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Four Days on the Nile

Akhtar Sultana


Ramses II in Luxor Temple

Being students of history, my husband and I had always cherished a desire to visit historical places. Egypt had caught our fascination. We had read much about the Egyptian civilisation, about the great Pharaohs, the Egyptian culture and heritage. Our knowledge was limited to books only. The opportunity came, when my friend, Nasima Haider became our Ambassador to Egypt in late January of this year. I immediately emailed her saying that we would be her first house guests in the newly assigned country.

Egypt becomes very hot in April, and to avoid the desert heat, we planned the trip around the fourth week of March when it is still cool. Sajjad and I flew to Cairo on 21 March. On Nasima's suggestion, we decided to take the Nile Cruise, a cruise for which we shall always remain thankful to her. Her social secretary, Nancy had already made the arrangements and booked us on MS Stephanie for a three-night cruise.

We left for the airport at six in the morning on March 28 to catch the Egypt Air flight to Aswan. The flight to Aswan took an hour and half. Shaidi from Red Sea Tours was there to receive us. We got into a microbus and headed for MS Stephanie. When the microbus stopped in front of a boat, I was taken aback. It was another boat, MS Florence. But Shaidi explained that Stephanie was docked behind Florence. A two-feet wide plank took us to Florence and then we hopped into Stephanie. We were immediately reminded of the Titanic. The decoration, the balcony, the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling of the lobby and the stairs were similar to the Titanic. The boat had three floors with 78 cabins. Our cabin, which was on the top floor, was decent sized with twin beds, wardrobe, chest of drawers with a mirror, two comfortable chairs, a TV and a small refrigerator. You could slide the glass windows and stand behind the wrought iron railings, feeling the fresh Nile air in your face. Another staircase on this floor led to the deck. There was a swimming pool on the deck with lounging chairs and a bar corner. Most of the tourists were European, mostly elderly couples. In fact, Sajjad and myself were the only Asians. There was a big group of Italian tourists. After lunch we met our guide, Ahmed. Our group consisted of just two couples, my husband, Sajjad and me and a young American couple, Jeff, an American army officer working as a consultant for the Egyptian army and his wife Becky. Jeff was a quiet person while his wife, Becky, was very social.

Karnak Temple with Mosque

The four of us and Ahmed boarded a small boat. Since there was no breeze, the boat run on engine cruised the surrounding area. River Nile's clear deep blue water seemed so calm and peaceful. Nile is not a very broad river, with a depth of 30 metres at the most at its deepest point. We went past the tomb of a Muslim saint who in order to escape persecution had settled here long ago, the tomb of late Aga Khan who chose to be buried here, the renowned hotel where Agatha Christie wrote “Murder on the Nile”. After an hour we came back to our boat. It was a very hot afternoon and we were thirsty. Jeff and Sajjad bought bottles of water from a little boy. It was so much cheaper than buying from the boat and paying thrice the price.

After lunch our group met Ahmed in the lobby. We boarded a microbus and headed for the Old Aswan Dam, which was built by the British in 1902 for threefold purpose, to prevent the over-flooding of the Nile, to generate electricity and to provide water for irrigation. It was initially 1900 metres long and 54 metres high but later the height was increased. Then we drove down to see the High Dam built in 1970. The old dam could not prevent flooding, so in the mid-forties, it was felt that a second dam should be built 6 km upstream. The High Dam which is 3.5 km long and 114 km high was built with Soviet help over a period of 10 years. The dam has created a reservoir behind it, called Lake Nasser where the water is stored and its flow to the valley can be controlled. This not only prevents floods, an annual occurrence in Egypt but also generates electricity. Twelve turbines, four at a time produce enough electricity to feed not only Egypt but also export to Jordan and Syria.

Our next stop was the Temple of Philae, dedicated to goddess Isis. The temple was built on the island of Philae over a period of 800 years and is the last strongholds of the Ancient Egyptian Religion. The construction of the temple began during the reign of King Ptolemy II. Other kings from the Ptolemaic dynasty also contributed to the temple by further constructing other parts. The temple of Isis consists of two pylons, the first pylon with two towers, an open court leading to the second pylon. The walls of the court have scenes depicting the birth of God Horus by his mother Goddess Isis.

Chamber with Hutshepshut's Carvings

When the new Aswan dam was built, the Philae Island was submerged. UNESCO came forward to help the Egyptian Antiquity Organization to rescue the temple as part of the old heritage. It took 10 years (1970 to 1980) for the temple to be shifted from the Philae Island to Agilika Island. Piece by piece, it was dismantled and reassembled in its present site, which was landscaped to look like Philae as much as possible. The restoration has been done in such a magnificent way that unless told, there is no way to know that the whole structure was moved from its original place. The original island of Philae lies buried under Lake Nasser. After an interesting sightseeing trip we returned to the boat completely exhausted.

After dinner, the boat had arranged a Nubian night. It was thrilling to see the tall, dark and slim Nubian dancers perform. The whole atmosphere was energised. Then a dancer performed the whirling dervish dance, which kept the audience spellbound. Finally the audience joined the dancers trying to keep pace with them. After an exhilarating hour, the show came to an end.

We were docked the whole night at Aswan. On the second day, sometime around 9 in the morning, our boat started moving. We lounged on the deck watching the river go by lazily, sipping our drinks. Children on the banks often waved to us and we waved back to them. We reached Isna a couple of hours behind our scheduled time.

After a sumptuous and hearty breakfast we left with our guide Ahmed for Kom Ombu. The temple, constructed by the Ptolemies is situated 28 miles north of Aswan, in the town of Kom-Ombu. The temple, which is made of sandstone, was started by Ptolemy VI in the second century BC. There is a duplication of everything like two entrances, two courts, two hypostyle halls and two sanctuaries. This temple is dedicated to the two Gods, Horus the Elder and Sobek. The left side is dedicated to Horus the Elder who was the falcon-headed god and right side to Sobek, the crocodile-headed god. On the left side are carvings on the wall of Horus's wife Hathor and son Khonsu and on the right side carvings of Sobek and his wife and child. Tired under the desert heat, we returned to the comforts of the boat more knowledgeable about Egyptian civilisation.

After a short nap, our group again met at six in the evening to board the donkey carts that would take us to Edfu temple. Sajjad and I got into one cart and Jeff and Becky into another. Edfu temple is perhaps the most beautiful and the best-preserved temple in Egypt that I have seen. It is somewhere between Aswan and Luxor. The temple is dedicated to the falcon-headed god, Horus and the construction took 180 years. It was started during the period of the Ptolemies in 237 BC and was finished in 57 BC. The carvings on the walls depict the union of Horus with Hathor of Danderia. The legend says that the priest of Danderia would, on the third month of each year, place the statue of Hathor on a ceremonial barge to be brought to Edfu Temple. It is believed that here, Horus would meet Hathor for conjugal union after which she would return to her temple. We walked around the temple and took some photographs. Then we returned to the boat by donkey cart at eight in the evening, thoroughly satisfied with our expedition.

We bid goodbye to Ahmed and sailed for Luxor. Our boat started moving around 10 pm. We had left specific instructions with the reception to give us a wake up for the lock, but they forgot and we missed the opportunity. We reached Luxor little before noon. After a nice buffet lunch on the boat we set out for sightseeing tour of the historical temples and tombs. Our first stop was at the temple of Karnak, which consists of three main temples and some other smaller temples. It is situated three km north of Luxor. The three temples are Mut, Montu and Amun with the temple of Amun in the centre. Luxor was the dwelling of the principal god Amun, who was the god of fertility. After passing through the second pylon, built by Ramses II, there is a hypostyle hall which is considered a great piece of architecture. The construction of the Hypostyle hall was begun by Ramses I, continued by his son Seti I and completed by Seti I's son, Ramses II. The ceilings of the hall are supported by 12 papyrus columns made of sandstone. The outer walls of the hypostyle hall have carvings depicting battle scenes. As you step out into a small court, there is one obelisk constructed by Tuthmosis I and another one built by his daughter, Hutshepsut, the only Queen who reigned ancient Egypt. The obelisk built by Hutshepsut is of one single block of pink granite. When her stepson, Tutmosis III came to power, he built a wall around the obelisk so no one could see it. It is believed that it was an easier and cheaper way than destroying the obelisks. Next to this, stands another broken obelisk made of single block of granite. This was probably destroyed by some earthquake.

From Karnak, our group with our guide drove down to the temple of Luxor where the god of fertility Amun dwelt, mainly built by Amenhotep III and his successor Ramses II. This temple was the centre for the festival of Opet. The guide explained to us that the royal procession would start at the Temple of Karnak and end at the Temple of Luxor. The gods and goddesses were carried in separate barges, towed by smaller boats on the Nile. The common people would accompany the barge by walking on the bank of the river. It was in the temple that the king would transform into the divine being, thereby becoming the god. The carvings on the wall depict scenes from the festival of Opet, the offerings made to the god, the royal procession from Karnak to Luxor and many other interesting scenes. One carving depicts Alexander the Great, dressed as a Pharoah receiving two crowns. These carvings were started during the time of Amenhotep III but he died and was mostly completed during the time of Tutenkhamun. There is a mosque inside the temple. The story behind the mosque is that when the Muslim rule began in Egypt, they built this mosque not knowing what lay beneath the site. For many years, the temple lay buried under the mosque. It was only discovered at the beginning of the 20th century and excavated. So at present, both mosque and temple exist side by side, in perfect harmony. Tourists look around the ancient temple while the followers of Islam offer prayers in the mosque. Temple of Luxor was the last historical site for that evening's tour. There is a museum next to the temple. But we decided not to go and returned to the boat.

After breakfast, we started on the last leg of our tour of Luxor. This time it was the west bank of Nile, the famous Valley of the Kings. Ancient Egypt is divided into three kingdoms, the old, the middle and the new kingdom. The kings belonging to the old kingdom were buried in pyramids. But their pyramids would be robbed of jewels and treasures which were buried along with the king. So the kings of the New Kingdom thought of another way of burial which would prevent the tombs being robbed. Their tombs were cut into the limestone. There were mostly three corridors, leading to chambers and deep inside another chamber where the king's coffin lay. This catacomb was difficult to be robbed as the chambers could be easily sealed. As soon as a king took over the reigns, he would start building his tomb which usually took six years. We reached the Valley of the Kings and took a trolley car which took us to the tombs. Our guide bought the entrance tickets which allowed us to visit any three tombs other then that of Tutunkhamen. We visited the tomb of Ramses II and two more tombs. They were similar in design, corridor leading to a chamber and further insider was another chamber. Tutankhamen's tomb was not covered by this entrance ticket. So we had to pay another 80 Egyptian pounds to enter his tomb. Entering through the corridors, deep inside the chamber, there was a glass casket with Tutankhamen's body in it. A mask which once had covered his face was beside his body. There was another glass casket which contained Tutankhamen's jewelry. The colors on the ornaments still looked bright and beautiful. Thousands of years have passed but it is still a wonder how these colours have not faded away.

After the Valley of the Kings, we visited the temple of Queen Hutshepsut. Hutshepsut was the daughter of Tuthmose I. She was married to her half brother, Tuthmose II. On the death of her husband, she assumed the reigns of government, by sidetracking minor Tuthmose III, son of Tuthmose I by a concubine. Initially she was the guardian for minor Tutumose III but later became the real ruler. She ruled Egypt for 20 years. She built the magnificent temple known as Dier el Bahri. Coverings on the walls of the temple depict her reign. After her death, Tuthmose III took his revenge by erasing or destroying her carvings from all the monuments except one. According to the legend, Tuthmose III sent his men to destroy all the carving depicting Hutshepsut which they did. But only the king and the priests could enter the main chamber. Hence, the workers could not enter the chamber and destroy the carvings depicting Hutshepsut. Thus Hutshepsut's carving in this chamber was spared and still continues to be there. In order to protect the only carvings of Hutshepsut, the authorities have put up iron grills at the entrance of the chamber. Like all tourists, we too, peered through the iron grills to catch a glimpse of the carvings but it was dark and couldn't see anything. The temple of Hutshepsut was the last of the historical places on our Nile cruise. We returned to our boat MS. Stephanie. On our way back, we bought some lunch from McDonalds. Our flight to Cairo was at 10 pm but we were allowed us to stay in our cabins till 4 pm. After which we sat in the lobby for a few hours before leaving for the airport.

Tipping is a part of Egyptian culture. Wherever you go one has to be ready with tips. Even in toilets you are not spared. Toilet rolls are deliberately removed. Instead, just at the entrance of the toilets, a man or woman is waiting to hand you few pieces of tissue paper torn from the toilet rolls. And believe me, for those few strips of tissue paper, you have to tip them. So we always had to be ready with small cash in our pockets. Each time we used a public toilet, or took a microbus or a donkey cart or a boat, we had to part with our foreign currency. It took quite a while for us getting used to the tipping practice.

Egypt is an interesting place to visit. There is so much to see. But the Nile cruise was perhaps the best part of our tour of Egypt. It was very relaxing. There is something special about the soothing effect of the deep blue waters of the Nile. For any tourist visiting Egypt, I would recommend the Nile cruise to be on top of the agenda.

The author is a Professor at the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, Dhaka University


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