THE NILE - EGYPT
The Nile - Egypt - Luxury Travel Magazine
The Other World of The Nile
|By: Edward Colless, Issue 42 – Autumn 2010|
|(Cruise the Nile - Egypt)|
|AS EDWARD COLLESS WALKED OUT OF THE DESERT TO REJOIN HIS LUXURY RIVER CRUISE BOAT, A SOLITARY WAITER IN BLACK TIE STOOD ON THE DESERTED SHORE WITH A TRAY OF ICED LEMON DRINKS. PRIVILEGE ACQUIRED A NEW DIMENSION ON THE NILE.|
|Standing on the crowded narrow road that runs atop the four kilometre length of the Aswan High Dam – jammed with tour buses in a desert heat thickened by diesel fumes, and flanked by stern military guard posts – may not be every traveller’s idea of an essential Egyptian experience. You need an enthusiasm for hydroelectric power generation to really feel, beyond polite nodding, that you’re satisfying the heartfelt national pride any tour guide will effuse. After all, the High Dam contains more stone than all the sixty plus pyramids of Egypt and is one of the few feats of human engineering, along with China’s Great Wall and Dubai’s land reclamation called the Palm, visible from earth orbit. Designed to control the Nile River’s annual flooding, it also stores water for times of drought and provides enough hydroelectricity to power half of Egypt.|
But standing on the dam is like straddling the dateline or equator. Something momentous shifts across the boundary, and for most tourists to Egypt it’s as far upriver as they feel they need to go. To the north of the dam, the Nile flows as it has for thousands of years, amiably and picturesquely down through the busy maze of tumbling elephantine rocky islands that make up the first cataract at the river port of Aswan, which is the end of the line for all water traffic coming from the delta. Below Aswan, the river moves almost in a straight line to Luxor (and the Theban Valley of the Kings); then, after a dog-leg bend, resumes a direct course to Cairo. There’s physical as well as symbolic power in this river. In primeval times (some fifteen million years ago) the Nile apparently cut a valley as deep as the Aswan Dam is wide, a chasm rivalling the Grand Canyon, and poured into the drained, dry basin of the Mediterranean in a waterfall possibly forty times the height of Niagara.
Perhaps the titanic geological scale of this deep time entered the unconscious of the ancient Pharaonic civilization that, for almost three millennia before the Christian era, flourished in the narrow and shallow strip of fertile land at the river’s edge. Egypt’s famous temples loom up obdurately in limestone or sandstone and with intimidating size and unworldly permanence along this thin corridor of settlement.
Here, when dealing with things sacred, the word “colossal” is not just a poetic flourish; it’s a technical term. Ceremonial grandeur and secular politics in ancient Egypt were both directed at maintaining the incarnate divine authority of a Pharaoh whose life and whose death guaranteed the order of cosmic time and space. The tumbled colossus near Ghiza of Ramesses II (one of the grandest of the Pharaohs) inspired the Romantic poet Shelley’s celebrated lines: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; look on my work ye mighty, and despair!”
It’s easy to assess the effect of the Aswan Dam in similarly haughty language. Above the dam, that’s to say south of it, the Nile now backs up as the biggest artificial lake in the world, stretching serenely like a becalmed ocean to the blank horizon of the Nubian Desert into the ancient kingdom of Kush, for five hundred kilometres all the way to the Sudan border. This too is a kind of grandeur, if gained at a price. Lake Nasser was filled throughout the 1960s displacing eight hundred thousand Nubians – whose villages, land and to a degree whose culture it drowned – while prompting an extraordinary international rescue mission to relocate two mammoth temples built by Ramesses II at Abu Simbel, along with several dozen other temples, tombs, and forts remotely dispersed along the old shoreline of the river. The result is a landscape that is truly “outlandish”: simultaneously archaic but modern, cruelly indifferent yet sublime, engineered but among the emptiest places on earth. So much so it feels unearthly, like the fantastic design of an austerely beautiful Martian vista with detached but showcased eerie relics of a lost world.
The most prominent of these relics at Abu Simbel is a gargantuan commemorative temple deifying Ramesses by his affiliation with the sun god, Re. Its entrance is flanked by four seated figures of the Pharaoh gravely staring into the eternity of the desert, each an astounding twenty-one metres high. But, amazingly for this scale, the solemnity is softened by an erotic and almost tender association with the temple that stands beside it, that of Queen Nefertari which is dedicated to Hathor, the wife of the sun god. Nefertari was Ramesses’ most favoured wife (among the reputed hundreds he had), and in a gesture of unusual liberality her exquisite portrait colossi stand almost as high as his. What makes this association of Ramesses, Nefertari and the sun especially indissoluble is that this entire complex is more like one single sculptural object than a group of buildings, since the external figures on the façade and the interior (Ramesses’ temple is almost sixty metres deep) were hewn, incredibly, out of a sheer cliff face. Even more incredible, 45 years ago the whole mountain was cut into a thousand jigsaw pieces, each the size of a mini-bus, and immaculately reassembled above the rising water line. Not only did it fit together seamlessly, it was oriented so that a magical solar phenomenon still occurs: twice a year (February 22 and September 22) the sunrise streams into the innermost depths of the dark sanctuary to revive three of four cult statues seated in a row. The fourth, the god of the underworld, Ptah, always remains in shadow.
You can fly into and out of Abu Simbel, and be back in Aswan all within a couple of hours. You can bus up and back, although the travel takes a good part of the day. These two ways are how most will get to see Abu Simbel, but either way the hour or so you have in front of the timeless faces of Ramsesses and Nefertari is only a fleeting glimpse of them. It is a privilege to keep their company through the night, and to watch them recede through the morning light slowly into a distance that truly demonstrates their scale. You can only do this by boat.
Travelling by boat on Lake Nasser is a very different experience to the Nile cruises in casino-styled resort boats that plough up and down between Luxor and Aswan in convoys, and dock sometimes six abreast overnight. The Kasr Ibrim is one of two luxury boats, operated by the appropriately named Belle Epoque company, that take four leisurely days between Abu Simbel and Kalabshah (just south of Aswan). And since the Kasr Ibrim is one of just a handful of craft on the entire lake, the solitude feels like a guilty pleasure. Privilege then acquires a new dimension when, on the open upper deck of the Kasr Ibrim, the small company of passengers have a candle lit dinner while the boat glides past the empty Abu Simbel temples, and you have them all to yourself.
On board the Kasr Ibrim, your relation to the immense, austere landscape becomes intimate, unhurried and limpid. In this remote part of upper Egypt the desert starts immediately where the water stops, and it stretches in every direction in a sheet of shimmering white flinty stones and brown sticky dust and bald rocky pyramidal mounds and drifting dunes seemingly forever. This in fact is the very place where we got our name for desert – deshret or “red land”, and here the name for this world seems like a magic formula. A dangerously powerful thing to utter, too, for this is the desert whose dimensions are those of Pharaonic space and time. Make no mistake, the romance of this isolated, exposed and mysterious region comes with a kind of hazard.
With virtually no vegetation there seems little animal life. The khaki scorpions scuttle into hiding during the heat of the day. Viper tracks are fresh in the sand. No birds sing. The atmosphere is so clean, so dry and stark under the cloudless sun you could almost imagine yourself on an airless planet. You could vanish into this silent desolation. But as you walk out of the desert from a ruined temple toward your dinghy, a solitary waiter in black tie stands on the deserted shore with a tray of iced lemon drinks. Your smiling escorts armed with machine guns – a discrete necessity against terrorists in these unguarded stretches – dress unaffectedly in rumpled uniforms of blue turtle necks tucked into blue woollen pants rolled up over unlaced boots; outfits that could be on a Paris catwalk.
Increasingly you feel as if you’re drifting into a hallucination or a dream. At night, on the water, the sky is so densely dark yet filled with stars you might be in outer space. A crocodile swims past. Frogs disdainfully croak from the shallows, although you can’t tell how far the sound travels. There is no way to tell distance, and no point speaking about it. A brightly lit tender pulls up beside the boat and unloads a bustling dozen Nubian families who have come from some shore out there in the darkness. They’re laughing and singing. But unlike the drunken, cut-rate cabaret show in nylon costumes hopping from boat to boat which is a feature of many Nile cruises, these entertainers are warm-hearted amateur singers with angelic children chaperoned by beautiful Nubian mothers. Yet there’s something unquestionably surreal about their visit. As miraculously as they appear out of the night, unheralded, they drift off into it smiling and chattering on their mobile phones.
It’s not just the pace of the Nile that changes above Aswan. Even the crowded diesel driven cruisers that churn up to Aswan will at times drift into the languorous rhythms of the fishermen’s feluccas; when waving village children on shore – or frenetically gesticulating hawkers – can keep up with the cruiser by walking along a river bank or quai, or when you’re overtaken by silhouetted flocks of osprey or geese languidly winging above the palm trees at dusk. But even in the sensuous drift of the river, below Aswan the Nile is still the highway of Egypt’s physical economy. Above Aswan it assumes a metaphysical aura. It may sound a strange destination; and paradoxical, for even in the lap of luxury Lake Nasser is an ascetic not just relaxing experience. But those extra days in Egypt provide a special opportunity to stare into the eyes of Pharoah and glimpse his vision. This can well be a climax to an Egyptian journey. And for some, it may be the real beginning of adventure.
With its superbly crafted fantasia on Egyptian art deco, the Kasr Ibrim’s stately elegance conjures up the grand, vintage days of Egyptian travel on steamers, of Europeanized exoticism (under British occupation and a cosmopolitan, playboy king) when men wore white suits and panama hats and when Agatha Christie sipped tea on the terrace of Luxor’s Winter Palace hotel. Beautifully detailed, spacious wooden cabins and balconies, with built-in moulded furnishings and bakelite clock dials, black and white tiled orientalist bathrooms, and even chunky latch keys for the cabin doors (no swipe cards)…every detail on the boat suggests old world charm, chic and intrigue. You could easily imagine Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot assembling the guests in the graceful saloon over cocktails to coolly expose the murderer on board.