Travel: Peace reigns on the Nile

By Stephanie Maskery

Sunday, 1st June 2014, 7:00 am
Philae Temple sits in the middle of the River Nile near Aswan. Picture: PA Photo/Stephanie Maskery.
Philae Temple sits in the middle of the River Nile near Aswan. Picture: PA Photo/Stephanie Maskery.

The tomb is eerily silent. It’s the kind of silence that deafens and makes you take a humble look at your surroundings. Above my head, intricately carved hieroglyphs – still as bright as the day they were painted more than 3,000 years ago – depict King Ramses VI’s ascension to heaven.

Beside me, a large granite tomb lies split open. Its precious contents were stolen long ago, like most of the Pharaohs’ tombs, here in the Valley of the Kings.

Emerging from the cool stillness of the chamber, my eyes adjust to the brightness of the sun. I expect to be bombarded by gaggles of tourists - after all, this is one of the top sights in Egypt - but I’m standing alone. In fact, there are only a handful of visitors today, and we have this ancient place all to ourselves.

Egypt has been on my must-see list since I was a little girl, and a cruise down its famous Nile is on most people’s bucket list. Unfortunately, the idea of long queues and a river teeming with hundreds of boats has always put me off, but since the Arab Spring in 2010, tourism in Egypt has taken a massive hit and with the country’s future still uncertain, many tourists are worried to return.

But if you want to experience the sights without the crowds, now is the time to visit.

I’ve signed myself up to a four-night Nile cruise with Bales Worldwide, taking in some of the ancient wonders from Luxor to Aswan.

The Valley of the Kings, just a few miles from Luxor, was the final resting place for powers such as Ramses the Great and Tutankhamen. Sixty two known tombs belonging to Pharaohs from the 16th century BC can be found here.

Stepping into Tutankhamen’s tomb, I’m struck by how much smaller it is than some of the others; for such a famous name, I was expecting something bigger. However, my Egyptologist guide Amr explains that the tomb was probably taken from another Pharaoh when the king died unexpectedly at just 19.

A short drive but a world away from this hive of tombs is the Mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, Egypt’s only female Pharaoh. Backed by limestone cliffs, this extraordinary monument looks almost modern; with clean lines cut out of the rock, it resembles something from the 1920s. It’s hard to believe this was created over 3,000 years ago.

Taking in the majestic view, I can’t help but notice the guards armed with automatic rifles. Reading the reports on the news, it’s no wonder people are cautious about travelling to Egypt, but the home office has lifted restrictions on the southern parts of the country and the guards feel like more of a reassuring presence than a foreboding one. Tourism is a vital industry in Egypt and its people are keen to protect it.

After a day of sightseeing, staff aboard the Sanctuary Sun Boat IV are awaiting us with smiles and fresh lime juice. This beautiful and stylish boat is one of the best on the river, and its 40 art deco inspired cabins boast floor-to-ceiling windows that show off the splendour of the Nile.

Before the revolution, 300 ships crowded these waterways but now, only 13 are currently in operation - and even these are not nearly at full capacity. Our boat has just 28 passengers on board, so we’re well looked after by the 52 on-board staff.

The boat begins to shudder - we’re now officially cruising along the Nile. We drift past fishermen in small boats casting their nets into the blue waters as egrets wade along the shoreline. On the banks, men in traditional dress escort hay-laden donkeys through sand dunes.

It seems like a world that has changed little in the last thousand years. Children wave their hellos to us as we glide past; we’re the only visible boat on the water.

As the sun begins to set, throwing a sepia glow over the river, the Muslim call to prayer rings out from the minarets that are dotted along the banks. The beautiful, almost sombre sound echoes across the water, drawing the day to a close.

In the morning, we’re up early to visit the temple of the cow goddess Hathor at Dendera, located in one of the poorest regions in Egypt, where the pace of life seems a tad slower than in bustling Luxor. Nonetheless, it is one of the most beautiful and intriguing temples in Egypt. I feel like Indiana Jones as I scramble on the roof and through the catacombs.

As dusk draws in, we head to Kom Ombo, dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek. The site once teemed with scaly reptiles, and gigantic mummified crocs are on display in the adjoining museum. Luckily, there are no living ones in this section of the Nile anymore, leaving me free to wander through the dramatically flood-lit columns in peace.

‘I hope you’ve all got your outfits for Egyptian night,’ grins Amr, as we arrive back at base. Groaning inwardly I head back to get changed. I hate dressing up and I hate dancing, so the idea of awkwardly trying out my best Egyptian mummy impression is something I’ve be dreading since I first read about these trips.

Entering the lounge in my recently acquired gallibaya, a traditional Egyptian long shirt, I’m pleased to see everyone is dressed up too. In fact, the night is extremely infectious and it’s a great to see the staff relax and join in. It turns out the manager is a pretty good dancer and the head of accounts a very enthusiastic DJ!

Everyone I speak to is keen to share their views of the recent conflicts and nearly all of them are hopeful that fresh elections will move the country on towards a positive future. It’s something they desperately need when 90% of Luxor and Aswan is reliant on tourism.

From enjoying the grandeur of the Saharan Dunes to feeling minute in Karnak’s towering hypostyle hall, a four-day Nile trip is still one of the greatest cruise journeys in the world. Empires have come and gone, as have modern regimes, but these temples have withstood them all for thousands of years.

Once all the commotion in modern Egypt has died down, the temple will still be here. But there may not be a quieter, cheaper and more interesting time to visit them than right now.

TRAVEL FACTS

:: Stephanie Maskery was a guest of Bales Worldwide (www.balesworldwide.com; 0844 488 1157) who offers a four-night cruise on the Sanctuary Sun Boat IV from £1,395 per person, including international and internal flights, transfers, accommodation, meals and sightseeing.