How the Egypt experience unfolded as we cruised the Nile

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The heat may be sweltering, the travel exhausting, the haggling cumbersome. But the sights, culture, history, and people are sure to be refreshing and invigorating. Here’s a first-hand account that you can use as a tour plan blueprint...

This ancient empire had its day in the sun millennia ago. But enduring structures have kept its history shining bright till today.

Bucket lists are made and altered as years roll by. Desires and perspectives change according to time and space. We must allow ourselves the flexibility to change our minds whenever there is a shift in perception.

Egypt remained on our list, unchanging and intact through the years, as though it was ordained. There was an inner hunger to see this ancient land. We were almost booked to go there in 1998. For reasons that I don’t entirely remember, the trip didn’t take place. To our delight, it happened in the October of 2018. We were part of a family group of cousins, uncles and aunts. A Nile cruise was arranged by our ever enterprising uncle.

We converged on Cairo on October 13, 2018, kith and kin from different nooks and corners of the world. Meeting after a long time brought about a rush that lasted through the trip. At the hotel, dinner was more about catching up than eating. We ate Italian but I don’t think anyone remembers what they ate. It was a jumble of words, food and wine. We were also very tired from our long flights from various countries. A good rest was much needed. The next day we took a morning trip to the Giza Pyramids. Our excellent guide, Tarek, and his associate Fahad looked after us like we were the Pharaoh’s entourage. Imposing, overwhelming structures loomed large over minuscule humanity. The idea was to feel small so that we were aware of the greatness of the pharaohs. They wanted to be regarded as Gods, not as mere humans. The pyramids were built in limestone, in areas where it doesn’t rain much. That preserved the structures over time with minimal damage.

The Great Pyramid is the largest of the three tetrahedrons in the Giza pyramid complex. It is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the ancient World, and the only one to remain in one piece. It has stood the test of time. The shape is such that it attracts the energy of the sun rays on all sides. Egyptian Sun god Amun-Ra’s sweltering presence was felt everywhere we went in Egypt. Though it was the month of October, he didn’t spare us from his relentless radiation through his early mornings and late afternoons. His symbol, the sun disc flanked by two cobras, is displayed on most structures. He was revered for his power. The pharaohs wanted to be considered as Gods, which explains their propensity for building massive tombs for themselves. They were buried with treasures that would help them in their successful journey towards afterlife.

 

 

The sense of sacred and eternity was foremost in their minds and they began to prepare their own elaborate tombs very early in their reigns. Pharaoh Khufu built his pyramid in 2550 B.C. His Great Pyramid is the largest in Giza and is 481 feet high. Khufu's son, Pharaoh Khafre, built the second pyramid at Giza in 2520 B.C. His necropolis also included the Sphinx, a mysterious limestone monument with the body of a lion and a pharaoh’s head. It is said that the head was modelled on Khafre. His pyramid, though smaller than his father’s, seems bigger because he built it on a hilly area. He did not want to show disrespect to his father but also could not resist his need for fame. The third of the Giza Pyramids is considerably smaller than the first two, built by Pharoah Menkaure in 2490 B.C. Giza allows us to explore a long-vanished world. Tarek told us that excavations were going on all the time, the next exciting discovery always around the corner.

Soon, it got too hot to continue on our pyramid trail. We had had enough of the energy of Amun-Ra. So it was a welcome change when we were taken to a shop where Papyrus art was displayed. It was such a relief to be offered guava juice and given a demonstration on how the papyrus plant was used to make delicate creations from the dried thinly sliced parts of the stalks. While Tarek saw to it that we were up to date with information, Fahad took our photos, asked us to watch our steps and mind our heads as he replenished our water supply.

Our next visit was to the national museum where Tarek elaborated on Tutankhamun and his tomb, which was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter after a relentless pursuit of six years. Tutankhamun died at a young age. And though he was not known to have done much that was noteworthy during his short lifetime, his tomb, his mummy and his treasures made him well-known in posterity. We saw artefacts, jewellery and utensils dating back to more than 2000 BC.

From the comfort of our local travel van, we couldn’t help noticing the way drivers manoeuvred on the bustling roads. It felt like we were back in India. The chaos in some parts of our cities and towns is the same. The carefree, nonchalant attitude on the roads is a part of everyday life in Egypt. Traffic rules are treated as though they don’t exist. Tarek brought all of this to our notice. And as we squirmed uneasily, he promptly assured us that our driver Ashraf was a careful chap and that we were in safe hands.

There were a lot of unfinished buildings and apartment complexes everywhere. We could see that most of them were occupied from the clothes drying in their balconies and smoke wafting out of their kitchens. Some even had air-conditioners installed. But the buildings seemed incomplete. They were not painted and there was exposed metal sticking out from the roofs. We were told that this was done on purpose to evade or reduce taxes — the buildings were declared unfinished.

The next morning we flew to Luxor to join our cruise ship. This was the moment we were all waiting for. We spent four nights on board Movenpick’s Royal Lily. Wading through the Nile, the longest river in the world, is a wonderful and time-tested way to explore Egypt. Nile is the primary water source of Egypt and Sudan. From our flight before landing and after taking off, we saw the river like a long silver line winding its way through the land, glittering in the sun. For eons, travellers have sailed the vast extent of the world’s longest river. For us, finding unexpected sights of river life was every bit as exciting as visiting the tombs and temples on the way.

 

 

On the ship in the lobby and especially on the deck, I didn’t know where to look first being surrounded by bobbing waves. Nothing is predictable here. My head reeled from one side to the other as my eyes caught fascinating sights. One second you might be admiring a solitary fisherman rowing slowly home at sunset, oars slicing through the water. The next moment some men are pulling their motorboats against your cruise ship, throwing bags of towels, sheets and scarves through your windows or up on the deck hoping to make a sale. They call out ‘hello, hello’ to catch our attention and before you know it a bag has fallen near your feet and you’re involved in heated negotiations. Though I didn’t get drawn into it, I enjoyed the loud banter between other passengers and the boatmen, the din of their voices blending with the murmurs of the water.

On the deck at dawn the breeze felt clean and fresh. I watched the scenes shift from green foliage on the riverbanks to brown, dry and dusty landscape. We saw so many different kinds of birds, some sitting still on rocks as if meditating and some flying back home in flocks. It was soothing and magical. From the ship or from the van that we used to go to see the temples, we got daily glimpses of children waving at us, colourful bougainvillea flowers creeping over walls, elderly men sitting on plastic chairs in the blazing sun, enjoying their morning tea and shisha pipes, long stretches of fields stuffed with cotton, sugarcane and wheat, thatched mudhouses, snatches of prayer sounds from the distant minaret glowing in the light of dusk.

After we embarked on an exploration of Luxor, our first halt was at Karnak temple, which enshrines Amun-Ra in a sun-drenched monument with intricately carved massive pillars. Our guide for Luxor, Ahmad, speaking haltingly in a loud, clear voice, saw to it that we grasped every fascinating detail. We were taught the word ‘meshi’. Ahmad told us that it meant ‘OK’ in Egyptian. It had a couple of other meanings too. Whenever he ended a narration with a resounding “meshi”, we had to respond in chorus.

The massive scale of this ancient temple, with its giant obelisks and statues, made me feel a sense of timeless wonder. Explaining the natural symbolism inherent in several facets of the temple, Ahmad told us that the 134 columns in the hall represent palm trees, the floor represents the River Nile, the pylons are mountains and the ceiling shows Egypt’s night sky, full of stars.

 

Alexander the Great, who is known to have showed great interest in the culture and architecture of this country, is said to have meditated in its temples and learnt about its ancient religion and modes of worship. He was eventually given permission to contribute to the architecture of some of the temples.

 

The elegantly lit Luxor temple, next, was a stunning experience during the evening hours. The perfectly carved hieroglyphics at the temple were brought in striking relief in the dusk light. The shadows cast by the pillars and statues took us to another world. This temple is also mainly dedicated to Amun-Ra, along with gods Mut and Khonsu — the Triad of Thebes. At the entrance are two enormous statues of Ramses II, one of the last pharaohs to have had work done on this temple, in seated position. As we gazed at carvings of people clapping, beating drums, dancing and performing acrobatics, Ahmad’s narrative transported us to that world and brought the scenes alive for us. He pointed out that four religions existed in the region today, introduced during different eras in the long history of the site. While the temple itself is dedicated to ancient Egyptian gods, the space within is dotted with broken pillars that had belonged to a church for Coptic Christians, in one corner are remains of frescoes belonging to the Roman Imperial cult, and the Abu El Haggag mosque sits on the top section of the temple’s ruins.

Exhausted from all this sun-struck sight-seeing, the next day we decided to take it easy, simply stay on the ship and enjoy our cruise. We allowed ourselves the freedom of just sitting on the deck, sipping tea, watching the waves and the passing scenery while we sailed to Edfu.

The next morning, we set off quite early on horse carriages to visit the Temple of Edfu. But not before engaging in a lot of haggling with a throng of drivers dressed in long robes at the gate. Once our guide assigned each couple to a carriage, we went clip-clopping on our way to the temple of Edfu.

One of the best preserved temples in Egypt, with antechambers, halls, and an inner sanctuary to explore, the giant site still contains the polished-granite shrine that once held a gold statue of Horus, the falcon god. Egyptians considered falcons ethical and noble because they didn’t eat dead flesh. Surprisingly, there is actually a labaratory of sorts inside the temple, where herbal medicines were prepared. As the myth goes, Horus protected the kings and queens of Egypt, always hovering above and swooping down to help whenever there was trouble. If you are planning on visiting this remarkable site, you should do so in a leisurely manner. There’s so much to see and drink in, particularly the wall carvings.

Sheer tiredness prevented us from visiting the Valley of the Kings, and we were forced to satisfy ourselves with a documentary on it aboard the ship. The movie focussed on the discovery of Tutenkhamun’s tomb by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922, set in the panoramic valley where the main excavations were done.

 

 

As we sailed from Edfu to Kom Ombo to see the special “double temple” of Horus and Sobek, the crocodile god, Ahmad remarked that a Nile cruise wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t pay homage to the crocodiles. This section of the Nile was infested with vicious crocodiles prevented locals from using the water to wash or cook. The temple was a way of placating the reptiles. There’s two of everything in equal measure — from courts and halls to sanctuaries — in this temple so as to accord equal regard to both deities.

We had lunch on board the ship and continued sailing to Aswan, the greenest part of the Nile. Ahmad happened to be from near Aswan, and very proud of his town, where he was born and brought up. After having pointed out the school he had studied in, he took us to the Aswan dam, which is considered Egypt’s “protection against hunger”. The project to build it was first approved and supported by the United Kingdom and the United States. But when they withdrew their agreement, Egypt turned to the Soviet Union for help, which took on the task in January 1960 and completed it in 1970. There was a consequent formation of an artificial lake called Lake Nasser. A monument was erected there in the shape of a budding lotus flower as a tribute to the Soviet Union.

 

Here’s an interesting aside. In the quarry near the dam lies an ancient unfinished Obelisk. It was ordered to be constructed by queen Hatshepsut (1508–1458 BC), possibly to complement the one at Karnak that was later transported to Rome. The unfinished Obelisk is nearly one-third larger than any ancient Egyptian Obelisk ever erected. It remained unfinished because it was made from a faulty granite block. The ancient Egyptians placed pairs of obelisks at the entrances of their temples. The columns were associated with Amun-Ra, and perhaps represented rays of light.

The next day evening was our flight back to Cairo. We made use of the morning by going to the Temple of Philae and later to a Nubian village.

When we arrived at the temple we were in for a surprise. Our guide informed us that we hadn’t come to Philae island but at another island called Agilikia, where now the temple stands. You might find yourself staring at Philae Temple, but not in the place where it originally was. The original two islands known collectively as Philae lie buried beneath the still waters of Lake Nasser, an unavoidable consequence of the Aswan High Dam. When the original low dam in Aswan was constructed, the rising waters of Lake Nasser flooded the island on which the temple stood, along with much of the temple itself. Knowing that the temple would be completely lost as a result of the Aswan High Dam, a massive UNESCO project got underway and the temple was moved to higher ground on nearby Agilkia Island. This achievement in itself makes the area worth visiting.

 

 

Standing amid the columns of the temple, it really is mind-boggling to think that the entire complex was actually moved and then reconstructed. Isis, the goddess of that temple, has been being worshipped over the centuries by Egyptians, Nubians, Romans and Greeks. Her healing powers made her popular. She became the protector of the kings and the people. The worship of Isis faded alongside the rise of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries CE.

The temple is a huge complex of monuments, pillars, facades, statues and intricate carvings with a lot of Greek and Roman influence in the architecture. Alexander the Great, who is known to have showed great interest in the culture and architecture of this country, is said to have meditated in the temples and learnt about its ancient religion and modes of worship. He was eventually given permission to contribute to the architecture of some of the temples.

Our visit to the Nubian village was the highlight of that day and the grand finale of our trip. A splash of colour greeted us as soon as we got off the boat — every building, every house we encountered on the way had a riot of hues and patterns on them. Ahmad took us to a typical Nubian house. I fell in love with it. Every wall spoke to us with the beautiful scenery sketched and painted on it. The paintings signified their life in and around their village. This home where we went had sand all over the floor. What came as an astounding surprise was that they had crocodiles in a cage in their living room. Our attractive hostess took out a baby crocodile from inside, tied its mouth with a ribbon, and gave it to some of the brave souls among us to hold. I was not one of them.

We were offered hibiscus tea and some snacks by our hosts and we left to go to a Nubian school to have a lesson in their numbers. Our teacher made us repeat all the numbers many times. Our poor memory did not allow us to retain those alien sounds. But we had a lot of fun. With that we came to the end of our rapturous trip. Not one moment was dull. It was an ongoing trail of joy.

One evening, we had an Egyptian-themed party on the ship, where we were encouraged to wear the decorative glittery Egyptian long robes. Some of us did and looked stunning. The night before that there was belly dancing and other Egyptian dances. We also witnessed the opening of the lock in the river to even out the water level. It was fascinating to watch as we stood on the decks and the gates were graduallly opened. That was utterly fascinating. We left the ship filled belly full with these fabulous memories and special moments.

We were back in Cairo that evening where we had a wonderful Indian meal before heading back to our hotel. The next morning we said our goodbyes and left one by one to our destinations, promising to come together for yet another memorable trip.

Meshi! And Shukran Egypt!

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