Karnak, Egypt

The Nile Passage to Antiquity

Story and Photos by Carol Canter.

Felucca on the Nile, Egypt
Felucca on the Nile

The banks of the Nile looked golden in the late afternoon sun. A lone figure wearing a white turban and jellabiya robe knelt toward Mecca in prayer. A passing felucca (boat) cast an abstract reflection of its white sails in the rippling Nile waters. Women robed and hooded in black stooped to fill large earthenware jugs with water, then rose to take them home atop their heads.

Queen Nabila-I, Nile River, Egypt
Queen Nabila-I, our floating home

I was lost in these timeless images until a splash in the swimming pool of my cruise ship, Queen Nabila-I, jarred me back to the present. I was cruising the Nile in the luxury of modern times. Iced drinks quenched my thirst and the pool cooled my body. I had come, like countless visitors before me throughout the ages, to pay homage to a civilization that had begun some five thousand years ago.

My Nile odyssey began at Luxor, after a whirlwind one-day tour of Cairo. I boarded the sixty-two-suite Queen Nabila-I, furnished in Oriental motif, then set out to explore the treasures of Luxor’s east bank. Horse-drawn carriages transported us along the riverfront corniche to the Temples of Karnak and later back to the Temple of Luxor, once connected by the sacred Avenue of the Sphinxes. Though we had seen fabulous treasures of Pharaonic Egypt in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, nothing prepared us for the splendor and scope of the antiquities we encountered at Luxor.

Called Thebes by the ancient Greeks, Luxor was the center of the Egyptian Empire during its Golden Age. This was the time of the New Kingdom, 1,550-1,069 BC, when some of Egypt’s mightiest pharaohs ruled, building temples, statues and monuments to the glory of their god Amun. The pharaohs themselves are immortalized in the temples and tombs of Karnak and Luxor as each built, added and superimposed his own monuments over those of his predecessors. Thus such names as Thutmose, Queen Hatshepsut, Amenhotep and Rameses-II, greatest builder of antiquity, live on after three thousand years.

Karnak, Egypt
Karnak cartouche

The Karnak site is gigantic. It’s large enough to encompass ten European cathedrals, and its Hypostyle Hall alone is large enough to contain Notre Dame. Our noted Egyptologist guide Lotfi Sherif re-created the drama of ancient history as he translated the hieroglyphics that had been etched into stone.

Mid-afternoon we returned to our floating hotel for sanctuary from the intense heat. We renewed ourselves with a dip in the pool, lunch and a nap. After dinner we returned to Karnak for the “Sound and Light” show.

Karnak illuminated during “Sound and Light” show, Nile Cruise, Egypt
Karnak illuminated during the “Sound and Light” show
Karnak, Egypt
Grinding limestone to make mortar

The site seemed even more grandiose under floodlights and moonlight, the cool desert air more hospitable. It was a spectacle in which we, the audience, seemed to walk through the site, past pylons and pillars, pedestals and statues, through colonnades of columns on which history was recorded in exquisite images and hieroglyphics. It was hard not to be transported beyond the realm of time and mortality. The narration at the show enhanced the sense of awe created by the setting: “Do not be overwhelmed by the sheer size of these ruins. The citadel that arose here was not designed on the scale of men but on the grand scale of god from whom all things flowed …”

The great French archaeologist Jean Francois Champollion, who unlocked the mysteries of the hieroglyphic script by deciphering the Rosetta Stone two centuries ago, observed: “All the pomp and magnificence of the pharaohs appears at Karnak, all the noblest and finest works of man. No other ancient people has conceived the art of architecture on so large and grandiose and sublime a scale as the ancient Egyptians. They thought in terms of men one hundred feet in stature.”

The next morning a ferry took us across the Nile to the west bank where we, (mere Lilliputians), came face to face with the Colossi of Mennon, two immense stone figures of King Amenhotep II that dominate the plain. The rest of the day was spent exploring the vast necropolis, the royal burial site of the ancients. In the comfort of an air-conditioned bus, we visited the mortuary temples and tombs hewn into the rocks of this narrow desert canyon like an underworld labyrinth. More adventurous travelers challenged the steep hills on bicycles and donkeys.

Later at the Rameseum, the fallen colossus of Rameses, largest freestanding sculpture from ancient Egypt, reinforced the sense of hyperbolic scale. (The length of one of his ears is three and a half feet.) I paid my respects to Egypt’s female pharaoh Hatshepsut at her beautiful mortuary temple that blends into the limestone cliffs beyond.

Most startling were the elaborately decorated tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The colors, still vibrant three thousand years later, are preserved in the once airtight tombs and bone-dry desert environment. Unforgettable is the image of Nut, goddess of morning and evening, adorning the ceiling of the tomb of Rameses-IX. Nut soars across a sky of dazzling blue with golden stars, constellations and boats transporting souls to the after-world. Images of such tomb paintings are recaptured today on papyrus and sold at gift shops throughout Egypt.

Restoration work at Luxor, Nile Cruise, Egypt
Restoration work at Luxor

Luxor was the most awesome of our venues. It was an appropriate starting point for a journey up the river that once carried with each annual flood the raw cargoes of rose-colored granite, diorite and alabaster that were shaped by the hands of Karnak artisans to the glory of their pharaohs and gods. Cruising was a chance to observe firsthand the river as a life source in this parched desert vastness. The green fertile ribbon of land is so narrow in places that the desert almost touches the riverbanks, and all seems to be the color of sand: the faces of the people, their mud houses, mosques, horses, donkeys and camels.

Esna was our next stop as we headed south up the Nile, deeper into Upper Egypt. There we visited the small Ptolemaic-Roman Temple of Khnum, and bargained at the souk to outfit ourselves that evening for a costume party aboard the Queen Nabila-I. It was my chance to look like Cleopatra, who had always been my yardstick of exotic beauty. I stepped into a gauzy black dress that tinkled with light Egyptian coins and blackened and elongated my eyes with kohl.

Carol and Jack Canter, Nile Cruise, Egypt
Cleopatra and Jack of Arabia

My husband Jack, in blue cotton jellabiya, kufiya (Arab headdress), and sunglasses, looked more like a handsome Bedouin horseman than one of the ancients. Jack, himself a mariner, had developed a common bond with the captain and crew of our ship, often trading scuttlebutt on the stern deck. At the costume party he disappeared, later to be found amid a group of men seated in a circle on the bank of the Nile. They were passing a hookah, or large water pipe, filled with a mixture of Turkish and Egyptian tobaccos. None of the passengers would have guessed there was an American in that group.

Jack Canter sharing a smoke with the crew, Nile Cruise, Egypt
Jack sharing a smoke with the crew

Next morning we set sail for Edfu. Once again, horse-drawn carriages transported us between our landing site and the Temple of Horus, Egypt’s largest and best-preserved Pharaonic temple. We passed through locks at dusk, reaching Kom Ombo the next morning. There we visited the picturesque Temple of Sobek and Horus, rising from the banks of the Nile in tribute to the crocodile and falcon gods.

We reached our destination, Aswan, in time to visit the nearby island of Philae. The rays of late afternoon sun gilded the stone Temple of Isis, supremely romantic with

Sailing by Felucca to Aswan, Nile Cruise, Egypt
Sailing by Felucca to Aswan

Nile waters gently lapping the shore. The “Pearl of Egypt” was at one time submerged by the Nile before being relocated here to higher ground.

Sailing by Felucca to Aswan, Nile Cruise, Egypt
Our skipper, etched by weather, like Nile sandstone.

Aswan, which prospered through trade between Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa is today Egypt’s favorite winter resort, with low humidity and temperatures comfortably higher than Cairo. Its streets, too, are noticeably cleaner and less congested. Here in this Nubian capital the skin turns darker, for the handsome people are more closely related to their Nubian brothers in the Sudan than their fairer Egyptian compatriots. City life is very much centered on the Nile, across which feluccas with white sails ferry people back and forth to their villages. The riverside corniche provides a relaxed place to stroll and view this timeless ebb and flow.

In Aswan, we had the gift of some unstructured time – an evening to wander the streets and marketplace, the best bazaar outside of Cairo. We stopped at a perfumerie, where essences were mixed to our liking, and at the spice market, where baskets piled high with dull green henna set off the brilliance of indigo and saffron’s gold. Artisan shops displayed hand-embroidered Bedouin wedding dresses and copper-ware.

Baking baladi bread, Aswan, Egypt
Baking baladi bread

An early dawn walk gave us a sense of contemporary Egyptian society as we aimlessly wandered a town just awakening. As loaves of baladi (local) Eish merahrah, a rough, tasty version of pita, emerged from a dome-shaped oven, two young bakers offered us a taste of the still-steaming staff of life.

Later in the morning, we took a local ferry to a Nubian village on Elephantine Island. We were the only foreigners on board and had no coin small enough to pay the token fare. Since the boatman wouldn’t take the surplus fare we offered, two vacationing doctors, Coptic Christians from Alexandria, paid our way and we started up a conversation. A young man from the village, dressed in Western jeans, joined in and invited all of us to his home for tea. We followed him down narrow twisting alleyways, past goats and sheep that strayed between brightly painted blue and yellow sun-baked adobe houses. The scene conjured images of biblical times. Our host’s sister had a beautiful face that struck us with a sense of déjà vu until we realized her features recalled those carved and painted on the countless walls we had seen, a face directly descended from Pharaonic Egypt.

Priest at Abu Simbel, Egypt
Priest at Abu Simbel

We left the Queen Nabila-I, our floating time capsule of the past five days, to visit the Aswan High Dam and later fly to Abu Simbel. The High Dam and temples of Abu Simbel were two fitting symbols with which to conclude our Nile cruise. The dam has changed the flow of the river, altering what otherwise would have been its eternal pattern of drought and flood. It harnessed hydroelectric power and reclaimed arable land from the desert. The dam is a testament of modern technology and engineering, just as the pyramids and temples testify to the brilliance of the ancients.

Portrait of a worker, Nile Cruise, Egypt
Portrait of a worker

A sense of the continuity between the moderns and ancients is most clearly exemplified by Abu Simbel, for there the awesome temple of Rameses-II would have been lost under the waters of Lake Nasser, created after the High Dam was built. But in a spirit of wisdom, generosity, and cooperation, nations of the world saved the massive temple by raising it, piece by piece, to higher ground. And they kept it so aligned with the ancient plan that twice each year, in February and October, the first rays of the rising sun reach deep inside the temple’s innermost sanctum to illuminate, as they have for more than three thousand years, figures of the ancient gods.

(Previously published in Relax magazine, October 1988)

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