The Daily Star
Pharaohs and feluccas: the gift of the Nile
When American actress Bette Davis, playing a rich kleptomaniac in the 1978 film “Death on the Nile,” turned to her maid and asked if she fancied a trip down the longest river in the world, the response was scathing.
“There is nothing I would dislike more,” retorted the maid, played by the delightfully haughty Maggie Smith. “There are two things in the world I can’t abide: it’s heat and heathens.” Luckily for adventurous travelers and lovers of ancient Egypt, the characters of Agatha Christie’s famous murder mystery story couldn’t have been further from the mark.
For any visitor, the Nile is a much-needed breath of fresh air winding through the heart of Egypt, even at the height of summer. It is a source of not just water, but of journeys, inspiration, history, beauty and life.
The Greek historian Herodotus famously called Egypt a “gift” of the Nile, but for backpackers and high-end travelers alike, it’s likely that the river itself will prove the greatest reward of any trip to the country.
When it comes to sightseeing the evocative remnants of ancient Egypt, pretty much everything is somewhere along the Nile, so what follows is a highly selective list of things to do that revolve in some way around the river.
At the southernmost end of the country is Abu Simbel, a must-see site consisting of two temples built on the orders of the mighty Ramesses II, one dedicated to him and one to his wife, Nefertari. Reassembled from its original spot some 65 meters lower – now covered by the manmade Lake Nasser – nothing will quite prepare you for the towering majesty of the four seated statues of the pharaoh carved into the rocky hill itself.
For the ultimate experience, book yourself onto a cruise and approach the site from the waters of Lake Nasser. This allows you to approach the site from a distance and appreciate the full effect it must have had on the pharaoh’s subjects when it was built more than 3,000 years ago.
In fact, Lake Nasser is an immense hub of activity all in itself. Boats of varying sizes and costs offer tours to the numerous Nubian sites, from fortresses to temples to tombs, which were rescued and relocated in the 1960s to save them from the rising waters of the lake being created by the Aswan High Dam.
If time doesn’t permit, the excellent Nubian Museum in Aswan has an exhibition on everything that was saved, and the huge amounts that were lost.
Wildlife lovers will find themselves in heaven. For bird-watchers, this is the perfect place to spot pink-backed pelicans and African pied wagtails, while adrenaline junkies can hire a boat to seek out the legendary Crocodylus niloticus – you guessed it, Nile crocodile. If fishing is more your thing, how about going for your biggest catch ever – anglers here regularly hook Nile perches weighing up to 200 lbs.
Just on the other side of the High Dam is the Philae temple complex, which was also relocated to higher ground to save it from the waters of the Nile. Centered around a small but well-preserved temple for Isis (no, not that ISIS), the goddess of magic and nature, the serene, reed-fringed island is the perfect Nile sightseeing stop, and you even have to take a boat to get there.
While in Aswan, any Nile lover would be aghast to miss out on the two great dams: The lower one built by the Brits at the turn of the 19th century, and the upper one built under President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the 1960s. The latter in particular has stunning views over Lake Nasser.
Further up north is the enchanting temple of Kom Ombo, half of which is dedicated to the crocodile god and king of the Nile, Sobek. Kom Ombo is home to a number of fascinating engraved friezes, including an ancient Egyptian calendar showing the way the year was structured around three seasons based on the Nile’s effects: akhet (flooding), peret (growth) and shemu (harvest).
Also here is the unmissable crocodile museum, a perfectly sized introduction to the mummification process where you can see the carefully preserved millennia-old river reptiles at varying ages, from a curled-up hatchling to a full-grown beast of an animal.
While Egyptian food often gets a bad rap, there are plenty of tasty things to be had if you ask around a bit.
Down in Aswan, visitors can sample Nubian/Egyptian cuisine at Ad-Dukka, a charming restaurant perched on Essa Island that makes the perfect lunch or dinner stop paired with a trip to explore Nubian life on the nearby Elephantine Island. Specialties include bamiya (okra stew), koshari (lentils, macaroni, rice, chickpeas, caramelized onions and a spicy tomato sauce), and taamiya (falafel-like deep fried balls of beans, parsley and onions).
The hands-down favorite for dining outside of Cairo, however, is Aswan’s Old Cataract Hotel.
Built in 1899 by mass tourism pioneer Thomas Cook, its guests have included Tsar Nicholas II, Winston Churchill, Princess Diana, Queen Noor and novelist Christie, who set portions of “Death on the Nile” there.
The historic, ornate hotel features several restaurants. Most famous is the grand and atmospheric 1902 Restaurant, which serves exquisite French food, but for watching the sun set over the Nile with a cold Saqqara beer in hand and a fresh salad on the table, the slightly more laid-back outdoor Terrace is unbeatable.
Up in Cairo, the established favorite for well-heeled locals and expats alike is Sequoia, an elegant restaurant that takes up the entire northern tip of Gezira Island in the affluent Zamalek neighborhood. The food, which is pretty good, is largely a mix of the usual Middle Eastern and Mediterranean classics, such as baba ghannouj and kofta, but they also do excellent sushi and an interesting range of fruity nargileh flavors.
For a more casual – and less expensive – beer and pizza, the adjoining Left Bank is a great alternative.
The big attraction of both is the interaction with the Nile they afford, from basking by the tranquil waters in the daytime and admiring the molten gold of the river at sunset, to enjoying the blaring music and flashing lights of the stream of party boats that cruise up and down at night.
Speaking of party boats, the western bank of Zamalek is just the place to catch a ride on one – an unforgettable way to end any night.
It goes without saying that if you really want to live the full Nile experience, you are going to have to spend a night or two on it.
Depending on where you are, this can be done in a number of ways. Down on Lake Nasser, you can book yourself onto everything from an enormous, full-facility, five-star cruise boat to a smaller wooden boat where you sleep on the open deck and drop anchor anywhere you like.
Roughly the same range of options are available for trips from Aswan to Luxor, a popular cruise and sailing route that passes by idyllic untouched beaches fringed with palm trees and clusters of Nubian villages and towns. But on the Nile, there is the added possibility of going on a felucca, a traditional sailing boat that travels without a motor.
The larger cruise boats are much like a well-appointed hotel anywhere in the world, which will appeal to many. The magic of waking up in the crisp morning air on a felucca, however, and having a dip in the Nile as breakfast is prepared for you, is second to none.
In Cairo, land lubbers will be comforted to know that there is another option: the humble houseboat. They come in varying states of luxury, but all will offer a riverside balcony that provides a unique view of Egypt’s hectic, exhausting capital.
Seductive, soothing and silent (most of the time), the Nile is the thing that keeps travelers coming back for more, time after time after time.