Liz Gill felt safe and welcomed as she explored the aniquities of this fascinating country on a Nile cruise
Ever wondered about the phrases light-hearted or blue-blooded? Or where the idea of haloes or the symbol for a woman – a circle with a cross at the bottom – comes from?
The answers may be from ancient Egypt. After death a person’s soul was weighed against a feather, bad deeds would weigh it down, good ones buoy it up. Divinities were painted blue hence an association over the years with high rank. They were also depicted with the sphere of the sun god Ra on their heads which Christians, hiding from Roman persecutions in the old temples, might have adapted for their new religion. And some academics think our sign for the female came from the ankh, the symbol of life and birth.
Perhaps one of the most astonishing aspects of ancient Egypt is not how mind bogglingly distant it is but in some ways how near. For this is a people who practised advanced dentistry, obstetrics and orthopaedics, who had female rulers as well as males, who drew pictures with such elegantly simple lines that they could have been produced by Picasso. And who built the most extraordinary constructions to which today’s engineers still pay their respects.
We’ve all seen the images, of course, but nothing can quite prepare you for the sheer scale of these great sites of antiquity. Karnak, our first stop in Luxor, for example, is over 60 acres in size, the largest place of religion on earth. Here are massive stone temples, giant statues, huge obelisks. The hand of one fallen statue currently being reassembled is the size of a man. To walk among them is to feel you have shrunk Alice-in-Wonderland style.
But if they are impressive now they must have been even more so in their day 3,500 years ago when the obelisks were topped with gold and every inch of stone covered with pictures and hieroglyphs in dazzling colours. Ongoing restoration work forbids retouching but even without that it is possible to see from the colours that have been revealed so far just how vibrant they must have been in their glory years.
If Karnak and the temple of Luxor itself – the two were connected by a three kilometre avenue of rams’ headed sphinxes – seem old, they are New Kingdom youngsters in comparison to the works of the Middle and the Old Kingdoms. The great pyramid of Giza at Cairo had already been standing for a thousand years.
The country’s dry heat has helped preserve the sites as has the fact that many of them were abandoned for centuries, submerged beneath the silt of the flooding Nile or the sands of the desert and largely ignored. The tombs, however, which we visit the next day in the Valley of the Kings were deliberately hidden to protect them from grave robbers.
The valleys – of the queens, the nobles and the artisans as well as the Pharoahs – are all on the West Bank. The East Bank was where the sun rose, the place from which the Sun God Ra began his daily journey and hence the city of life. The West where the sun set and where the journey ended was thus the city of death and the place where everyone was buried.
More than 700 tombs have been found so far but, say the experts, that could still be only a third of the total. As elsewhere in this country much remains to be unearthed: after all Egyptology only began in earnest a couple of hundred years ago with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. With the same edict from Ptolemy V written on it in three scripts – hieroglyphs, demotic and ancient Greek – it was at last possible to start deciphering all those mysterious characters.
Three royal tombs are open at any one time plus the most famous of them all – that of the boy king Tutankhamun, discovered in 1922 by the British archaeologist Howard Carter. The house where he lived during his long years of study and searching supported by his patron Lord Carnarvon (whose seat, incidentally, Highclere Castle is the setting for Downton Abbey) is now open to the public and houses the young pharoah’s actual mummy: small – just over five feet -and slight, blackened and shrivelled by mummification, a poignant contrast to the glorious gold death mask, golden sarcophagus and 4,000 pieces of treasure entombed with him.
Carter though must have had a sentimental streak. He found the circle of withered flowers left by the young widowed queen as beautiful as the ‘wondrous things’ and ‘regal splendours’. There was for me something similarly touching in the scenes of domesticity on the walls of the artisans’ tombs. For these husbands and wives, buried together in contrast to the lonely splendour of their rulers, the afterlife was an idealised version of this life with all its comforts and joys and none of its sorrows.
Visiting the tombs is of course enormously rewarding but it can be quite hard work, mentally as well as physically: there are steep descents and lots of steps and you want to soak in as much information and atmosphere as possible. There’s also the inevitable crowd of hawkers and hustlers which can be quite fun – some of them have nice things to sell and they all make you feel like a celebrity – but it can also be quite exhausting.
That’s why a Nile cruise ship is a great way to see classical Egypt. At the end of a busy and stimulating day we can step on board our fabulous five star vessel the Oberoi Philae for delicious food and drink, a dip in the sundeck pool or a pampering session in the spa.
The next day we sail to Edfu where we take a jaunty ride in a horse drawn caleche through the local town to the temple of Horus the falcon god, one of the best preserved of the ancient world,. Then it is on to Komombo where we visit the twin temple of Sobek, the crocodile god, and Horus, the falcon god, first in the evening when it is illuminated in the dark and again in the morning. Nearby is what must be one of the most niche museums in the world – one dedicated to mummified crocodiles. There are 20 of the creatures, revered for their strength and fertility.
The cruise ends at Aswan where we take a boat across to the temple of Philae. This originally stood on a site which would have been submerged when the great dam was built so it was completely dismantled, each one of its 41,000 stones were marked with a letter and a number and the entire edifice was relocated to relocated to its current location. Only one stone, our guide Tarek shows us, was wrongly placed upside down.
We say goodbye to him before flying to Cairo for a last day of a whistle-stop tour of the Pyramids and the Sphinx and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. This houses 120,000 items so we concentrate on a few highlights particularly the Tutankhamun treasures.
Tarek has been a brilliant guide: his knowledge of 5,000 years of history, building techniques, mummification processes, the meanings of hieroglyphs and the extraordinary complexities of the Ancient Egyptians’ religion with all its divinities, sacred animals, obsession with and preparation for life after death, has held us spellbound.
His personal circumstances, however, epitomise the appalling problems now faced by tourism in Egypt. He is a man of substantial learning, who speaks near perfect English and who has great personal warmth and charm. Yet, he tells us, ours is only the third tour he has been able to work on since the revolution of 2011. The shooting down of the Russian plane in November though hundreds of miles away in Sinai made a dire situation worse: visitor numbers plummetted even further, down by as much as 90 per cent according to some estimates. Another telling statistic is that of the 350 cruise ships on the Nile only 70 are currently sailing.
Everyone is desperately keen to stress their security measures: the bank of cameras in a control room in Luxor which scan almost every inch of the place (one foiled an attempt to put a bomb in car park last year); the guards on every Egyptair flight, the sniffer dogs, the scanners, the barriers at hotel grounds and attractions.
No guarantees can be given of course and of course the bizarre ‘hijacking’ a month ago did not help the situation but it is worth remembering that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s does not advise against travel to Egypt’s main tourist areas. Certainly we all felt safe. And we also felt very sorry for all those welcoming strangers who begged us to tell people back in Britain that they must please, please come to Egypt.
Cyplon Holidays offer a night in Luxor at the Maritim Jolie Ville hotel, four nights on the Oberoi Philae with full board and an English speaking Egyptologist on all excursions and two nights at the Conrad Hotel in Cairo, all five star, from £2489 per person. Price includes return flights from Heathrow with Egyptair and private transfers. www.cyplon.co.uk or call 0800 074 8888.