The Nile River with its fertile banks weaving north through the sun scorched desert evokes a powerful image of Egypt’s connection to the land on which early civilization permanently chronicled their existence. While seemingly in contrast, the Nile and the desert it divides are intertwined as two of the most powerful symbols to represent the sustaining and cultivating of life since before written history. Ancient Egyptians respected both the unrelenting sun and the great waters of the river that each possessed the power to sustain and deprive.
The much revered sun was represented by one of the most important Egyptian gods, Ra (later Amun-Re), who was said to have created life. The five stages of the sun’s daily journey as it blazes across the sky also symbolized human development and progress throughout a lifetime. Similar to the sun, the Nile River held significance in the lives of both the Egyptians and their gods. In the prominent capital of Thebes (present-day Luxor), it was the river that divided the living on the East Bank from the dead on the West Bank. Just as the sun had phases, the Nile underwent a phase of annual flooding that ensured fertile soil for agriculture in this arid climate.
It was fitting to begin our Egypt trip in Cairo where we witnessed the antiquities of the Old Kingdom contrasted with an evolving modern society, but our visit would not have been complete without our time on the Nile River. Travelling through Upper Egypt (i.e. southern Egypt) along this life-sustaining river enabled us to better understand how civilization has endured thousands of years through its connection to the land and water, but also what that connection will look like in the future.
We immediately noticed a difference from Cairo upon our arrival at the Aswan airport. Our driver, Michael reaffirmed our observation that Aswan is much calmer than Cairo – not all that unsurprising for a city with a population of just over 300,000 versus metropolitan Cairo’s 20 million people. A 10+ hour drive, 12+ hour train ride, or 1+ hour flight from Cairo, Aswan is situated in southern Egypt on the banks of the Nile. It is an ideal place to start a Nile River cruise as there are a plethora of archaeological sites and monuments to visit in the area before your boat even sets sail.
Reaching the river and boat docks, we followed Michael as he boarded the ship closest to land, but to our surprise continued walking through the lobby of this boat and out the door on the other side. Instead of falling off the side of the ship, he crossed a gangplank and walked straight into the lobby of the next ship over. This being our first river cruise, we learned that when docked, the ships line up parallel to one another with a gangplank extended between the boats so guests simply pass through the lobbies of the other boats until they reach their own. Our boat always seemed to be the last one in the row; at one port we crossed six other boats to access the shore.
Michael got us checked in and provided us with some useful information before disembarking and explaining that our own tour guide would meet us later. On account of this leg of our trip being booked through a tour company, Egypt Best Holiday, we didn’t have all the details of our accommodations, the tour size, or scheduling. Michael did inform us that we were travelling on a boat whose passengers were predominantly German retirees. We confirmed this with a quick glimpse of the sun bathers on the upper deck and wondered how we had ended up aboard this particular vessel.
Sitting on the upper deck chatting with our newly introduced guide, Talaat, we learned that we would in fact have another person joining our group. Elyse arrived soon after and we hit it off right away, thankful that we would have plenty to talk about with our fellow American traveler. We sipped on mango juice and chatted for a while that afternoon while we awaited our departure from the ship for our first round of touring. Our first stop of our Nile River tour was the Aswan High Dam, which replaced the much smaller and older Aswan Low Dam. Built in the 1960s, the High Dam regulates the flow of the river waters for purposes of protecting the valuable agricultural industry, by both preventing flooding and minimizing the risk of drought through increased storage capacity of water for later irrigation. It’s an impressive 3km long and as a result of its construction, the massive reservoir of Lake Nasser was created to the south. Lake Nasser stretches all the way into Sudan where it is called Lake Nubia, making it one of the largest manmade lakes in the world. The dam was not built without controversy though and the creation of Lake Nasser displaced hundreds of thousands of Nubian people who are indigenous to the region and whose long history is intertwined with Egypt’s pharaonic era. The creation of the reservoir also necessitated the dismantling and relocation of a number of ancient temples that otherwise would have been submerged. We were fortunate to have to the opportunity to visit two of these temples that were salvaged and relocated during the successful UNESCO Nubia Campaign.
The first of these relocated temples that we visited was the Philae Temple. Accessible only by boat, we purchased our tickets onshore as Talaat flagged a driver and we boarded our second boat of the day that would take us to Agilkia Island where the Philae Temple has resided since the 1970 completion of the High Dam.
Our transportation to the Philae Temple + Philae Temple from Lake Nasser
Egyptian temples were built by pharaohs as sacred places to worship the gods and also to commemorate themselves, as gods on Earth. The gods to whom the temples were dedicated were represented in the form of a trinity, with a principal deity and two accompaniments. In the case of the Philae Temple, Isis was the primary deity to whom the temple was dedicated, which is illustrated through sculpted pillars and carvings on the walls. Most of what remains of the temple today was constructed in the 7th or 6th century BC during Egypt’s Ptolemaic era, which means it was “more modern” than the pyramids we saw the previous day. We disembarked on the island and Talaat provided us with background information on the temple before we were left to explore on our own.
Elyse, Dan, and I were walking around the outside of the temple when an armed guard approached us and asked where we were from. We said the US and in response he beckoned for the three of us to follow him so he could show us “something”. We declined his offer multiple times, but he persisted so we followed in his direction but at a distance so as make clear our disinterest. Up ahead of us, he pointed to a set of stairs descending into a dark alcove. He waited until we were within earshot and then directed us to descend these stairs in order to see the Nile River and its water line. Not enthused about exploring this shadowy nook, but also wary of following the directions of an armed guard, I acknowledged the sight from further away before we turned to walk away. Not unsurprisingly though, I heard him ask for baksheesh. Annoyed that we didn’t ask to be guided in the first place, I sternly turned around and told him “No baksheesh, we have a guide already.” To his credit, he didn’t ask again and we continued on our way. Reflecting on this encounter, while I didn’t feel threatened by the guard, denying a request of payment to someone of authority who is armed with a rifle, and is more than likely accustomed to getting his way with tourists, isn’t exactly comforting. Fortunately, our time in Cairo had reinforced our understanding that skepticism and conviction were more prudent than blind trust and timidity when touring in Egypt, and so altogether the experience wasn’t as off-putting for me.
Back on the boat that evening, after dinner we enjoyed sitting on the top deck and chatting with Elyse before calling it a night in order to get some sleep before our early morning visit to Abu Simbel the next day. For the second day in a row, our alarms went off before 4 AM, and by 4:15 AM, the three of us had met our driver and were sleepily situated in his car with our breakfast boxes in hand. We bid a see you later to Talaat who was neither guiding us on tour of Abu Simbel nor joining us for the seven hour roundtrip car ride. With the fertile banks of the Nile behind us, we commenced the trek across the expansive and monotonous desert in the pitch black under a star-filled sky. I can’t remember the last time I was able to witness so many brilliant stars illuminating the clear night sky. Not unsurprisingly though, it wasn’t long before I fell asleep. I awoke briefly to watch from the backseat as the sun rose over the never-ending orange dunes of the Western Desert. Not for the first or last time, I was reminded of our Cairo guide, Nahla’s, explanation of the ancient Egyptian’s connection between the sun defining not only the stages of a day, but also one’s life.
We were stirred from our naps and desert dazes when our driver pulled off the road at the rest stop and quietly directed us to the toilets, indicating this was a good, if not the only, place for a break. We were the second car at the stop when we arrived, but by the time we pulled away, the parking lot was packed with groggy tourists emerging from vans and buses all headed to the common destination of Abu Simbel.
We arrived at the Abu Simbel temples around 7:45 AM where our “substitute” guide met us at the car and provided some initial instructions before we purchased our tickets and headed onto the grounds. Wisely, he directed us to go directly into the Ramses II Temple before the impending arrival of the crowds, and then explained that he would meet us afterwards in order to provide additional context and usher us into the Nefertari Temple.
The Abu Simbel Temples of Ramses II and Nefertari
The Pharaoh Ramses II had the temples built to commemorate not only the gods he worshipped, but also himself and his beloved wife, Queen Nefertari. Strategically located within the Nubian empire (controlled by Egypt at this time), his temple was adorned with four very large statues of himself that were intended to showcase the power of the pharaoh to those entering the kingdom from the south. By no accident, the eastward alignment of the entrance to the Ramses II Temple allowed the light of the rising sun to shine directly into its innermost sacred sanctuary twice a year, illuminating three of the four statues on the back wall – one of which was Ramses II. The statue of the god Ptah remained in the shadows on account of his connection to the underworld. The days of illumination are thought to correspond to significant events in the life of Ramses II – his birthday and coronation.
Close up of Nerfarti for scale + Close up of Ramses II for scale
A couple photos from the interior of the temples
Both temples of Abu Simbel are amazing, but what astounded me the most was wrapping my head around the fact that this was not their original location and they had been relocated to this site to avoid submergence under the manmade Lake Nasser. The multinational effort to salvage these temples took four years, which after seeing the carvings, depictions, and statues of the temple interiors, is, in my opinion, as amazing as the original construction feat. The three of us agreed that the venture to Abu Simbel was well-worth the long haul.
Appreciative of our pleasant, non-English speaking driver’s stamina over the course of the seven hour drive, during which he did not listen to the radio or carry on a conversation to pass the time, we thanked him when he dropped us off at the Unfinished Obelisk back in Aswan. The three of us headed inside the site of the former granite quarries, where shortly thereafter we met Talaat and our friendly new, Canadian travel companion, Brian – another fantastic addition to our small touring group. The Unfinished Obelisk, while not attracting the same attention as other monuments in the area, is astonishing because of the evidence it offers. At more than 3,500 years old, this obelisk was abandoned on account of a fracture in the rock, but is still the best representation of how these massive monoliths were carved directly from the bedrock prior to their transportation down the Nile.
The Unfinished Obelisk in Aswan
Back on our now sailing ship in time for lunch, we had some down time to relax on the sunny boat deck while the Nile passed by – a nice reward after a very early morning. We arrived at our next stop in the early evening and departed from the ship for our nighttime tour of the Temple of Kom Ombo.
Like the Philae Temple from the day before, the Temple of Kom Ombo is from the “more modern” Ptolemaic era with construction starting in the 1st century BC. However, it is unique in that it was dedicated to two separate trinities. Instead of the usual dedication to only one trinity of gods, Kom Ombo is split into two perfectly symmetrical halves with one side of the temple being dedicated to the trinity under the main god Sobek, the crocodile-headed god, and the other to the trinity under the main god Haroeris, the falcon-headed god.
Kom Ombo Temple night visit
Also of interest at the temple is the first known engraving that references medical and surgical equipment. The engraving is found on one of the outer passageways of this temple that at one time would have been used as a place of medicine/ healing. Just aside from the grand pillars of the temple is the Crocodile Museum containing mummified crocodiles of varying sizes. Long-time inhabitants of the banks of the Nile, these animals were revered as hosts of the spirit of the crocodile god Sobek.
Engraving at Kom Ombo depicting surgical equipment + Mummified crocodile museum
Our ship was scheduled to set sail again that evening, and due to a miscommunication, we barely made it aboard before it embarked. There are no longer crocodiles north of the Aswan dam, but I still wouldn’t have liked to swim the river to catch up to the ship (just kidding they were keeping tabs on passengers’ whereabouts). Safely aboard and accounted for, the four of us foreigners bonded by sharing travel stories before being treated to a delicious dinner and selection of desserts inspired by local and regional cuisine. My favorite dessert of our time on the ship was the freshly made kanafeh served that evening. Exhausted from a full day of touring, we slept well aboard our northward moving ship that night, and when we awoke the next morning, we had arrived in Edfu.
Prior to our arrival in Edfu, I had expressed some trepidation to Talaat upon being told that we would arrive at our morning temple tour via a horse carriage ride through the city. Having seen the gruesome injuries of the horses at the Pyramids of Giza, we expressed our reluctance to Talaat but he explained that the treatment of the horses was better here and this prearranged transport was the quickest way to get to the temple. When we disembarked our ship at 5:15 AM, the horse carriages were already waiting and with no other option, we climbed aboard and met our driver, Mustafa, and his horse, Aziza. The treatment of Aziza did seem better and thanks to our quick transport, we were the first guests to enter Edfu Temple that morning.
Our carriage ride through Edfu
Inside the temple, Talaat explained the dramatic and everlasting conflict between Horus and Set, nephew and uncle, respectively. These are two of the more widely recognized Egyptian gods who competed for dominance, as told in the story depicted in great detail across the walls of Edfu Temple. At one point in the story, Talaat explained the cutting of another god, Osiris, into 14 pieces, which Brian wisely pointed out, sounded a lot like Voldemort’s horocruxes in Harry Potter (10 points for Gryffindor).
A depiction of the raising of obelisks + An empty cartouche during a time of high turnover of pharaohs (the builder left the cartouche empty as the pharaoh was unknown)
Back on the boat in time for our first breakfast not eaten out of a box in a few days, we set sail once more for Luxor. We remained on board for a good portion of the day and watched from the upper deck as the boat stopped in Esna at the touristic bazaar, allowing me to wade in the shallow pool after it was vacated by the other souvenir-seeking passengers. Just before lunch, our ship passed through the Esna Lock where we were greeted by local salesmen. The lock itself works just as any other does, but the floating salesmen who work these waters have a unique approach. We watched several boats row towards ours, at which point they started shouting to get our attention and then hurled towels up to the top deck with the hopes that us passengers would throw money down in return to complete the sale. While filming our arrival at the lock, Dan barely managed to duck in time to avoid being pegged by a projectile towel. Most interestingly, these floating salesmen were somehow well aware of the high proportion of German tourists aboard our ship, because they shouted “Claudia” and “Heidi” to attract the attention of the very amused German women aboard.
Video from the boat as we approached the lock and travelling salesmen
Arriving at our final port in the late afternoon, we disembarked in Luxor for more evening temple tours. Starting at the Karnak Temple, we were thrilled that our visit coincided with sunset as this meant less crowds and beautiful lighting. When standing amongst ancient ruins in a modern day archaeological site, it’s oftentimes challenging to envision the grandeur of the place that once was. That was simply not the case for Karnak Temple. The temple complex encompasses 250 acres (of which the largest precinct is open to the public) and saw 30 pharaohs contribute to the construction that began in earnest around 1500 BC. Majestic by day, entrancing at sunset, and imposing after dark, the temple complex is located in what was once known as Thebes, the prominent capital of Egypt during the Middle and New Kingdoms. Like Memphis, Thebes no longer exists, but it is because of this city’s significance to Egyptian royalty, that in present-day Luxor you’ll find impressive temples on the East Bank of the Nile where the sun rises, and grandiose tombs of pharaohs on the West Bank of the Nile where the sun sets.
Karnak Temple column and obelisks
Dedicated to Amun-Re, the prominent god of sun and air during Egypt’s New Kingdom, Karnak Temple is one of the best places to understand how revered the sun was in ancient Egypt and the power that it still holds as the vivid colors of a desert sunset streak between the towering pillars of the Great Hypostyle Hall. A total of 134 massive and intricately designed columns supported the roof of this hall when it was completed. While the roof is no longer intact and the inscriptions and colors on the columns are worn, it’s not difficult to imagine just how captivating it would have been to step foot in this temple during one of the annual celebrations or ceremonies carried out here.
Another after-dark tour with Talaat awaited us at the Luxor Temple, which in ancient times was linked with Karnak Temple via a 3km sphinx-lined road used only once a year for a festival procession. The present-day excavation and restoration of this roadway and the sphinxes required the relocation of residents, buildings and a church, but there are plans to re-open the Avenue of the Sphinxes in the future.
Standing at the feet of the Ramses II statues guarding the Luxor Temple entrance, visitors can also witness the intermingling of beliefs and cultures with symbolism from four different religions present on site today. In addition to the prevalent references to the ancient Egyptian gods, there are remains of a Coptic Christian church, evidence of a pagan religion from the Roman time, and even an active mosque located within the temple. A convergence of cultures is found within the shrine dedicated to Alexander the Great, the Greek king who conquered Egypt in 332 BC, and is depicted worshipping the Egyptian fertility god on one of the walls.
Photos from the interior of Luxor Temple
On the last day of our Nile River tour, we checked out of the cruise and headed to the West Bank of Luxor for our first stop at the Colossi of Memnon while on our way to the remote and barren Valley of the Kings. Why a burial site for the New Kingdom elite and royalty amongst the sand dunes in the middle of the desert? Egyptian royalty prepared for the all-important afterlife by not only filling their tombs with ordinary goods that would be of use to them, but also treasures like jewelry and gold (think King Tut’s golden burial mask). The prevalence of tomb robbery necessitated discretion and unmarked burials, unlike the earlier pyramids, which were rather obvious indicators of a royal burial. Nonetheless, the only tomb to have been discovered untouched, and therefore intact, by archaeologists was that of the boy King Tut.
The Valley of the Kings + Transport from ticket office to tombs
While the 63 known tombs in the Valley of Kings may not look like much from the outside, a few steps down into the well-illuminated tunnel and you are immediately submersed in walls of exquisite artwork that lead you further into the cavernous burial chamber. We visited three of the tombs open to the public and while they vary in size and plan, what they did have in common is that all contents had been removed previously – the goods from the burial and also the mummies, some of which are in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. In the Valley of the Kings, only the tomb of King Tut’s contains his mummy, which we did not visit as it required a separate ticket and we were told that the tomb itself is not as impressive given the expediency with which it was constructed on account of the sudden death of the boy king.
The artwork inside the tombs was well-preserved
Our final stop on the West Bank was at Dayr al-Bahri to visit the Temple of Hatshepsut, my personal favorite pharaoh. Hatshepsut was the first documented female ruler to attain the full power of the pharaoh. Her 21 year reign was a time of prosperity for the kingdom but was not without controversy. Succeeding rulers, including her stepson Thutmose III, attempted to obscure her from records. The walls of her temple that did survive defacing by priests and later rulers depict her successful trade expeditions on the Red Sea and her divine birth on account of her undisputed royal bloodline.
The depictons of Hatshepsut’s trades on the temple walls + The Hathor column at the temple
Our final shared meal of the tour was ashore before we parted ways with our tour companions, saying good-bye to Talaat, Elyse, and Brian. We felt grateful to have had the luck of touring with and getting to know such wonderful fellow travelers and hope our travel plans bring us together again in the future.
Our wonderful touring group of Dan, me, Brian, and Elyse
The rest of our last day in Luxor was spent relaxing at the Hilton Luxor hotel. Its beautiful outdoor pool overlooked the Nile River so I was able to swim laps before we watched the sunset and dined just feet from the river. I now fully understand why people enjoy visiting Luxor so much and we regretted not staying one more day before returning to the chaos of Cairo.
Our return trip to Cairo was memorable on account of our chance encounter with fellow American travelers with whom we passed the time while waiting for our delayed flight. We met Tuan and Oanh at the airport ticket counter after they asked where we were from, to which we replied the US, and they responded that they were from Colorado Springs. What ensued was a couple hours long conversation with this charismatic couple wherein we traded travel and life stories. Consistent with our earlier sentiments on touring with Elyse and Brian, we parted ways with Tuan and Oanh in Cairo feeling fortunate to have encountered wonderful and interesting fellow travelers in a place renowned for feats of human connection and achievement.
As we headed back to Brussels a couple days later, I reflected on the evolving Egyptian connection to the land and Nile River waters. As is the case in many parts of the world, access to water in this sun-drenched and arid region presents a significant challenge. The Nile doesn’t only cross Egypt – its basin flows through or borders eleven countries whose citizens rely on its life-giving waters for agriculture, transportation, and sustenance. Integral to civilization for thousands of years, and crucial to continued development and progress in the region now, the Nile continues to be a contentious resource in the region. The Nile River allocation is an issue that impacts hundreds of millions of lives and is made even more complex by factors such as the influence of foreign investment in Sudanese farming, new dam construction in Ethiopia, and Egypt’s economic dependence on Nile tourism. As was the case for thousands of years of ancient Egypt’s history, innovative methods of construction and communication will need to be sourced in order to overcome provocative political disputes amongst countries with competing interests.
During our visit, I had learned how ancient Egyptians fused connections between seemingly opposing forces like the Nile river waters and the sun, or life and death. It was impactful for me to consider these connections alongside ongoing cooperative efforts to address this polarizing subject in a way that can be mutually beneficial for all members of this region. For me, our time in Egypt was a truly eye opening experience as it allowed me to not only experience ancient history, but also understand the connections to our modern world.