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Cruising the Nile by Luxury Riverboat

Martin Morrell Leaving Aswan at daybreak.

Photo: Martin Morrell

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.

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