Cruising Through The Land Of The Pharaohs
BY: Habeeb Salloum
For two days we had toured the ancient Egyptian ruins at Luxor – both in the ‘City of the Living’ and the ‘City of the Dead’. Amid the fantastic remains of a people who had laid the basis for ensuing civilizations, I began to appreciate the pharaonic contributions to humankind. These breathtaking monuments were still on our minds as we relaxed atop our cruise ship, Oberoi Shehrayar, on our way to Aswan.
All around us, the white sails of the Egyptian feluccas, dotting the tranquil Nile, appeared to be huge proud swans as they criss-crossed the river, seemingly bidding us adieu. Beyond were dozens of cruise ships docked or, like us, beginning on their journey to Aswan; while others were returning from that city.
Wandering on the top deck of the Shehrayar, our home for the next four days, I watched the late afternoon sun shimmer on the surface of the blue waters as we made our way up river. Keeping us company were half a dozen of the 200 cruise ships which ply the Nile. However, soon cruise ships and feluccas were forgotten as we watched the colours of the sunset turn the Nile into a panorama of shades. By the time it was dark, we had passed through a lock in a dam across the Nile and were anchored in Esna – 64 km (40 mi) south of Luxor.
At dinner that evening we were assigned tables for the duration of the tour. My meal companions were to be: Philip, working for a British company in Egypt, his wife Yvonne, their teen-aged daughter Gale and Radha, an Indian professor who had spent most of his life employed in the education system of Scotland and his wife Smriti, also a teacher. In the subsequent days, we found that we had much in common and got on well together.
The next morning, like herds of sheep, the groups of tourists, from our and a half dozen other ships, led by guides, streamed down the dusty streets of Esna, crowded with merchants trying to entice us with their wares. The masses of visitors, making their way to the Esna Temple, seemed to saturate this agricultural town.
Dedicated to Khnun, the ram-headed god who modelled people on his potter’s wheel, the Temple is a Ptolemaic building with pharaonic, Greek, Roman and Coptic elements. It took 400 years to build, but its major section was erected in the 2nd century B.C.
At one time, the Temple, completely covered with inscriptions, was almost totally concealed with debris and sand – about 9 m (29.5 ft) high. This kept the hypostyle hall with its forest of 24 columns, 13 m (43 ft) high, topped by capitals of flowers and plants, in almost perfect condition.
There were so many tourists crowding the inside that I was glad when we were again on our ship sailing through the upper Nile – edged by lush ribbons of vegetation between bare desert hills. In places, the green strips on both sides of the Nile were so thin that one could hardly believe that over 82 million Egyptians could make their living along its banks.
Around the swimming pool atop the ship, our group of six were comparing empty lands like Canada and Australia to China and India. “Did you say Canada’s population is some 30 million? You must be joking! India gives birth to a Canada every two years.” Radha chuckled, then went on to talk about his overcrowded country.
As our cruise ship sailed up the broad loops of the Nile, winding its way through the desert, we passed village after village whose homes were built from mud-brick. All around them, the intense green of the palms and sugar fields made for a serene country-scene. The romantic Nile and its edging emerald fields continued until we reached Edfu – 123 km (76 mi) north of Aswan.
This idyllic aura of the villages was shattered the next day as we rode a horse-drawn carriage, one of the 300 waiting for the ship passengers at the dock, through the dusty streets of Edfu. The hot air was filled with the fine dust of dried horse manure and beyond the main avenue, the streets were littered with refuse. In addition, the mud-brick homes, many seemingly deteriorating, had no appeal.
From the carriage, we walked with thousands of other tourists to the best preserved of Egypt’s some 100 temples which were built to honour some 750 gods. The sand that for centuries had covered the temple and was responsible for its preservation was removed in 1860, by Auguste Mariette, the great pioneer archaeologist who was the founder of the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities.
A huge temple only exceeded in size by Karnak Temple in Luxor, it is built in pure Ptolemaic style and dedicated to the falcon-headed god, Horus, the most famous deity in Upper Egypt. Built between 237 and 57 B.C., it is, inside and out, covered with mythological and religious decorations, bas-reliefs and hieroglyphic texts.
The facade of the Temple rises up in all its majesty with two splendid pylons. Inside, we stopped awhile in the courtyard lined on three sides with impressive columns – their capitals each different from the other. Moving further within, we passed through hypostyle halls and offering chambers, a few retaining some of their original colours. At the inner sacrarium which once housed the image of the god, Horus, we stopped awhile to rest. The masses of tourists covering every inch of space seemed to bring the massive temple back to life – to the time it reverberated with the prayers of priests.
Back on the ship, we sunned ourselves around a swimming pool as the vessel purred forward in the middle of a thin line of green. Soon we were passing through ‘New Nubia’ where 100 thousand Nubians were re-settled after the building of the ‘High Dam’ near Aswan. Hard workers, they turned the desert into a sea of sugar cane, dotted with fruit and vegetable fields. Amid this greenery, they built their villages, carrying the names of those they had abandoned to the Dam’s rising waters.
At the afternoon tea, the discussion of our group turned to the poverty and morals of the Egyptians. Philip talked of how the Egyptians were honest and how safe it was to live in the country in spite of the poverty. Radha agreed saying: “When we were in the Valley of the Kings, I saw a tourist trying to bribe a guard in order to allow him to take his video camera into a tomb. The guard refused even though the bribe appeared to be substantial.”
That evening we docked beside the Ptolemaic Temple of Kom Ombo, dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile god of fertility, and Haroeris, the Good Doctor.
Next morning, we toured this temple of the two gods with twin entrances, built a few centuries before the Romans occupied Egypt. The temple also served as a hospital – a whole series of medical instruments are sculptured in reliefs on the temple walls. In addition, this house of the gods contains, in the Chapel of Hathor, three of the worshipped crocodiles, mummified.
From Kom Ombo, the green strips of land along the river banks gradually narrowed until the barren hills reached, in places, the waterside. As we watched the greenery fade away, my thoughts turned to the works of the pharaohs and how they were drawing the tourists in the millions. Of course, giving them a hand in revitalizing the once rich lands of ancient Egypt, are the mighty Nile and the relaxing cruise ships.
At noon we were docked in Aswan – 900 km (559 mi) south of Cairo. Here where the Nile is at its epitome of charm we planned to relax for a few days. Walking above its banks of the river we were beguiled.
Atop a high point the river scene was truly magnificent. The river flowed through an amber desert between granite rocks and shimmering-green volcanic islands, covered with palm groves and tropical plants. Embellishing this panorama of colour were the feluccas with their tall masts and white sails covering the skyline. It is a breath-taking vista.
Later, we enjoyed the river’s view from the terrace of the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract, a delightful renovated relic of British colonialism, where Agatha Christie wrote ‘Death on the Nile’. Sipping our tea, we admired the feluccas gliding on the water around the foliage-clad rocky islets. It was a captivating scene, breath-taking in its beauty set in the aura of a sunset.
The pharaonic and other monuments in Aswan are many but during our two day visit we only had time to visit a few. From among these were: the unfinished Obelisk – a monument left by the ancients; the reconstructed Philae Temple; and the High Dam – a structure of which the pharaohs would have been proud.
In between our visits to the monuments, we explored the souks, full of oriental colour, then strolled the Corniche along the Nile. The edging mighty river was very appealing. However, under our feet and on the edges of the sidewalks, like in most towns and villages in Egypt, garbage seemed to be everywhere. Seeing my disgust at the strewn litter, Yvonne, who had lived in the country for a few years remarked, “To enjoy Egypt, you must look above the refuse and enjoy the abundant scenes and monuments.”
Indeed she had a point. Aswan, like most tourist sites in Egypt, has much to offer. It has been a favourite winter resort since the beginning of the 19th century. For Europeans and North Americans, it is a perfect place to get away from it all, especially during the winter months. Spending time glorying in its scenic views and its monuments was a delightful climax to our cruise through the Upper Egypt of the pharaohs.