Destination Guide: Egypt

Ben Dowell discovers that despite recent conflicts, it's possible to relax and stimulate your mind as you take in the ancient wonders of the world on a cruise down the Nile in southern Egypt

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Cruising down the Nile, falling asleep on your deckchair to the sound of a chugging boat engine, the splash and spray of the water and the odd shout from fishermen on the shore, you could forget that Egypt has been hitting the headlines in recent months – for the wrong reasons.

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A revolution, continued instability, a military takeover and a tourist attack mean the land of the Nile is not currently the number one choice for a relaxing break away.

However, despite the heavy presence of tourist police and armed guards at some of the hotels and tourist areas (a necessary precaution), there are parts of the country still considered safe to travel to, and those of brave temperament may want to discover them. 

Along with a group of journos, I was invited to Egypt’s south (believed to be the safest part of the country) at the behest of a government keen to boost declining tourist revenues. A Nile cruise from the ancient sun-drenched city of Luxor in to the city of Aswan is still one feasible way to experience the nation’s ancient past.

Business as usual?

Local cruise liners are still operating, despite the turmoil, and are desperate to get every passenger they can. Our group boarded The Royal Viking Cruise Liner, the kind of vessel you see in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile (although in our case probably a bit bigger), which seemed to be at least one third full: tourism really has taken a hit.

Cruising is what a trip to the south is all about, especially if your boat is as comfortable and well catered as ours. The main stops are sufficiently far enough apart to allow large chunks of an afternoon or morning free to sit on deck and simply watch the country pass you by. If you need something to dispel any anxieties about security, watching the kingfishers and the farmers in their fields is as good a way as any. Every little moment seizes your attention, the scenes changing from farming landscape one minute to bustling metropolis the next.

Given that instability still affects the north around Cairo, you probably won’t be seeing the Pyramids. However, Luxor, the 4,000-year-old city and jewel of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom era Egypt, may still be accessible. The word Luxor means the city of palaces, based on an early misunderstanding by the Arabs about what it is they were seeing – because it’s not palaces that dominate this beautiful city but temples – particularly the two stunning ancient temples of Karnak and Luxor.

You’ll need at least half a day to drink in both temples, understand the history, and get your head around the astonishing achievements they represent. Goodness knows how amazing they would look in their original guise and freshly painted, although flecks of colour remain in areas never subjected to the harsh African sun.

The Luxor authorities are working on plans to excavate the Avenue of the Sphinxes, an ancient roadway that connects the two temples. The plan is to line the way with original and restored sphinxes for more than a mile, essentially making the whole place an open-air museum, one that will probably work best at night when it is lit up in the cool of the evening (even in the spring, when the temperatures regularly go over 35 degrees, you can see the sense in this).

Near Luxor sits the Valley of the Kings, where the Ancient rulers were buried in the Middle Kingdom period, after everyone finally realised that a massive ancient wonder of the world steepling 300 plus feet out of the desert was a tad visible and possibly an all too obvious and popular target for tomb robbers. 

When visiting Egypt, I was prepared to be a little intimidated, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer beauty of the place. Desolate and quiet, the baked, rocky mountain landscape is inhospitable – as it was meant to be. Here you can really taste history, feel the parched barrenness of the place, and experience its harsh inaccessibility.

Although, the breathtakingly beautiful tombs have long since denuded of their treasures and royal bodies, the beauty of the inscriptions, preserved in the dry, cool heat where they have lain for thousands of years, will blow your mind.

From the Valley of the Kings you can visit the temple of Hatshepsut, a stunning funerary temple to the Queen of the same name set at the foot of the valley of the Queens (see below). It is a place of breathtaking magnificence, accessed only with a long walk along baking desert but is also a place with a tragic history. For it is here (not that the authorities advertise the fact) that a handful of Islamist fanatics brutally killed 62 people, mostly tourists, on 17 November 1997. 

Also worth a visit is perhaps one of the lesser-known ancient sites: Kom Ombo. It is a temple situated right on the bank of the Nile that looms out of the landscape as you dock, and sits literally yards from your cabin. Situated on a noticeably drastic turn in the Nile and dedicated to the Crocodile God Sobek it is an imposing ruin. But it is also a reminder that in Ancient Egyptian times crocodiles were a real and present danger and the temple was designed to celebrate as well as appease this terrifying animal; fortunately for modern day travellers, the crocodiles that once basked here are now banished south of the Aswan dam (a few score miles upriver) and, we are assured, hardly ever escape, although some of the mummified ones that were found in a sacred animal cemetery in the 1970’s are now displayed in the museum located on the site. It’s hard to forget the defiant toothy grin these ancient animals flash at you from across the centuries, but it is a good reminder that behind the magnificence of Egypt there’s a bit of bite too. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Tips

We travelled in spring – which is peak season because temperatures in the south are a gentle 35 degrees centigrade. In the fierce summer months it can get up to 50 degrees.

Take mosquito spray – even in March. You are on the biggest river in the world. Mossies love water. It’s not hard to work out why you need it…

Prepare to haggle and be hassled – everywhere. Egypt is having economic problems and the purchasing of goods is probably beset by even more intense haggling than normal. However, integrating with the local community, haggling in marketplaces, is part of the joy of a trip to Egypt, if the thought of that makes you nervous, well, this may not be the place for you…

For more information, please visit: www.egypt.travel, www.gotoegypt.org and Facebook.com/LoveEgyptUK

A word on security…

Although we benefited from beefed-up security, the well-armed tourist police are visible at all the main docking areas and are very visible presences at major tourist sites. If you need further reassurance, remember that most of the demonstrations are in the northern capital Cairo and in and around the university campuses and of course in the now well-known Tahrir Square. Travelling south, you will be less aware of the turmoil, but still need to be vigilant. Do exercise a degree of caution be aware that the security situation is transient, and check the government foreign travel advice website before you book/fly. See here for more details.

Flights and holiday itinerary

All flight and tour operator options can be found at www.egypt.travel

EGYPTAIR is the national airline of Egypt and a member of Star Alliance since 2008. One return flight weekly (Monday) to Luxor from Heathrow starts from £350. EGYPTAIR has 14 flights weekly to Cairo from Heathrow and five flights weekly from Manchester to Cairo (excluding Monday and Wednesday). For more information, please visit: www.egyptair.com


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