Egypt has been called the gift of the Nile, for without the river it could not exist as a fertile, populous country, let alone have sustained a great civilization five thousand years ago. Its character and history have been shaped by the stark contrast between the fecund Nile Valley and its Delta, and the arid wastes that surround them. To the Ancient Egyptians, this was the homeland or Kemet – the Black Land of dark alluvium, where life and civilization flourished as the benign gods intended – as opposed to the desert that represented death and chaos, ruled by Seth, the bringer of storms and catastrophes.
Kemet’s existence depended on an annual miracle of rebirth from aridity, as the Nile rose to spread its life-giving waters and fertilizing silt over the exhausted land during the season of inundation. Once the flood had subsided, the fellaheen (peasants) simply planted crops in the mud, waited for an abundant harvest, and then relaxed over summer. While empires rose and fell, this way of life persisted essentially unchanged for over 240 generations, until the Aswan High Dam put an end to the inundation in 1967 – a breathtaking period of continuity considering that Jesus lived only eighty generations ago.
Almost every Nile town is built upon layers of previous settlements – pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Roman and Coptic – whose ancient names, modified and Arabized, have often survived. After a century and a half of excavation by a dozen Western nations – and by the Egyptians since independence – the Valley’s ancient monuments constitute the greatest open-air museum in the world. Revealed along its banks are several thousand tombs (over nine hundred in Luxor’s Theban Necropolis alone) and scores of temples: so many, in fact, that most visitors feel satiated by just a fraction of this legacy.
To enjoy the Valley, it’s best to be selective and mix sightseeing with felucca rides on the river, roaming around bazaars and camel markets, or attending the odd moulid. Most visitors succeed in this by heading straight for Upper Egypt, travelling by train or air to Luxor or Aswan, then making day-trips to the sights within easy range of either base – most notably the cult temple at Edfu – in addition to exploring the New Kingdom temples and tombs of Karnak and the Theban Necropolis from Luxor. Inexpensive Nile cruises can be found by shopping around before you leave home; through agents in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan; or on boats moored at Aswan, which is also the point of departure for felucca cruises to Kom Ombo and Edfu. Further north, Middle Egypt is chiefly known for its temples at Abydos and Dendara, but adventurous travellers also visit the tombs of Beni Hassan and the ruins of Akhenaten’s capital at Tell el-Amarna.