It never quite goes away, the childhood obsession. This former bookish child can still rattle off whole ancestral trees of dinosaurs, recall production personnel from Doctor Who stories made, broadcast and gone AWOL before I was born, and make a decent stab at recalling Egyptian mythology. (Pondering this, I realised the common link: monsters.) As a boy, I was fascinated by it all: the pantheon of gods with the heads of lions, birds of prey, crocodiles; the monument-tombs for dead kings, laden with traps for the would-be grave robber; the written language like little comics, telling stories still bewitchingly decipherable to the almost untrained eye, millennia after they were etched.
Monuments are often smaller and drabber in real life, myths sometimes can’t withstand the searing sunlight of the modern world
Really, I should have visited Egypt years, decades ago: and yet on some level I think I was worried that the real thing could not live up to the world my impressionable imagination had conjured. Of this world, and yet other. Monuments are often smaller and drabber in real life, myths sometimes can’t withstand the searing sunlight of the modern world, and the rococo world of pictographs and gold masks and gigantic effigies might, in the intervening millennia, have faded and crumbled dishearteningly. Sometimes, as the old horror movies would attest, it’s better not to open up the tomb.
Oh, but I was wrong.
At various times, and by various evidently jaded people, I have been advised “not to bother” with the great wonders of the world: Machu Picchu, Uluru, and now the Great Pyramids. If you have such naysayers in your life, too, ignore them: whether manmade or natural, these sites are always staggering in their scale, their very existence, really. I spent a few days in Cairo, marvelling that you can walk around the bases of three vast pyramids grouped in startling proximity (and not just around: one enterprising company offers accommodation within one of the pyramids), and then in only few minutes be staring up at the titanic outstretched paws and colossal disfigurements of the Sphinx – the actual Sphinx! – with the pyramid of Khafre looming vast in the near background. The spectacle is almost a brag: not for Cairo a careful meting out of major archaeological attractions. Egypt overwhelms.
About as many people as have said “Don’t bother with the Sphinx, it’s underwhelming!” over the years have also said to me, “You should go on a cruise!” To the shy or less than gregarious among us, the cruise sounds like hell on water – I’ve gone to lengths to avoid it before – but to see as much of the Nile as possible, there’s really no alternative. The Sanctuary Sun Boat IV is more comfortably luxurious than lavish, which is perfectly reasonable when the point of being here is to get off the boat and see the splendour of Egypt.
Signs outside read “No Guiding”, “No Smoking”, and simply, if mystifyingly, “No”
A four-night voyage sets off from Aswan and tours leisurely north to Luxor, with daily trips inland by bus or horse and cart to temples and monuments, from the Temple of Philae, whose vast overhead horizontal stone supports show traces of royal blue, brick red and white pigment, to the Temple of Kom Omba, crammed with representations of Sobek, a god with the head of a crocodile, and the adjoining Museum of the Crocodile, in which crocs of various ages and sizes are taxidermied into positions of relaxed repose. Signs outside read “No Guiding”, “No Smoking”, and simply, if mystifyingly, “No”. The juxtaposition is telling: our ancestors associated the fauna around them with gods; our contemporaries seek to extirpate any of the world’s fauna that obstructs human pre-eminence, either directly or by unheedingly destroying their habitats, then bungs a few stuffed examples in museums to remind us what we once had.
Adding to the vertiginous scale of these sites and sights is their preternatural quietness. This was high summer 2021 and Egypt, like other countries who depend on tourism for their income, was in the doldrums. Throughout my trip, tour guides constantly gestured at the spaces where queues to visit temples would usually be hundreds-long, or indicated vacant cruise boats moored on the edges of the preternaturally quiet Nile. Again and again the refrain, which I’ll repeat: the lack of busyness at these major sites is unprecedented. Almost uncanny, then, to cross alone through shafts of dusty light in the Temple of Horus to peer into the greenish, silverish antechambers once stocked high with precious metals and perfumes (their ingredients lists graven into the storerooms’ walls), or to inspect without obstruction or jostling the replica solar boat in the burial chamber: the original sun boat, a kind of palanquin with a cowled snake for a figurehead.
Between trips there is plenty of scope for relaxation on the Sun Boat IV. Even instead of them: I am afraid I eschewed a jaunt to the Temple of Khnum on the third day in favour of treating my Scottish skin to the 105°F sunshine on the deck, with frequent dips in the on-deck swimming pool. (More conscientious passengers who did go reported that the removal of soot from the Khnum has revealed incredibly vivid colours on the temple, so it’s certainly worth ignoring my example.)
These other passengers were uniformly visiting from America – from states whose Covid travel restrictions were, at that time, the country’s loosest – and comparisons of the administrative hoops that had to be jumped through to get from country to country were a springboard for many conversations. No matter the country of origin, there was a general air of being happy – almost astounded – to be anywhere away from home. Whether families, groups of pals or honeymooners, almost everyone was making a multi-country trip and would, from Egypt, travel onwards to Petra, Jordan (“It’s the Indiana Jones place”, I was told when I asked what the big draw was). Almost everyone was marking a birthday or anniversary, so that every night the dinner brigade were pots-and-pans drumming a celebratory cake to one or more tables and evoking mixed reactions from the recipient that ranged from delighted surprise to, in one case, a visible desire for the deck of the Sun-Boat IV to open up and swallow the birthday boy whole.
Cakes and ceremonies aside, the food is straightforward – a little retro-feeling (“timbales”, a nightly soup course, Baked Alaska impressively but paradoxically sculpted into pyramid shape), but always adeptly cooked, and accompanied with a short but agreeable wine list featuring several very drinkable Egyptian wines, a nice discovery for me. There’s a cocktail lounge to socialise in, as well as an open-air deck under big shades at the boat’s stern. The Sun Boat IV has 36 regular cabins – comfortable, though small, and ambitiously fitting a shower cubicle and lavatory into a space the size of a wardrobe – as well as two presidential and two royal suites; the boat felt relatively full during my visit, but never crowded; mealtime table-sharing is encouraged but not mandatory. A screening room was showing (of course) Death on the Nile on the second night; on the penultimate, there was an Egyptian Theme Dinner which the others embraced as wholeheartedly – the onboard shop doing brisk trade in djellabas – as I cowered from it. Fortunately no-one went the whole gold facepaint and headdress Tutankhamun hog. Cultural appropriation nothing: I just don’t like to dress up. The website currently suggests a belly-dancing night accompanying one dinner, which Covid restrictions on mingling may have scuppered during my trip, and about that I cannot say I am ungrateful.
“Like nothing else” is an overused phrase, but I did think as we sailed along the Nile by day – its surprisingly linear banks lined with giant palms and cycads and other prehistoric-looking flora, behind which stood pylons, water towers, chimneys, low hills and dwellings, and a railway line from which the occasional passing train gave a mournful hoot of greeting – that the experience resembled nothing more than, well, sailing along the Nile. Hulloos erupted from towns we glided past (all but one, from which there issued Beatlemania-level screams of delight), while at a complicated watergate, enterprising traders implored cabindwellers to open their windows so merchandise could be hurled in, examined, and payment thrown back.
The big day on the tour is the fourth, with five locations around the Valley of Queens and Valley of Kings to tour before lunch – excavated tombs with long walkways down into the preserving sunless cool, the passageway walls dense with pictograms, their ceilings murals of star-crammed skies and worlds-transcending birds. Here I loitered deliberately until the dozen or so visitors who’d entered with me were returning to the entranceway, leaving me for a minute or two the only person in the whole place, like some custodian of the shattered remnants of the king’s massive sarcophagus. Me and the gods. All around the walls they towered – the arrestingly strange Khephri, dark-cloaked with a scarab beetle for a skull; Sekhmet, goddess of healing, a beatific lioness; hawk-headed Horus, king of the gods; Tawaret, a fertility goddess with the head, startlingly, of a hippo; their gold raiments, their flat impassive profiles, their hands upraised in greeting or challenge, their beatific eyes fixed on eternity.
Here and there some icons had been effaced (including the only representation of a domestic-type cat I noticed), a reminder that in due course the attempted erasure of histories itself becomes a part of the historical record. Permanence and impermanence were playing heavily on my mind at a time when much of what I’d been taking for granted in the world was shuttered or had simply vanished, and these serene figures – or what remained of them – were oddly reassuring, casting a geological-time perspective on a (then) eighteen-month disruption that would barely register as a blink of a god’s eye.
In the afternoon, two final temples: Karnak and Luxor. This last is a final vertiginous stunner, where within fortress walls numerous giant stone figures are arranged, standing or seated, 30 or 40 feet tall, between long passageways lined with still taller columns. Here there’s a weird and intriguing mix of architectural styles, with Corinthian columns and Islamic-style minarets among the extant structures, and wall engravings that look more Roman in style than the “classic” Egyptian hieroglyphics. Flecks of pigment older than the farthest roots in your family tree are still preserved here, ancient colour deep in the intricacies of carved frescoes – the minutest of ancient decoration embedded in the most gigantic of monuments.
When you’re small, everything seems gigantic. As you grow, the world begins to feel smaller – crisscrossed by flightpaths, familiarised on the small screen. Yet what I saw in Egypt was far bigger, grander, stranger than I could have hoped for. That won’t change. But for now, you can add another superlative: emptier.
To travel to Egypt now is the most winning of win-wins: by doing your little bit to help the country in its tourist-bereft, post-pandemic phase, you’re getting once in a lifetime opportunities to see the world’s most staggering sites and sights and relics at their least busy, unjostled by crowds. 2022 marks the centenary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and whatever you think of Egyptologists’ motives a hundred years ago, to see the (literally, for once) iconic gold death mask in Cairo, or to walk almost alone through the giant gods keeping watch over the ancient dead feels like a worthy commemoration. I cannot recommend a trip strongly enough. C
Neil Stewart travelled as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent, who offer a wide variety of Egypt tours, with bespoke itineraries and personal guides.