The Nile is Egypt's Gift

The Nile wends through virtually every page of Egypt’s history.

By: By David Swanson


Information on Egypt’s UNESCO sites, where to stay near each site and travel tips to navigate your way through Egypt.
By David Swanson

Memphis and its Necropolis
This area describes where Egypt’s capital was established in 3100 B.C. More than 100 pyramids have been identified in the north of Egypt, but none more grand than the three pyramids of Giza, along with the enigmatic Sphynx. It’s also the site of the splendid solar boat, perhaps the oldest vessel known to man. About 10 miles south are the Step Pyramid of Saqqara and the Red and Bent pyramids of Dahshur.

Historic Cairo
Founded in the 10th century, Historic Cairo is tucked within the city’s modern urban area and contains a wealth of mosques, madrasas and hammams. Also known by the misnomer "Islamic Cairo," there are more than 600 classified monuments dating from the 7th through 20th centuries, when Cairo was defined as the center of the Islamic world.

Ancient Thebes and its Necropolis
Straddling both sides of the Nile and sometimes called the world’s greatest outdoor museum, Ancient Thebes and its Necropolis encompasses the temples of Karnak, Luxor and Hatshepsut and the tombs of the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens.

Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae
The Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae span the temples lining the Nile south of Aswan Dam to the Sudan border. The most important sites were relocated to higher ground when Lake Nassar formed.

Saint Catherine
Situated at the foot of Mount Sinai, the 6th-century monastery of Saint Catherine is an area sacred to Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Against a backdrop of rugged mountains, Saint Catherine is the oldest monastery still in use, with noteworthy Byzantine architecture and a collection of early Christian manuscripts and icons.

Old Cataract Hotel: With a guest list ranging from Sir Winston Churchill to Agatha Christie, the Old Cataract Hotel has an enviable location, above the narrow gorge between the Aswan Dam and the lower Nile, and offers views of feluccas sailing past Elephantine Island. Dating to 1899, the hotel will be closing sometime this year for renovations, expected to reopen in 2010. 800-763-4385;

Ancient Thebes and its Necropolis:
Old Winter Palace: It was here, in 1922, that Howard Carter announced the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun. There are 96 rooms and eight suites, a few of which overlook Karnak Temple. There is a newer wing, plus a front terrace to drink in
memorable Nile sunsets. 800-763-4385;

Memphis and its Necropolis:
Mena House Oberoi: Situated in the shadow of the Pyramids of Giza, Mena House Oberoi was built in 1869 as a royal hunting lodge and converted to a hotel in the 1890s. The 523 rooms and suites are divided between a modern section and the Old Palace, the latter with traditional murals, gilding and wooden balustrades — the choicest have pyramid views. Amenities include a large swimming pool, 24-hour fitness center, 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, horseback and camel rides. Surrounded by 40 acres of gardens. 800-562-3764;

Four Seasons, Cairo: In Cairo proper, Four Seasons offers two of the best options. The 365-room Nile Plaza is in Garden City, in a 30-story tower overlooking the river; it’s a 20-minute drive to Historic Cairo and the shopping of Khan el-Khalili Bazaar, and 10 minutes to the Egyptian Museum. The more intimate, 269-room First Residence on the west bank of the Nile is close to the Zoological Gardens. Both hotels offer 24-hour room service, swimming pool, fitness center and spa. Four Seasons also operates a resort in Sharm el-Sheikh and a year-old hotel in burgeoning Alexandria. 800-819-5053;

Cruising the Nile:
Abercrombie & Kent: The tour operator not only has a substantial network of guides and drivers in Egypt but also a fleet of cruise boats. The 18-cabin boutique Sun Boat III was renovated in 2005, lending the vessel an Agatha Christie-meets-safari veneer, while offering additional contemporary creature comforts. The 40-cabin, five-deck Sun Boat IV had a $1 million makeover completed in late 2006. Both ships, smaller than most, have access to some ports that are off-limits to larger boats when the river runs low. 800-554-7016

Oberoi Hotels and Resorts: Oberoi Hotels and Resorts has two ships plying the Nile, including the 58-cabin Oberoi Philae, built in 1996. In 2007, the company debuted the 27-cabin Oberoi Zahra, a luxury product with four massage suites. 800-562-3764, 800-568-3764;

Sonesta Collection: With a fleet of five ships on the river, Sonesta Collection offers three-, four-, six- and seven-day itineraries, allowing flexibility of pricing, itineraries and departure dates. The five-deck, 49-cabin Sonesta St. George I debuted in 2006; 33-cabin Sonesta Star Goddess also offers an all-suite product. Sonesta Nile Goddess spent a year in renovation and reemerged in February with expanded rooms, a gym and spa.800-766-3782;

Winter offers the most ideal weather with temperatures in the upper-60s in Cairo and upper-70s in Luxor and Aswan; nights can be cool. Summer is intense with temperatures reaching the mid-90s in Cairo and 106 degrees in Luxor and Aswan. When traveling in the high season of winter, combat the crowds by arriving at sites as early as possible or wait until late afternoon when they start to disperse. In summer the same advice applies to beat the heat.

Cameras aren’t allowed inside the tombs, and sometimes fees for video cameras or tripods are expected. ancient thebes AND its necropolis:

Ancient Thebes and its Necropolis is a relatively compact area just a few miles across, 300 miles south of Cairo and reached by regular flights.

Memphis and its Necropolis:
On the outskirts of Cairo, the pyramids of Giza and the Sphynx can be easily reached by taxi. Don’t miss the sound and light show; despite its incongruity with the surroundings it is quite informative and creative.

Saint Catherine:
Many visitors make the three-hour trek to the summit of Sinai, where Moses is believed to have received the Ten Commandments, a trip usually accomplished pre-dawn. The hotels near the monastery are said to be run-down; it’s a four-hour drive to Sharm el-Sheikh, which has an international airport.

Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae:
Although Abu Simbel and Philae are accessible by vehicle and short boat ride respectively, most of the Nubian monuments can only be visited via journeys on the lake. Aswan has a major airport serving Cairo; south of Aswan there are basic tourist hotels at Abu Simbel and an airport with daily flights.

Egyptian Tourist Authority

Pillars of Civilization

Pillars of Civilization CoverPlease visit our Guides & Brochures page to browse a full version of our Pillars of Civilization supplement.

The bus driver escorting a group from the airport into the heart of Luxor summed up our surroundings with grandiose precision.

"The Nile is Egypt’s gift," he said, with a wave of his hand toward the river’s banks. "No Nile, no Egypt."

Egypt lends itself to sweeping generalities, though I later learned the driver was paraphrasing Herodotus. But the ancient Greek travel writer’s assessment holds true today. Although modern Egypt is more than twice the size of California, more than 94 percent of it is arid desert. Its lifeblood is a single river — the source of its water, food and commerce. And, of course, the Nile wends through virtually
every page of Egypt’s history.

The Pyramids of Giza are some of the world’s most recognizable ancient monuments // (c) David SwansonAs such, a cruise on the river is not some indolent indulgence but instead a time-honored passage through Egypt’s veins — the best way to immerse ourselves in the stories and antiquities of pharaohs.

It’s also big business. By one count, there are more than 250 cruise boats plying the river, including the wonderfully antiquated steamer M/S Sudan, built in 1885 and used for the all-star 1978 movie "Death on the Nile." The floating hotels advertise varying levels of luxury, but private bathrooms, a rooftop sun deck and pool, disco, air conditioning and TVs are the norm.

But this isn’t why we came to the Nile.

"Anyone who doesn’t go to Luxor hasn’t been to Egypt," explained Sonia El-Masri, an Egyptologist-guide for tour operator Abercrombie & Kent. "One third of the world’s antiquities are here, plus the Temples of Karnak, the largest religious establishment in the world."

Starting around 2,000 B.C., Thebes, as Luxor was originally known, became Egypt’s capital. The pharaohs built monuments to themselves and their gods on the east bank of the river and crafted dazzling tombs on the west bank for the afterlife.

As one whose knowledge of Egyptology was piecemeal at best, to be in the company of a fine guide made a huge difference in my experience. During the course of four days along the Nile, El-Masri sketched a detailed portrait of Egypt’s history — no easy feat since the sites aren’t laid out in a convenient timeline, one that spans 3,000 years and an array of distinct cultures.

Before boarding A&K’s Sun Boat IV, we spent a day on the east bank, starting at Luxor Temple. Dedicated to Amun, one of Egypt’s gods of creation, the entrance to the temple is guarded by an enormous statue of Ramses II. Before long, El-Masri had toggled my high-school history into gear, recalling that Alexander the Great’s tour of Egypt was a serious venture that went well beyond his founding of Alexandria. Thebes was already 2,000 years old by the time Alexander encountered it, but he rebuilt the shrine and added his image in relief work — a theme we would encounter again as we sailed up the Nile.

Outside the temple entrance an avenue of sphinxes points to the Temples of Karnak, two miles away. Here we were plunged into the religious side of Pharaonic rule, where daily rituals and offerings were made to various altars. Like Alexander, each successive pharaoh would leave his mark, building temples and courts and carving reliefs in his own image. Planned, built and expanded by at least four pharaohs, the Great Hypostyle Hall is the centerpiece, setting jaws agape with its 134 papyrus-shaped pillars, a sandstone forest covering a space larger than Notre Dame.

The next morning was focused on the west bank of Luxor, and as we departed from our boat, I asked which of the tombs would we explore in the Valley of the Kings.

"We will have to see if the gods are with us," smiled El-Masri. "Usually it’s the crowds that determine which tombs we visit."

Our guide used the drive to the valley to bring us up to speed with ancient Egypt’s interpretations of the afterlife. Mummies, I discovered, are not even the half of it. She advised us to watch for a symbolic feather — a figure of justice and truth — which the pharaoh’s heart is weighed against. If the heart is as light as the feather the deceased will continue his journey into the afterlife.

"He will travel 12 hours by day, 12 hours by night," El-Masri explained. "The hours of the night are usually quite risky — there is a snake who will try to hinder this journey."

Our bus eased into a nondescript and nearly vacant parking lot, where a tram took us the short way up the valley. Actually, the Valley of the Kings appeared like nothing more than an inconsequential ravine in desperate need of landscaping. But there seemed to be more tomb entrances than visitors this bright morning, and I think I saw El-Masri rubbing her hands as she surveyed the options surrounding us.

"People want to see Tutankhamun’s because of its fame, because it’s the only place where a tomb was found almost intact," she said. "Even though I tell my clients it is one of the smallest and least significant, they are always disappointed."

King Tut’s horde of treasures for the afterlife was probably Egypt’s most spectacular, but the contents have been shuttled off to museums across the land; however, his mummy is sometimes on display in the tomb.

The 400-foot-long tomb of the great warrior and builder Ramses III depicts scenes of everyday life painted onto the smooth walls in rich detail. In the tomb of Ramses IV, a lush painting of the Goddess Nut spreads across the ceiling, while a red granite sarcophagus occupies the burial chamber. No two tombs were alike, each varying in size and layout. Patient coaching by El-Masri brought the hieroglyphics to life.

The 63 tombs are open to visitors on a rotating basis — about a dozen each day. Several are closed indefinitely, usually for ongoing restoration. Tomb 63 has yet to open to the public: It was discovered only in 1995 by American archeologist Dr. Kent Weeks and is thought to be the most extensive of them all, probably built for the children of Ramses II.

The West Bank contains other vital sites. There is the magnificent Temple of Hatshepsut, a series of terraces extending across a bank of limestone cliffs, barely a stone’s throw from the Valley of the Kings. The audacious Colossi of Memnon, a hulking pair of faceless 60-foot-high monuments, appear primed to lumber to life as if in a Hollywood special-effects extravaganza. Behind them, the Valley of the Queens has some 75 tombs, most notably Nefertari’s — said to be the most beautiful chamber of all.

While Luxor contains many of Egypt’s "greatest hits," a tour of the country that begins here won’t wind up anti-climactic. The Nile cruisers
head to Edfu where Egypt’s best-preserved remains, the Temple of Horus, is guarded by an enormous wall and reliefs depicting Ptolemy XII in heroic battle poses. Further upstream, at a bend in the Nile where crocodiles once lazed, the mood mellows at the Temple of Kom Ombo, where the architecture showcases elegant riverside symmetry.

Just beyond Aswan, the island of Agilkia, holds the honeyed temples of Philae that thrust into blue sky, known as a healing spot with its
depiction of Isis breastfeeding her child, an image often associated with the Virgin Mary. And Abu Simbel at the southernmost reaches of Egypt’s Nile has the glorious temple of Ramses II, fronted by four 65-foot-high statues, while inside are corridors and rooms adorned with some of the country’s most important paintings — all relocated to higher ground in 1968 when the Aswan Dam’s construction caused the river’s flooding.

Flying from desolate Abu Simbel back to Cairo retraces the river’s passage, revealing a stark and narrow ribbon of green that runs from the Aswan Dam to the Mediterranean Sea. For much of that 500-mile stretch, the Nile’s fertile reach is barely a half-mile wide. The river reaches Cairo and fans into a broad and bountiful delta.

Agriculture, antiquities and transportation — the Nile is Egypt’s gift.