Pharaoh play - returning to the Nile
Egypt | December 11, 2017
Love the sound of cruising on the Nile, but apprehensive about Egypt? Abercrombie & Kent took its top-selling agents to see the country for themselves. Katie McGonagle reports.
I’ve never come eye to eye with a lioness, until now. Ears pricked, eyes fixed, light glinting off her furrowed brow, she has an air of solemnity, no less haunting for the fact that those delicate features are carved out of wood.
Still she may be, but this animal has attitude. Gilded in bright yellow gold and adorning the end of a funerary bed, this embodiment of warrior goddess Sekhmet – the fiercest of hunters, hence her likeness to the mighty lion – once stood sentry over the body of boy-king Tutankhamun.
Now transported to the conservation lab of the Grand Egyptian Museum, she – along with other never-before-displayed items recovered from the hidden tomb – is being restored to her former beauty. After the best part of 3,500 years, no one could blame her for having a little work done.
It’s a bit more than a nip and tuck, though. The world’s most accomplished Egyptologists are hard at work restoring sandals, clothing, jewellery, armour and other artefacts buried with the pharaoh.
“We will display, for the first time, the complete Tutankhamun tomb,” says Dr Tarek Tawfik, the museum’s general director. “Only about a third of what
was discovered in the tomb has been on display. This will change Tutankhamun’s image from only being the golden pharaoh to a real representative of the 18th dynasty.”
When the first stage of the exhibition opens late next year, there will be 5,000 objects on display, but when completed in 2022, it will house 50,000, making it the world’s largest museum dedicated to a single civilisation.
The scale of the task becomes clear as our behind-the-scenes tour takes us to the sculpture room. More loading bay than lab, it’s a cavernous hall filled with towering statues of long-dead pharaohs in varying states of repair.
We chance upon one and ask which museum it came from. Not from a museum at all, it turns out – it was uncovered just last year, one of dozens of statues long buried in the temple of Amenhotep III on Luxor’s west bank. The idea that the ancient Egyptians’ bounty could still be bearing fruit now, millennia after they lived, is so mind-boggling as to be almost beyond grasp.
“Egypt never ceases to amaze you,” adds Dr Tawfik. Indeed.
CAIRO: Enchanting chaos
That’s as true of modern-day Cairo as it is the ancient world. I’d expected blaring car horns and endless traffic jams and I wasn’t wrong – both are a constant in the capital – but I hadn’t counted on how enchanting that sense of chaos would be.
The Khan El-Khalili bazaar is a case in point: all piled-high stalls and tiny shopfronts no wider than the doorframe, squeezing shoulder-to-shoulder along meandering alleyways. Pass through its 10th-century gate – there’s no need to pause, that barely counts as history here – and you see merchants displaying arrays of Egyptian cotton, intricate metalwork lamps, dark Arabian coffee and spice stalls stacked with barrels of preserved lemons, gnarled roots of ginger and heaps of hibiscus petals waiting to be made into tea. Just a few miles away, on the west bank of the Nile, lies Cairo’s other big draw. Giza should be thronging with crowds and there are certainly more tourists here than we’ve seen elsewhere, but it’s a fraction of what it once was. Just consider what they’re missing – the Great Pyramid looms every bit as magnificent and mystifying as the rest of Egypt’s ancient monuments. It’s a staggering 4,500 years old – built around 2,550BC, when the British Isles had barely reached the Bronze Age – with each of its 2.5-ton blocks hauled into place with perfect symmetry.
ASWAN: A more peaceful pace
After the chaos of the capital, the pace of life on the Nile comes as a welcome relief. Flying south to Aswan to join Sanctuary Sun Boat III at Abercrombie & Kent’s private dock, we reach the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Hotel just in time to watch sunset.
Once teeming with life, now just a few white-sailed feluccas ply the waterway. Sailing the Nile was once part of the river cruise sector’s core product, but political upheaval has decimated numbers in recent years. Figures from Clia show that between 2012 and 2016 there was an 88% fall in numbers to a paltry 3,600 UK passengers.
A gin and tonic on the riverfront terrace is a leisurely affair that feels very Agatha Christie-esque – parts of Death on the Nile were set here – and inside, the hotel oozes turn-of-the-century sumptuousness.
Visitors don’t come here just for colonial-era ambience, though. Philae Temple is a short boat trip away, sporting images of goddess Isis at its colossal entrance, and further upriver, Kom Ombo surpasses even the majesty of Philae.
It’s a rare double temple, one half dedicated to falcon god Horus and the other to crocodile god Sobek. Crumbling columns still bear traces of the red and blue dyes that once brought its reliefs to life and although it shows some wear and tear, the most astonishing thing is how well-preserved it is.
Spare a few minutes for the bizarre museum of mummified crocodiles discovered under the temple floor – weird but oddly entertaining.
LUXOR: Home of ancient wonders
An overnight sailing brings us to Luxor, home of yet more ancient wonders – tombs and funerary temples on the west bank, temples of worship to the east.
Most famous among the former is the Valley of the Kings, where the chamber of Tutankhamun lies open. It’s surprisingly small and unfinished – while other pharaohs spent their lives building elaborate monuments to themselves, he died at 19, before work was anywhere near finished – but it’s the romance of its discovery, almost undisturbed, that captures the imagination.
After five years of digging in search of a tomb he had only the vaguest notion might exist, archaeologist Howard Carter struck gold – almost literally – on discovering steps down to the long-sealed tomb. It took 10 years to catalogue and preserve every item – no wonder, the solid gold coffin alone weighs 110kg – though scholars believe there could be even more lying as yet undiscovered.
On the east bank, the vast Karnak Temple Complex covers 60 acres, bigger than most ancient cities, and took an almost-incomprehensible 2,000 years to build, with temples added right up to the time of Cleopatra.
If it’s hard to comprehend just how ancient it all is, consider this: nearby Luxor Temple, lit up at night to atmospheric effect, has carvings added by Alexander the Great a full 1,000 years after the temple was first built.
For him, this was already ancient history; for us, it’s almost beyond belief to walk in the dust of ancient Thebes, to see and touch carvings chiselled out of the stone by people who lived 3,500 years before us.
Yet while this journey delves into the furthermost reaches of the ancient world, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Egypt is how little it has changed.
The Nile is still the heart of life here – of trade, transport and agriculture, its lush green floodplains an oasis amid miles of arid desert. Farmers can still be seen in the fields that line the banks and children wave enthusiastically as our boat sails past.
While the past few years have been tough on the tourism industry, the Nile has seen Egypt rise and fall and rise again over not just centuries but millennia – and now must surely be the time for it to rise once more.
Abercrombie & Kent’s Highlights of Egypt, with three nights in Cairo and three on Sanctuary Sun Boat IV, starts at £1,895, including flights, transfers and sightseeing. Agents receive an enhanced 15% commission on bookings made before August 31, 2018 (excluding peak season). abercrombiekent.co.uk