Early evening on the Nile in Cairo, and the sail of our felucca, the traditional Egyptian sailing boat, was swollen with pink light. Mohamed – guide, boatman, sage – was standing in the stern, balanced against a stay, guiding the tiller with his bare foot. Caught up in the arms of the river, we were talking pyramids.
“You are mistaken,” he said. “There are no secrets on the Nile.”
From vantages all over Cairo, from the windows of the new St. Regis Cairo to the ramparts of the Citadel, the great pyramids of Giza are visible beyond the rooftops, icons of the city standing on the edge of the western desert. Their scale is staggering; Napoleon calculated that the stone from the three pyramids could build a wall 9ft high around the whole of France. Their antiquity is scarcely creditable; they were already 2,000 years old when ancient Rome was still a collection of thatched hovels. But as much as anything, it is their silence that intrigues.
The pyramids tell us almost nothing about their occupants, about the lives they lived, about the world they came from. Only diligent archaeological detective work has discovered the names of the pharaohs buried within them. There are no inscriptions, no reliefs, no wall paintings. By the time the ancient Greeks turned up to swoon at the feet of the pyramids, even the contents were missing; the tombs had been looted centuries before. As a window on ancient Egypt, they are closed, shuttered and secretive.
Mohamed pushed the tiller starboard and we tacked towards the eastern bank, the direction of medieval Cairo. The old city, now a World Heritage Site, is the antithesis of the pyramids. In the warren of narrow lanes and alleys, vociferous life swirled around traditional Cairene houses, past some of the greatest buildings of medieval Islam. There seemed to be so few secrets here among crowds surging towards the clamor of Khan el-Khalili bazaar in search of everything from a cradle to a camel saddle, from perfume to chamber pots, from junk to jewels.
“But there are no secrets in ancient Egypt either,” Mohamed insisted. ‘Everything you want to know about the pyramids, about the men once buried in their chambers, about the world of ancient Egypt – everything, you will find along the banks of this river. The Nile is an open book.” Laughing, he scooped a handful of river water and splashed me. “Follow it,” he said. “It will answer all your questions.”
So follow it I did, though the idea of traveling the length of the Nile had occurred to me long before I had met Mohamed. A giant among rivers, the world’s longest and mightiest (though some claim this title for the Amazon), it runs almost 4,000 miles from its headwaters in the Mountains of the Moon in Central Africa to its twin mouths on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. To anyone who loves travel, and the challenge of a grand journey, an expedition up the Nile is irresistible.
Beyond Egypt, it curves through Sudan and Uganda. But that perhaps is another river, and another story. In Egypt itself, a country that Herodotus described as the gift of the Nile, the monuments along the banks, and indeed the river itself, tell the story of the lost world of ancient Egypt in detail so graphic that we come to feel a part of it.
I followed the Nile from its mouth at Rashid on the Mediterranean to its source at Lake Victoria in Central Africa. For nine months I traveled in antiquated buses, in freight trains, in the backs of lorries, and wherever I could, on the river itself. I drifted to the tombs of Beni Hasan in a leaky boat piloted by an ancient fellow with the creased and leathery features of a pharaonic mummy. I traveled from Asyut to Luxor in a barge carrying cement, sleeping on a mat on the decks with the three-man crew. I sailed upriver in a felucca from Luxor to Aswan, stopping at the great temples of Edfu and Esna and Kom Ombo, picturesque on its bluff above the river.
I fell in love with the Nile, and the timeless life along its banks. In the early mornings, the surface of the river was glassy as egrets flew upstream, their yellow legs skimming their own reflections. Small boys shepherded dusty buffalo down to the water’s edge. Men appeared among the reeds, climbing into fishing skiffs. Caryatid women followed paths through the fields with water pots on their heads, moving like belly dancers – their bodies undulating, their heads perfectly still.
As the morning sun polished the river, voices drifted from the banks, elongating across the surface of the water. Blue-domed shrines rose from fields of sugar cane. An old man passed on a donkey. In the palm groves, between the aisles of tall trunks, flocks of sheep wandered through latticed shade, trailed by robed shepherds. On the Nile, past and present intersect; the fascination of these river banks, and of the fellahin or farmers who mine its waters, is how little has changed since the days of pharaohs.
Without the Nile, Egypt would not exist. The country is a desert, the eastern reaches of the Sahara, and its inhabited territory merely a long thin oasis, a line of irrigated cultivation, framed by dry wastelands. The border between the two is so distinct that you can straddle it, one foot in lush grasses, the other in sand. I wondered if ancient Egyptian anxieties about death might owe something to this tenuous geography, to the proximity of the enveloping desert, traditionally the land of the dead.
At Abydos in middle Egypt, I went ashore to see the great Temple of Seti. This was the journey every ancient Egyptian longed to make, just as Muslims today all wish to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. If they didn’t manage to come to Abydos in life, they believed their soul would travel here in death. Up and down the Nile on the painted walls of tombs, on the carved reliefs of temples, under the lids of sarcophagi, is this theme of river journeys, of boats, their sails hoisted to the north wind, all traveling to Abydos, the center of the Osirian cult of resurrection. The painted river scenes are eerily familiar to the modern traveler.
Above: a felucca in Aswan, on the banks of the Nile
(©Tuul & Bruno Morandi/4Corners)
Largely intact, the temple is like the set for an Indiana Jones film, the remnant of a lost civilization. The disembodied voices of other visitors echoed between the stone walls. Figures flickered like ghosts in the shafts of light between the massive columns. The gloom deepened as I passed from one hall to another towards the inner sanctuaries where the gods lived.
Here, on the wall reliefs, some of the most beautiful in Egypt, all the secrets of the sacred rituals are displayed, rituals that would have been known only to the high priests and the pharaohs. We see the royal figure washing and dressing the statue that represents the God’s soul. We see the rituals of purification and the presentation of offerings. Finally, we see the pharaoh withdrawing, scattering sand on the floor, and sweeping away his own footsteps as he backs out of the sanctuary. These are works of art, masterpieces of the ancient world, and they appear on these walls like faded and cracked film footage from a world that flourished four millennia ago.
At Luxor in Upper Egypt, any lingering notions about the silence of ancient Egypt were soon overturned. Known as Thebes in ancient times, Luxor is a treasure trove of antiquities, and they come with a language, a history, a pantheon of identifiable gods, a list of kings, not to mention the endless tales of warring dynasties, of hopes and despairs, of political intrigues, and family conflicts, culled from inscriptions. On Luxor’s east bank stands Karnak, the colossus of ancient Egyptian temples, that has dazzled visitors for centuries. On the west bank, the funerary side of the river, I explored the Colossi of Memnon, the Ramesseum, which inspired Shelley’s Ozymandias, the Temple of Hatshepsut, a magnificent elegy for Egypt’s first female pharaoh, and Medinet Habu with its ithyphallic gods.
But it is in the Valley of the Kings that you come face to face with the fears and hopes of the ancient Egyptians. Sixty-three tombs and burial chambers are tunneled into the soft earth of this remote valley, their corridors lined with paintings that depict the rituals of death, and the images of paradise.
In the tomb of the Pharaoh Merneptah I made my way down the long tunnel towards the burial chamber. Along the walls were reliefs of elegant gods and their attendants with images of the dead pharaoh preparing for his journey to the next world. The carvings seemed as clean and precise as the day they were made. Their colors, after more than 3,000 years, glowed in the dim light.
I paused to examine the lithe figure of the Western Goddess. She was wearing a rather fetching topless frock. In the sloping tombshaft I passed the Hour Goddess, the different forms of Ra, the jackal Anubis, alert and watchful, past the sun disks and the scarab beetles, past the exquisite registers of hieroglyphics that unlocked the secrets of eternity.
At the bottom I emerged in the tomb chamber. All that remained was the granite lid of one of the four sarcophagi that had enclosed the mummy. Across the top was an effigy of the pharaoh, his arms folded across his chest. He was ageless. Beneath the lid was the beautiful Nut, goddess of the sky, stretched above the wrapped mummy like a lover. In one of these Valley tombs, some 19th-century graffiti captures the Egyptian anxieties as simply and eloquently as a dozen ancient reliefs. Scrawled on the hull of a royal barque is a single line: “You must not forget me.”
For ancient Egyptians, the next world was not a cloud-strewn heaven of angels and harps. Their paradise was simply the Nile. Their images of the next world were images of their beloved river. In the tombs we find feluccas with sails set, fishermen casting nets, boatman waiting for fares. If they were to live forever, what could be more divine than the banks of the Nile?
Over two millennia later, the third Aga Khan agreed. One of the world’s wealthiest men, he spent his winters in Aswan, and asked to be buried here on the banks of the Nile when he died in 1957. Every evening his mausoleum, standing on the west bank, darkens to a silhouette against a colored sky.
Now emphatically the end of Egypt, Aswan was for millennia the limit of the known world. Even in the early years of the 20th century, European visitors, enjoying cocktails on the terraces of the Old Cataract Hotel, could still thrill to the idea that beyond lay a barbarian darkness, little known and largely unexplored. Yet Aswan has none of the melancholy transience of a frontier town. It is a delightful and sophisticated place. If Luxor is a town of archaeological sights, an intense immersion in ancient Egypt, Aswan is a place for aimless meandering, where people come and go on boats.
One day I took a boat across to Elephantine Island, and strolled through villages where women sat on their doorsteps sifting rice and gossip. Another day I went upriver to the ruins of Philae, a temple that seemed to have sprung from the Nile itself. Through the empty windows of the Hall of Nectanebo were views of boats and water birds. Yet another day I explored the sprawling ruins of San Simeon Monastery, on a bluff, half a mile into the desert. Founded in the seventh century, it was originally dedicated to Saint Hadra, a cheery fellow who encountered a funeral procession on the day of his wedding. Seized suddenly with the tragedy of life, he went straight to a hermit’s cave without ever consummating his marriage.
In the evenings the feluccas spread swallow wings to the north winds that have carried boats up the Nile, against the currents, since before they built the Great Pyramid. Nowhere in Egypt is the river in such picturesque form, threading through islands between banks of desert sands and smooth granite. It looks, as the ancient Egyptians believed it to be, a kind of paradise.
Your address: The St. Regis Cairo
Above: fishermen on the banks of the Nile, between Luxor and Aswan
Below: the 3,000-year-old Great Temple of Abu Simbel, on the west bank
(©Tuul & Bruno Morandi/4Corners)