The river mild

Felucca gliding down the Nile near Aswan
Photos by Mary King

Mary King floats down the world' longest river in search of the jewels of the Nile

The felucca glides serenely down the Nile, its white sail flapping softly in the early morning breeze. There is hardly a stir as Mohammed, our captain, gently slides his oar through the waters; just a soothing lapping sound of the river and the occasional caw of a bird as it swoops overhead and dives for its catch. The sun is slowly rising; a large bronze coin in the deep blue sky, knocking the edge off the morning chill with the promise of growing fiercely hotter as the day moves on.

Three women draped in long, black gallabiyyas are collecting the day's water in sturdy iron buckets and placing them on the heads of young girls who trot away past palm trees and banana groves toward the small stone houses in the distance. As I snuggle up in blankets, I observe the first comings and goings of the day on the large muddy banks of this great river and feel that for the people here time has stood still, nothing much has really changed for centuries. The Nile is still so very vital to so many of Egypt's people.

It's the third, and final, day of my journey down the Nile, having left Aswan two days ago and having spent two nights sleeping under a blanket of stars. A group of six of us hired Mohammed and his mate Osman for 50 Egyptian pounds (about JY1500) each to take us on the trip to Luxor, with stop-offs at the ancient Pharaonic temples at Edfu, Kom Ombo and Esne. This is my third trip down Egypt's great river, an experience I never tire of and can only describe as mystical and idyllic. It's a wonderful way to appreciate the lives of Egypt's villagers and to reflect on a time, around 2000 to 3000 B.C., during the Old Kingdom, when the few travelers who ventured up the Nile did so in the quest for gold, slaves and the occasional Pygmy. This was a time when Egypt was at the apex of its glory, the period when many of the country's great temples and pyramids were built.

The Temples of Ramses II and Nefertari at Abu Simbel

Not a drop to drink
"Have you ever drunk from the Nile?" Mohammed asks me. A couple of Australians on board grimace at the prospect, as I declare that I have the last time I was here. The banks of the Nile are notorious for bilharzia, a disease that infects many of Egypt's inhabitants along the Nile and which, if not quickly treated, can cause blindness and even death. "But I drank from the middle of the river," I tell him. "That's why you came back to Egypt then," affirms Mohammed as he takes a thoughtful drag on his cigarette. "It is said 'he who drinks from the Nile will one day return to Egypt.'" "More likely 'he who drinks from the Nile will never leave Egypt,'" quips Brian, a student from London. We all laugh and Osman fills his kettle from the Nile, ready to put some mint tea on for the boil.

Luxor is a hive of activity, the markets bustling with life, and mainly filled with well-heeled tourists looking for a special souvenir. "Hey, you. Japanese. Come here," one shop owner yells out to my travel partner, pulling her aside and thrusting a bronze Nefertiti statue under her nose. He eyes me up warily and ask me where I'm from. Realizing that prices in Egypt are often set according to your nationality, I tell him I'm from Lithuania. "Lithuania," he screeches, highly suspicious of me now, "Never heard of it. Japan very good. Japanese number one people."

We tell him we are not interested in his Nefertiti statue or the one of Cleopatra or Tutankhamen, and stuffed toy camels are not on our souvenir list, and we head off to rent bicycles for a trip out to Thebes, where the Valley of Kings and Queens, and many of Egypt's ancient monuments, are situated.

Having crossed to the western bank of the Nile, we pedal off along the asphalt road that leads to the Valley of King, bypassing fields of sunflowers and overtaking local farmers sprinting along on donkeys carrying baskets of vegetables and fruit. Large tourist buses charge past us, adding a surreal edge to our cycle through the rustic countryside. It's a bizarre clash of two worlds, the old and the new, that of the poor developing world and the affluent First World. A whole load of chubby German tourists, clad in shorts and T-shirts, pile off a bus at the Colossi of Memnon, two 19-meter-high statues that are the only remnants of a temple commemorating Amenhotep III, the pharaoh who lived 1414 to 1397 B.C.

A group of children huddle around the tour group with mystified expressions on their small faces while the Germans, armed with video cameras and fancy SLRs, start traipsing around the site, filming the statues from all conceivable angles. A young boy starts waving a statue in my face. "It's Ramses. Antique, very good. Give me one pound." I hand him a couple of sweets and tell him to take good care of his "antique" statue. His sister asks me if I want to buy the baby she is carrying in a shawl on her back and I hand her some sweets too, explaining that most tourists do not come to Egypt to purchase babies.

Ramses II and Nefertari

Cycling among the kings
My friend and I pedal off once more, this time following the road that takes us through the arid desert where there are no souvenir shops, no villages dotted here or there, not even any signs of life until we reach the Valley of the Kings. Here, the tomb of Tutankhamen is the most popularly visited tomb, but those of such other kings as Ramses III and VI, Amenhotep II and Tuthmosis III are also well worth visiting for their hieroglyphics. However, the tombs in the Valley of Queens seem to be in far better condition, partly due to recent restoration work, and the paintings inside are far more impressive. The tomb of Nefertari is a main attraction and is undoubtedly the queen of tombs in this valley.

But the most magnificent example of Egypt's ancient past is to be found 280km south of Aswan, overlooking Lake Nasser. The two temples of Ramses II and Nefertari at Abu Simbel attracted worldwide attention when they were threatened by inundation by the waters of Aswan High Dam. It cost US$36 million to have the temples relocated on a plateau.

The temple of Ramses II, which is dedicated to the sun god Ra-Harakhte, stands 33 meters high, is 38 meters wide, and is guarded by four 20-meter-high statues of Ramses. The walls of the halls bear recordings of the Battle of Kadesh, waged by Ramses II against the Hittites, while in the Nefertari temple you can see paintings of battle scenes and of Ramses II and his queen offering sacrifices to the gods. For those who can time their visits to Abu Simbel and to the temple of Ramses II, the dates February 21 and October 22 are worth remembering. The temple is unique, and since the sun shines directly on the holiest of holies, the hall is dedicated to the sun god Ra-Harakhte and other gods on the ancient pharaoh's birthday in February and then again on the date of his coronation in October.

Getting there
Egypt Air flies from Tokyo and Kansai to Cairo and operates internal flights within Egypt (Tel: 03-3211-4521)

Where to stay
Luxor Hotels: Luxor Hilton (Tel: 20-95-374-933); Moevenpick Resort Luxor (Tel: 20-95-374-855). 
For more information see  
Aswan Hotels: New Cataract Hotel (Tel: 20-97-316-000); Oberoi The Aswan Hotel and Spa (Tel: 20-97-314-666). For more information see  
Abu Simbel Hotels: Nefertari Hotel. For booking see  


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