Sailing Down the Nile
Vanity Fair, spring 2008
Following in the wake of Anthony and Cleopatra as they sailed down the Nile can set up dangerously high expectations. For he was a man who could drop cities, islands and provinces onto the lap of his lover as if they were jewels, and go on to award his bride with all the kingdoms of Syria as a wedding present. Other Nile travellers are equally difficult to surpass. The river voyage of Hadrian and Antoninus concluded with the self-sacrifice of the young Greek, who drowned himself in the waters of the Nile delta as a ritual offering for the renewal of the genius of his beloved, bearded Emperor. His name was commemorated by a new Nilotic city established in his honour. Even the travels of a pious Church-going Englishwoman, Florence Nightingale, will shame any modern traveller. For not only did she spend months on the river but experienced a spiritual transformation amongst the ghostly ruins of Abu Simbel that would empower the rest of her life.
I had always been fascinated by the chance of taking on this most romantic of all the world's river journeys - until I witnessed what the late 20th century had achieved. One evening I watched from the banks of the Nile as cruise ship after cruise ship steamed past, like a stream of landing craft to purgatory, their lights ablaze, their disco-bars switched on, with five storeys of identical luxury suites stacked up like a top-heavy container ship. The speed with which they were travelling sent a storm-level of wash against the river-banks. For a three-day timetable had to be kept to, which appealed to the concept of cultural mini-break for the tourists from the Red Sea coastal resorts. At the accustomed landing stations these boats were all moored together, not only bow to stern but four boats across - so that the reflective glass of the luxury suites offered mirror images of each others limbo-land. It was noticeable that the customers making use of the sun-beds beside the tiny pools and the ping-pong tables beside the cocktail bars looked a lot jollier than the hassled tourists returning from their expeditions.
So I mentally erased a Nile cruise off my inner wish list in favour of a much longer stay in Luxor, in much the same way that in Cairo one should ignore the Giza pyramids (and the appalling traffic all around them) in favour of more days spent exploring the mosques and Mameluke tombs of the medieval city by foot. Breath deeply of the magnificence of Sultan Hassan college, the eclectic disorder of the Gayer-Anderson house and the sublime courtyard of the Ibn Tulun rather than join the heaving masses of coach tours and back-packers fighting their way towards the Sphinx.
But then one morning of casual conversation over an English breakfast table turned this resolution right around. For my father-in-law (recently advancing from his passionate relationship with Hampshire chalk streams to take on the great rivers of the world) had replied to my inquiries about his recent boat trip, 'that they had managed all right but I am afraid that it wouldn't do for you Barnaby.' I was shocked. For I had always considered myself the most easy-going and tolerant of travellers, touched by the enthusiasms of the amateur scholar if not the pilgrim, and found it an alarming sign that my father-in-law, a nobleman, a courtier, the ex-Chairman of a merchant-bank and then a brand-name petrol company, should consider himself more adaptable than his feckless son-in-law. If he could cope with the crowds, so must I.
This conversation was two years ago. I have now just returned from my third boat trip on the Nile. I wish to go down this river many, many more times. To wake in the morning light, to watch the sun rise up through the mountains of the surrounding desert as it slowly awakes the banks of the Nile is one of the glories of existence. To watch the shifting pallet of the palm tree, its sombre dusty green set against the vivid colour of the fields, pomegranates, mangoes, apricots and the high banks of reed. To watch the morning flight of egrets, herons, kingfishers, moorhens, cormorants and swallows (each with their own pace and rythmn), to smell the smoke rising up from kitchens hidden in the dense palm-gardens, the small bright-coloured fishing boats setting out with their nets, soon to be followed by a trickle of dun-coloured cows and sleek black water buffaloes being led to island water-meadows. This is all achieved in double relief, for the sun backlights the east bank into silhouette while pouring colour and warmth into the gardens and orchards of the west bank, all the while playing magician with the colours of the sky, preparing the world for the rippling spiritual cry of the muezzin.
All this is yours, made even more poignant by the knowledge that later this same day, you will be looking at the work of artists who thousands upon thousands of years ago tried to catch some of this insistent beauty. For it is only by travelling on the Nile that you become instinctively aware of the nonsense that has been written by western writers. All that rubbish about Egypt being a tomb-worshipping and death-obsessed culture. It is the reverse, for they so loved their life on the banks of the Nile that they wished to continue with it for ever, complete with loving images of the ripening crops, the happy cattle, the flights of duck's, the dances, music, the shade of the orchards and the festivals of life. In ancient Egypt when you passed the tomb of a friend or an ancestor you didn't mutter pieties you simply wished the dead a thousand fresh baked loaves of bread, a thousand bumpers of beer and fat cattle. This is still the correct spirit in which to embrace the experience of sailing down the Nile.
There are also the seasons to consider. Or not to, for ancient Egypt had three seasons (each four months long) not our four and had the good fortune to totally miss out on winter. Before the Aswan dam ruined the ten-thousand-year-old rituals, the year began with the season of the Nile flood (in our mid-summer after the monsoon rains have hit the highlands of Ethiopia and East Africa), followed by the season for planting (our autumn), followed by that of the harvest. The Nile season is open all year round but is at its best when our weather is at its worst, from October through to April. Easter, Christmas and the New Year are peak season in terms of bookings and price. If you are looking for discounts, try May and September.
After a diary, the next thing to consult is a map. I had, at first imagined that I might be meeting my Nile boat in the brackish, backwater lakes of fin-de-siecle Alexandria. Beginning our journey at the waters end, amongst the slow-moving canals and sinuous branches of the Nile that snake through the flatlands of the Delta. This proved to be very naive and at least 150 years behind the times. My next thought was that we would meet our crew in Cairo, perhaps moored alongside Jan Morris's old houseboat on the banks of Zamalek or Roda island. This was only a generation behind the times. For though you can indeed take boat trips out from Cairo they have to be, Cinderalla-like, back at dock by one in the morning. For the Nile cruise is restricted by the government, concerned about sandbanks and state-security issues from the 80's conflict with Islamists. So having unfurled your map of Egypt, you can promptly roll three-quarters of it right back up again. The section of the Nile that is cruiseable stretches between Luxor and Aswan.
This makes the planning of your trip very easy. For Luxor and Aswan have superb hotels and are places to return to, not just to visit once. Between Luxor and Aswan there are three great temples that stand just beside the Nile at Esna (also spelled Isna), Edfu and Kom Ombo. But there is a problem that you should be aware right from the start, which is cultural overload. Luxor is the modern town that sits beside one of the ancient political and religious capitals of Egypt, the city of Thebes with its great temple complex at Karnak and its rich cluster of royal tombs on the opposite bank (The Valley of the Kings). About nine-tenths of all the ruins and paintings of ancient Egypt can be found around Luxor. It also has, in terms of age and élan all of the very best stuff. You should always pace yourself. Luxor, like Rome, Istanbul and Venice is a place to take your time over. While the three temples along the Nile, while astonishingly rich in symbolism, mythology, artistry and belief, are products from the Ptolemaic dynasty (Cleopatra's family descended from one of Alexander the Great's Macedonian generals) and the Roman Empire. Anywhere else in the world, a series of free-standing temples that dates back to the Roman Empire would be highlighted as the proud heart of a cultured nation, but this is not so in Egypt.
What is needed is time. Time to slowly digest these marvels, time to watch the river-banks, to walk and explore, so that the temples can be seen in all their individual glory and not muddled up into one continuous ochre blur of the past. Especially if your itinerary has been planned to include the temple of Dendera (just north of Luxor) as well as a day-trip flight to visit Abu Simbel (a long way south of Aswan).
If you have sufficient time on your hands, (a fortnight would be good, with time to acclimatise, time to get your eye in) there is absolutely no doubt that you should try to hire a Dahabiya - one of the traditional old sailing barges. This is especially true if there are enough of you, four groups of friends or an extended family, to take over the entire boat. At it's very best, a Dahabiya will be composed of between eight and a dozen bedrooms, with their wooden top-deck scattered with cushions and tables like an Orientalist water-colour by John Frederick Lewis. Watching the crew hoist the canvas sail and manipulate the wooden chocks of the rudder is a form of meditation in itself. Whenever we went ashore, our sailors would don turbans and staffs and escort us, which was just perfect. We also had the company of one of the leading British travel-writers about Egypt and his Arabist wife, Antony Sattin and Sylvie Franquet. They run a couple of trips a year using the Nile's most elegant boat and its most beautiful crew. Antony has written at least half a dozen books about Egypt and would sketch out the major themes of each day over the last coffee pot at breakfast. As well as talking over what we had seen during cocktails and gently reminding us about Napoleon, Mamelukes, the Khedives, Lord Cromer as well as the sensual passions of Forster for a ticket collector and Flaubert for a dancing girl. Sylvie filled in with Arabic love songs, old textiles, new restaurants and the arts of the dedicated Cairo-shopper and clubber. They only work their added magic on the boats owned, decorated and furnished by Henrique and Elenore which currently includes the Assouan and El Nil. Henrique comes straight off the pages of Don Otavio, a maveric self-taught ships master from Mexico with an eye for the true drama of mast, spur, rudder, bowsprit and canvas. Elenore (who knew the trucks routes across West Africa as intimately as her wooded homeland of the Auvergne) is responsible for everything else. She rescued the chandeliers that illuminate dinner from a flea-market in Alexandria and the workday tables set off by the nests of divan day-beds, cushions and bolsters enlivened by a scattering of silk and beaten brass coffee-tables. Her bedrooms are memorable for their restful simplicity, pale walls and Egyptian cotton sheets lit by defused light that comes bouncing off the river through latticed blinds.
However you should bear in mind a couple of things before making a booking. You will eat together from the dish of the day prepared by a competent local cook who was at his best when we asked for local dishes. Although tugs are often used in slack days, the Dahabiya is by its very nature a vessel driven by the wind not a clock. We often arrived at a site in the baking heat of midday, or a whole day later…so if you are the sort of person with an inbuilt timetable, or would like to know when you are expected to arrive, you should most certainly look elsewhere. On the benefit side, we visited a number of minor sites, a totally ruined city (shin-height archaeology this), some tombs inserted into an ancient quarry, a camel-market, all of which allowed the great temples to shine in their true glory.
I didn't miss them for a moment whilst on our week-long trip on the Dahabiya, but there are some decided advantages to travelling on a bigger boat. Things like a wine list, a menu, instant access to a breakfast buffet, to a well-run café and a bar not to mention the opportunity to sulk alone on the balcony of your bedroom with a book or your water-colours, or keep to a table of six friends, rather than join in the perpetual drawing-room life of a smaller boat. Although I am on the al fresco and picnic side of life, it is undeniable that after dusk there are bugs and a chill dampness about the waters of the Nile. So dinner was as welcome in the dining room of a big boat as it was disappointing to be below decks for breakfast. However fussy you might appear to be to the harassed waiters (running up and down several flights of stairs to satisfy your whims) lunch should always be requested outdoors. There are three hundred boats licenced to cruise the waters of the Nile. Choose between just two, the Sunburst which is run by Abercrombie and Kent (which has the prettiest exterior lines) and the Oberoi Philae. Both boats go out of their way to secure their own moorings, to time temple visits outside of the rush and spend money on employing keen and articulate guides. Above all they realise that though we might like the bathrooms to be as sharp as modern technology with allow, cane chairs will do very nicely on the deck, conversation not music should predominate in the dining room and that attractively worn wooden decks should be allowed to stay. Neither are cheap. Abercrombie and Kent remains the old money choice, the Oberoi Philae is more popular with foreign embassy staff and resident expatriates. British and American voices are in the majority backed up by Italians and German.
The smartest and most expensive boat on the river is undoubtedly the Oberoi Zahra. It has more staff than guests, easily the best and most adventurous kitchen, the largest pool, the biggest bedrooms and bathrooms, with guides recruited from the staff of the Cairo Museum. There is a whole deck devoted to spa treatment manned round the clock with graceful masseurs. The Jacuzzi-level heat in the pool, and the choice of twenty-five Havana cigars in the library, the mirrored glass of the cabin-windows, the Japan-Thai minimalist interiors was not what I came for, but clearly all the other guests on my recent trip relished them as they did the state of the art CD and DVD players and electronic desk connections in the bedrooms. Even my clammy holiday snaps make it look as if I was dwelling in a fashion shoot and to an extent I was, mingling with heiress blondes from Greek-emigree Switzerland, glam gays, a pair of honeymooners and three generations of a Hong Kong dynasty playing mah-jong in the bar beside a couple of well-healed Brits with their whisky-sodas at the backgammon table. The organisation was superb, the time-keeping impeccable. For instance we arrived at Edfu to enjoy the temple flood-lit at night with not another traveller or bazaar tout in sight. At turn-down a neatly typed sheet listed the itinerary for the next day, and we kept to it.
I rather fell for the company of the expert local guides, scribbling down notes as we dwelt on the symbolism of the temples after we returned to the boat. For sooner or later to make a Nile cruise really work you have to immerse yourself in the mythology, start guessing at the Gods, their variant crowns and atavars. Join the game of symbolism, spotting the insistent dualities of ancient Egypt that flicker between the desert and the sown, the red land of wind, heat and dust and the black land of Nile irrigated plough-land. The shepherds staff and the harvester's flail, the rivalry between the brothers Seth and Osiris, as well as the hoped-for harmony between the papyrus-shaped columns of Upper Egypt and the lotus-shaped ones of Lower Egypt. To examine how the Egyptians excavated aspects of the divinity from out of the habits of the dung-beetle, the serpent, the vulture and the jackal not just the lioness and the hawk. To realise that although great temples are always about tithes and authority, to survive they had also to work and be loved. They were centres of music, joyful seasonal ceremony, lit up by artistry, sensual festivals, safe-deposit houses and places of trade and charity. Whether you count the 180 steps to the altar, the seven doorways to the shrines or the shifting pattern of trinities and divine couples, they were also tools for understanding yourself and the universe. Seth and Osiris would never subdue or conquer, for they are but aspects of our opposing natures and the complementary forces of our universe. Just as the symbolism of the sun-god Ra-Ammon would lead the way towards the insistent monotheism of the Jews and Muslims, and the nurturing Horus towards the Madonna. If Egypt is the gift of the Nile, our culture still swims within the gifts of Egypt. Rome and Athens, even holy Jerusalem are some of the many intellectual daughters of the Nile. But there is no need to allow a rictus grin of false piety to creep across one's mouth. The Egyptians had a genius for returning things to earth. Their great creator God had to start making this world all alone by playing with himself. One of Ra's many titles was Lord of the Hand.
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by Barnaby Rogerson