Anyone who has seen the treasures of Tutankhamun in the hush of London’s British Museum or New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art knows the overwhelming power of these ancient artifacts. But seeing the magnificent temples and tombs where relics like these were unearthed, in their native Saharan element, excites an entirely different kind of awe. It can bring to life, with a little imagination, the astounding civilization of Ancient Egypt itself.
There may be no more enjoyable way to experience these astonishing sites than on a Nile cruise. I took one such cruise in October—a seven-day voyage from Luxor to Aswan. The approximately 120-mile stretch between these two Nile cities (about 400 miles south of Cairo) is home to an an amazing amount of pharaonic riches, from the legendary Valley of the Kings, where Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922, to the temples of Luxor, Kom Ombo and Philae, to name just a few.
Many of the most impressive sights are clustered around Luxor itself. The Valley of the Kings, for example, nestles in the arid hills on the west bank of the city. The Valley is the main burial place for the pharaohs who ruled between the 16th and 11th centuries BC, and contains at least 62 known tombs and chambers. My favorites were the tomb of Amenhotep II, with its remarkable depictions from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and the tomb of Tutankhamun, whose body is on display in a temperature-controlled glass case. (Note: It is a special sight you can only see in person! Neither tour guides nor cameras or video cameras are permitted inside the open tombs.)
My next stops were the nearby Valley of the Queens, where the wives and children of the pharaohs are entombed, and the breath-taking Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. The latter is an architectural feat of stunning symmetry built into a sharply rising cliff and is considered among the greatest buildings of the ancient world. Across the river, on the east bank of Luxor, are two more spectacular sights: the photogenic Temple of Luxor, with its colossal statues, obelisks, columns and friezes, (I remembered them from the James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me and the Agatha Christie mystery, Death on the Nile!) and the nearby massive temple complex of Karnak. Essentially a huge open-air museum, Karnak is the largest ancient religious site in the world.
South of Luxor, popular stopovers are the cities of Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo, each of which is home to yet another remarkably preserved temple. Edfu also boasts a lively street market that provided a pleasant change of pace and a reminder of the richness and vibrancy of contemporary Egyptian life.
Our destination port of Aswan also offered much to see and do, including a visit to the famous Unfinished Obelisk, which lies in a granite quarry where stone workers abandoned it thousands of years ago after cracks appeared in the rock. If completed, the obelisk would have been the largest ever cut in ancient Egypt, measuring about 120 feet and weighing almost 1,200 tons!
In between the awe-inspiring ventures onto land, I whiled away many hours on the shaded deck of my vessel, sipping an iced beverage and watching the timeless spectacle of rural Egypt float slowly by. What better, more relaxed way to see this remarkable country than on a Nile cruise?