Every day of my Nile cruise started the exact same way. I made sure they did. The rays of Egypt’s Saharan sun streamed in through my east-facing floor-to-ceiling windows, flooding my stateroom with light. Each morning I looked out at the river and the array of life that it spawns: shepherds herding sheep, cattle grazing on its shores and low-lying islands, papyrus reeds flourishing in shallow waters. It could have been a portal to a time long gone. Breakfast could wait. If you’re thinking of visiting Egypt and want to be outrageously pampered, but also want to get your hands dirty exploring its pharaonic heritage, take heed if you’ve booked passage on Sanctuary Retreat’s five-star Sun Boar IV. This gleaming vessel, with its Art Deco flourishes and cabana-laden sun deck, doesn’t want to stop you from putting on your pith helmet and wandering off into the desert a la Howard Carter. But be warned. It’s very comfy here.
Designed for Nile cruising, the 40-stateroom Sun Boat IV is sleek and streamlined, its hull looking more like a yacht than the bulky-looking, squared-off hulls of older boats permanently moored alongside ageing piers, the legacy of a tourism downturn that has persisted since the 2011 revolution. I was on a four-night cruise sailing upriver from Luxor to Aswan, although the same itinerary can be done in reverse in just three nights sailing downriver from Aswan to Luxor, helped by the river’s gentle current.
Expeditions into the past – What brings people to Egypt is its unparalleled archaeological heritage, and in true Sun Boat fashion, Sanctuary Retreats acquired the services of the man who must surely have been Upper Egypt’s most engaging Egyptologist to light the way. Mohamed Ezzat’s passion for history took him from secondary school in Qena in Upper Egypt all the way to Cairo’s Helwan University. Approachable and engaging, his enthusiasm, sense of humour and insights elevated each shore excursion – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – to the lofty status of ‘expedition’.
We saw the ‘best of the best’: the temples of Hathor, Luxor and Karnak, the valleys of the Kings and Queens and the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut.We visited Edfu, dedicated to the falcon god Horus, and Korn Ombo, both Greek temples built during the rule of the Ptolemies. Finishing in Aswan, we took a bus to its unfinished obelisk – at 1088 tonnes almost a third larger than any obelisk ever raised in ancient Egypt – and visited Philae Temple, cut into 40,000 pieces and moved to its new island location by UNESCO in the early 1960s after spending decades partially flooded because of the construction of the Old Aswan Dam in 1902.
A sunset cruise on our last night in a specially chartered felucca took us past the Old Cataract Hotel (now a Sofitel Legend property), the hotel where author Agatha Christie set part of her classic novel, Death on the Nile. I wondered if there’d ever been an era when Egypt didn’t fascinate. In 1838 the Scottish painter David Roberts came here and spent months drawing hundreds of sketches and watercolours, soon-to-be-famous windows into a once-great civilisation that would go on to wow Victorian England. His work included the barely visible Gateway to the Temple of Hathor and the columns of the Temple of Horus at Edfu, buried almost to their capitals. If archaeology doesn’t intervene, time, if there’s enough of it, can reclaim all things. Especially paintings.
Endless Treasures to uncover – A selfish pleasure gnawed away at me at the prospect of spending a few minutes alone in the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Queues here once stretched over a hundred metres, but those pre-2011 days are now long gone. So, as the last few in our group shuffled away, down I went. But I wasn’t alone. Conservationists from the Getty Conservation Institute, a US-based private research institute, were hard at work conserving the tomb’s vivid array of wall paintings. Despite its overall excellent condition, localised lifting of paint remains a problem, and still there were those persistent, disfiguring brown spots, noted by Howard Carter himself after he famously discovered the tomb in 1922 – spots that almost a hundred years on have continued to defy explanation.
After disembarking in Aswan four days later I returned to Luxor at a reasonable pace courtesy of Egyptian National Railways and walked to the Winter Palace Hotel to see its Grand Staircase. It was here, in 1922, that Howard Carter announced he had found the tomb of King Tutankhamun, the otherwise inconsequential pharaoh made famous only because his tomb had somehow managed to avoid being robbed. Wherever you go in Egypt you’re never far from an ongoing excavation. The Department of Ancient History at Sydney’s own Macquarie University has been involved for years on the Theban Tombs Project at Dra’ Abu el-Naga’, a 4000-year-old necropolis near Luxor. Hardly a week goes by without something making news. As I was leaving to fly home, a 2.7-tonne torso of an Egyptian pharaoh was pulled from the mud in a nondescript Cairo suburb.
Egypt’s treasures are innumerable. Crates still sit unopened on the floor of the old Egyptian Museum in Cairo, waiting for the new Grand Egyptian Museum on the Giza Plateau to open in 2018. An astonishing edifice, it covers 50 hectares and, when completed, will be far and away the world’s largest archaeological museum. But its staff will only be stewards. Egypt’s heritage has never been its own. Its treasures have always belonged to us all.