The myth of Pyramids along the Nile. But there’s much more to Egypt along the Nile

It’s been 12 years since I was in Egypt. The excitement of seeing for the first time, the Pyramids and the Sphinx in Giza, a 10 minute drive from downtown Cairo, was a fulfillment of a lifetime travel dream. However, if you have heard and believed the 1952 lyrics of the pop song, ‘See the Pyramids along the Nile’, you’d soon discover as I did, this is a lyrical myth. The mighty Pyramids sit in the beige sandy desert no where near the longest river in the world. One aspect, at that time, which I did regret was not being able to take a Nile River Cruise to Luxor due to the problematic political scene then.

The feeling then was that ships were like sitting pigeons on this narrow waterway. There have been a few very fatal incidents aimed towards tourists in the past years, but I was relieved on this trip to know there was armed presence everywhere and the confirmation that there hadn’t been any problems recently. There’s comfort in knowing that over 9 million tourists visited this Middle East country in 2006 which is over a 5 % increase. And the English top the chart with the most visitors but then of course, there’s the fact that there is 360 days of sunshine a year, so enticing to anyone who lives in any country with rain, snow, sleet and hail.

With tourism being such an important monetary infusion into this poor country, it would be catastrophic if that segment of the economy disappeared. It would also be a shame for travellers since this country is filled with some of the greatest wonders.

Recently, I decided to make up on my missed adventures and took two cruises, one up the Nile and the other down Lake Nasser. Now here’s a conundrum. The Nile flows north even though the direction is south.

An early wake-up call (2.45AM) for our flight from Cairo to Aswan where the 59 cabin ship TIYI was waiting and would take us up the legendary Nile River. Since there are more than 360 cruise ships on the Nile, there’s no getting away from traffic or pollution- one by land, the other by sea. However, on the fluttering sailed felucca in Aswan, we glided over the waters and the air seemed clear and scented as we passed. the renowned Cataract Hotel where Agatha Christie and Winston Churchill have suites named after them.

Jammed packed and moored side by side, we had to walk through the lobbies of three other ships before getting to TIYI. Although small, the cabin was spacious enough to unpack and not trip over luggage, the storage space was adequate as was the small but complete bathroom with shower. However, with the sardine like parking issue, my window looked directly into the cabin in another ship. The occupants and I could have easily shaken hands.

The continuous impressions along the way were the lush trees and orchards, small villages, fishers with rods in hand hoping for the catch of the day on one side while the other bank was often sandy desert conditions.

With only a few ‘sea’ hours each day, the two shops on board, one jewellery, the clothing, were hives of busyness and haggling, an expected exercise in Egypt. Especially active was the day of the costume event. I don’t love dressing in costume but I did manage to twirl a few newly purchased scarves around neck and waist. Abdel, aka Marcus, the jeweller, helped a few fellow passengers who took this dress- up event very seriously. Abdel tied headgear for a usually very conservative business man and happily painted an Egyptian symbol on the face of a fair haired woman from Vancouver. With the ambience and Egyptian menu, it was a successful night.

“Where are you from?” was the constant question when stall owners and street touts tried selling their goods. And if you answered honestly, which after the first few days I didn’t, the comeback was always, “Ah, Canada Dry, Canada Dry”. My fellow travelers decided we were the Canada Dry Fellowship.

With all the temples we visited, Philae Temple of Isis is high on the list of favourites. This huge complex was miraculously moved piece by piece to higher grounds in order to save this incredible site after the construction of the High Dam in the 60s. This flood created Lake Nasser.

My penchant has always been for column capitals. Dozens, each with a different motif were the perfect photo op. Several stall vendors spoke many languages and one near Philae told me he had learned the language just from selling to visitors. He was 52. I was shocked since he looks 30 years older, the strong sun and sand obviously playing havoc with his skin and harsh life. I couldn’t refuse his offer of mint tea which I accepted cautiously worrying about unwashed glass etc. I happily paid his asking price- $1. Everything has a price in this poor country. He was keen to learn more about Canada and became less pushy when he realized I really didn’t want to buy any of his stone carvings. The bottom line was, he wanted to speak English and I wanted to know about the tourist industry. “Slower than it used to be,” he told me, “but it could be seasonal”. It was January and for the natives very chilly during the day and even for foreigners, quite cold in the desert in the evenings.

As we sailed along, we were never far from a shore since the Nile is quite narrow. Too cool for testing the waters of the ship’s swimming pool, instead we were content to listen to lectures and waiting the next meal, (all buffet style). Our final stop on this cruise was Luxor and the coup de grace was the visit to the Valley of the Kings, Queens, Nobles and Artisans then the visit to the 2000 year old Karnack, known for great monuments and mighty reminders of ancient civilizations.

Worthy of a visit was the small, modern Luxor museum with some rare artifacts outside of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. For fun, Luxor’s old souk and streets filled with touts selling everything from scarves and handbags to spices and jewellery, brought out the Egyptian senses of humour and kindness. I was asked by a stall owner to write a letter in English to his friend in the UK. I felt like the scribe of many epistles who has a bench and just writes for the locals.

The friendliness was manifested when I thought the hotel’s business centre was excessively expensive/ I asked a young man in a grocery story if there was an internet café. He quickly called his assistant who quietly walked me to the nearby one. Since there were only a few emails to pick up, the cashier refused to charge me for the five minutes. Smilingly, she told me to come back again.

On the road back from Luxor to Aswan ( for the second cruise), we went in a convoy of armed buses in front and behind and an armed guard equipped with a Russian made rifle seated in the front of our bus. However, had there been any sort of upset, he certainly would not have been our saviour…but he seemed content to be with this rowdy group.

From there it was an early morning flight arrived to Abu Simbel and the start in this Nubian city of the second part of my trip.

Kasr Ibrim Cruise Ship is one of only 5 ships on Lake Nasser. The government is concerned about not polluting the waters and has a strict code regarding the number of ships allowed on Lake Nasser.

Extremely upscale, the 10 year old ship’s first impression was that of a movie set. The lobby had temple like chairs covered with leopard skin, the meeting area on the 2nd deck had stunningly crafted lotus like hand crafted wood columns and burl wood walls. Each suite had a balcony and large windows framing the passing scenery like -sometime sepia sometime Technicolor. My cabin was in the small category however, I was overwhelmed to discover the Presidential Suite. It is one of the most exquisite combinations of rooms I’ve ever seen including international hotel suites. Burl wood walls, some curved, singularly simple Egyptian themed décor, and each piece of furniture obviously well thought out plus a wrap around balcony off from the floor to ceiling windowed receptions area. The huge marble bathroom has separate bath and shower and loads of counter space plus a room size burl wood dressing area.

The public areas were a gathering spot where lectures and films (Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was a sea morning and an appropriate choice). Meals on board were always buffet and although very tasty, if I never see another buffet it will be too soon. But realistically and logistically, it is the easiest way to serve large groups.

A de-stressing ploy, I was told by the general manager, was no business centre, no computers, no telephones (except for emergencies), no TV, no news. It made me crazy.

Here I was, a Jewish woman, in a country bordering on Sudan, feeling safe and well guarded but curious about outside news.

Abu Simbel Temples (1279 BCE) was the highpoint of the trip. Ramses II the Great built the two temples but few have had the impact of these gigantic sculptures, the bas relief, the original colours on some figures and the fact of the amazing feat of having been rescued and re located. These threatened temples would have been swallowed up by the High Dam.

We scrambled off the ship at Aswan, our last stop, to bargain our way through the souk and, when my shopping companion disappeared, the stall owner asked her name. Suddenly throughout the long narrow area, I could hear each salesperson shout her name, Anita, Anita Anita. We were reunited in minutes, her bag filled with brilliantly coloured bargains.

No wonder cruising has become so popular. Few could see as much with so little effort, in so vital and exceptional part of the world.

A few of my colleagues went off to Israel as a post trip. Pre trip I had worried about my Israeli stamp in my passport. Obviously, for those interested in seeing some of the world’s major antiquities, there’s no reason not to go to Egypt. The relationship for tourism between the two countries is most cordial.