“What do you see?” asked Lord Carnarvon. “I see wonderful things, and everywhere is a glint of gold,” gasped archaeologist Howard Carter, the first person in modern times to set eyes on the treasures of Tutankhamun.
On 26 November 1922, after five years’ excavating in the Valley of the Kings, Carter’s perseverance was rewarded. Carnarvon had rushed to Egypt from London on receipt of a cable from Carter reporting the discovery of steps leading down to a closed door. A workman drilled a hole in the brickwork at the end of a tunnel. The world was about to see the astonishing contents of a minor pharaoh’s tomb from the Eighteenth Dynasty, undisturbed for over three thousand years.
As a schoolboy I had read of Carter’s exploits and I had wanted to explore the Valley of the Kings ever since. The desire was even more acute after seeing, many years ago, Tutankhamun’s treasures both in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and at the British Museum in London. Now, at last, my curiosity was to be satisfied.
In Luxor, once known as Thebes, a laid-back town straddling the banks of the Nile some 350 miles south of Cairo, we joined our ship SS Misr (during our voyage we were even able to visit the engine room which made the engineers and industrial archaeologists in our party very happy indeed!).
The distance between Luxor and Aswan is not great, and sailing is often done in daylight, allowing plenty of opportunity to enjoy the Nile scenery. As we glided gently towards Edfu on the second morning, our experienced tour manager Waleed gave us a thorough briefing on the itinerary, the ship’s facilities, the included excursions and a couple of optionals, shopping (bargaining techniques!) and tipping, and generally what to expect. In the afternoon there was a cocktail reception and staff presentation in the spacious lounge bar; this proved a fine way to get to know our fellow travellers too.
The following morning we made an early visit to Edfu temple and had the place almost to ourselves. Dating from around 200BC, and buried under sand and silt for nearly two thousand years, the Temple of Horus is the largest and best preserved Ptolemaic temple in Egypt. Waleed gave us our first introduction to the myths and legends of the Ancient Egyptians and the rites and rituals of their worship of the gods, and the interpretation of the ubiquitous hieroglyphic inscriptions.
More gentle sailing upstream brought us to Kom Ombo, where, in the cool of the evening after dinner, we visited the awesome symmetrical Graeco- Roman temple in a beautiful setting overlooking the Nile. Dedicated on the left side to the falcon god Horus, and to Sobek the crocodile god on the right, the temple is richly carved and adorned, with an entrance pylon added by the Roman emperor Augustus around 30BC. A small chapel to one side houses some dusty mummified crocodiles from a nearby necropolis.
The following morning we gazed out over Aswan, and after an early breakfast took a motorboat ride to the temple of Philae, an astonishing feat of reconstruction. After the completion of the first Aswan Dam in 1902, the island temples were partly submerged and visitors could only view them from rowing boats. During the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, the monuments were relocated under the auspices of UNESCO to another, higher, island nearby which was landscaped to match the original. The huge Temple of Isis combines many architectural styles, while the Kiosk of Trajan from the first century AD is classically Roman and the later Gate of Hadrian was adorned in 394 with Egypt’s last hieroglyphs.
Later we drove across the massive Aswan High Dam, finished in 1971, to gaze out over Lake Nasser, at present the largest artificial lake in the world, which has helped Egypt considerably with water supplies, irrigation and hydroelectricity. It was one of the biggest construction projects in the world at the time and made one appreciate the colossal building skills of the ancient Egyptians, using only basic tools, even more.
The afternoon comprised a gentle sailboat ride in a felucca, powered only by the breeze, and a stroll through the beautiful botanical gardens on Kitchener’s Island, presented to the famous British general in the 1890s to acknowledge his successes in the Sudan. After dinner another visit to the Temple of Philae was arranged, this time in the cool of the evening to enjoy a magical Son et Lumière performance under the stars.
The following morning those who wished had a lie-in while the more adventurous opted for an early departure by coach to visit the two great temples at Abu Simbel. Hewn out of a cliff in the 13th century BC, the two massive temple facades are an unforgettable sight. Ramses II, who reigned for 66 years, demonstrated his power by the carving of no fewer than four colossal statues of himself, each over 100ft high. Only slightly smaller, the facade of the neighbouring Temple of Hathor was built by Ramses II to honour his wife Nefertari, with alternating statues of himself and Nefertari depicted as the goddess
Even more impressive is that in the 1960s the temples were threatened with inundation by the rising waters of Lake Nasser on account of the Aswan High Dam, and an international rescue plan was mounted by UNESCO to relocate them. Block by block, they were moved to an artificial cliff in a mini-mountain 688ft back from and high above their original position. The relocation and alignment was done so accurately that on one day in February and October each year the rising sun still penetrates the depths of the inner sanctuary to illuminate the once gold-covered statues of Ramses II alongside the gods Amun-Ra, Ptah and Ra-Harakhty. Visitors can enter this inner sanctum to admire the myriad inscriptions, paintings and bas-relief carvings depicting events like Ramses’ victories over his enemies more than three thousand years ago.
In the afternoon we set sail again, this time heading north, downstream towards Luxor. This evening was a gala night, and it is a tradition aboard many Nile boats that guests wear Egyptian dress for the spectacular buffet dinner prepared by the chef and his team. While some guests were on their second or third Nile cruise and had brought suitable costumes with them, others had purchased inexpensive clothing locally with which to make an appearance. Certainly a highlight of the cruise, and great fun, the evening was rounded off with a light-hearted team quiz followed by free drinks and prizes.
Back in Luxor, an early morning option was a hot-air balloon ride at dawn which proved a marvellous experience, with magnificent views over the temples, the Tombs of the Nobles and the fertile banks of the Nile. This was followed by visits to Queen Hatshepsut’s temple and the Valley of the Kings, where I was able to enter several of the more famous royal burial chambers, including that of Tutankhamun which nowadays, alas, is almost empty. But the finely carved inscriptions, bas-reliefs and gilded paintings on the walls of the corridors and tomb made the effort worthwhile, revealing much of the Ancient Egyptians’ knowledge of the universe and obsession with their journey into the afterlife.
Later Waleed guided us around the vast complex known as the Temple of Amun at Karnak, and the magnificent Luxor Temple, one of the most impressive ancient monuments in Egypt. A Nile cruise offers so much. In the words of Carter, it truly is a week of wonderful things.