On a cruise from Luxor to Aswan, along a stretch of the Nile lined by some of the world’s most impressive ancient monuments, Keith Drew makes the most of Egypt’s greatest sights while they’re still crowd free.
“Come closer, my dear family,” says Addy, our Orbital guide, “you need to see this.” We gather round like wide-eyed school kids as he runs the beam of his torch along the outer corridor of Kom Ombo temple, etched figures of vultures and serpents and other hieroglyphic characters emerging out of the darkness as he scans the limestone wall.
Eventually, the light settles on a cluster of reliefs that depict a diverse array of medical instruments – scalpels, forceps and dental tools, some startling in their ingenuity. It seems that while the tribesmen of Britain were “ugh”ing around their campfires, the ancient Egyptians were prescribing anaesthetics and checking peoples' heart rates with stethoscopes made from animal veins.
Elsewhere, on the temple’s inner walls, there are superb carvings of Ptolemy XII appearing before the goddess Isis. Around the corner, another seamless jigsaw of gargantuan blocks acts as a canvas for one of the oldest agricultural calendars known to man. And down towards the entrance, a dozen mummified crocodiles – preserved for the afterlife in deference to the temple deity Sobek, the crocodile-headed god – look like they’d rip your arm off at any minute were it not for the fact that they died some two thousand years ago.
The Temple of Kom Ombo
"It feels like the tomb has been opened just for us"
But perhaps the most striking thing about Kom Ombo is the tourists. There aren’t any. This spectacular site, one of several temple-stops on our four-day cruise down the Nile from Luxor to Aswan, is virtually empty.
In the glory days of Egyptian tourism, dozens of cruisers would disgorge their passengers at the village docks here, and the hordes would shuffle around Kom Ombo in one indiscernible mass. There were long waits while the guide in front of the guide in front of you ran through his patter, and tales of tour guides coming to blows in a bid to secure the best spots were not uncommon. But we are one of just a handful of small groups, and we wander the open-air halls and corridors as we please, taking time to pore over the details without fear of causing a queue.
It is a pattern repeated throughout our trip. In Luxor, we nose around the Valley of the Workers without another soul in sight, the village that once housed the painters, builders and embalmers employed in creating the monumental tombs in the Valley of the Kings now briefly home to just eight tourists from England. In the nearby Valley of the Nobles, it feels like the XVIII Dynasty Tomb of Sennefer has been opened just for us, and there’s no limit to the time we can spend admiring the everyday scenes of his life that adorn the burial chamber.
The Temple of Karnak
"Two dreamy days of gliding languidly upstream"
Only in Karnak, the most magnificent temple complex in Upper Egypt, do we really encounter any other tourists, though even here the numbers are a fifth of what they once were and the groups are easily absorbed across the vast site – the Precinct of Amun alone is enormous and its Great Hypostyle Hall, a thicket of towering columns, famously large enough to house both St Paul’s Cathedral and St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.
The river, too, is blissfully quiet, and we see just half a dozen or so other cruise boats during two dreamy days of gliding languidly upstream to Aswan. From the balcony of my cabin aboard the luxurious MS Mayfair, I plot the course of the Nile as the river narrows and widens, diverting around the occasional island and alongside little egrets perching in the treetops. Fishermen paddle past, gently bobbing in our boat’s rippling wake. Behind the riverside palm trees, water-drenched fields of sugarcane, mangoes and figs quickly give way to scorched-dry rock and desert. At times, we pass by the bank close enough to hear children giggling as they play outside their mud-brick houses; at others, you feel a world away from land.
At Esna docks, young boys hurl jalabiyas (Islamic dresses) on board and the bartering begins: “Hello sir, you like jalabiya? ASDA price. Buy one, get one free”. There’s a quickness to the trading, as the water rises and the vendors scurry along the dockside trying to close the deal before the boat hits the open river again. Otherwise, afternoons on the stylish sun deck disappear in a haze of heat and ice-cold G&Ts, whilst evenings are spent watching an orange orb melt into the river or sipping karkadays (an Egyptian hibiscus drink) in the cocktail lounge – on several occasions, I regret not packing a linen suit and Panama hat.
MS Mayfair on the Nile
"The tide in Egypt is slowly turning"
Like Luxor, the east bank of Aswan is littered with the skeletons of half-built hotels, their development “on hold” since 2011. But Aswan feels optimistic. The day we dock, a husk of a hotel on the Corniche road near our boat has builders on site for the first time in years. Capacity at the swish Old Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie holed up to write Death on the Nile, is creeping up to where it was prior to the revolution. And we even end up in something approaching a queue of motorboats as we wait to leave Shallal dock for the short journey to the Temple of Isis, painstakingly moved, block by block, from what is now the bottom of Lake Nasser to a sublime location on Philae Island.
The tide in Egypt is slowly turning. The latest figures from the country’s tourism authority show that visitor numbers are gradually on the rise again, and at the end of November, the Foreign & Commonwealth office lifted their travel restrictions to Middle Egypt, opening up the whole of the Nile Valley from Cairo to Aswan. Kom Ombo and Karnak may not stay empty for long.
EgyptAir has direct weekly flights from London Heathrow to Luxor. A four-night cruise on the Nile from Luxor to Aswan with Nile-cruise specialists Orbital Travel starts at £995 per person. Explore more of Egypt with the Rough Guide to Egypt, book hostels for your trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.
Top image © Marcel Bakker/Shutterstock