Two photos of the Uniworld Sphinx cruise ship, including a suite, and the exterior

This New Luxury Nile River Cruise Is a Gateway to Egypt's Ancient Wonders

There’s no better immersion into the wonders of ancient Egypt than a sailing along the Nile. Uniworld's opulent new river ship is a journey for the ages.

The sunbaked temples and tombs on the banks of the Nile River are books penned in stone. You do not pass through them as mere physical spaces. These walls are legible, carrying missives from another world. If the medium is the message, these enduring piles of engraved and painted rock amount to some of the most sophisticated communication devices in existence. That was my first thought as I wandered in amazement through Karnak, the vast temple complex in Luxor, and the idea stayed with me for the duration of my eight nights in Egypt.

Two photos from the Karnak Temple Complex, one showing the back of a man as he looks at the ruins, and one showing a Ramses statue
From left: The Karnak Temple Complex, in Luxor, dates back to the 21st century B.C.; a statue of Ramses II at Karnak.

Emli Bendixen

I had arrived via Cairo from my home in Paris to experience the Sphinx, a new Uniworld river ship. But I had also come to fulfill a childhood dream of exploring the relics of ancient Egypt. Upon arrival in Luxor, my fellow passengers and I were spirited away from the ferocious African sun at our first stop, Pharaoh Ramses II’s temple complex, by the gentle humor and substantive knowledge of our guide, Hazem Khalaf. Uniworld partners with the Egyptian-owned Spring Tours for its sailings, and Khalaf is its director — a genial Egyptologist who has been leading tours for 22 years. He treats his métier with the reverence of a master chef or doctor, or maybe even one of Hemingway’s priestly Spanish bullfighters.

A river cruise, among other things, is a study in repetition and rhythm. After several days on the Nile you start to get in touch with the more meditative qualities of moving along the water and contemplating the shifting landscape.

The previous day I’d met Emli Bendixen, the photographer for this story, at the Hilton Luxor Resort & Spa, where the gardens tumble toward the Nile, and we acclimated ourselves to the silent power of the slowly moving water. There is a dignity to this river that is palpable, yet difficult to explain. It’s partly visual: those green depths cutting the dusty, palm-tree-studded riverbanks, covered with an intensely blue sky that later turns orange and purple, then finally inky black and splashed with stars. But the river’s dignity is also conjured just by the sound of its name. In the fourth century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus reported in his Histories that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile,” and it is unimaginable that anything important or lasting could have occurred here in its absence.

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The Sphinx is billed as a floating five-star hotel. This is what Khalaf and his friend of 20-plus years, Sameh El-Sayed, stress with the pride of creators. El-Sayed is the ship’s manager, and together they launched the Sphinx in September 2021. El-Sayed, who struck me immediately as a serious and meticulous man, oversaw the construction and design down to the hand-carved wood ceilings and marble bathrooms.

Two photos of the Uniworld Sphinx Nile river cruise ship, one showing the boat's exterior, and one showing cocktails on board
From left: Cruising down the Nile; cocktail hour on the Sphinx.

Emli Bendixen

All of us were set up in cabins that felt more like grand suites, with floor-to-ceiling windows, king-size beds, and spacious sitting areas. (The Sphinx also offers four Royal Suites, which have separate living rooms that are fit for entertaining.) Returning to the ship after the daily excursions was to retreat into a familiar bubble, to be fussed over, though never to the point where it felt invasive. The Egyptian men who cleaned and restocked the rooms and staffed the bars and dining rooms were as diligent as they were personable. As in much of the rest of the service industry here, the staff were categorically male; in this religiously conservative culture, spending weeks away from home is still not considered appropriate for women.

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Bendixen and I took our meals together and grew fond of several of our regular waiters, none more than the attentive Abdo Zaref, who kept our glasses flowing with crisp Egyptian pilsners. No matter how many times we explained our professional situation to him, Zaref could not bring himself to believe that we were not married. “Is your husband coming down?” he would ask Bendixen with concern if she arrived at the table before me. One evening, when she fell asleep early, Zaref and several others helped me prepare a doggie bag “to take upstairs to your wife” so that she wouldn’t miss supper.

Meals were served on the first-level deck, which came with arresting water-level views. Among my favorite dishes were classics of the region, like couscous and börek (a puff pastry with salted cheese and yogurt dip) — along with surprisingly smooth Egyptian and Libyan wines.

It takes very little imagination to forget the hum of the engine and put yourself in the mindset of a visitor from another time who has come to pay respects to Sobek (the crocodile god) or Horus (the falcon-headed god).

I was eager to learn what motivated the other travelers, many of whom were aficionados of the high seas and various European rivers. “On a cruise you switch your brain off,” one retired American woman told me early on, and I began to notice the philosophical divide between the people who diligently rose at dawn to go on all of the demanding daily excursions and the people who played hooky, stretching out and sunning themselves on the deck in piña-coladified silence.

I fell somewhere in between, having jumped at this voyage in part to see Egypt and in part to flee the whirlwind pace of daily living in Paris — in other words, to slow down, accomplish less, purposefully read sentences on paper instead of a screen, and stare into the distance at sundown. For the duration of the trip, the Internet was reliably unreliable — and when it did work, a VPN was necessary to get around the government’s strict content blocks, which was either a blessing or a curse, depending on your perspective. For me, it was blissful relief.

Two photos from Egypt, one showing a man and his son on a traditional boat, and one showing sunset over the Nile River
From left: A sailor and his son aboard a traditional Nubian felucca; sunset over the Nile River, between Karnak and Dendera.

Emli Bendixen

A river cruise, among other things, is a study in repetition and rhythm. After several days on the Nile you start to get in touch with the more meditative qualities of moving along the water and contemplating the shifting landscape, which at times grows lush — with tall grasses, date palms, and papyrus — and at other times more arid, with children and livestock dipping in and out of view at regular intervals as they climb boulders framed by sand dunes. Sometimes it reveals shocking sights, like men and donkeys washing by the banks beside an industrial complex spilling sudsy runoff.

Occasionally, the ship becomes a portal through which time travel seems genuinely feasible. The Greco-Roman temple at Kom Ombo near Aswan looms so large and substantial over the docking cruise ships it leaves you with the impression you can reach out and touch the worn columns from your window. It takes very little imagination to forget the hum of the engine and put yourself in the mindset of a visitor from another time who has come to pay respects to Sobek (the crocodile god) or Horus (the falcon-headed god). It was in their honor that the structure was erected, and it is hard not to appreciate the resilience of the people who braved these predator-infested waters to worship — and even mummify — the reptiles that routinely attacked them.

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Spring Tours provided shuttle buses that cocooned us in climatized comfort while Khalaf expounded capsule lectures on the history and vocabulary behind the day’s itinerary. On the way to the Valley of the Kings — where the pharaohs were buried in the barren, inhospitable hillsides before they shifted their capital from Memphis to Cairo and learned to build pyramids — we passed, beside a nondescript highway with ramshackle gas stations and convenience stores wrapped in blue Pepsi signage, one of the most awe-inspiring sights I have ever encountered: the Colossi of Memnon. It consists of two 59-foot-high seated statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III, which have stood since 1350 B.C. Ruined and effaced almost beyond recognition, they nonetheless convey an almost supernatural severity I’d never experienced before. These are the remnants of a people who believed they possessed some measure of divinity in the here and now.

Two photos from Egypt show a fisherman in a small boat, and a temple at Philae
From left: A fisherman checking his nets near Luxor; the Temple of Philae, near Aswan.

Emli Bendixen

Farther up the road, and deep into the stone hills of the Valley of the Kings, I descended into Tutankhamen’s Burial Chamber and stood mesmerized before his partially shrouded, blackened, yet jarringly intact corpse. It was the size of a small child and I could count all 10 of his gnarled but impossibly tenacious toes. Finding yourself in the presence of physical spaces that have lived within your individual psyche (not to mention the culture’s collective consciousness) for so long is a profound and uncanny thing. Before this trip, it had only really happened to me at the Garden of Gethsemane in Israel and the Acropolis in Greece. In Egypt it happened over and over again.

As the cloudless sky grew black and pinholed with starlight, unveiling the razor-thin moon, I was reminded that Ramadan had begun — and that our gracious crew had been fasting and even abstaining from water since sunrise.

BY THE TIME the tour reached Aswan — one of the most important cities of Ancient Egypt — I had acclimated to my evening ritual on the roof deck, where I would clutch my cold gin and tonic as the air slowly cooled around me and contemplate the extraordinary sherbet-toned sunsets streaking the sky. I hadn’t expected the lushness and natural splendor of the ancient Nubian city and complex of islands in the river, on which visitors will find botanical gardens, archaeological sites, and temples. (Nubia was an early northeastern African civilization that ruled over parts of modern-day Egypt and the Sudan.)

We went bird-watching one morning among the islands. Diaa Araby, our tour guide that day, pointed out great blue herons, beautiful night herons, pied kingfishers, and reed warblers in the pampas grass along the banks of the river, as the traditional felucca sailboats zigzagged all around. “When you take the boat against the wind you have to tack back and forth,” Khalaf explained. “Steering a felucca on the Nile is like driving in Cairo!”

Two photos from Egypt show a Colossus at Memnon, and boys on a rock cliff by the Nile River
From left: One of the Colossi of Memnon, near Luxor, completed in 1350 B.C.; locals frolic along the banks of the Nile near Aswan.

Emli Bendixen

On one side of the river the steep, velvety dunes of the Sahara fall dramatically into the water. On the other side, there looms the colonial-era oasis of the Old Cataract Hotel, in green and brick-red hues. Among many other distinguished guests, Agatha Christie once holed up for a year in 1937 to write her novel Death on the Nile. We had tea and cocktails on the hotel’s spectacular terrace one evening and I almost expected Hercule Poirot himself to appear. As the cloudless sky grew black and pinholed with starlight, unveiling the razor-thin moon, I was reminded that Ramadan had begun — and that our gracious crew had been fasting and even abstaining from water since sunrise.

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ASWAN REPRESENTED the climax of the cruise, and after that we retraced our route to Luxor. From there, some of us would continue on by plane to Cairo to visit the Pyramids — that lifelong dream for many of the passengers, myself included. At the airport in Luxor, there was a festive atmosphere as entire clans gathered to wave off the lone family members who had saved sufficient funds to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Upon landing in Cairo, political realities reasserted themselves. Egypt is a military dictatorship, lest anyone forget, and everywhere I looked in the capital, huge billboards and murals of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met my gaze. The tour whisked us to the cool sanctuary of the Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza, through the labyrinthine megalopolis that, just over a decade prior, had been the epicenter of an Arab Spring; those portraits serve as a reminder that it never materialized.

Two photos show a hotel in Aswan, Egypt, and two men at a table on the deck of the Uniworld Sphinx ship
From left: The Old Cataract Hotel, in Aswan; Sphinx ship manager Sameh El-Sayed and Egyptologist Hazem Khalaf on the sundeck.

Emli Bendixen

It’s good that the Pyramids and their hypnotizing, noseless guard arrive at the very end of the voyage. (Nothing can diminish these sights — not even the appalling presence of a Kentucky Fried Chicken, which Khalaf had joked the poor Sphinx must now stare at in perpetuity.) I can think of nothing that could fairly compete.

“I have often considered the survival of paintings and what it means for our civilization that an image has survived across time undamaged,” the novelist Rachel Cusk observed, “and something of the morality of that survival — the survival of the original — pertains, I believe, to the custody of human souls too.”

When we finally pulled up to the Pyramids and disembarked from the buses to make our way toward the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the only remaining “wonder of the ancient world,” one of the women in my group began to cry. “I have always wanted to see the Pyramids,” she said by way of explanation to no one in particular, wiping her eyes. I smiled at her and continued toward the immense mounds of stone. The morality of the survival of these three-dimensional images from the deepest civilized past is impressed to this day against the polluted, golden-blue contemporary sky. It demands precisely such a reaction, I thought, as my own eyes began to well.

A view of the Nile River from the Uniworld Sphinx river cruise ship
A view of the Nile from the Sphinx, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises’ newest ship.

Emli Bendixen

Uniworld offers 12-day Splendors of Egypt & the Nile sailings, which include two days in Cairo, from $6,199, all-inclusive.

A version of this story first appeared in the October 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "The Eternal River."

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