We come to visit the gods. Stern of face, empty of eye, they stare. Blank, sightless eyes see nothing, yet see everything in the future and back to the ancient world. The colossal sculptures of Abu Simbel are in Egypt’s deep south, touching on the border with Sudan, and are the jewel of the appropriately named Nile in Style journey with Abercrombie & Kent.
“Nowhere are there so many marvellous things, nor in the whole world beside are there to be seen so many works of unspeakable greatness,” wrote Herodotus of Egypt in the fifth century BC. Fifteen centuries later, he’s still on the money.
My journey begins in Cairo: with 20 million souls (give or take a million or two), it’s the entire population of Australia crammed into one heaving metropolis – one of the world’s great cities. Egypt has had a tumultuous few years since its long-term dictator, Hosni Mubarak, was toppled in 2011, but slowly, the country is steering a new path to peace and prosperity. “From your lips to God’s ears,” say Egyptians when I express my hope.
While it sells itself on its antique traditions, Egypt also has a nose for luxury, amply demonstrated by the Four Seasons at Nile Plaza. But it can’t escape its past – pulling back the curtains at the sleek, five-star hotel, I look down at that eternal lifeline, the Nile River, from my window. And it’s only after my eyes and mind have adjusted to the spectacular blur of people, luxury cars, mopeds and the occasional donkey cart, that I spy the city’s true inhabitants. There, beyond the smog, beyond the desert sand in the air, I see them. Three Pyramids of Giza hover on the horizon, as they have done since their inception more than 4500 years ago.
It’s always astonishing to realise that the Pyramids sit on the edge of the city which has grown at its feet, and my guide Lamia and I toast them with cold mango juice and spiced meats, while the rice, with Egypt’s slapstick sense of humour, is served as a pyramid, mimicking the real ones in front of us. Yet beyond the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, we journey even further back to the ancient burial complex of Saqqara, home to the world’s oldest stone building, the step pyramid of Djoser, which has crouched here since the 27th century BC. The land’s history is vast and complex, dotted with gods and heroes passing through ancient history to Greek and Roman occupation, and Lamia sails through it like one born to it – which, of course, she is.
With a change of step, she leads me into medieval times, of caravans and souqs, trading gold, spices, perfumes and weaves in the epicentre of old Cairo, Khan al-Khalili market, which dates back to the 14th century. Beside it runs the most beautiful street in the country, El Moezz, which stretches a kilometre through Islamic Cairo, rich with medieval palaces, mosques, ornate underground water cisterns and wikalas, or caravanserai – inns for travelling traders – all bound by gargantuan city walls and vast city gates that humble those walking through them.
I think, in a former life, Lamia was a trader: her haggling skills – on my behalf – are exceptional, even by Egyptian standards, and she works from some mental map that has the city’s best shopping committed to memory. My souvenir list is ticked; my bags are already full of traditional printed cloth, cushions and aromatic spices. The handmade leather bags will have to wait until next time.
Camel in front of the Pyramids of Giza | Belinda Jackson
It’s time to trade the modern luxury of the Four Seasons for our river yacht where we will spend the next three nights. Berthed in Luxor, the Sun Sanctuary IV ticks all the boxes for chic, small-ship cruising, from the 1920s decor to the maximum of 36 guests.
At Luxor, I get a lesson in the rules of life and death. In sunrise and temples there is life; in sunset there is death and its eternal tombs. So it makes perfect sense that the riot of palaces and ceremonial grounds are on the eastern or right bank of the Nile, while the left bank is home to the Valley of the Kings and Queens, where New Kingdom pharaohs were buried for 500 years, including its most famous resident, the boy King Tutankhamun.
For three days, we sail serenely between sandstone temples whose walls tell of great conquests; of dog-headed gods of judgement, lion-headed war goddess and handsome, virile, victorious pharaohs; of the fertility of the Nile, the glory of the sun, the blood of the vanquished.
Great deeds are balanced by the gentle rural scenery on the riverbanks – villagers working their green fields, children running to school – until Egypt’s most southerly city, Aswan, comes into view. We trade small ships for even smaller boats, the picturesque feluccas (traditional wooden sailing boats) that skim between Aswan’s river-bound islands, and toast the impossibly romantic stories of the Aga Khan’s tomb with sundowners as the great African sun dips, blood-red, over the horizon.
A short flight covers the 300-kilometre distance between Aswan and Abu Simbel in the south, into the heart of Nubian Egypt. Its irresistible drawcards are the four colossal statues that guard the entrance of the Great Temple. Essentially, it’s a megalomaniacal fantasy of the very immodest Ramesses II – thought to have fathered 200 children – alleged warrior and successful public relations man, and his beautiful, beloved wife, Nefertiti, “for whose sake the very sun does shine.” Standing 20 meters high, we’re dwarfed by the statues of Ramesses II – just as he intended when he built them in 1264 BC.
Great hardship and prosperous abundance, love, loyalty, war and religion: the epics writ on Egypt’s temple walls and in its people’s memories and stories are as vast as the skies and deserts in which they’re set.