Temples of the Nile River Cruise
The stately Nile flows through Egypt as it has for centuries upon centuries. Life along its banks and in the mud-brick houses seems to have changed little. Women still go down with washtubs to do the family laundry. Animals graze on the grasses along its banks. Children play, and fishermen flog the water to drive the fish into their nets. Watching life flow by from the deck of river boat I feel a sense of† temporal dislocation. Then, another modern river boat comes into sight and The Sapphire and the newcomer hoot greetings at one another. I am once again catapulted into the 21st century.
Since we left Luxor, also known as Thebes,† to visit the famous ancient Egyptian temples Iíve had a sense of having shifted into a different time. As I visit the temples the dot the land along the river,† it happens again and again. Only the presence of other short-and-t-shirt clad crowds remind me Iím not in ancient Egypt.
LuxorThe temple at Luxor sits in the heart of town right alongside the Nile. Its long Avenue of Sphinxes originally went all the way to the city of Karnak, two miles north. But even without the line of statues, itís still impressive. The gates of the temple are flanked by the twin colossi of Ramses II that† rise tall into the darkening sky. Wandering through in the twilight, when the crowds have thinned and hidden lights illuminate walls leaving other parts in deep shadow, is a magical experience.
The temple is also famous for the Mosque of Abu al-Haggag that rises amidst the Egyptian halls and statuary. Two pieces of Egyptian history that are uneasily joined together, but remind visitors that Egypt has had a long and complicated history.
Across the river deeper into the West Bank is the Temple of Hatshepsut, built by one of the very few female Pharaohs in Egyptís history. Although her reign was marked by prosperity, family in-fighting ultimately lead to the disfigurement of her statues lining the temple corridors and the rewriting of her accomplishments to be the results of the efforts of others. On a trip filled with impressive monuments, her colonnaded temple is one of the most awe-inspiring.
Built into a cliff face it rises several stories, reached by long spacious ramps that may once have been graced with gardens. In the desert clime, all traces of these have long ago been erased. Yet, what remains is impressive. Unlike the pyramids and burial chambers, the huge Temple is built to provoke a sense of awe and admiration.
The towering limestone cliffs of the nearby Valley of the Kings are riddled with tombs. After enduring centuries of looting, Egyptian rulers finally shifted away from impressive pyramids in favor of a hidden mountainside system of chambers and tunnels which they hoped would stymie grave robbers. The plan was not successful and only the tomb of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamun, was spared Ė largely because he died so young that his small burial site was overlooked.
Without the treasures, and with the wall paintings dimmed with age, the spaces seem claustrophobic. Itís clear these were not meant to impress visitors. But the immensity of the warren of tombs does impress and we pause (in the shade) to consider the scope of the project and the unwavering belief in the importance of these tombs to insure the quality of their afterlife.
Temple of Karnak
Despite being in ruins, this remains the most impressive temple complex. For over 1500 years, each new ruler added his own section. With a sacred lake in front, and an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes leading to the interior filled with smaller temples, shrines, obelisks, it all proclaimed the wealth and power of the pharaohs. When building ceased, the temple complex filled 247 acres, on a scale and size found in few other places.
Today, the temple bustles with tour groups but with enough patience and time we were able to skirt the crowds and wander among the treasures of ancient history trying to imagine what it was like thousands of years ago.
If the other temples are impressive in their ruins, Edfuís Temple of Horus leaves us stunned by its integrity. Dwarfed by the massive towering gates guarded by the god Horus it is here we sense the majesty of the other temples. It is often hailed as what every other temple would look like if we could only see it intact.
The reason for its excellent condition may lie in its previous obscurity. Until the mid-19th century the temple was almost buried in sand. In fact, part of the village of Edfu, a community midway between Luxor and Aswan, was actually built on its roof.
As we near Aswan, we again have the pleasure of easy access to the temple with its entrance almost riverside. Itís late in the day when we visit and we hop off the boat to explore the temple in the gathering dusk. The columns aglow with the atmospheric lighting while the sky turns a deep blue in the sunset. Because of the late hour, we have Kom Ombo to ourselves and can discover the magic at twilight.
We are going to the Sound and Light show Ė a theatrical experience available at several of the temples, but the one at Philae is rumored to be the best. In the pitch blackness of the night, we rode across the river to the tiny island and the temple complex. The show was a combination of walking through the gently illuminated ruins and sitting on stone seats listening to the story of the temple and watching the illuminated buildings. Even without understanding a word of the narrative (the language of the shows rotate and we were there during the German version), the visit was magic, walking through the gently lit hallways and ruins, watching the play of lights accompanying the narration.
Philae and the town of Aswan was our last stop before flying back to Cairo. The view from the plane windows showed a narrow strip of green hugging the river. Beyond that was the sere browns of the desert. If the cities are the modern anchors of the country, the Nile is its heart and history.
Read about visiting Cairo, Egypt
If You Go
We went in January and although Cairo was a bit chilly some days, we found the weather to be perfect for exploring the temple ruins. Thereís no difficulty arranging for flights Ė Cairo is served by the major airlines and the national EgyptAir is a member of the Star Alliance. We flew a combination of United and Lufthansa to Cairo and then EgyptAir to and from Luxor and Aswan.