Picturing a Nile trip
The Nile Cruise, photographs by Sherif Sonbol and text by Jenny Jobbins, 2010, American University in Cairo Press, Cairo & New York
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From top: a panoramic view in front of Aswan High Dam; a moment of contemplation at the Sphinx road, Luxor temple; a mural at the Valley of the Kings; Madinet Habu
Here is a book that is both a companion and souvenir for someone embarking on a Nile cruise, or it could be a gift for anyone who might like the pleasure of a vicarious enjoyment of what is for many the ultimate journey.
"Who has not dreamed of cruising the Nile?" Jobbins asks in her introduction. "The Nile has been the destination of kings and queens of Egypt and Europe; film stars and celebrities; the cast and crew of the Agatha Christie film Death on the Nile ; and, since you have opened this book, perhaps you. The river and its associations have rung with romance for four thousand years, and they still do."
The presentation of the book is stunning. Sonbol's exquisite photographs illustrate step-by-step the most popular sites on the customary cruise between Luxor and Aswan. This is not a detailed guide: you will not find in-depth tutorials on the sites; these are left to your lecturer-guide and to the Egyptology books you will doubtless want to delve into to get your bearings, so to speak. Rather, it presents tidbits of the cruise: images that will help secure the monuments in your memory, coupled with a brief outline of each of the most popular sites on route, with information that provides a certain amount of fact, some choice pieces of trivia, and a smattering of poetry and romance.
Sonbol and Jobbins know their subject well: both the photographs and the text deviate from the dry and the usual, to offer glimpses and sights in the upper reaches of the Egyptian Nile that are not always noticed by the casual observer. Sonbol selected his photographs from a continually-replenished archive that is thousands strong. Jobbins drew on her experience of more than 30 years travelling through Egypt, and making it her home for at least half of that time.
Sonbol shows us not only the enduring monuments of the past which we will encounter on our voyage, but also presents us with the ephemeral visions which one might have the fortune to see for oneself: a farmer with his donkey laden with sugarcane; an egret in flight; a line of colourful washing reflected in the water; the sun dancing on the prow of a small boat.
The quality and printing of this book is a credit to the American University in Cairo Press, which has been producing books on Egypt since the 1960s. The Nile Cruise fills a gap on the shelf: a beautifully-illustrated book on what is regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Jobbins presents not only vivid descriptions, but also glimpses of the cruise as it was in history. "The Nile cruise was added to the illustrious Grand Tour for the bored, curious and occasionally adventurous rich in the eighteenth century," she writes. Travellers would usually rent a dahabiya (houseboat) and an interpreter-guide, and presumably their plans needed to be made well ahead in case they ran short of supplies. In the 19th and part of the 20th centuries, many of the monuments had not been excavated or even cleared of sand, and the sight of half-buried temples and colossal statues must have compounded their mystery.
Sonbol's lens carries us through these mysteries, capturing the beauty of the art and architecture of ancient Egypt, and occasionally preserving an image of the unexpected. A guard sits on the plinth of one of the human-headed sphinxes of Luxor's recently-discovered Avenue of the Sphinxes, unconsciously mimicking its pose. Here are modes of river travel of all shapes and sizes: a man in his rowing boat; a pleasure boatload of tourists looking to the shore; part of the mechanism of the High Dam, itself a 20th-Century building feat; the massive pillars of the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak shot from above, dwarfing two guards standing below, while Sonbol's mastery of light shows every detail of the temple complex's exquisite wall reliefs. Here at Karnak, too, is a splendid portrait of the statue of the lion-goddess Sekhmet, her black basalt figure contrasting perfectly with the reddish gold sandstone of her naos or inner sanctuary.
The Nile Cruise begins, appropriately, at Abydos, not only the most northern site on the cruise but also one of the oldest. This was a centre for the cult of Osiris for 3,000 years, "...since it was here that his consort Isis found the last part of her husband's dismembered body, the head, and restored him to life," Jobbins writes. It was here that kings from as long ago as the First Dynasty were buried in a necropolis, which remained in use until the Persian Period at the very end of the dynastic period. For more than three millennia, successive Pharaohs continued to enlarge and rebuild the temple, and Sonbol's images of Abydos do not fail to provide a sense of this enormous time and scale.
From Abydoss to Dendera, where the necropolis also had its beginnings in the early dynastic period, again beautifully photographed by Sonbol. Dendera was also linked to the resurrection myth of Osiris, and its temples are dedicated to the deities Osiris, Isis and Hathor. The necropolis contained a number of animal burials, especially cow burials in honour of the horned goddess Hathor.
Luxor has several sections to itself: Luxor and Karnak temples; Luxor Museum; the Colossi of Memnon; Deir Al-Bahari; the Ramasseum; Madinat Habu; the valleys of the Kings and Queens and the Tombs of the Nobles. Sonbol shows what may be familiar images from coffee table books or TV documentaries from a new angle, the certain positioning of human figures in his shots allowing a sense of proportion and scale.
Upriver from Luxor is Esna, where cruise boats may face a long wait before entering the lock at the Old Dam. This gives their passengers an opportunity to visit the small, largely Roman-built temple dedicated to the ram-headed god Khnum, who fashioned every human being from Nile clay on his potter's wheel. The next stop on the tour is Edfu, where, Jobbins writes, "It is sobering to think, when visiting the Temple of Horus at Edfu, that this temple is as old to us in time as were the Pyramids of Giza to the people who built it." Again, Sonbol captures the pristine glory of this virtually complete temple, its roof still in place, its reliefs as clear cut as new. A statue of Horus at the temple entrance makes a midget of a guard standing in front of it. The images reflect this religion and the society of ancient Egypt that was so indomitable that it endured for well over 3,000 years.
Travelling south, Sonbol takes us to the beautiful twin temple at Kom Ombo, where his photographs perfectly capture their majesty and light, while Jobbins informs us that: "The temple is dedicated to two triads: the crocodile-headed god Sobek, Hathor and Khonsu; and Haroeris (Horus the Elder), Tasenetnofret, the hippopotamus-headed goddess, and Panebtaewy. Crocodiles and hippopotami were very much a presence in the Nile in those days."
Alas, there are no crocodiles or hippopotami in the Egyptian stretch of the Nile today. The last hippo, Jobbins tells us, was shot in the 1830s, while crocodiles have been blocked from passing through the Aswan High Dam since it was built in the 1960s. However, there are desert monitor lizards which can swim against the current with great force.
And so on to Aswan, playground of lovers and kings. Here Mohamed Shah Aga Khan, who died in 1957, is buried in a Fatimid-style mausoleum that commands a splendid view of this beautiful stretch of the Nile. Sonbol's photograph captures the rose-pink edifice looking down over Aga Khan's white villa, both reflected in the water below.
We move from the splendid columns and pylons of the temples upriver to the luxuriant gardens on Botanical Island -- which used to be called Kitchener's Island until its inexplicable name change. This is a time for the tired traveller to unwind and breathe in the scents of Africa. Still in Aswan, Sonbol has taken splendid portraits of some of the imposing and unusual statues in the Nubia Museum. He also shows the sheer size of the Unfinished Obelisk: a fault in the rock cut means that it has lain here unused since the days of the New Kingdom. "Had it been completed and erected, the obelisk that lies here would have been -- at seventy-five meters (137 feet) and 1,168 tons -- the tallest and heaviest in the history of Egypt," Jobbins writes.
There is a pause for a brief glimpse of the Aswan High Dam, and then further south Sonbol and Jobbins go, to the beautiful, hibiscus-smothered island of Philae. It is no longer in its original space, which drowned in the rising waters behind the High Dam, but was moved like other monuments in UNESCO's Nubia rescue plan. Archaeologists and engineers from around the world pooled their expertise to save the greatest of the monuments threatened by the High Dam project, by dismantling them stone by stone and rebuilding them on higher ground.
And then to Abu Simbel, perhaps the greatest achievement of the Nubia rescue plan. "The two temples of Abu Simbel are among Egypt's most impressive monuments," Jobbins writes. "Not only were they built in one of the most seemingly impossible of locations, but they were also built twice." The first time, of course, was by Pharaoh Ramses II; the second was in the late 1960s when the two temples were dismantled and reconstructed, like Philae, on higher ground as part of the UNESCO rescue plan. This amazing enterprise captured the attention of the whole world, and Sonbol depicts the majesty of Abu Simbel in both daylight and floodlight.
The Nile Cruise has changed significantly in the last few decades of the modern era. Writing back in 1889, Amelia Edwards, sponsor of the English archaeologist Flinders Petrie (known as the 'Father of Egyptology') quotes at the beginning of her book One Thousand Miles Up The Nile the French man of letters Jean-Jacques Ampère: "A donkey-ride and a boating trip interspersed with ruins." Amelia Edwards herself adds that "a good English saddle and a comfortable dahabeeyah [sic] add very considerably to the pleasure of the journey; and that the more one knows about the past history of the country, the more one enjoys the ruins."
Until fairly recently, the usual way to tour Luxor's West Bank was to travel on the back of a willing little donkey. This may still be done, since it is, after all, half the fun of the trip and makes the excursion seem more of an expedition. Cruise passengers nowadays, however, will normally be transferred from site to site by air-conditioned coach. This is certainly less tiring and time-consuming, and allows for more sites to be visited in a day. It could also lead to slightly more confusion as to geography and one's whereabouts, so the details and overall views of Sonbol's photographs in The Nile Cruise will provide a convenient mnemonic for those who may have been a little overwhelmed by the experience. All in all, this is an enjoyable read and a beautiful and welcome addition to a traveller's bookshelf.