No one knows why it's called the Nile. In the beginning it was just called the river because there was no other, and it was everything. The gift the Nile gave the world, wrote Herodotus, is called Egypt.
There are ways other than the Nile to see Egypt, but to make even a little bit of sense of it the river is the place to start. Take a look at Egypt from space: the Nile flows right through the middle of it, life slashing through the sterile desert, blooming into the delta like a lotus at the Mediterranean. Take a look at Egypt from the water: the blue-green-yellow of the river, the lush grass of its banks giving way to dense palms that surrender in turn to the dunes, the sky pink and gold above the incandescent desert.
Flooding each year, the river brought the water and silt that gave Egypt not just sustenance, but wealth and power. Ancient Egypt took its reference points accordingly; what we now call the south was Upper Egypt, the place from which the waters flowed, towards Lower Egypt, where the river met the Mediterranean. Temples were built on the east side of the river, where the sun rose, while the western banks, where it set, were reserved for tombs and monuments to the afterlife. "We don't say 'he died'," a Cairene friend tells me, "we say 'he left for the west'."
Egypt has a way of broadening one's metaphysical education. The physical scale of everything plays a part. The great religious and royal monuments are built along lines so much larger than human that words such as colossal, epic and, well, monumental, just aren't up to the task of describing their mind-bending bigness. Then there's the question of that other dimension: time. The greatest of the pyramids at Giza has been around longer than Moses, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed. It was already very, very old in antiquity. Cleopatra VII, she of the asses' milk, asp and distinctive eyeliner, lived closer to now, to our day of smartphones and space flight, than she did to the laying of the pyramid's foundation.
To follow the Nile as it flows through Egypt, Abu Simbel is the place to start. Today its two temples stand on the banks of Lake Nasser, the reservoir that was formed when the Nile was dammed, beginning in 1964. When they were built, around 1200 BC, they marked the southernmost point of the empire and were designed to inspire awe. Cut directly into the rock of two hillsides, they are dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra and Ptah, but their most striking feature is four giant statues of Rameses II. He is seated and smiling faintly in each, but the scale sends a clear message: this is not an empire to be trifled with.
Step inside and that message is made explicit in scenes depicting the divine heritage of Rameses and his queen, Nefertari, and of the king's victories over his rivals. Smiting is a theme, as is the mutilation of prisoners. The scale and essential beauty of these carvings in the rock inspires a kind of vertigo, but so too does their immediacy, reaching across the millennia. They are crumbling, and scarred with centuries of graffiti, yet the fact that they were made by people very like us hits like a blow. That sense is intensified in chancing upon a chamber or anteroom without another single living soul in it. For every sight or scene that is invigilated, roped off and crowded with a Babel-babble of guides trying to out-explain each other in English, Mandarin, Italian, Arabic, Russian, French and Japanese, somehow there always seems to be a corner where a culture-dazed visitor may stand alone in reverie, glorying in the mysteries of the hieroglyphs and breathing in the scent of sandstone – and with it, an intimation of eternity.
The number of people holidaying in Egypt plummeted during the Arab Spring and has yet to return to its pre-2011 heights. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advises Australians to "reconsider your need to travel to Egypt due to the threat of terrorist attack and kidnapping", and with incidents as recent as the roadside bombing in December that killed three tourists en route to the pyramids, this warning is not groundless. Heightened security is much in evidence; there are metal detectors at the entrance to landmarks, places of worship, and many hotels, and a minimum of two checks to get into an airport.
But for Egyptians these measures, and the presence of police and soldiers equipped with automatic weapons, appear to have become routine. To the casual visitor, at least, the atmosphere on the streets is not oppressive, the hassle factor nothing compared with India, the touts not as insistent as those in Marrakech, the homelessness less confronting than in San Francisco, and the sense of personal safety greater than in Mexico City.
Egypt is, to put it mildly, more than familiar with having visitors. The majesty of its civilisation inspired travellers from far and wide even in antiquity, and the vintage graffiti inscribed on its monuments bear witness to the intensity of the Egyptomania that gripped Europe in the 19th century.
There are few better places to get a feel for this mania than the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan. Churchill was an admirer, and Agatha Christie set parts of Death on the Nile here. Stepping out of the gorgeously baroque bar brings an assault on the senses, in the best possible way. The breeze and dazzle of the Nile, the arc of the desert, and the palm-shaded comforts of the terrace rush in all at once. I'd say it was overwhelming, but the feeling is more one of rightness. And that feeling only deepens with further exploration, whether it's taking breakfast on a felucca on the river, or simply taking in the view of these same sailboats from the terrace at sundown, musing over mint tea and a puff of shisha.
It would be easy to stay within the hotel grounds. But there are things to see. Up the road at the Coptic cathedral, an angel with a sword watches over a guard with an AK-47. And a visit to Aswan that doesn't include the island of Philae isn't really a visit at all.
It was at Philae, on the Nile, that Isis was said to have found the heart of her husband, Osiris, after her brother Set chopped him up and strew him around the country. With the help of Thoth (head like an ibis) and Anubis (head of a jackal), gods of healing and embalming, she made Osiris whole again – the first mummy! – reviving him long enough for her to conceive a son, Horus. Isis has been worshipped at Philae since the time of the pharaohs. The major temple was built in the Ptolemaic era, and it is magnificent. Cruise up to it in a small boat and see it luminous in the late-afternoon sun, its elegant mass looming through the sand-washed palms, and know the sublime. Walk its courts and vestibules, and observe the tidelines of history, the wash of Greek, Roman and Byzantine influences. Here a chamber converted for Christian worship, there Horus at his mother's breast. Cats play among the columns. They're born on the island; the boatmen catch fish and feed them.
Nineteenth-century accounts of hiring a ship for the journey up the Nile include talk of taking the ship into the middle of the river and sinking it to get rid of the rats before washing it off, loading it up and setting sail. In his 1909 book, Egypt (La Mort de Philae), French novelist Pierre Loti described scenes of "those three-decked tourist boats, which make a great noise as they plough the water, and are laden for the most part with ugly women, snobs and imbeciles".
From the perspective of a passenger on the Sanctuary Sun Boat IV, a five-deck, 40-cabin vessel operated and recently renovated by Sanctuary Retreats, the ugly women, snobs and imbeciles are in shorter supply nowadays, and there are no rats to be seen. There's a pool on the top deck, and a winning variety of places spread fore and aft to lounge and loll.
The cabins are neat, modern and well designed, with desks and plenty of storage. The combination of a comfortable bed and floor-to-ceiling glass opening onto the Nile is pretty special. I can't say I'm a fan of the gussied-up international cuisine offered sometimes at dinner (there are some things the gods didn't intend to be garnished with strawberries), but when Egyptian food is an option, as it is at breakfast and lunch, it's happy days. Good salads, fresh vegetables served simply with olive oil and fresh herbs, and flatbread and dips made to order in abundance are welcome staples.
The other key piece of kit on the boat is the Egyptologists. Having an expert on hand to explain that the face missing from the frieze of Isis at Philae is now in the Vatican (someone saw a likeness to the
holy Virgin Mary) or to point out the remarkable medical scenes among the hieroglyphs at Kom Ombo (saw, scissors, birthing stool and all) is a true luxury.
holy Virgin Mary) or to point out the remarkable medical scenes among the hieroglyphs at Kom Ombo (saw, scissors, birthing stool and all) is a true luxury.
And then there's just being on the green ribbon of the Nile itself, "marvellous and unique, fertile without rain, watered according to its need... without help of any cloud", wrote Loti. It has a cool, deep-green scent that is entirely comforting. The scenes playing out on its shore are endlessly variable but barely changed since antiquity. "Hello!" yells a man from the banks one afternoon. "Good morning!"
Sailing three nights from Aswan to Luxor is an immersion in ancient history. The archaeological wealth in Luxor is hard to comprehend. Within its bounds lay the ruins of ancient Thebes. On the east bank, among the living, the Luxor and Karnak temples sit right in the middle of town, linked by an avenue of a thousand sphinxes, and dwarfing all around them with their epic columns and colossal statuary. On the west bank, it's all about the other world and the next life. Being familiar with the term "necropolis" and walking the streets and tunnels of a city of the dead are different things.
Of the 63 royal tombs secreted in the hot, barren range of rocky hills that comprise the Valley of the Kings, only a handful are open to the public at one time. Touching the walls and taking pictures with a flash is forbidden, but merely breathing and sweating in the chambers, creating humidity and carbon dioxide, robs the walls of the tombs of their colour and brightness.
And what colours. Their brilliance is as startling as the elegance and intricacy of the hieroglyphs is absorbing. Carved into plaster laid over limestone in tunnels dug deep into the hillsides, iron-oxide red, rust yellow, copper green, these designs celebrate the lives and victories of these kings, their kinship with the gods, and show scenes from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Enter the tomb of Tutankhamun – minor king, major archaeological discovery – and be bathed in golden light. Unlike most of the tombs, which have had their inhabitants stolen or removed to museums, this one still contains a mummy. Look at Tutankhamun: this is at once a pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, son of Akhenaten the god-king heretic, but also the body of an 18-year-old man, roughly five-nine, curved of spine and cleft of palate, buried in this place 3,300 years ago. One can become inured to the faces of mummies, distanced from their reality, their death. The sight of wizened toes poking out from under the shroud, though, is inescapably human.
We fly to Cairo, leaving the boat but rejoining the Nile. Here the river snakes through a huge modern capital and sustains nearly 20 million souls. Seeing Cairo, the Egyptian Nobel literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz wrote, was "like meeting your beloved in her old age". Yet for all its chaotic grandeur and operatic despair, Cairo is still a big city, with the traffic to match. All the more reason to see it by foot.
Start in the heart of the bazaar with a glass of hibiscus tea at El Fishawy – touristy but refreshing – and wander out towards the walls of the old city. Soon the shops selling mass-manufactured souvenir tat give way to antique souvenir tat and then to everyday businesses, all against the backdrop of a mind-boggling enjambment of porticos and buttresses, stone vaults and vast wooden doors studded with iron, punctuated by mosques and palaces, churches and citadels. Things are still made right here, too: whole blocks given over to the manufacture and sale of scales, lamps and grills. In one ancient shopfront, felt is being pressed to make fezzes. Loaves tumble hot and puffy from bakery ovens.
There are two very good reasons to brave the traffic: a trip to the other side of the river to see the three pyramids and the Great Sphinx at Giza, and a visit to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities off Tahrir Square. Even those who don't fetishise institutions with a strong whiff of the 19th century – the finds of centuries of digs piled in heaps, with dusty cases and frayed wires are in abundance – will find this museum is a place of joy. There's the Mummy Room, of course, where the kings and queens are stored, but there's also embalmed baboons, cats, gazelles, and the sacred ibis, a bird no longer found in Egypt in the wild.
The collection includes Tutankhamun's death mask, its gold and lapis splendour instantly familiar and even more impressive than one would dare hope. But there's something plaintive and transporting about the sight of the dead king's portable chess set. There is much to be said for any cultural institution that devotes an entire display case to small limestone coffins made for scarab beetles.
All these antiquities and more are destined for new quarters at Giza, about 40 minutes or two hours from Cairo, depending on the traffic. When it opens in 2020, the new Grand Egyptian Museum will be one of the largest museums in the world.
What can I say about the Great Pyramid? What's left in the gap between what's in the books and the place where language falls short of the task of capturing the immensity of the last surviving Wonder of the Ancient World? On the one hand, there's the reality of the reek of pony piss and the stink of camel, a byproduct of the booming trade in cart rides and camel-driven photo-ops. On the other hand, I can confirm that the pyramids do not – perhaps cannot – fall short of expectation. They loom from miles afar. Up close their proportions are no easier to comprehend, their lines magnetic. Some scholars suggest, in the sense that they were a project that called for the careful marshalling of vast resources and manpower over many years, that the pyramids could be said to have built Egypt rather than the other way around.
"Alexandria. At last. Alexandria, Lady of the Dew." Naguib Mahfouz again. "Bloom of white nimbus. Bosom of radiance, wet with sky water. Core of nostalgia steeped in honey and tears." I didn't see much crying in Alexandria, but I saw plenty of honey. This is the place to put Egyptian food through its paces. Alexandrines take life at a more human pace than their Cairo cousins. Founded on the Mediterranean shores by Alexander himself, the city is Egypt's main port, a crossroads of culture that remains more tuned to Europe and the Levant than anywhere else in the country.
Delve into the Kom El Shoqafa, a 2nd-century catacomb, where Greek and Roman dress and haircuts mingle with Egyptian imagery in the carvings. On the waterfront, meanwhile, vendors ply their wares along the corniche: corn grilled over coals; a drink loaded with chickpeas, Egypt's answer to bubble tea, perhaps; simit, the sesame-speckled love child of the bagel and the pretzel, a gift from Istanbul.
In one morning, roaming with Esraa Sakr, a savvy local guide, I have ful medames, the broad-bean stew eaten by most Egyptians for breakfast, on a sandwich. I knock off a bowl of slippery molokhia, the mallow leaf Egypt holds almost as dear as the pyramids, in a soup kitchen under the 900-year-old Attarine Mosque. I drink a pomegranate frappé opposite Pompey's Pillar. I wolf down a spicy bull-penis baguette at Abdo Natana, and drink a carob juice a few blocks from the Roman Amphitheatre.
Ask anyone from anywhere else in the country what a visitor should eat in Alexandria, though, and the answer is always the same: kebda Eskandarany. Ask an Alexandrine where the best place is to try their famed calf liver and chances are they'll direct you to El Falah. Its baguettes filled with slivers of sautéed liver, garlic and hot peppers are a law unto themselves, and everyone seems to chase them with a can of Pepsi.
Consider meandering over to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, as the sandwiches settle. The original was a wonder of the world – home to tens if not hundreds of thousands of scrolls. Fire is said to have destroyed much of it during the late Roman Republic, and whatever was left declined thereafter; the library today, opened in 2002, stands near the site of the original. It holds two million books in 80 languages, with space for six million more. Its reading room, which can accommodate 2,000 people, is the largest in the world. The library is home to an internet archive that holds snapshots of every page of every website since 1996, currently clocking in at 3.7 petabytes of data. It also has a state-of-the-art fire-suppression system, and might be the only place in Egypt where you really can't smoke.
Egypt has by no means given up all her old secrets. It's only been a few generations since the Rosetta Stone allowed us to decipher hieroglyphic script – knowledge lost to humankind since the 5th century. Only months ago, a 4,000-year-old tomb was uncovered at Saqqara, untouched and unlooted. The ancient and the modern, the East and the West, the living and the dead, the desert and the sea. The river links them all. He who takes the water of the Nile, goes the saying, is destined to taste its sweetness again. The river flows on regardless.
How to travel to Egypt
Emirates and Etihad fly one stop to Cairo from select Australian cities. Travelling in Egypt is most comfortable between October and May when temperatures are cooler across the country. The summer months (June to September) are hot but there are fewer visitors and prices are lower.
Getting around Egypt
Luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent specialises in private and small-group safaris to Egypt. The tour described here is part of the 14-day Portrait of Egypt private journey; it includes stays in Cairo, Luxor, Aswan and Alexandria with a four-night cruise aboard the Sanctuary Sun Boat IV. It costs from $10,355 per person twin share, and includes breakfast daily, all meals during the cruise, six extra lunches, domestic flights, sightseeing with private Egyptologists, transfers and entrance fees. 1300 590 317, abercrombiekent.com.au