck one could recline on comfortable chaise longues. This yacht, whose engine is more than 100 years old, had belonged to King Fouad, and in my cabin, which had large curved windows gazing out on the Nile, a faded wedding portrait of King Farouk (who succeeded his father in the 1930’s) and his bride hung over the bed.
The dining room was wood-paneled, and its low ceilings reminded me of Harry’s Bar in Venice, with matching low tables and chairs. The tables were set with white Flanders-cotton tablecloths, and every day different arrangements of fresh flowers, such as pink gladiolus or yellow daisies, made their appearance. The meals consisted of simple and delicious Egyptian-Continental dishes: meatballs or shawarma kebabs with rice and baked cauliflower, for instance, or baby okra in tomato sauce, and homey desserts such as mahallabiyya pudding. The waiters wore stately maroon or navy djellabas with white arabesques down the middle, a wide sash at the waist, and a red tarboosh (as the fez is called in Egypt).
We spent the night in port, and left Aswan at 5:45 a.m. after some maneuvering of the boat—which I heard, waking briefly. One shore was thick with palm trees, and I awoke again later as the sun was rising from behind them. There were rocks jutting into the Nile that were partly covered by shrubs; a tin house on a flat; small wooden boats—two of them, green and blue. A man crouched in one; another man “beat the water” to “wake up the fish,” as our guide Maissa, an elegant and cultivated Egyptian lady from Cairo, put it.
The opposite shore was desert-like, and there was a road on which automobiles rarely passed. Sitting close to the large wood-framed windows, which ran all around one half of my cabin, I watched the Nile and its shores and the light visiting it gently at all hours, in varying intensities. I could hear the water beneath the hull of the boat. Now and then the boat’s engine emitted a kind of reassuring roar. We passed by low barren hills on both sides. My twin gold-caned beds glimmered in the sunlight.
At the breakfast table of the steamship Sudan, the pear jam, a fragrant, thick, reddish compote with large chunks of fruit, was homemade. For the few days that my journey on the Nile toward Luxor lasted, I was reminded constantly of my childhood home, since the ship’s kitchen seemed to be run very much like my grandmother’s: small-grained Egyptian rice was served at practically every meal, to be soaked up in some fragrant sauce with tender bits of poultry or fish.
I went up to meet the boat’s captains, in the booth above the top deck. There were three, all named Ahmed, and they worked in shifts, though they were always somewhere near the bridge, which they slept in, or by the steering wheel, which was placed before a high wide seat on which the Ahmed currently at the helm sat cross-legged in his sand-colored djellaba. The director of the cruise, Mr. Amir, a delightfully reserved Copt, has been in charge of the boat for seven years and seems to cherish it almost in a manner normally reserved for members of one’s family. The Sudan runs as smoothly as its well-oiled pistons, which sit in an exposed well at the entrance to the boat for all to admire. Large wheels on either side churn the waters of the Nile into white froth and heave our graceful vessel gently along its course downstream.
I got used to emerging from my room onto the wide deck and climbing the generous winding staircase to the higher deck and terrace, or to the lower one where the bar and dining room were. A bell was rung for meals, and every time we returned from one of our excursions, which usually took place in the morning to avoid the heat, we were greeted with a glass of mint or carcade tea. Docked in Aswan or Luxor, one could watch the movements of a city on one side, or the Nile and the opposite shore on the other.
Mohammed Adil, the chief engineer, showed me around the engine room when I asked to see it. There was a narrow route through the various scalding-hot moving parts of it, and not enough space to stand up straight. He walked backwards, bending forward at the waist so as not to hit his head, delicately holding my hand and indicating when I was to duck as I walked forward, also bent double, so that we seemed to be dancing a minuet, though in a set from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
When I went to town to get spices at the souk, I bought saffron from Iran, pepper from Sudan, mint, cumin, curcuma. The saffron turned out to be, as my Lebanese friend in Luxor, the hotelier Zeina Aboukheir, languidly predicted, “food dye, chèrie—you simply cannot get good saffron in Egypt.” But it was sealed in a colorful little basket and sewed up with straw, so I continued to hope it might be the real thing till the end of my journey.
We stopped to see the temples of Kom Ombo and Edfu on the way to Luxor, so that all the drifting and languor wouldn’t turn us into smokers of hashish like the characters in Naguib Mahfouz’s Adrift on the Nile. The visits to the temples, sublime as they were, felt like an intrusion into the perfect activity of doing nothing with a rolling view of the Nile before one’s eyes. Still, it was on the walls of Kom Ombo, which means “city of gold,” that I first noticed a style of representing the human figure turned sideways, with the belly button facing forward. There was also a depiction of a woman giving birth, a baby descending between her legs. The forceps, already in use in Ptolemaic times and also pictured, was the symbol of birth.
Kom Ombo is the most breathtaking ruin on the Nile, with its thick round columns partially supporting the roof, but Edfu is a proper temple. Esna, a town without tourist shops because tourists don’t stop here, could only be glimpsed from our mooring. By the third day the landscape had changed entirely, with desert-like beige mountains in the distance. I never tired of lying on a deck chair upstairs and watching one shore, then the other, till it was time for dinner.
The boat reached Karnak first thing in the afternoon on the third day, then Luxor toward evening: it was all lit up, and there was an impressive allée of illuminated sphinxes leading to the main entrance of the city. I made my way to Zeina’s wonderful Hotel Al Moudira, which she opened in 2002 and which is a kind of oasis of fragrant gardens and high-domed rooms set in the midst of a still very rural part of the Delta.
I went to meet François Larché, a French architect who has worked at Karnak for over 20 years, and who runs the Open-Air Museum there. I walked past a chapel flanked by two broken pink obelisks that are facsimiles put in place to hold up the structure’s fragile walls. Larché arrived about 20 minutes late, a tall, thin man with blue eyes, pale gray shorts, and a wide-brimmed straw boater. The museum was blissfully tranquil, enabling one to visit the reconstructed buildings in peace. (Larché had once tried to get the authorities to approve a single admission to Karnak and the Open-Air Museum to draw more visitors, but since that would result in staff reductions, it could not be agreed to.) The Red Chapel of Queen Hatshepsut, with its black granite and red quartzite walls, is a modernist’s dream—a smooth solid block with a single portal on a façade that is slightly higher than the roof. Under Larché’s supervision, 315 original blocks, which until 1997 had lain side by side, were fitted, along with newly carved blocks of the requisite dimensions, to form the structure. Larché pointed to the walls of the Amenhotep chapel whose striated alabaster walls, he said, resembled “moiré silk.” The reconstructed buildings are particularly moving as a work of the imagination: any missing pieces were replaced, but unlike the original ones, bear no reliefs—proving that architecture might be reproduced quite convincingly, but not art.
Larché explained how the buildings are being reconstructed, puzzled together piece by piece as more funds become available. “Archaeology,” he said, “is very political. Sometimes our work is interrupted for months.” All of the buildings and fragments in Karnak’s Open-Air Museum come under his supervision, except for two temples that Henri Chevrier, the first Frenchman to have participated in this particular dig, had assembled beginning in the 1920’s.
As Larché and I headed toward the exit, I asked him, “Are you used to the heat?” He said that no, he hated the heat, that one never got used to it. His hands were worn, like a workman’s hands, the skin cracking and taut. On the main street of Karnak we ran into a guard who greeted Larché and complained he was tired. Larché said, “All the guards at Karnak are tired.” This one had asked him for a bicycle, and Larché joked he’d get him an armchair on wheels instead.
I wasn’t tired, but as i returned to Al Moudira for coffee with Zeina and prepared to leave Luxor, it occurred to me that I had spent a good deal of my time on the Nile in a kind of daze—daydreaming, observing the rhythms of river life. The Sudan is a beautiful floating world, smaller than the smallest island. If I close my eyes, I feel I am still on it, happily adrift.
Gini Alhadeff is a T+L contributing editor.
When to Go
Most Nile cruises sail year-round; from September to May is optimal, when the weather is mild and breezy.
Fly to Cairo, then to Aswan or Luxor on one of Egyptair’s frequent flights.
Where to Stay (before and after the cruise)
This charming 136-room property is currently closed for renovation and scheduled to reopen in 2010. Abtal El Tahrir St.; 20-97/231-6000; sofitel.com.
Great Value The 40-acre property is made up of high-domed buildings with wooden lattice-work, private entrances, and patios. Rooms have hammam-like bathrooms and are surrounded by gardens. Hager Al Dabbeya, West Bank, Luxor; 20-012/392-8332; moudira.com; doubles from $306.
This Sofitel-managed property overlooking the Nile, near the temple of Luxor, was built in 1886 for European aristocracy. Corniche el Nil; 20-95/238-0422; sofitel.com; doubles from $280.
1089 Corniche el Nil; 800/332-3442 or 20-2/2791-6900; fourseasons.com; doubles from $440.
1113 Corniche el Nil; 800/445-8667 or 20-2/2578-0444; hilton.com; doubles from $180.
Book a room that looks out on the pyramids at Giza, which are within walking distance. Pyramids’ Rd.; 800/562-3764 or 20-2/3377-3222; oberoimenahouse.com; doubles from $360.
A&K has new, comfortable boats, with Internet access, lounge pools, and private docks (which means faster, more accessible loading). From Aswan to Luxor; 800/652-7963; abercrombiekent.com; from $1,995 for three nights, including meals and activities, based on double occupancy.
An intimate boat, equipped for 16 passengers. Excursions are tailored to each passenger, but those who crave creature comforts should be wary, as the double-masted sailing vessel does not have air-conditioning or a pool. The emphasis is on the natural surroundings. From Luxor to Aswan; 33-1/42-25-77-16; nourelnil.com; from $1,570 for seven nights, including meals, activities, and excursions, based on double occupancy.
A seven-bedroom sailboat, fit for 14 passengers. Trips can be tailored for first-timers or Nile aficionados. From Luxor to Aswan; 33-1/42-86-16-00; vdm.com; from $1,100, based on double occupancy.
The latest luxury cruise ship to hit the Nile, this vessel has spacious accommodations, spa suites, and a pool. The boat has private docks and Wi-Fi, and an onboard Egyptologist provides daily lectures. From Aswan to Luxor; 800/562-3764; oberoihotels.com; doubles from $3,790 for seven days.
Travcoa Escorted Journeys takes small groups of 18 on a guided trip down the Nile. Passengers stay in presidential suites. The tour also encompasses the Upper Delta’s ancient sites. From Cairo to Luxor; 800/992-2003; travcoa.com; from $5,795 for 12 days, meals and activities included, based on double occupancy.
The 1885 steamship underwent a renovation last year to include revamped cabins and bathrooms in the 1900’s style. See and be seen on the sundeck, which is the best spot from which to watch the shore’s changing scenery. From Aswan to Luxor; steam-ship-sudan.com; from $2,600, based on double occupancy.
Explore Cairo and sail the Nile aboard this 40-passenger ship. Enjoy tours and lectures led by Lindblad Expeditions’ expert guides. Itinerary includes Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan; 800/397-3348; expeditions.com; from $6,680 for 15 days, meals, activities, and excursions included, based on double occupancy.