In-the-know travellers are seizing the opportunity to visit Egypt’s famous tombs and temples while there are no crowds – and the best way to do it is by following the mighty River Nile on a cruise.
Taking a cruise on the Nile is a time-honoured way to explore Egypt. For centuries, travellers have sailed stretches of the world’s longest river, finding the unexpected sights of river life every bit as thrilling as the tombs and temples on the schedule.
Nothing is predictable here. One minute you might be admiring a lone fisherman rowing slowly home, oars cutting cleanly into the water. The next a couple of rogue teenagers have pulled their speedboat up against your cruise ship and are tossing bags of scarves – and a bit of cheeky banter – through your window in the hope of making a sale.
Sometimes on deck at dawn, the breeze feels fresh and clean and everything is wet, from the dewy handrails to shining green foliage on the riverbanks. On other mornings, all you can see are dry, yellow hills and the air is hot and heavy with dust.
Then there are the daily glimpses of men sitting on plastic chairs in the blazing sun, enjoying their morning tea and shisha pipes, bougainvillea flowers, sugarcane and wheat fields, family-run farms, mud huts, kids waving as the boats go by, an illuminated minaret in dusk light – this is the Egypt that’s not on the itinerary, but would be worth taking a cruise for alone.
But of course that's just the start of the experience. From the vivid artwork inside Valley of the Kings’ tombs to the perfectly carved hieroglyphics at Luxor Temple, all the key tour stops between Luxor and Aswan are within a short drive of the Nile’s banks.
A few years ago, these sights were constantly surrounded by busloads of tourists, but because of Egypt's political turmoil over the past few years, many are now all but deserted. There is a visible armed security presence, which some travellers may find disconcerting, but the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) considers it safe to travel through this stretch of the Nile (see below for more information).
In fact not only is it a valuable time to visit in terms of helping Egypt get back on its feet, but the lack of crowds at these epic monuments mean it's also incredibly rewarding. Here are just five of the best places to visit on a Nile cruise.
Temple of Karnak
Most cruises begin at Luxor, so one of your first ports of call is probably going to be Karnak Temple. And what a place to start. A forest of intricately carved pillars, obelisks, and walls, the sheer scale of this ancient temple complex gives a shivers-down-your-spine sense of timeless power. The main area was thought of as the earthly home of Egyptian sun god Amun-Re and the temple here is the largest religious building ever built.
Look out for: Symbolism
Ancient Egyptian artists were big on natural symbolism, and you’ll see examples of this in almost all the sites you visit. Karnak has some particularly intriguing examples – the 134 columns in the hyperstyle hall represent palm trees, the floor represents the River Nile, pylons symbolize mountains and the ceiling shows Egypt’s skies, full of stars at night.
Temple of Luxor
The other major temple in Luxor is also primarily dedicated to Amun-Re, along with gods Mut and Khonsu (known as the Theban triad). At the entrance sit two enormous seated figures of Ramses II, one of the last pharaohs to have work done on this temple. One of the highlights of a visit to this temple is the chance to take a close look at the beautiful carvings of people clapping, beating drums, dancing and performing acrobatics, while boats are carried to the Nile under the shouted instructions of captains - the energy of these scenes practically bounces off the walls.
Look out for: Religious art
There’s evidence of four religions here, left behind from different eras in the site’s long history. The temple itself was dedicated to Ancient Egyptian gods. In one corner, there are the remains of frescos, belonging to the Roman Imperial cult. Islam is also represented, as Abu El-Haggag mosque sits on top of part of the temple’s ruins. Finally, Coptic Christians once had a church here, and the remains of some pillars can still be seen in the Temple of Montu.
Valley of the Kings
You’ve probably been reading about the tomb of boy pharaoh Tutankhamen and its stash of hidden treasures in the Valley of the Kings since your primary school days. Here’s your chance to see the actual chamber for yourself. You can also visit the recently-opened replica nearby, which was launched to mitigate some of the damage that mass tourism is doing to the original, and has been getting rave reviews for its detail and authentic feel. Move on to the grand chambers where Ramses IX, Ramses II, Merenptah and many more were buried, to admire the hieroglyphics and intriguing scenes carved into the walls.
Look out for: Vivid paintings
Many of the Ancient Egyptian temples in the region have just the smallest flecks of paintwork left, so it’s almost a shock to see how bright the paintings are inside the tombs, where they have been hidden from the sun for so many years. Bright paint was made from chalk, charcoal, ochre and malachite, mixed with eggwhite and gum, then brushed with honey bee wax to varnish and protect it. And protect it did: the birds, snakes, boats and many other symbols here are still in such popping shades of red, yellow, blue and white, they look as if they were daubed just yesterday.
Temple of Edfu
This huge temple in Edfu is dedicated to Horus, the Falcon God, and you’ll see the image of a man with a falcon’s head representing him throughout the temple. Falcons were worshipped because they don’t eat dead flesh, so were considered noble. It’s one of the best preserved temples in Egypt, with antechambers and halls to explore, as well as the inner sanctuary, which still contains the polished-granite shrine that once housed the gold cult statue of Horus.
Look out for: The courtyard
Don’t be tempted to rush through the courtyard to get to the temple, as there’s so much to see here, particularly the wall carvings. Notice the sails of the boats, which are pictured rolled up if they face in the direction of the Nile's flow, and open in the other direction. Once, this space was the only part of the site members of the public were allowed visit. During the the day it was so bright outside that they couldn't see what was happening inside the temple, which only the privileged few had access to.
A Nile cruise just wouldn’t be complete without paying homage to the crocodiles. Do as the Ancient Egyptians did and pay your respects at Kom Ombo, a double temple which is devoted half to Horus, and half to crocodile god Sobek. This stretch of the river used to be infested with vicious crocs, preventing locals from using the water to wash or cook – this temple was a way of placating them.
Look out for: Doubling up
There’s two of everything from courts and halls to sanctuaries rooms in this temple to show one god wasn’t favoured more than the other.
Travel safety: There are no FCO warnings against travelling through the stretch of the Nile from Luxor to Aswan, nor any of the stops mentioned in this article. However, it is always advisable to check the latest advice before travelling, at www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/egypt