Gift of the Nile

Nile River, Elephantine Island and Cataract Hotel

The Nile River has nurtured Egyptian civilization for thousands of years. Along its banks, its life-giving waters turned the surrounding desert into an oasis. Both ancient and modern cultures relied on the celebrated river, proving that Egypt is the “Gift of the Nile.”
Each spring, the Nile overflowed its banks and flooded the river valley, leaving ribbons of fertile soil along each side of the waterway and bringing prosperity to the people of Egypt. The river continues to serve as a source for irrigation, however, the Aswan High Dam now holds back the water that annually flooded the valley.
The Aswan Dam led to the creation of Lake Nasser, named for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. But the rising waters of the reservoir threatened to submerge numerous ancient Egyptian tombs and temples, including Abu Simbel and Philae. With the assistance of the United Nations, many monuments were dismantled and reconstructed on higher ground.
Our excursion began at Abu Simbel, 500 miles south of Cairo. The first images of the iconic temples of Abu Simbel were during a dramatic nighttime sound and light show. Alternating beams of various colors lit up the huge guardian statues that flank the entries to both temples. A narrator told the story of how Ramses II built the temples as a testament to the power of ancient Egypt during his reign. Better known as Ramses the Great, he ruled ancient Egypt for 66 years until his death at age 91, the oldest of any pharaoh.
Daylight gave an entirely new perspective as I explored the immense site. Passing the four colossal statues of Ramses seated on a throne, I entered the Great Temple. Inside was a hall supported by eight pillars with more statues of Ramses. Elaborate depictions of famous battles and scenes of offerings to the gods adorned the inner walls.
The neighboring Small Temple is dedicated to Ramses favorite wife, Nefertari. On each side of the entrance, two statues of Ramses flank one of Nefertari. Even in the temple dedicated to his wife, images of Ramses dominated the interior walls. It has been suggested that Ramses was a narcissist. No argument from me.
The engineering efforts to save the temples seemed implausible. More than 1,000 blocks, weighing up to 30 tons each, were cut out of sandstone cliffs along the Nile and perfectly reassembled on higher ground to avoid the rising waters of Lake Nasser. The success of the project led to the establishment of the World Heritage Trust, whose mission is to protect and preserve cultural and natural sites across the globe.
Exploring the city of Aswan, I could smell the strong aroma from the variety of spices as soon as I entered the marketplace or souk. Shopkeepers selling the colorful and fragrant spices, piled them high in large containers in front of their stores. Stopping in a shop, the merchant mixed varying amounts of cardamom, nutmeg, paprika, turmeric and other spices for me. The pungent blend is an excellent rub for grilled meats, especially chicken. Although, I did have to air out my suitcase for several days.
The Cataract Hotel is the perfect place to experience the beauty of the Egyptian desert. Built on a granite cliff overlooking the Nile River, the hotel features elegant Victorian architecture with a pink granite facade. The Moorish style hotel interior was beautiful. Relaxing on the veranda at sunset, we enjoyed cocktails while overlooking Elephantine Island, situated in the middle of the Nile. This was the same view Agatha Christie looked upon while dreaming up the next chapter for her celebrated novel, Death on the Nile.
Like Abu Simbel, the Philae Temple Complex was moved to save it from the rising waters of Lake Nasser. Located on an island below the Aswan High Dam, the temple can only be reached by boat. Over the centuries, various rulers and dynasties expanded and modified the structures, resulting in a blend of architectural styles.
The approach to Philae, also known as the Temple of Isis, is through an impressive outer court flanked by two rows of Greco-Roman columns carved with hieroglyphs and images. On the tower of the entrance gate is a relief sculpture of Pharaoh Ptolemy XII striking his enemies with a raised club, a uniquely Egyptian image which was used by pharaohs for centuries to demonstrate their power.
The tower at the second temple gate shows Ptolemy making offerings to the goddess Isis and her son, Horus, the falcon-headed god. Many of the faces and bodies of the gods and goddesses depicted in the temple were defaced by early Christians. Dating from the time of Egypt’s fall to Rome, Coptic crosses are found throughout the temple.
Over the next six days, we cruised down the Nile River aboard a dahabiya, a small 16-passenger ship equipped with two sails. Similar craft have sailed the Nile for thousands of years. The modest size of our vessel allowed us to visit lesser-known temples, small islands and riverside villages. Gently gliding down the river, we spent time relaxing on deck watching farmers work their fields and fishermen cast nets into the life-giving waters of the Nile, as they have for thousands of years.
Located in a village of the same name, Kom Ombo is Egypt’s only double temple. One side is dedicated to the crocodile-headed god Sobek and the other honors Horus. Until recently, the Nile River was infested with crocodiles. It is not surprising that Ancient Egyptians worshipped the ferocious animals, probably in hopes that the crocodiles would not attack them. Hundreds of mummified crocodiles of various sizes are exhibited in the temple museum.
As the river narrowed, we passed between steep sandstone cliffs. It is estimated that over eight millions tons of rock were harvested from these rocky bluffs. Walking through a quarry, our guide pointed out how the rocks were cut to build the great temples of ancient Egypt. Ropes were threaded through rounded holes in the corners of the enormous stone blocks to maneuver them onto rafts for transport to a new temple setting.
Further down river, the Temple of Khnum sits in a 30-foot-deep pit. Before being unearthed, the site was buried by 15 centuries of desert sand and debris. The remainder of the temple is still covered by the town built on top of the site. Many of the columns, walls and ceiling were decorated in colorful images. I suspect being buried for centuries preserved the vivid colors.
Large stretches of the Nile’s riverbanks are devoted to agriculture. A large island in the middle of the Nile is home to farmers who were relocated when Lake Nasser flooded their land. The farmers still used curved knives, resembling scythes, to cut alfalfa for their cattle, as their ancestors did. In a nearby town, we visited a livestock market. Amid the dust and chaos, men loudly bargained over the purchase price of camels.
It seemed that nothing was wasted in this agrarian society. We watched a man use both his hands and feet to hold palm frond branches in place while he skillfully cut them into various lengths. Punching holes in each piece, he quickly constructed a crate used to transport mangoes. Working every day, he built hundreds of crates each week. Enlisting my help to do some of the easier work, I tried to stay up with him. He jokingly said I should stay with him and we would go into business together. I think I needed more practice.
Our Nile cruise terminated in Luxor. Standing in front of the Temple of Luxor, I realized how close we were to both the modern city of Luxor and Egypt’s lifeblood, the Nile. In ancient times, Luxor’s entrance was once much grander. Today, only two seated statues of Ramses the Great and a single obelisk guard the sanctuary entrance. Tall columns with papyrus shaped capitals distinguish the large inner courtyard. Distinctly Christian paintings cover a wall in the corner of the temple.
Between the temples of Luxor and Karnak, the Avenue of the Sphinxes extends more than two miles, connecting the two sites. The pathway is flanked on both sides by hundreds of stone sphinxes, some with a ram’s head while others have a human head.
Karnak Temple is much larger than Luxor Temple and significantly older. Multiple dynasties demolished and reused materials to make their mark on the temple complex. Only a portion of the immense site is open to the public as archaeologists work to unscramble the thousands of stone blocks scattered across the site.
The Hypostyle Hall is the most memorable structure at Karnak. No longer supporting a roof, the hall’s 134 columns cover over an acre. Hieroglyphs on the columns were originally painted with vibrant colors, although faded, some of these colors are still visible. Workers on six-story scaffolds removed dirt and soot from the pillars to restore them to their glory. The 80-foot columns reminded me of a massive stone forest.
The Ancient Egyptians had a secret that enabled building the columns easier than I imagined. After placing a foundation block, they filled the area with sand, then dragged and layered an additional block on top of the previous stone, repeating this process until the full height of the column was reached. Lastly, they removed the sand that filled the space between the columns.
We spent three days exploring the Luxor area while staying at the elegant Winter Palace, a historic British colonial-era hotel frequented by royalty and luminaries, such as Churchill and Agatha Christie. The entrance is up a curved grand staircase to a lobby appointed with antique furniture and beautiful flower arrangements, giving the hotel an old-world charm.
Across the Nile from Luxor, the Valley of the Kings, an ancient burial site of pharaohs, contains numerous exquisitely decorated tombs. Each crypt features an entrance hallway that ends in a burial chamber. Hieroglyphs cover the walls, including cartouches, that identify the ruler entombed in the vault. Even without understanding their meaning, the hieroglyphs bring the walls of the tombs to life.
Of course, the most famous tomb is that of Tutankhamen, although it is one of the smallest and least decorated crypts in the Valley of the Kings. Likely Tut’s young age at his demise and the lack of time to complete a tomb before his interment is the reason for its size. However, it is the only vault that still houses a mummy. Plus, it is the tomb of King Tut!
Tut’s renowned golden coffin and funerary mask are on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and well-guarded, with no photos being allowed. The museum contains many other artifacts that were found in the Valley of the Kings. Looking at all the precious possessions of the pharaohs in the museum, it is easy to imagine how those who discovered the tombs must have felt when they first saw their vast treasures. It is not surprising that many of the graves were plundered for their riches.
With broad corridors and long passages, the shared crypt of Ramses V and VI was my favorite tomb in the valley. The burial chamber ceiling is beautifully decorated with a double image of the arched body of Nut, the goddess of the sky and heavens. The nocturnal landscape portrays Nut swallowing the sun in the evening and giving birth to the sun in the morning, symbolizing an endless cycle of new life through the rebirth of the dead pharaoh.
Not far from the Valley of the Kings is the impressive Temple of Hatshepsut, a queen who declared herself a Pharoah and ruled as a man. Its three massive terraces rise above the desert floor and blend with the surrounding landscape and towering cliffs behind the structure. Hatshepsut was one of the few female pharaohs. The scale and elegance of her temple is evidence of her desire to establish the legitimacy of her reign in more ways than her male predecessors.
Finally, our journey came to the Giza Pyramid Complex outside Cairo which comprises the Great Sphinx and three main pyramids, one being the well-known Great Pyramid of Giza. The pyramids are the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the only structures that have remained largely intact. The magnitude of the Great Pyramid can only be fully appreciated when you keep in mind that it was the world's tallest man-made structure for more than 4,000 years, standing almost 50 stories high!
The pyramids were constructed of granite and encased in limestone that has since worn away or was removed to build other structures. Near the peak of a pyramid, some of the original white limestone is still visible – providing a hint of how beautiful the pyramids must have once appeared. Each of the three pyramids are precisely oriented to the north, south, east, and west, as if the workers used a compass to position them. There are also hundreds of smaller pyramids scattered throughout the Nile valley.
For thousands of years, sand buried the Great Sphinx up to its shoulders, leaving a disembodied head atop the desert. It even looks that way today when viewed from a distance, as most of the sculpture sits below ground level in an excavated depression. After the sand was cleared, a statue carved from a single piece of limestone was revealed. It baffles me how a 240-foot-long rock could have been transported across the desert.
The sculpture features a lion’s body and a human head adorned with a royal headdress. Traces of red, blue and yellow pigments found on the figure suggest that the sphinx was painted in bright colors at one time. The statue has been battered by centuries of weathering and vandalism. Although, the face is better preserved that the rest of the sculpture, it also has been damaged and is missing the nose and beard.
Our last activity was riding camels across the desert towards the pyramids, giving us the perspective of how these magnificent structures would have looked to the Ancient Egyptians. The sandy desert was devoid of vegetation, reminding me of how important the Nile River was, and still is, to Egypt. Without the Nile, Egypt would have been an uninhabitable desert.
Ancient Egyptians thought that the Nile was a gift from the gods. They equated it with life itself and organized their daily lives according to the three seasons of the Nile: the flood, cultivation and the harvest. The river provided water for crops that led to civilizations flourishing along the river valley. Egypt truly deserves to be called the “Gift of the Nile.”
Not all those who wander are lost. J.R.R. Tolkien