The ancient Pharaohs were preoccupied with death while in life; in 1937 fictional British crime writer Agatha Christie penned the famous tome, Death on the Nile at the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan. I didn’t need Hercule Poirot’s logical mystery solutions on my Mirage 1 luxury Nile riverboat voyage between Luxor and Aswan and back to discover Life On The Nile.
Two week long cruises are once again planned between Cairo and Aswan after the Egyptian revolution; the cruises were suspended because of possible security risks. My sojourn on the Nile ran a week, four days from Luxor to Aswan and three days on the return, but passengers can opt for a one way trip, in either direction, and they are guaranteed an exciting discovery of Life on the Nile. I engaged the exceptional services of Great Safaris (www.greatsafaris.com) to handle all my itinerary because the experienced adventure company employs its own Egyptologists for the land tours of the Ptolomeic-era temples at Edfu and Kom Ombo, and the tour operator has a vested interest in the Mirage 1 luxury riverboat.
Life On The Nile on the Mirage 1.
After a welcome aboard cocktail in Luxor I met the gracious ship manager Ehab, and later my private Egyptologist, Abdul, who grew up in Aswan. Egyptologists spend four years in higher education studying the history and culture of Egypt and in Abdul’s case, he can decipher the hieroglyphics and interpret the bas reliefs on the temple walls to bring Life On The Nile to life.
Reception at the Mirage 1.
Passengers overnight in Luxor on the Mirage 1 to give them the opportunity to visit the Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple, which in ancient times were connected by a two km long stone paved causeway called the Avenue of the Sphinxes; many guardian statues still loom over the ancient road. I highly recommend opting for the tours with your cruise because of the exceptional experience of Great Safaris and its Egyptian representative. Before we sailed from Luxor around noon the next day, Abdul takes us on a tour of the Valley of The Kings. Return soon to Jetsetters Magazine for a full length feature about Luxor’s New Kingdom archaeological sites.
I checked out of my superb 5-star Sonesta hotel and it was a short ride to Luxor’s Grand Corniche, a river park where the Mirage 1 is berthed across from the Luxor Temple. The Corniche is a great spot for strolling or for fine dining, and I noticed many families enjoying picnics in the grass in the shade of palms along the river bank. Pick up bottled water from the kiosks and hop aboard a traditional felucca boat for a few hours of sailing to witness Life On The Nile. Great Safaris and its representatives also own their own feluccas.
While sailing away from Luxor lunch was served in a single seating in the dining area where I met the galley manager, Sardik, and his good natured staff. The Australians onboard invited me as their dining mate during the trip, so of course it was a hearty “good day” along with the hearty lentil soup spiked yellow with saffron; I scooped onto my salad plate splendid fresh fruits and olives and sweet dates. The entrées served daily at the buffet station included sweet and fluffy pilaf rice grown in the Nile delta, chicken, fish, beef, and a different pasta dish daily. The desserts were a never ending combination of cakes, pies, tarts, and puddings, usually sprinkled with Egyptian grown coconut.
Riverboats at the Luxor Temple Corniche.
Since 2002 Life On the Nile luxury has been offered by the Mirage 1. A wide canvas bimini on the sundeck spans a square of shade over the wicker chairs and cocktail tables and I work on my Aussie accent over Stella and Sakkara beers and Rubis d’ Egypte rosé wine. Alcohol spirits are an additional charge, but I paid no heed, because I was witnesses Life On The Nile gliding by with more luxury than any Pharaoh's royal barge.
The verdant Nile river valley.
Hannah, the onboard Egyptian masseuse made the rounds to fill her appointment book, with time slots booking quickly. Hannah was a sunbeam of smiles, dressed in a pure white full length galabeya, with an Eye of Egypt necklace drapped over her neck. She was busy the entire voyage in the Massage Corner nook two decks down near the two computer internet station (satellite), and the jewelry and gift shop.
Egyptian massages by Hannah.
There are no longer any Nile crocodiles or hippos along the stretches of the river below the Aswan dam; young boys wade fearlessly from shore into the murky waters. Water buffalos munch the tender grass shoots in the shallows. Mud brick homes keep the residents cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Ancient and modern mosques pop out of the foliage like flower bulbs.
I order a mango juice and watch the kids splash in the sundeck pool while adults soaked in the Jacuzzi. A low slung cargo barge chugs up river with a load of coal, another of clover hay. The Nile is still the commerce thoroughfare of choice today as it was for thousands of years in the past.
A cargo barge transports clover hay.
At Esna boat merchants speed out to sell their wares; they toss the goods 30 feet in the air and they land on deck. If you don’t want to buy, just throw it back — of course there was plenty of negotiations bantered about for a bargain.
Boat merchants ply their wares.
I watched intently to see if our 30 meter wide party barge would slip beteen the locks at Esna, and it did, like a sock in a shoe. It had not rained in the area for over five years and unexpectedly a localized squall hung over our ship and spit droplets of dust marks on the deck and the air cleared the humidity. Arabic tunes soothed the sailing from the numerous speakers spiked to the lifeline posts.
There are no balcony rooms among the 60 cabins and two suites on the Mirage 1, but my stateroom offered a cocoon of pleasant air-conditioning with a wide picture window of Life On The Nile. The Pharaohs would have been amazed with the Mirage’s satellite TV that beamed world news, movies, and music.
The magnificent Edfu entrance.
We overnight in old Pharonic city of Edfu and that evening a galabeya costume contest was held in the lounge; the Aussies wore the traditonal loose flowing gowns with burnooses at dinner and later a belly dancer and Arabic band treated us with culture — such is Life On The Nile.
In 1862 Edfu was dug out of the Nile’s west bank sands and muck by the French. In the morning Victorian-style carriages take us for a short clip-clop to one of the best preserved and most significant temple complexes in Egypt, which was begun by Ptolemy III in 237 B.C. and completed by Ptolemy XII in 57 B.C. The Ptolemy rulers were thrust on the throne after Alexander the Great conquered the region and one of his four generals ruled Egypt after his death; the Greek lineage resulted in the Ptolomeic era which saw the construction of temples at Edfu, Dendera, Esna, Kom Ombo, and Philae.
Our Egyptian Ferrari.
Edfu’s pillared halls surrounded a large courtyard and barque sancturary with nine chapels along the side, all dedicated to the Falcon god Horus; ancient religious festivals honored him in the past. Early Christians viewed the temple as pagan and attempted arson of the hypostyle hall; blackened soot is still apparent on the ceiling. Edfu’s historical significance is chronicled on its walls and columns; Abdul uncovers the clues to the history, religion, beliefs, and myths of the Greco-Roman period of Egypt. A naos of Nectanebo II features a relic in the inner sanctuary. In 2006 interior lighting was added to allow night visits.
Edfu's pillared hall.
The Nile is the longest oasis in the world, with a quarter of its 4,000 mile length traversing Egypt. The Pharaohs’ auditors taxed the farmers yearly by how high the Nile flooded. Within the Edfu complex is an open stairway cut into the limestone floor that leads down to a seeping spur of the Nile, which flows close by. The higher the water mark the more the farmers were taxed.
There were only three seasons recognized in ancient times: the flood, the planting, and the harvest periods. In 1805 cotton was introduced to Egypt, before then the farmers grew flax for linen for their clothing, rope, and felucca sails. Domesticated agronomy sprung up along the Nile over 7,000 years B.C. about the same time as in the Mesopotamia. Egypt’s farmers grew rice and wheat, and later corn from the New World.
Abdul narrates about the significance of Edfu's Temple.
The symbol of life in ancient Egypt was the ankh cross which is often seen carved in the hands of the Pharaohs on the temple walls.
The ankh for the Egyptians was the annual Nile floods that sustained the agriculture Life On The Nile, the true wealth of the empire.
Fruits come into season in the summer, including sweet melons, lemons, cherries, and plums. About anything can be grown in Egypt, including tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, and okra, all finding their way to the dining table on the Mirage 1.
As we continued our cruise to Kom Ombo I noticed there were no fences between the farmers' land holdings, but I am assured by Abdul that small 20 cm high fences partition the land. There is no solid aquifer in Egypt, so farmers still rely on Nile floods when the waters from the Aswan High Fam are released. Every hectare of fertile Nile soil is growing something: limes, pomegranates, figs, dates, coconuts, spices and mint, nuts and beans; Egyptian bananas are small but sweet. The sugarcane fields seemed to be perpetually on fire, but the sweet cane is a big cash crop for the country in the European markets. Egyptian beef is more expensive to raise than imported beef, but if found on your plate, it is tender (clover fed) and lean and hormone free. Water buffalo handle the plowing in the delta, but small Kubota tractors are leased to Nile Valley family farmers during the planting season. Fishermen still cast nets from oar propelled wooden skiffs for Nile fish in the shallow reeds, but most plated fish for the tourism industry comes from Vietnam; sea bream and sea bass arrive fresh from the Mediterranean and I am delighted to find them on the Mirage’s menu.
Farmers live in mud brick homes.
We dock overnight at the ancient garrison town of Kom Ombo, 50 kms south of Aswan, on a gentle curve of the Nile. As in the past Kom Ombo is an agricultural city with concrete brick and sugarcane factory temples attesting to its modern means. A large solar collector array is planned for the area to employ more of its 60,000 citizens.
A riverboat berths at the Kom Ombo Temple.
The ancient Egyptians knew Kom Ombo as Nubt (Nubia), meaning City of Gold, because it controlled the trade routes of the Nile Valley and the Nubian gold mines south of Aswan. Many Nubians today call Kom Ombo their home. The Kom Ombo Temple is a Greco-Roman era temple built in the 2nd century B.C. by the Egyptians.
We debouched from the Mirage’s long aluminum gangway and Abdul led us on a short walk to the temple complex that casts its shadow over the Nile. The forecourt of the temple was constructed by the Romans. Kom Ombo is the only temple in Egypt that displayed an engraved calendar — the world’s first wall calendar! It is an Egyptian Coptic calendar; in Greek Coptic means black earth and Coptics can be Christian, Egyptian, Moslem, Greek, or Roman. I looked for a pinup, but found none carved into the limestone, but there was a bas relief of Sobek, the crocodile-headed god who is the patron of the magnificent site. The two temples of Ombos were constructed from rock from the quarries of nearby Hadjar-selseleh. The spectacular larger Kom Ombo Temple rests atop a sandy hillock.
Abdul explains the riddles in the glyphs.
There is a sort of temple blueprint carved into one wall; historians can now better understand its construction, however, unlike other Egyptian temples, there is no propylon or dromos in front of the two entrances, and the portico has an odd number of columns (15) in a triple row colonnade, with 13 of them still standing.
Sobek, the croc god.
What is so cool about Kom Ombo is that its chiseled works of art still retain their original vibrant colors; there were many Cleopatras who ruled Egypt during the Ptolomeic era, and Cleopatra VII lives on in the columnar galleries.
The only known inscriptions of Roman era medical and surgical instruments are found here, including scalpels, curettes, forceps, dilator, scissors, and medicine bottles dating from the days of Roman Egypt. One panel displays birthing Egyptian princesses. At one entrance is the only stone common folk sacrificial altar ever found in Egypt.
The crocodile was revered by the Ombos people and after our tour of the temple complex it was a short stroll to the modern air-conditioned museum housing a collection of mummified crocodiles. The crocs were respected, even on old Roman coins, but they dined occasionally on the local population, so they were fervently feared.
Near the museum are catacombs where no doubt some of those victims lie. On the river an old and functioning Nileometer still measures the flood waters that surely swept the crocs into the lower sections of the town on the west bank. In modern times Pope John Paul II was the bishop of Ombi before he became Archbishop of Krakow.
The Roman era forecourt with Kom Ombo Temple in back.
Cartouche is the French word for “bullet” because often the Pharaoh’s name was inscribed inside the oval ring that resembled a cartridge; only Pharaohs were allowed a cartouche but the Mirage’s jewelry staff can engrave a cartouche on a necklace with your name in hieroglyphics in plated gold for about $225 USD.
Riverboats have been plying the tourist trade on the Nile since Victorian times, and in Aswan the old wooden hulled steamship, the Sudan, is berthed at the refurbished Old Cataract Hotel, now a Sofitel property; the Sudan served as the floating movie set in the 1970s film, Death On The Nile, starring Lauren Bacall.
The Mirage captain on the bridge.
Our exclusive Mirage 1 riverboat was no mirage when it came to its modern amenities: individually climate controlled air conditioning in the state rooms; great reception on the SatTV, private baths with shower and hair dryer, mini bar, safe deposit box, international lines on the room phone system, library,billiard table, and an onboard hairdresser, with laundry on call.
Our last day of touring in Aswan (swan in Egyptian) saw Abdul directing the narratives at Philae, the Pearl of the Nile, and at the second largest dam in the world — Aswan, and on a tour of the unfinished obelisk. There are seven cataracts along the course of the Nile, but only one in Egypt, at Aswan, where the only granite in the country is found in the cracked and gnarly rubble fields where the ancient Egyptians carved out stone blocks and obelisks. If the unfinished obelisk had not cracked it would have been the tallest in the world.
The unfinished obelisk at Aswan.
In 1902 the British built the old Aswan dam out of granite block, with its modernized turbines supplying 3% of Egypt’s electricity today. The newer High Dam has 17 times the earth and rock fill as the Great Pyramid of Giza and supplies 17% of the power that lights up the Life on the Nile — or as the ancient Egyptians probably stated, the Ankh Of The Nile.
Cruise the Nile in style on the Mirage 1.
If you want to tour Egypt in style, I highly recommend Great Safaris’ Great Egyptian Discovery all-inclusive package that can be customized with different levels of accommodations and number of tours, but with all meals included. Great Safaris takes care of all the planning and logistics,including temple tickets (an option). Packages are priced on the level of accommodations and seasonality (I suggest springtime). Great Safaris’ Egyptian Security and Safety Guarantee ensures any traveler forced to prematurely leave Egypt will receive a 100% refund on the entire cost of their trip. Visit Great Safaris at www.greatsafaris.com and scroll through their tours; visit the Egypt Discovery Packages at http://www.greatsafaris.com/great-egyptian-discovery.html
— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine. Read the feature story, Cairo — Pyramids, Pharaohs, and Papyrus and then call Great Safaris to discover the Ankh of Life On The Nile.