Experience the ancient treasures of Egypt on a four-day cruise.
The Nile is the longest river in the world, with over 4,000 miles of snaking water meandering from Lake Victoria in Uganda through South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt before reaching the Mediterranean Sea, where it delivers 10.5 million cubic feet of water each day. It’s the ancient lifeblood of Egypt, supplying fresh water to centuries of civilization, and it’s where you’ll find many of ancient Egypt’s treasures. The sheer power of this river makes it a wonder of the natural world, but it feels almost mythical, like it’s been created by something besides gravity. This is, after all, the land of gods and goddesses and the people who worshipped them.
After landing in Luxor, a city on the east bank of the Nile River and the starting point for many Nile cruises, I had my first real glimpse of the river. In my imagination, the Nile was a brownish-green mass, moving slowly through dusty canyons. In reality, it’s a deep and sparkly sapphire blue, lined with lush wetlands dotted with palms. My plan was to explore Luxor’s sights before boarding a traditional Egyptian Dahabiya boat for a four-day cruise up the Nile to Aswan.
My trip was organized by Extraordinary Journeys, a bespoke luxury travel outfitter specializing in African safaris and cultural trips to Egypt. Egypt is the sort of place where you need a guide to get the most out of it. It’s perfectly possible to enter an ancient temple or an underground tomb and be overwhelmed with wonder–at the feats of engineering, architectural genius, or intricate, detailed carvings. But to elevate these sites from simply beautiful places to astonishingly rich cultural artifacts that will make you weep with wonder and (truly) enrich your knowledge of the human condition, you need a storyteller. And that’s where Extraordinary Journeys comes in. Yes, they do all the wonderful things that other luxury tour operators do–I never had to handle my own entry ticket, I never had to look at a map for fear of getting lost, and our driver was always there exactly when we needed him, with an air-conditioned car and a cooler full of icy water–but what truly differentiates an experience like this is who you have as your teacher.
Our guide, Mohamed, was not a traditional tour guide. An archaeologist, Mohamed spent most of his life in the academic and government worlds, working as the Inspector of Antiquities at Giza and excavating sites near the pyramids. In addition to being a licensed Egyptologist, he was also a guest lecturer and had traveled the world sharing his stories–even spending a few weeks working on a project at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He was also fluent in hieroglyphics and an absolute troublemaker and jokester who seemed to know at least one person everywhere we went. Mohamed was with us every step of the way, making the story of ancient Egypt come to life in vivid detail.
The Land of the Living and the Dead
Ancient Egyptians are obsessed with death, both theoretically and aesthetically. In modern Egypt, it seems there are a thousand ways to die, from the sinister to the whimsical.
My first introduction to the Nile was a story about death. Luxor, the ancient city of Thebes, is home to countless ancient Egyptian treasures, from the temple of Luxor to the Avenue of the Sphinxes and the temple of Hatshepsut. But perhaps the most historically significant sight is the Valley of the Kings, the burial site of Egypt’s pharaohs.
For ancient Egyptians, the sun was life—the eastern side of the river was the first to greet the sun and in the west, it set over the entombed. The Valley of the Kings, on the west bank of the Nile in the land of the dead, is essentially a secret graveyard carved into a canyon, where centuries of royals were laid to rest in opulent underground palaces. For ancient Egyptians, the afterlife loomed large, almost taking precedence over, well, life. As our guide told us, in one of their first acts as king, a pharaoh would visit the Valley of the Kings with an architect and a map to choose the location of their future tomb.
The treasures, mummies, and sarcophagi have all been removed from these burial chambers, but that’s not why you visit Valley of the Kings. The tombs are works of art, with multiple levels and rooms, and every inch of space covered in beautiful murals. The walls of the tombs tell the life story of their inhabitants, with hieroglyphs and life-sized paintings of the gods Horus, Hathor, Anubis, and other deities. It’s an incredible 360-degree art immersion, like living inside a painting. In this case, the painting depicts the Egyptian book of the dead, a collection of stories and spells meant to ease pharaohs into the afterlife.
Though Valley of the Kings was crowded that day–perhaps more crowded than any other ancient sight we’d visit during the trip–we were the only ones with access to the burial site of Sety I, widely considered the most beautiful tomb in Egypt. Guides aren’t allowed in the tombs because of limited space, so my travel companions and I were accompanied only by the silent keeper of the tomb, a man dressed in a long tunic and turban. It was midday and the scorching sun glared off of the white rocks, but as we descended the stairs, the tomb was cool and dark, with lights spaced along the walls and at the base of every column, highlighting the incredible midnight blue painting designed so expertly that it has never needed a restoration.
Sety I’s tomb is a multi-level adventure. Staircase after staircase took us further into the earth until we could no longer see the opening to the tomb. At one point, the staircase turned into a narrow wooden footbridge crossing over an Indiana Jones-like pit 30 feet deep.
It was like the beginning of a horror film, where unsuspecting art enthusiasts enter into a death trap. I half expected a stone door to slide shut and seal us in, though, to be fair, this would be a lovely place to die—and my loved ones would be dining out for years with tales of my adventurous and mysterious demise.
The Valley of the Kings is full of magic, and there’s a sense of discovery that permeates the air. While most of the royal tombs have been found, there are some that are still hidden and may remain a secret forever, most notably, the burial sites of Amenhotep I and Nefertiti.
Ancient Aliens vs. Human Ingenuity
Karnak Temple, the largest temple in Egypt, is baffling in its enormity. The size and scale of Karnak are bewildering, with columns the size of giant redwood trees and 750-ton obelisks that reached to the sky. Built by Ramses II, the temple was created in dedication to Amon, king of the Egyptian gods.
The scale of Karnak is improbable and the sheer architecture of this place seems like something beyond human creation. But the idea that ancient aliens built Egypt’s temples is absurd and frankly, racist—even if the marvel of construction is still the most flabbergasting part of visiting. Later in the trip, we learned exactly how Karnak was built when we visited the quarry where these obelisks and columns were hewn from rock.
Directly on the banks of the Nile, the quarry supplied the limestone for Karnak, Edfu, and other temples. This rocky moonscape was mined by drilling indentations into the cliffs and rock faces, filling the holes with blocks of wooden pegs, and submerging the pegs with water (or rain) until they expanded enough to crack the rock in surprisingly exact lines. From there, slabs of limestone were loaded on to boats and sailed downstream to be carved at temples. To get the obelisks upright, they were dragged onto man-made hills lengthwise. The side of the hill near the base would then be dug out, effectively lifting the obelisk into position.
The idea of ancient aliens is every wacko’s favorite mystery, but it’s not a mystery at all. There are plenty of things we don’t know about ancient Egypt, but how the temples and pyramids were built is not one of them.
Life on the Dahabiya
After a visit to Karnak, it was time to set sail. The Dahabiya Nebyt is not the most luxurious boat on the Nile (that reputation rests with the S.S. Sudan, winner of our 2019 Hotel Awards), but the experience you’ll have onboard is one-of-a-kind–in reality, the greatest luxury of all. We could dock in places that larger cruise ships weren’t allowed, and we didn’t have to stick to a schedule. This gave us the chance to arrive late or depart early, ensuring that we never had to deal with crowds. Our air-conditioned rooms all had windows and ensuite bathrooms, while the deck was furnished with various lounging areas and a bar that was staffed at all times. Anytime we returned to the boat, we were greeted with fresh juice and an ice-cold eucalyptus-scented towel.
In our first few hours on board, the Nebyt sailed silently upriver while I reveled in the lush green surroundings of the Nile. We passed tiny farmhouses and cottages, painted with the soft pastel hues of the Egyptian bounty–shades of apricot, mango, and banana. Mimosa and jacaranda trees surrounded the houses and mosques, while tall reeds grew thick on the banks of the river. The afternoon trailed into the evening, wowing us with a spectacular sunset. The date palms along the river turned into silhouettes against the cotton candy sky as the call to prayer rang out over the water from tiny villages, piercing the air with a cacophony of melodies.
Once it became too dark to distinguish the shore from the water from the sky, sounds and scents took over. The Nile smelled like hot mud, deliciously full of life yet surprisingly un-fishy. While we sailed through small towns, the distinct aromas of cooking fires reached us from the shore. Further along, a burning pile of dry weeds glowed in the distance, making the air strangely delicious.
Crickets, bullfrogs, and a lone barking dog made up most of the soundtrack, until beautiful Arabic pop songs and the shrill voices of children interrupted the peaceful night. We could see that there was a wedding onshore, with people dancing under a string of lights. I watched from our boat as the wedding passed by and faded into the dark.
Our first official stop on the boat was early in the morning at the temple of Horus, a gargantuan complex (the second-largest in Egypt) with an intimidating front entrance, where we realized that we were the only visitors there—we had the place entirely to ourselves, except for the few watchmen we happened to cross paths with. It was eerie yet magical, and being the only visitors exaggerated the massive scale of Edfu, one of the best-preserved temples in Egypt and one of the only temples where portions of the ceiling are still intact and you can even see the colorful plaster murals.
It was a bit creepy wandering through the deathly quiet halls of Edfu. While the temples of Karnak and Luxor feel open and bright, Edfu is dark, gritty, and spooky. Rooms and staircases lead away from the main hall, but they’re all filled with thousands of hanging bats, and I was too scared to step foot inside. It felt like one wrong move could create a swarm. Mohamed told us that there were crypts underneath the slick black rocks on the floor that worked almost like a bank, with people storing valuables that were later robbed by Greek and Roman tomb raiders. It was one of the many reminders of how sophisticated this ancient society was–and a reminder of the secrets and treasures that are lost forever.
Beasts of the River
Nile crocodiles are famously huge and scary. Up to 20 feet long, these monsters are menaces of both land and water, swimming and crawling far and wide to gobble up everything from crabs to zebra to tourists.
Before the dam in Aswan was built, crocodiles prowled the length of the Nile. Now, they are supposedly non-existent north of the dam, but for Ancient Egyptians, the crocodile loomed large as a menace and a god. The temple at Kom Ombo is dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile-headed god, giving Kom Ombo a strange and otherworldly feel. The weirdest feature of the temple is one that no other temple has: a terrifyingly deep well lined with a spiral staircase that opens to the river. It looked like an opening into the underworld, but in reality, it was an ancient stone aquarium, where crocodiles were lured into the well from a secret passage in the river and kept as revered pets.
I wasn’t sure what was a myth and what was a fact, but next door to the temple, you’ll find a museum filled with embalmed croc mummies of all shapes and sizes, from tiny embryos to 18-foot-long monsters. I entered excitedly but fled immediately—it was horrifying.
Back on the ship, we approached our final stop in Aswan, when the least refreshing breeze in the world began to blow. Our crew hoisted the sails and we drifted into the city. On either side of the river, the palm trees thinned and the stark desert rose. In the distance, we could see the city, high rises and all.
We docked along a rocky shore under a series of tombs where donkeys wandered about. After dinner, a felucca boat pulled up and we disembarked, heading out across the wide river to reach the Aswan night market. We saw other boats gliding along on the dark glassy water, some glittering with multicolored lights and blasting pop music.
The town of Aswan could be Times Square compared to the dusty and sleepy villages we passed along the way. A narrow archway denoted the beginning of Aswan’s market, a long pedestrian street lined with shops and stalls selling colorful kitsch, plastic toys, smelly and oily fish in a can, chaotically embroidered neon clothing unlike anything anybody else in the market was wearing, fresh herbs, dried fruit and nuts, incense, and the occasional tacky souvenir. Some of the stalls were truly fascinating, selling buckets of dead starfish, dried seaweed and sea sponges, and barrels full of precious coral. I left without buying anything, but if they had somehow distilled the smell of the market into a scented candle, I would have bought that.
The crowds were a rude reminder that the universe we had been living in for the past few days no longer existed. Between Luxor and Aswan, the modern world dropped away and was replaced by the legends and stories of gods and goddesses. Sailing on the Nile felt like a journey back in time and an immersion into a world of magic and mysteries.
It’s absolutely mind-boggling how much Egyptologists have learned about ancient Egypt and how many mysteries have been solved, from deciphering hieroglyphics to finding tombs to demystifying the construction process. But it’s also fascinating and somewhat disturbing to ruminate on the things that have been lost to time, pilfered by grave robbers, destroyed by Romans, or simply buried far below the earth. Egypt is still a land of mysteries waiting to be uncovered.