Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 November 2010
Issue No. 1022
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The mother of all cruises

Poets from Shakespeare to Shelley have sung the praises of the river that made Egypt. Many people think of it as their dream trip, the holiday of a lifetime. Jenny Jobbins looks at the story of the Nile Cruise and its enduring popularity

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The columns wall at the Karnak Temple

It is a bright, sunny day. You are lounging on the sun deck of your dahabiya (houseboat), lazily sipping iced mint lemonade from a tall glass. The intense blue of the sky overhead is mirrored in the surface of the water around you. There is a ripple of a breeze. You glide past groves of date palms and fields of lush green wheat; behind the palms loom tall sand-coloured rocks marking the edge of the desert plateau. In the foreground, grazing cattle are surrounded by egrets, standing stiffly like elderly, round-shouldered retainers waiting in attendance.

The scenery is timeless, and indeed has barely changed over millennia. Only you have changed. Once you might have been sailing in a royal barge, like Queen Hatshepsut, who sailed with her stepson and co-ruler Pharaoh Tuthmosis III to inspect their building work; or Cleopatra, who took her lover Julius Caesar to visit the splendid edifices of her realm. Or you could have been a 19th Century adventurer -- a Giovanni Belzoni or Mungo Park or Richard Burton, perhaps trying to make your way into Africa. You might have been one of the leisured classes for whom a trip on the Nile in a rented dahabiya was de rigueur as part of the Grand Tour. You could have sailed on one of these very same boats in the 1930s, among the haughty or louche characters of an Agatha Christie novel.

When we think of such voyages, we are probably calling to mind the slow, leisurely era that began in the last quarter of the 19th century and ended with the outbreak of World War II. International travel came to a halt in the war years, but picked up slowly during the 1950s. This coincided in Egypt with the 1952 Revolution, a period when Egyptian tourism, as in many other fields, needed time to test the waters.

Of course, people still wanted to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx, and to visit Luxor and perhaps Aswan. Only the intrepid ventured further. Before I came to live in Cairo -- so long ago that I can barely remember life before it -- I cannot remember being aware of a "Nile Cruise". I think my view was average for its day; call me uncultured but I can't recall any of my friends or relatives, even those who had visited Egypt, speaking of a cruise on the River Nile.

World War II had been something of a watershed in socio-economic terms. Improved working conditions meant that Europeans gradually found themselves with more leisure time and higher disposable incomes. As time went by, and with the post-war breakthrough in jet travel, airlines opened up new routes and the world slowly began to appear a little smaller. The post-World War II years brought new developments in tourism, particularly international travel. Foreign holidays, although still comparatively expensive, were no longer just the prerogative of the rich and more and more people could begin to work on taking their "dream holiday".

This is not to say that Nile cruises were not available before the boom in international tourism of the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed they were, and could easily be arranged through companies such as Thomas Cook which has maintained offices in Egypt since the late 1860s. However, tourists' needs and expectations were changing; people were fitter, healthier and more prosperous, and were seeking new and exciting types of leisure and tourism experiences. Many destinations were slow to recognise the trend.

Until well into the 1980s (some time after I came to Egypt), the Egyptian General Company for Tourism and Hotels (EGOTH) seemed to be governed by the notion that visitors to Upper Egypt would come only once, so there was no need to provide more than the most basic requirements, or to make even the slightest of efforts to beguile them to come back. A cheese sandwich in the EGOTH-owned Winter Palace was a slice of gibna rumi (a strong, hard cheese) tucked into a split roll (I heard an American bellow in outrage over this). Westerners had long given up war rations and expected something better.

Then the 1980s boom arrived. Each hotel that was built promised to be bigger and better than the last. Mostly foreign-owned, they were staffed by foreign chefs to take care of the food and foreign engineers to look after the plumbing. The flotilla of cruise boats grew and grew until eventually, on change-over day, boats were moored three or four deep alongside the new Corniche built by Chinese labour. Visitors overloaded the tombs, whose fragile wall paintings suffered from an excess of moisture from breath and perspiration. Tourists using film would photograph a notice of the site they're visiting so as not to confuse the issue when the prints came to be developed.

Things are different today. Most residents of the world with access to a TV will have a fairly accurate understanding of the monuments and sites of Egypt, while advertisements for flights and cruises leap from every travel page and website. A Nile Cruise today is everything a holidaymaker might wish for: culture of the first order; lazy hours on the river; memorable views and heady romance; luxury accommodation and great food. And the proof of the pudding is in the eating: guests often come back to repeat the experience.

So as regards the Nile, what brought about this boom? I am sure there is some truth in the suggestion that it was kick-started by the 1977 film Death on the Nile. I was lucky enough to work on that film, where for six weeks I was the stand-in for Olivia Hussey (who played the role of Rosalie Otterbourne) and spent much of that time drifting up and downriver in the Karnak (the boat was actually named the Memnon, and fans of the BBC version of the Hercule Poirot mysteries, where Poirot is played by David Suchet, might be interested to know that the Memnon again played the Karnak in the 2004 TV version of Death on the Nile ) .

It was rumoured that the film would show Egypt to Western audiences in a new light. I am generally sceptical of statements like this, but when the Cairo première took place a year later I had the pleasure of conducting the head of EMI films, Barry Spiking, and his charming wife around the sights and restaurants of Cairo. They told me that they had no intention of attending the Cairo event until they saw the film, and they had lots of information to prove the film was engendering a great interest in Egypt as a holiday destination. Given that a picture is worth 1,000 words, how much influence can a Hollywood blockbuster have?

Any tourist wants to know what weather to expect and what to pack. A parent whose child recently went on a school trip to Egypt informed a friend that his list of things to take included toilet paper and water purification tablets. My friend explained that the teacher in charge had probably not been there for some time, and that things had changed since the 1960s -- when you needed to prepare for a visit to Aswan as if you were penetrating darkest Africa. All you need to bring with you are sensible cotton clothes and good shoes for daytime; something dressy and a wrap or coat for evenings; and personal items. You can buy most things in Luxor or Aswan. Do pack an optimistic outlook, great expectation and a sunny smile -- Egyptians are always smiling.

There can be nowhere better to experience the combination of such awe-inspiring monuments, a history of such absorbing interest, priceless art, a relaxing voyage and guaranteed sunshine. Today, there is a trend away from the larger cruise boats with their compulsory jollity and galabiya (local costume) parties -- although if you are the frolicky type of young person and that is what you want, there is that too. Interest is growing in the smaller, older type of dahabiya with accommodation for eight or 12 or 16, where you can make this journey of a lifetime with a family group or with friends.

Some of these boats are the genuine article, refurbished but much the same as they were in the days when their grand or even royal owners used them. There are so many reputable travel companies that arrange cruises, that it is worth spending some time on research to find an itinerary and a price that will best suit your needs and your pocket. The companies at the higher end of the market -- such as Abercrombie and Kent -- can always be relied upon to provide top guest lecturers and tour leaders with a wealth of experience.

A cruise usually lasts from five to seven days and travels from Luxor to Aswan or vice versa. The itinerary could include a flight to Cairo and the Pyramids or to elsewhere in Egypt; or it could avoid the more bustly parts of the country altogether. Whatever your itinerary includes, the better-prepared you are the more time you will have on the trip to sit back and enjoy it. So, as soon as you have your itinerary, spare time to read up as much as you can about the sites on the list: this won't detract from the information you are given by your guest lecturer or guide, but it will help you gain more from the experience.

At the very least, try to glean from your local library -- or from your children's homework books -- the core periods (and rough dates) of ancient Egyptian history, and familiarise yourself with the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms and with the later Greek and Roman dynasties that will feature so much in the impressive temple buildings you will see along the way. This might sound like a chore when you expect to be learning all this as you go along, but any preparation is well worth the trouble and will mean that you can better concentrate on the words of your guide or guest lecturer, rather than letting it all wash over you in a haze (and, no matter how well prepared you are, to some extent it will).

It is when you are trying to fix in your mind what you have absorbed during the day, and are attempting to sort out the photographs on your memory card, that you will appreciate a visit to a tranquil retreat such as the Luxor Museum or the Nubia Museum in Aswan. The carefully selected and exquisite pieces on show in these museums -- the displays are deliberately uncrowded almost minimalist, to show the choice objects to their best advantage -- provide details of the lives, art and artefacts, and also some of the people. (The mummies of Pharaohs Ahmose I and Ramses I are on permanent exhibition at Luxor Museum) that together created the history of ancient Egypt.

The Sound and Light show at Karnak is another such refuge. If you have the chance to see this event do not miss it, even if you must see it in another language on your chosen night. There are enough proper nouns in the narrative for you to follow the storyline however language- illiterate you are, or think you are.

As well as garnering a rudimentary knowledge of Egyptology, do read anything that will put you in the mood -- Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile ; Lucie Duff Gordon's Letters from Egypt ; many travellers over the years have written journals that are gems in themselves but did not reach a wide audience or have been neglected in recent years. Now is the time to seek them out. Of the better known books Amelia Edwards's One Thousand Miles Up The Nile (1889) is one of my favourites, as is Boat Life in Egypt and Nubia by the American William C. Prime (1877).

There are many other, more contemporary accounts of the Nile journey. When I arrived in Egypt more than 30 years ago, I spent the first days sitting on our Zamalek balcony overlooking the river reading Alan Moorehead's classics The White Nile and The Blue Nile. It was time well spent.

So now that you are well-prepared, you can make the most of your holiday of a lifetime. And when the day's sightseeing is done, you can return to the deck of your chosen boat or dahabiya, sit back, relax and enjoy that chilled mint lemonade.

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