THE NILE NEEDS YOU! Elinor Goodman Reveals Why It's a Good Time to Take a River Cruise and Help the People of Egypt
Byline: Elinor Goodman
WITH Egypt staggering from one crisis to the next, why would anyone take a Nile cruise? The answer is simple: the ancient wonders are as amazing as ever, there has never been a better time to see them - and you will be helping the country's long-suffering people.
Since the revolution of 2011 and the subsequent turmoil, tourism has taken a terrible battering. Many tour firms have pulled out entirely and, although things are now much calmer (see below), travellers have been slow to return.
This reluctance is understandable - with Egyptians losing their lives in an ongoing struggle, taking a holiday in the country seems inappropriate. Yet for Egypt to enjoy economic recovery, tourists are vital. At the ancient sites, the lack of visitors is evident at once. Where once 50 buses set off every morning for the spectacular temple of Abu Simbel, now only five do. At Luxor, ranks of river cruisers remain idle.
For the souvenir-sellers around the monuments, it's a disaster. More than 80 per cent of employment in the Nile Valley is associated with tourism, and for every man shouting to undercut the next, there is an extended family at home relying on his wage. Our guide Ahmed had worked very little over the past year.
Several years ago I went up Mount Sinai to visit the monastery built on the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush. There was such a crush of Japanese tourists that I didn't even realise I had passed the spot. But this time, I was able to stand at Tutankhamun's burial chamber with only two other people.
Luxor, where my stepsister and I started our Nile cruise, has the largest temple in the world at Karnak - it could accommodate ten cathedrals and each stone block took 50 people to drag up from the river. The scale is truly breathtaking.
Most of what we can see today was built 3,500 years ago but was buried for centuries. Originally, there was a 11/2-mile avenue of sphinxes between Karnak and the Luxor temple which Ahmed said was a kind of honeymoon retreat - this was where male and female gods met once a year. The aim is to eventually reinstate the entire avenue, although work has only just resumed.
At every site, Ahmed dazzled us with facts before we were given a few minutes on our own, to gaze in awe at what were the most extraordinary feats of engineering given the technology (or lack of it) at the time.
Before leaving Luxor, we drove to the West Bank and the Valley of the Kings, where the pharaohs built their tombs to store their mummified bodies so their souls could be reunited with them in the afterlife. The valley is dotted with tombs, most of which get barely a mention in any guidebook.
We saw three of them, the most spectacular that of Rameses III: the corridor to the burial chamber was lined with texts from the guides to the underworld, written vertically in hieroglyphics and brought to life with pictures of the birds and animals he wanted to see in the afterlife. In the chamber itself, the colours were amazingly well preserved (photographs are not allowed in case flash damages them). By contrast, Tutankhamun's tomb was less lavish, but it's still worth travelling across the world to see it.
Back on the boat that night, kitsch took over from culture as we all dressed up in robes to dance. To my amazement, I found myself belly-dancing. A rather sedate party of bridge players abandoned their inhibitions too.
Our vessel, Royal Viking, was comfortable without being luxurious, and the food mostly delicious. At times, I felt like a bird in a golden cage surrounded by hungry starlings. One lunchtime, as we headed through a lock, boys on nearby boats peered at us and implored us to buy the long, flowing robes that most Egyptians still wear.
Vendors can be a nuisance but they have a living to make, and our guide instructed us on how to bargain. …