GUARDIAN I don’t think I’ve ever been so captivated by a narrative I couldn’t understand. Thousands of symbols, cartouches and countless pictograms made up a vast, sophisticated strip cartoon that patently meant the world to others – but its meaning completely eluded me.
Not that I cared. I was more than happy just to stand in the cool dark hall of the Temple of Khnum picking over vignettes and marvelling at the crispness and quality of the carving.
Khnum is the ram-headed god revered by the ancient Egyptians as the creator of humanity and his stupendous Ptolemaic-Roman temple is in the sleepy present day town of Esna. Its miraculous state of preservation is due, ironically to development. Two thousand year’s worth of mud brick construction and destruction gradually entombed this masterpiece until its excavation in 1840. Apparently the magnificent hall is only a fraction of what is still interred under the municipality.
The temple’s outside walls are as ornate and elaborate as the interior. They’re also more dramatic as the sun brings the hieroglyphs and bas-reliefs to life by casting laser sharp shadows that contrast against the rose coloured stone. Admittedly I might not have got the minutia locked in by the artwork, but boy did I feel its power. There’s something sinister and blind about the carvings, yet at the same time I couldn’t help but feel the main protagonist was in some way all-seeing. It was a genuinely thrilling experience.
And best of all, I had Khnum all to myself. Drifting through this mesmerising site without having to negotiate around other sightseers was a wonderful treat. But this was only the first stop on my journey through Southern Upper Egypt – from Esna to Aswan 120km to the south – and the bar had been set ridiculously high. How would the rest of my trip compete?
Travel from Luxor to Aswan is limited to three options: road, rail and river and like millions before me I chose the Nile. But I wasn’t keen on joining one of the large tourist boats – I opted for a dahabiyya instead. I’ve always associated feluccas with the Nile; the dahabiyya was new to me. Essentially they’re a much bigger, infinitely grander house boat that puts their poor relative to shame. Its name literally means “golden”, a nod to the gilded state barges that were once used by Egypt’s Muslim rulers. The boat I’d booked onto was moored a ten minute walk away from the temple.
The Meroe is quite something. At 52m long and 7.5m wide her vast open air upper deck is the size of a Tesco Metro. Furnished with sprawling cushions, daybeds, cane armchairs, carpets, rugs and a dining area, it’s more than big enough to swallow all twenty of her passengers. Chandeliers reconstituted from blingy finds bought at a flea market in Alexandria twinkle under the huge awning that keeps the relentless sun in check. Below decks a camp Victorian-style salon leads to airy white berths with colossal beds and kitsch pictures on walls. It’s fab.
I’ve always loved boats, but until now had found the concept of taking a cruise as resistible as boarding one of the garish disco barks that ply up and down the Thames during the summer months. It’s all to do with being stuck on board with no means of escape. The Meroe was helping to knock some of those sharp edges off. Two gargantuan stripy sails were hoisted and we creaked gently upstream, leaving my worries behind.
This was the life, more Agatha Christie than Thomas Cook, more white linen suit than sequinned boob tube.
But I soon met my nemesis: a Parisienne trussed in a Liz Taylor-style turban and plastered with an acidic smile. She pointedly remarked, as she fluttered her dismissive hand, that all Englishmen were alcoholics. The dig was crude; I was the only Brit on board and happened to be swigging a beer. It was obvious the entente was not going to be cordiale and that I’d have to avoid her if there wasn’t going to be another Death on the Nile.
This awkward situation was exacerbated by the fact I was a solo traveller caught on the fringes of a large group. I’d recommend making a trip like this with at least one other companion, a small group would be ideal, or if you’ve got the funds go the whole hog and book the dahabiyya to yourselves.
Of course my cruise anxiety swiftly returned; it’s not just the getting off, it’s the who you travel with for the next five days that can be bothersome.
That night we moored beside a small village and chef rustled up a French inspired three-course meal for all on board from his miniscule galley. Carrot soup and roast chicken was followed by a very sticky and very rich cake. He fed us well throughout the trip, occasionally fusing Western with Middle Eastern influences and buying all his fresh produce from market farmers en route.
Much to my relief dinner ended without mishap, I wasn’t mysteriously stabbed with a cheese knife nor accidentally coshed with an anchor and managed a peaceful night’s sleep.
Early next morning after a breakfast of good strong coffee and honey covered pancakes we set sail for Al Kab, one of the oldest and most significant archaeological sites on the Nile. As we drifted along I imagined that it was still possible to glimpse scenes on the river banks that the pharaohs would recognise.
Date palms and strips of lush vegetation insulate the river from the harsh desert environments that loom ominously just a few hundred metres away. Boys fish from simple skiffs and farmers busy themselves tending their fields. I was kidding myself, even though it’s marvellously picturesque the pharaohs would never be fooled; the controlling effect of the Aswan Dam subtly informs us that this is modern Egypt.
Apart from looking the business, a dahabiyya can pull in to places where large cruise ships can’t, so at Al Kab, 25km south of Esna, we got the whole site to ourselves. Admittedly it is nowhere near as photogenic as Khnum’s Temple, yet it oozes mystery and quiet charm. Ground swells hint at buried ramparts and shards of ancient pottery are scattered everywhere. The remnants of a huge mud brick wall surrounds the broken stumps of a temple dedicated to Nekhbet, the vulture goddess. It’s an atmospheric place and mostly unexcavated.
When I visited the only means of accessing Al Kab was via a dahabiyya or felucca. Making the trip by road was all but impossible due to strict security restrictions imposed in this area since the fatal attacks on tourists in the 1990’s, although these restrictions are currently being relaxed.
Back on board the Meroe, we sail through the afternoon towards Edfu. We’re here to visit the Temple of Horus, Egypt’s most perfectly preserved temple and first catch sight of it as night begins to fall. It’s hard to believe that something so ancient can be so complete – and hasn’t been dismantled, numbered and shipped back to the British Museum a century-and-a-half ago. And even though we didn’t avoid the tourist throng on this visit, I still managed to lose myself in the antechambers and corridors and feel thoroughly overawed by its scale and beauty. My reverie was broken when a muscular guard in a tight T-shirt swished past me toting a sub-machine gun.
Acclimatisation to the rhythm of the boat comes quickly. Only the hypnotic splash of water, quiet chattering between crew members, darting kingfishers and the occasional braying of a far off donkey distracts from the serious business of catching up on unread books and working on a tan. It soon became apparent that others were keen to join us on board too: passengers on passing cruisers strained at the rails to catch the best view of us and looked longingly on as they passed us by.
After four days we’d covered about 90 delightfully slow kilometres and reached Gebel Silsila – another site that can only be accessed by dahabiyya or felucca. The ancients quarried stone here for their temples and created a gorgeous abstract, minimalist landscape in the process. Small pharaonic monuments and shrines punctuate the quarry: some are just big enough to accommodate a Victorian tourist and his hamper for a picnic in the shade.
These early visitors obviously spent a considerable amount of their time leisurely defacing the murals and sculptures that had, until then, survived for thousands of years in pristine condition. The amount of nineteenth century graffiti and vandalism here and at the other sites I’d visited en route was extraordinary.
But five days cooped up on a boat with strangers was my limit and I was pleased that our final stop beckoned. We’d travelled another 20km since the previous day and pulled elegantly into long stone moorings. Again our timing was perfect; the other cruise ships had been and gone with their passengers leaving the Temple of Kom Ombo deserted and wonderfully silent.
I think out of the buildings I visited, the Ptolemaic Kom Ombo is my favourite; it’s a paean to symmetry and its tumble down blocks a hymn to cubism. The carving on the walls is a riot of symbolism, a terrific, colossal statement of belief. I was utterly bewitched.
I drifted away from my little group for one last time and sat in the shade of a small room which I shared with a mummified crocodile and took stock of the previous days. Our access to archaeological sites was faultless and certainly lived up to expectation, the visits never felt hurried, the boat was gorgeous and as for fellow passengers, well that’s down to luck. I turned to the antique croc and for a moment could swear it was smiling and wearing a turban.