Life on the longest river: sailing 140 miles along the Nile

To see Egypt from the Nile is an iconic journey. The banks of the world’s longest waterway are home to much of the country’s population, where ancient tombs are still being discovered and day-to-day life depends on its ebb and flow.

By Emma Thomson
Published 5 Aug 2019, 06:00 BST
A felucca on the Nile.
A felucca on the Nile.
Photograph by Getty Images

“Need help remembering the name of Queen Hatshepsut? Just think ‘hot chicken soup’ or ‘hat and a cheap suit’,” wisecracks Mohammed, with a chin-wobbling chuckle. Egyptian history is a litany of long names belonging to a soap opera-worthy string of sickly child pharaohs, egomaniacal fathers and jealous  uncles. But it’s never lost its ability to make us marvel because, as our guide Mohammed puts it: “Egypt is the root of the tree where everything begins — it’s the source of stories.” 

And the thread running through those stories is the almighty Nile. The world’s longest river, it flows northwards from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean, and almost Egypt’s entire population of 99 million lives along its banks. “To travel it is to know the real Egypt,” pronounces Mohammed.

Cleopatra knew it when she sailed with Caesar aboard the huge, two-storey pleasure barge Thalamegos, stopping at temples to introduce him to the gods, and ask for their support. A young Gustave Flaubert (before he wrote Madame Bovary and became famous) eulogised he would ‘willingly… give up all the women in the world to possess the mummy of Cleopatra!’ — quite a statement for a man who was known to love spending time in brothels. His desire to see the ‘Orient’ (the term once used to describe the Middle East and North Africa) was fierce, and the writer finally set sail along the Nile in November 1849 (coincidently aboard the same cruise boat as a 29-year-old Florence Nightingale). And, of course, we all know uncovering the real Egypt paid off handsomely for Agatha Christie — her travels aboard the steamship Sudan in 1937 inspired the bestseller Death on the Nile

Travelling the 140 miles from Luxor to Aswan aboard a linen-sail dahabiya is the way to replicate those fabled, slow-moving journeys. These hardwood boats sleep 12 instead of the 80–120 passengers hosted on the five-storey cruise boats I’d seen herded together, 10 deep, like beaten horses on the outskirts of Luxor. Leaving behind that city’s famed temples and pavements shimmering in the heat, I drive south, overtaking boys shepherding straggly sheep, and mounds of colossal cabbages stacked roadside, toward the village of Esna, to where our dahabiya waits by the water’s edge.

A tugboat strings us into the centre of the broad river and as we drift away, we leave the dust and honking horns behind. With a heave-ho on the ropes, the barefoot crew casts open the sails until the only sound is the gurgle of the glass-green Nile on the bow. Along the banks, life unfolds. A man perched on the rim of his canoe jabs the shallows with his spear, scaring the fish into his net; a boy diligently soaps down his steed; and a trio of lads in shorts stop playing to wave as we glide by. Our helmsman, Ahmed, leans his whole body onto the long wooden oar as he noses the boat past islands of high phragmite reeds, until he’s silhouetted against the molten sky, and the warm khamsin wind wraps itself around me like a silk scarf. 

Crew aboard the dahabiy.
Photograph by Emma Thomson

This sailing tradition needs to be revived. Not only because in a world of bullet trains and jet planes it feels good to slow down, but to help the country get back on its feet. In 2010, Egypt welcomed 14 million visitors, but a succession of events after the Arab Spring brought the tourism industry to its knees, and by 2016 visitor numbers had plummeted to 5.4 million. “I don’t how we survived. We used our savings; had to take loans from relatives,” says Mohammed, shaking his head. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel safety map currently shows a grass-green swathe of ‘safe’ sandwiched between the yellow warnings for the western desert and the Sinai Peninsula — but the damage in travellers’ minds has been slower to repair.

The following evening we moor alongside the island village of Besaw. Men row boats laden with huge alfalfa bales towards the shore, while others lead their cows to drink at the water’s edge. Every winter, the Nile waters recede to reveal rich farmland and for five months, this 500-strong island community grows mangoes, bananas, dates and fodder for their livestock. Children playing on the hull of an upturned boat recognise Mohammed and wander over to say hello. He’s been coming here for 15 years, and embraces local brothers Sayyid and Mustafa when they come to greet us. 

A barefoot girl slips her hand into mine and we wander into the heart of the village. Kids shriek as their friends charge at them armed with the limp pincers of Nile shrimp. Sayyid leads us through the dry-mud streets, past women with babies hooked on their hips who nod in greeting, towards the home he shares with his wife Zaineb, their three boys and his parents, as well as his brother, sister-in-law and their two boys. Upstairs, Mustafa rummages in a heavy wood wardrobe and pulls out a book. “My wedding album,” he says, proudly, placing it in my hands. He turns the pages, tenderly, very pleased with the Photoshopped images of him and his smooth-skinned bride. 

He leads us back downstairs into a second lounge with plump sofas, a widescreen TV and — of all things — a disco ball that spins on the ceiling, casting pink and green lights over our faces as we sip the hibiscus tea Zaineb has prepared. “I’ve known these families for years,” says Mohammed. “I’ve seen the benefits tourism can bring. They had only one water buffalo — no cows. Now they have five cows, goats and bedroom furniture.”

“And, best of all, a disco ball,” I enthuse over the din of the TV. 

Village kids playing on the banks of the Nile.
Photograph by Emma Thomson

Dahabiyas at dawn

Dawn breaks, cool and bright — and with it, a surprise. Right beside the boat is Gebel el-Silsila, the site of numerous stone quarries. I’d fantasised about sailing right to the doorstep of the temples; of gliding, Cleopatra-style down the gangplank into their many-columned halls. But with climate change and the Aswan Dam narrowing the Nile, tuk-tuks are now the more usual way to approach the temples. Not at Gebel el-Silsila, though. Here, you can stroll from the shore right to the front door. And the big cruise boats don’t stop here either, so you can explore the rubble, the temples, shrines and chapels with little company.

This was Queen Hatshepsut’s quarry. From its sandstone came the statues and sphinxes of Luxor, Karnak and Sphinx Avenue (uncovered beneath a Luxor neighbourhood as recently as 2010). Chiselled into the walls of the quarry temple is a ship transporting an obelisk up the Nile — perhaps the same obelisk proclaiming Hatshepsut’s greatness seen in Karnak today. Even the sand here still contains memories. Just beneath the surface are black grains: iron filings from the chisels of the original quarrymen.

A local warden solemnly nods ‘good morning’, but shrugs off his seriousness as soon as we escape the eyeline of the other officials. He picks up a small stone and throws it up a rock face. “Giraffe,” he says, pointing at a hieroglyph. A little further, and he’s cheekily coaxing me past a sign that reads: ‘No Tourists’. I glance around, looking for Mohammed for reassurance, like a child lost on a school trip.

“It’s OK,” he says, appearing at my side. “It’s just a bit tricky to reach.” The warden has already levered himself between two boulders and waves for me to follow, so I lower myself towards the river and trace the narrow sandy trail. Mohammed follows. The warden stops and points to a ragged opening in the cliff above our heads. Like a cracked-open quartz, its innards are bejewelled. We help each other up into the niche and stand in slack-jawed silence. It’s a humble cave: the roof barely clears my head, but the walls are inscribed with detailed paintings.

“I haven’t been here before,” puffs Mohammed, crawling into the cave. “Can you decode its story?” I ask, watching his eyes scan the walls. “I’m looking for a cartouche or king to give away the date,” he says, fingers hovering over the glyphs, as if reading Braille. “See this offering calendar on the wall — the numbers and cups. Here! It says something about Karnak — that means it’s from around 1,400BC.”

The royal sandstone quarry of Gebel el-Silsila.
Photograph by Emma Thomson

Egyptian history is ancient, but constantly evolving. Every year, during the January to April dig season, archaeologists routinely uncover new tombs and treasures. Later in Aswan, we’d see Egyptologists excavating hills that are honeycombed with tombs north of Kitchener’s Island; though the mummies of many pharaohs, including Thutmose II and Hatshepsut, have been found, their burial chambers are yet to be discovered.

The last hieroglyphs

Back on our dahabiya, a course is set toward Farez. We disembark and board a gaggle of tuk-tuks, which take us to a lean-to on the fringes of the village. Hammering sounds, as perfectly metered as a woodpecker, echo into the dusty street. “Meet my namesake,” says Mohammed, gesturing to a man hunched in the sun, surrounded by offcuts of wood. Mohammed (two) makes crates from the wood of date palms, which are used to transport tomatoes and mangoes. 

He gestures for me to sit in front of him. On an upturned log that serves as an anvil, he shuffles a strip of wood along with his foot, cleaving off smaller sections, the machete dropping mere millimetres from his bare toes. “It’s amazing he still has them all, eh?” observes Mohammed. It takes him about half an hour to make one crate, which he then sells for 80p. For 45 years — since the age of 12 — Mohammed has made these boxes for 17 hours a day, six days a week. “The days are hard, but bringing tourists here validates his work,” explains my guide. I help him hammer one together; punching the wood through the rough holes. As we move to leave, Mohammed stands then nips into the back of his workshop; he returns with an ankh (the Egyptian key of life), crudely fashioned from date palm wood and gives it to me. In return, I press a crisp note into his hand. 

Sailing through the afternoon, a plateau of dunes rises behind the reeds. Raed, our captain, moors the boat beside a garden of date palms where his father once farmed. The crew strip off their T-shirts and jump into the water. “Coming?” they yell. I tiptoe across the rough grass, which is dappled with cow dung, and wade into the cold water. The silty bottom squidges between my toes, so I start swimming and find the current strong, as if it’s trying to pull me back to Luxor. 

Splashing around in these murky waters, the imagination wanders. I recall that this river also lends its name to a snappy reptile: the Nile crocodile. They once swam from source to sea, but “the construction of the Aswan Dam trapped them in the Upper Nile and its tributaries,” reassures Mohammed when we’re back on land. However, for the ancient Egyptians, the crocodiles were a daily reality. It’s no surprise the southern half of the nearby Temple of Kom Ombo is dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek. Mohammed points out his regal figure, with the head of a crocodile and body of a man, etched into the high walls. Dangling in his hand is the ankh — just like the one Mohammed gave me earlier — just to remind worshippers that life and death rested in his hands, or jaws.

Mohammed Taha making crates from the wood of date palms, Farez.
Photograph by Emma Thomson

Later, I seat myself beside captain Raed as he watches the blushing sky and drags slowly on a cigarette. He’s been sailing for 37 years. “It’s in my family: my great grandfather, my grandfather, my mother — they all worked on boats. I’ve sailed them all: felucca, dahabiya, cruise boats.” Haloed in smoke and squinting through his sun-creased eyes, he seems like a sailor of yore. “They called me the Black Tiger,” he smiles, eyes on the horizon as he recalls his past revelries. But he traded them all in for his greatest love: the Nile. “When I’m away from her, I miss her; she’s bewitched me like a drug. I stopped the drinking and the womanising, but I couldn’t give her up,” he shrugs. “When I’m stressed, I sit alone at sunset and speak all my secrets to her and I feel OK after that.”

Morning brings us to the outskirts of Aswan. A cool wind has woken the birds, the lazy sun lingering beneath a blanket of mist. We drive to Abu Simbel, the 3,200-year-old temples that Ramesses II had hewn into two hills for him and his beloved Queen Nefertiti. 

In the 1960s, they were moved back 250 metres to avoid the encroaching waters. The roofs of the mounds were lifted off and each stone painstakingly dismantled and pieced together again. “The pharaohs achieved great things building them, and we achieved greatness by moving and saving them,” says Mohammed proudly. Even the detached head of the pharaoh, which famously inspired the lines from Shelley’s Ozymandias: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert... Near them, on the sand, half sunk a shattered visage lies’, was left as found. 

The future is an uncertain mistress, and there’s something comforting in the solidity of the stones, the stern gaze of the statues, and of knowing that 170 years ago, a young Florence Nightingale was dwarfed by these same colossi. ‘When you’ve slipped down an inclined plain of sand 20ft high... you find yourself in a gigantic hall wrapped in eternal twilight, and you see nothing but eight colossal figures of Osiris...  these imperishable genii who have seen 3,000 years pass over their heads and heed them not’, she wrote in a letter to a friend. 

Our last stop is the temple complex of Philae. Like Abu Simbel, it also fell prey to flooding and was relocated to Agilkia Island between 1972 and 1980. In the information centre, videos show locals rowing through Hathor temple, the water up to the cow-eared heads crowning the columns. Everywhere are signs of men wanting to leave their mark. Emperor Hadrian appears as an Egyptian pharaoh on the walls, so too does Alexander the Great; the Romans built the Trajan’s Kiosk to mark the southernmost boundary of their vast Empire; Napoleon’s soldiers covered the walls with graffiti, and one English soldier, N Pearce, fighting in Abyssinia, had chiselled ‘Born at Acton near London’. 

Temple of Kom Ombo.
Photograph by Emma Thomson

But something more poignant is to be found tucked away in a corner. The unknowing eye would walk right past it. Mohammed points to a few cursive symbols in the Temple of Isis: “These are believed to be the last hieroglyphs ever carved,” he says, profoundly. “They’re dated 24 August 394. After this, Egyptians changed their mother tongue to Coptic.” It marked the end of one of the greatest ages in human history. 

They shaped our world, now it’s our turn to save theirs. There’s still much to discover and Egypt needs tourist visits to fund excavations. Instead of leaving graffiti, we can leave an imprint of a different kind. “One tourist creates four or five jobs — that’s four or five families you support,” urges Mohammed. “Come to help the people survive — Egypt is safe.” That’s certainly of more comfort than ‘hot chicken soup’.


Getting there & around
The entry point for most Nile cruises is Luxor. EgyptAir flies from Heathrow to Luxor every Monday; otherwise it, and other operators including Turkish Airlines (from Gatwick), fly via Cairo. Return flights are best booked from Aswan where most sailings terminate, though all travel via Cairo. 

Average flight time: 5h20m.

British nationals require a visa to enter Egypt, which costs $25 (£19.66) and is valid for 30 days. It’s best to purchase the visa online (valid for three months) ahead of travel. 

When to go
October to April are the coolest months, but try to avoid travelling in December or January, peak tourist season, during which historic cities such as the Valley of the Kings and Abu Simbel get uncomfortably busy. Avoid summer, too, when temperatures can rocket to as high as 50C.

More info
Ancient Egypt: a Very Short Introduction by Ian Shaw. RRP: £12.99 (Oxford University Press)

A Winter on the Nile: Florence Nightingale, Gustave Flaubert and the Temptations of Egypt by Anthony Sattin. RRP: £9.99 (Windmill Books)

Egypt: Through Writers’ Eyes by Deborah Manley. RRP: £12.99 (Eland)

The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt by Richard H Wilkinson. RRP: £18.95 (Thames & Hudson)

How to do it
Wild Frontiers offers a 10-day Slow Boat to Aswan tour from £2,415 per person, excluding flights. 

See more pictures in our photo gallery:

Published in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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