Eternal Egypt

On a journey though the upper reaches of the Nile to its delta, Pat Nouse reveals the splendour and breathtaking scale of Egypt’s history and grand monuments.
January 2020

On a journey though the upper reaches of the Nile to its delta, Pat Nouse reveals the splendour and breathtaking scale of Egypt’s history and grand monuments.

There are ways other than the Nile to see Egypt, but to make even a little bit of sense of it the river is the place to start. Take a look at Egypt from space: the Nile flows right through the middle of it, life slashing through the sterile desert, blooming into the delta like a lotus at the Mediterranean. Take a look at Egypt from the water: the blue-green-yellow of the river, the lush grass of its banks giving way to dense palms that surrender in turn to the dunes, the sky pink and gold above the incandescent desert.

To follow the Nile as it flows through Egypt, Abu Simbel is the place to start. Today its two temples stand on the banks of Lake Nasser, the reservoir that was formed when the Nile was dammed, beginning in 1964. When they were built, around 1200 BC, they marked the southernmost point of the empire and were designed to inspire awe. Cut into the rock of two hillsides, they are dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra and Ptah, but their most striking feature is four giant statues of Rameses II. He is seated and smiling faintly in each, but the scale sends a clear message: this is not an empire to be trifled with.

Step inside and that message is made explicit in scenes depicting the divine heritage of Rameses and his queen, Nefertari, and of the king's victories over his rivals. Smiting is a theme, as is the mutilation of prisoners. The scale and essential beauty of these carvings in the rock inspires a kind of vertigo, but so too does their immediacy, reaching across the millennia. They are crumbling, and scarred with centuries of graffiti, yet the fact that they were made by people very like us hits like a blow.

Much of that vintage graffiti is a remnant of the Egyptomania that gripped Europe at the end of the 19th century, and there are few better places to get a feel for this mania than the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan. Churchill was an admirer, and Agatha Christie set parts of Death on the Nile here. Stepping out of the gorgeously Baroque bar one sees at once the breeze and dazzle of the Nile, the arc of the desert, and the palm-shaded comforts of the terrace. It carries a feeling of something very right. And that feeling only deepens with further exploration, whether it's taking breakfast aboard a felucca on the river, or simply breathing in the view of these same sailboats from the terrace at sundown, musing over mint tea and a puff of shisha.

It was at Philae, on the Nile near Aswan, that Isis was said to have found the heart of her husband, Osiris, after her brother Set chopped him up and strew him around the country. Isis has been worshipped at Philae since the time of the pharaohs. The major temple was built in the Ptolemaic era, and it is magnificent. Cruise up to it in a small boat and see it luminous in the late-afternoon sun, its elegant mass looming through the sand-washed palms, and know the sublime.

Nineteenth-century accounts of purveying a ship for the journey up the Nile include talk of manoeuvring vessels into the middle of the river and sinking them to get rid of the rats before washing them off, loading up and setting sail. In his 1909 book, Egypt (La Mort de Philae), French novelist Pierre Loti described scenes of "those three-decked tourist boats, which make a great noise as they plough the water, and are laden for the most part with ugly women, snobs and imbeciles".

From the perspective of a passenger on the Sanctuary Sun Boat IV, a five-deck, 40-cabin vessel operated and recently renovated by Sanctuary Retreats, the ugly women, snobs and imbeciles are in shorter supply nowadays, and there’s not a rat to be seen. There's a pool on the top deck, and a winning variety of places spread fore and aft to lounge and loll.

The cabins are neat, modern and well designed, with desks and plenty of storage. The combination of a comfortable bed and floor-to-ceiling glass opening onto the Nile is pretty special. Good salads, fresh vegetables served simply with olive oil and fresh herbs, and flatbread and dips made to order in abundance are welcome staples.

The other key piece of kit on the boat is the team of Egyptologists. Having an expert on hand to explain that the face missing from the frieze of Isis at Philae is now in the Vatican or to point out the remarkable medical scenes among the hieroglyphs at Kom Ombo (saw, scissors, birthing stool and all) is a true luxury.

Sailing three nights from Aswan to Luxor is an immersion in ancient history. The archaeological wealth in Luxor is hard to comprehend. Within its bounds lay the ruins of ancient Thebes. On the east bank, among the living, the Luxor and Karnak temples sit right in the middle of town, linked by an avenue of a thousand sphinxes, and dwarfing them with their epic columns and colossal statuary. On the west bank, it's all about the other world and the next life.

Enter the tomb of Tutankhamun –minor king, major archaeological discovery – and be bathed in golden light. Unlike most of the tombs, which have had their inhabitants stolen or removed to museums, this one still contains a mummy. Look at Tutankhamun: this is at once a pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, son of Akhenaten the god-king heretic, but also the body of an 18-year-old man, roughly five-nine, buried in this place 3,300 years ago. One can become inured to the faces of mummies, distanced from their reality, their death. The sight of wizened toes poking out from under the shroud, though, is inescapably human.

We fly to Cairo, leaving the boat but rejoining the Nile. Here the river snakes through a modern capital and sustains nearly 20 million souls. For all its chaotic grandeur and operatic despair, Cairo is still a big city, with the traffic to match. There are two very good reasons to brave the car chaos: a trip to the other side of the river to see the three pyramids and the Great Sphinx at Giza, and a visit to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities off Tahrir Square. Even those who don't obsess over institutions with a strong whiff of the 19th century – the finds of centuries of digs piled in heaps, with dusty cases and frayed wires are in abundance – will find this museum is a place of joy.

The collection includes Tutankhamun's death mask, its gold and lapis splendour instantly familiar and even more impressive than one would dare hope. But there's something plaintive and transporting about the sight of the dead king's portable chess set. There is much to be said for any cultural institution that devotes an entire display case to small limestone coffins made for scarab beetles.

What can be said of the Great Pyramid? What's left in the gap between what's in the books and the place where language falls short of the task of capturing the immensity of the last surviving Wonder of the Ancient World? I can confirm that the pyramids do not – perhaps cannot – fall short of expectation. They loom from miles afar. Up close their proportions are no easier to comprehend, their lines magnetic. Some scholars suggest, in the sense that they were a project that called for the careful marshalling of vast resources and manpower over many years, that the pyramids could be said to have built Egypt rather than the other way around.

Transported to the Mediterranean north of the country, one discovers that Alexandrines take life at a more human pace than their Cairo cousins, and it’s the place to put Egypt’s food through its paces. Founded on the Mediterranean shore by Alexander himself, the city is Egypt's main port, a crossroads of culture that remains more tuned to Europe and the Levant than anywhere else in the country.

One morning, roaming with Esraa Sakr, a savvy local guide, I have ful medames, the broad-bean stew eaten by most Egyptians for breakfast, on a sandwich. I knock off a bowl of slippery molokhia, the mallow leaf Egypt holds almost as dear as the pyramids, in a soup kitchen under the 900-year-old Attarine Mosque. I drink a pomegranate frappé opposite Pompey's Pillar. I wolf down a spicy bull-penis baguette at Abdo Natana, and drink a carob juice a few blocks from the Roman Amphitheatre. It’s a good day.

Egypt has by no means given up all her old secrets. It's only been a few generations since the Rosetta Stone allowed us to decipher hieroglyphic script – knowledge lost to humankind since the 5th century. Only months ago, a 4,000-year-old tomb was uncovered at Saqqara, untouched and unlooted. The ancient and the modern, the East and the West, the living and the dead, the desert and the sea. The river links them all. He who takes the water of the Nile, goes the saying, is destined to taste its sweetness again. The river flows on regardless.

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