There may be no river more steeped in ancient history and religious fable than the Nile – it was vital to the wealth and success of the Ancient Egyptian civilization. A journey into the mystical history of Egypt is undoubtedly best experienced cruising down this majestic river from the deck of a traditional dahabiya, a timeless and elegant class of vessel whose story began in Pharaonic times. Preferably sitting next to your trusty Egyptologist, as he explains and gestures every fascinating detail of how great Egyptian cities grew and prospered on the banks of this fertile river, while you sip on tea and marvel at the lush green shoreline and the peaceful desert expanse that stretches beyond the horizon.
It’s hard to go to Egypt and not become a history buff, or feel like a 1920’s archeologist like Indiana Jones; history and intrigue is around every corner. This particular adventure begins in Luxor. After a night sleeping in an ancient palace hotel, it’s time to explore the royalty of Egypt in the Valley of the Kings, the burial place of the legendary Tutankhamun and 62 other great Egyptian Kings. The Valley of the Queens is equally mesmerizing, as you step inside Nefertari’s intricately decorated Tomb, seldom visited by others. Indulge in a private tour of the Karnak Temple, the largest religious structure ever built in the world. Add in a sunset bike tour and a rooftop dinner at a local restaurant overlooking the glowing temple domes of the city to complete your day in Luxor.
Reflect on your ancient discoveries as you embark upon your voyage down the Nile. The scenes as you float past could almost be the same as in Biblical times. With near-identical dahabiya portrayed in Hieroglyphics on tombs and temples, it makes your imagination wonder how life has changed, and how it hasn’t. A farmer serenading his water buffalo as he milks her, a man in a small, patched-up boat beating the water with his oar to scare fish into his net; all peacefully observed from the slouchy, striped sofa-beds aboard the traditional boats of Nour-el-Nil.
These authentic, shallow-bottomed wooden barges that are almost as old as Egypt were expertly recreated using salvaged materials and original techniques by Memdouh, the passionate sailor and co-founder of Nour-el-Nil. Many of the larger cruise ships dwarf the quaint towns and villages as they swoosh past like space ships. On these smaller vessels you get access to treasured towns like Esme, with the Greco-Roman Temple of Khnum, a partially excavated structure sitting almost 9 meters below ground and dedicated to the ram-headed god Khnum, believed to have created man from his potter’s wheel. There are no other tourists here, and you won’t see any others for the next few days.
Memdouh and the team behind Nour-el Nil have mastered the art of the relaxed unprogrammed schedule. Life simply slows down. The four-hour journey by cruise ship takes us six days, for example. They give guests what they didn’t realize they wanted; the gift of doing nothing.
Morning swims followed by rolling breakfasts of crepes and scrambled eggs become routine. Onboard, nothing is ever hurried; days are spent lounging in a hammock, reading, playing scrabble or backgammon whilst being waited on hand and foot by the charming staff. Next stop is the Temple of Horus at Edfu. Here you must take a 19th century horse-drawn carriage to reach the top of the hill and temple. Your inner child takes precedence, and you realize the rickety ride is definitely the most fun you have ever had climbing a hill!
After five blissful nights of intimate candlelit dinners and peaceful river life, you approach the busy town of Aswan. Set dramatically on the banks of the Nile, wind through the mysterious, maze-y bazaars (souks) where you will encounter master craftsmen braiding baskets, baking bread, or crafting bespoke jewellery. Head out to the famed Abu Simbel Temples and witness the scale and enormity of the rock-cut monument commemorating King Ramesses II. Check in to the Old Cataract Hotel, the sultry setting for Agatha Christie’s ‘Death on the Nile’ novel and host to Winston Churchill and many other famous guests in its 110 year reign as the grand-dame hotel in Aswan. Built by Thomas Cook in 1899 to house European Travellers, who also famously brought steam boats to cruise the Nile, claiming that the dahabiya were too small and slow.
Dahabiya have now made a resurgence, thanks to Nour el Nil, as an authentic yet luxurious way to truly experience the sights, sounds and smells of Egypt. As with many other parts of life, slowing down and looking to the past is sometimes the best way forward.