Egypt has always exuded an allure that I couldn't resist. As a kid, I tore photos of the Pyramids and the Sphinx from my parents' National Geographic magazines, dreaming of the day that I could walk through the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. I even owned a child's guide to hieroglyphics.
A visit to Egypt is a bucket list experience that holds sway, regardless of what the political situation in the Middle East may be. Despite the protests still ongoing in Cairo, I felt giddy as I booked the 12-day Splendors of the Nile tour on Uniworld's River Tosca, perhaps the most luxurious ship currently plying the waterway. I chose the line because I wanted to see if its five-star reputation, burnished on the rivers of Europe, would hold up in Egypt, a more exotic destination. I also wanted to see how a cruise could manage the difficult balance between seeing the country's immense slate of can't-miss historic sights and giving passengers time to relax.
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My fellow passengers aside, I found that a Nile cruise proved the perfect way to explore a destination that's both timeless and in flux. Our Egyptology-trained guides took all questions, whether they concerned the dynasty of Ramses the Great or the fallout from Arab Spring. And the flawless customer service and safety precautions invoked by the staff during my visit should appease anyone who may be concerned about traveling in the sometimes-chaotic Middle East.
Pre-Cruise in Cairo
Most Nile cruises start and end with land tours in Cairo to see the city, recover from jetlag and, of course, view the Pyramids. As befits Uniworld's luxe reputation, the company arranges for passengers to stay at either the Marriott on peaceful Zamalek Island or the Four Seasons Nile Plaza in Garden City, a charming neighborhood that's home to the U.S. and British embassies.
At the latter, I checked into my spacious room and immediately went out to the balcony. The Nile lay before me, gloriously wide and mysterious. Feluccas, traditional Egyptian sailboats that ply the river at sunset, dotted the water. The Arabic call to prayer issued from a nearby mosque. I snapped a photo and posted it on Facebook, with the caption: "You know you're in the Middle East when ...."
The Four Seasons Nile Plaza attracts a lively mix of wealthy Cairo residents, visitors from other Middle Eastern countries and international business people. On the weekend, the hotel's bar was hopping. Still, I didn't meet my fellow Uniworld tour group members until the next morning, when we grouped at the Marriott to go over our itinerary.
I had been in Cairo for several days already and had seen the pyramids privately before the Uniworld trip began, as my schedule forced me to leave the tour a day early. I preferred seeing them at the beginning of the tour, rather than at the end, as the Old Kingdom masterpieces pre-dated the Middle Kingdom and Ptolemy sights that we were to see on the rest of the trip. Most pyramid excursions also include stops at the Old Kingdom capital of Memphis and Saqqara, where you'll find the Step Pyramid of Djoser, a precursor to the immense structures at Giza. While seeing them all in a day may seem rushed, it's a great way to witness how pyramid-building evolved.
I also had a good experience touring the Coptic Quarter with a guide I had hired on my own. My fellow cruisers -- a couple from Australia in their 50's and three sisters from Iowa in their 60's and 70's -- hadn't had such luck and were a little shell-shocked by the city's noise and death-defying traffic patterns. Good thing we were all getting hooked up with Akram, our Egyptology-trained guide provided by Uniworld, who would be with us for our entire trip.
In the morning, our group headed to the Citadel and its Alabaster Mosque. Built by Muhammad Ali, an Ottoman military commander who established a dynasty in Egypt in 1811, the mosque has the same style as those in Istanbul, with a spacious, domed interior and minarets reaching skyward.
As no one in our group was Muslim, Akram answered our questions about Islam and pointed out the features that you'd find in any mosque around the world. I was surprised when a fellow passenger contradicted him; apparently the man believed that his experience in a fraternal society made him more knowledgeable than someone who lives in the country.
Next on our agenda was the sprawling Egyptian Museum, filled with many of the country's top artifacts. Akram walked around the un-air-conditioned space with us, patiently explaining the differences between the epochs, but it proved difficult to take in. Cramming more than 4,500 years of history into one afternoon just can't be done, and my brain hurt from the effort.
I discovered my favorite galleries once Akram left us on our own. On the upper floor, I wandered into a room of small divinity statues that included icons dedicated to the goddess Bastet. I smiled at the tiny cat statues; my felines back home definitely believe they are part of the ruling caste. Then I entered the King Tutankhamen rooms. There were all the spectacular gold pieces I remember seeing in magazines when the treasures first toured in the 1970's. Too bad I couldn't take a picture. The museum bans cameras and the guards watch carefully for iPhone offenders.
Delving Into the Past at Luxor
The next day, we rose at 5 a.m. and picked up breakfast boxes from our hotels for the 90-minute flight down to Luxor. Little did I know that such wakeup calls would be the norm rather the exception on this cruise, as Akram insisted on getting us to sites early to beat the heat and the crowds from resorts on the Red Sea.
Immediately after landing, we piled into a minivan headed for the Temple of Karnak, the world's largest ancient religious site. Once known as Thebes, Karnak was used as a temple complex by more than 30 pharaohs, with each one adding to the site's grandeur. It's the type of place where you're awed by the creations of people who lived so long ago; not for the first time, I wondered how the achievements of our current civilization would be judged by later generations.
We walked through the immense columns and obelisks with Akram, whose no-nonsense manner didn't detract from his knowledge. He strived to help us understand the confusing dynasties of the Middle Kingdom, as well as the chief players in the Egyptian religious pantheon, by showing us common hieroglyphics and symbols that we'd be seeing for the rest of the trip. For the second time in two days, I felt overwhelmed. Taking a short course on Egyptology -- or even downloading a few podcasts -- before I left would have been a wise investment.
Life on the River
Karnak has little shade, and the rising temperatures and fatigue from our early wakeup calls hit me hard. Luckily, we weren't far away from the Luxor cornice, where almost all Nile River cruises start. We pulled up to our berth, where several river boats were docked side-by-side, forcing us to walk through four ships to reach our own. As we walked through the adjoining lobbies, each ship seemed nicer than the next -- and River Tosca appeared to be the most luxurious of all.
The ship's staff greeted us with tangy hibiscus tea, cool towels to wipe our faces and a friendly admonishment to use hand disinfectant, disbursed from a stand positioned at the entrance. Our hands may have been clean, but many members of our group still got sick in the subsequent days, with ailments ranging from food-poisoning to upper respiratory infections. While I suffered a minor bout of "mummy tummy," the Antinal doled out by the ship's reception cleared it right up. (It's also available in most Egyptian pharmacies.)
Upon arrival, I found my room, one of the ship's Presidential suites. At 651 square feet, it seemed more like a luxury hotel room than a cruise cabin, with a king bed, wooden floors, silk carpets and a tiny balcony, just big enough for two chairs. I wasn't the only one who felt like a pasha; as I walked through the hall, I heard other passengers exclaiming about the sizes of their rooms. One Australian couple -- veterans of two Uniworld river cruises in Europe -- proclaimed their River Tosca cabin the nicest they had encountered in the fleet.
At 11 a.m., the ship set sail for a short trip around Luxor. I watched us pull away, fully ensconced in a covered sun lounger on the top deck, a very necessary bottle of water and sunscreen on one side, my iPad full of reading material on the other. This would become part of my daily ritual, along with a dip in the pool and an afternoon nap. While history, both ancient and current, had drawn me to Egypt, relaxation still rated high on my agenda -- and so time spent on the river watching the countryside pass by became highly prized.
Temples, Temples, Temples
While some passengers skipped excursions so they could spend more time onboard, I found myself unable to play hooky. I was too cognizant that I might never again have the chance to see Egypt's ancient wonders in such a small group, with such few crowds. So every morning, I heeded the 6 a.m. wakeup calls and dragged myself out of bed for another touring session.
Not that rising early was too much of a burden. With the sun out and the smell of the breakfast buffet wafting through the ship, I found waking up to be less of a chore than it is back in dreary Seattle.
Plus, each temple on the River Tosca itinerary had something to recommend it. The Hathor Temple at Dendera boasted one of the few depictions of Cleopatra VI, the famed Ptolemy queen who consorted with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. (Her son with the former, Caesarion, is also pictured.) Dedicated to the crocodile god, Kom Ombro contained markings by the Coptics, some of the first Christians, who used the structure as a hideout during their persecution. And the peaceful surroundings of Philae, an island temple once heralded as one of the burial sites for the god Osiris, made it more than ADT -- "Another Darn Temple," as some on our tour started calling them.
My Felucca Hookah
Our trip to Philae marked the beginning of my favorite part of the cruise, our two-day stop in Aswan. As we approached the city, which enjoyed a reputation as a British resort during their occupation, the landscape and the Nile both changed. On the western banks, we saw the beginnings of the Sahara Desert, marked by the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan. And in the river, large rocks -- the famed Cataracts of the Nile -- appeared, serving as a refuge for the area's migratory bird population. As our guides liked to tell us, Aswan is the border where Egypt falls away and Africa begins.
I had bought a shisha pipe in Philae, from vendors who had signed a "non-harassment" pledge: If tourists promised to come back to the States and tell people about their trip, the touts agreed to back off and let us shop. The ploy worked; almost everyone in our group bought something once the high-pressure sales tactics were dropped. Although the pipe was a gift for my husband, I wanted to try it out, but River Tosca is a nonsmoking vessel. The coffee shops I had seen on shore seemed fairly unwelcome to females.
Luckily, our evening felucca ride proved to be just the place to experiment. I had switched guides for a day, drawn to the rave reviews that Mohammad was receiving from his group, which was on the eight-day Classic Egypt schedule. (Uniworld coordinates schedules so that people on different-length tours are on River Tosca at the same time. Each group maintains its own guide, however.) The people on the shorter trip were a livelier bunch, less likely to complain about the heat and distance, and no one minded when our felucca driver put my shisha together.
I drew in a breath of the apple tobacco that came with the pipe. It tasted fresh and fruity, unlike the few cigarettes that I've smoked in my day. While my companions made jokes about the hookah's possible uses back home, I enjoyed my (absolutely legal) smoke on the Nile, without any sexist repercussions.
Agatha's Aswan and Nubia on the Nile
Because I had switched guides the day before, I was able to take a second felucca sail with my group. This time, our guide was Deya, the son of Mohammad Arabi, the "Birdman of Aswan." During peak migration season (late November), that region of the Nile becomes a haven for millions of birds passing through on their way between southern Africa, the Middle East and Europe. While we were too early for that, we still spotted plenty of species -- including black kites, kingfishers and egrets -- within the reed beds and marshes on shore.
As we drifted down the Nile, we passed some of the colonial-era remnants that give Aswan its more refined flavor. The Aswan Botanical Garden, on Kitchener's Island, was founded by Lord Kitchener in 1899 as a repository for exotic plants and birds that he imported from the Far East, India and Africa. Now owned by the Egyptian government, the Garden still appears lush and tranquil from the water, with its majestic palm trees rising above the river. We also passed Elephantine Island, which once served as the southern border of the Egyptian kingdom. It's filled with ruins; records date temples on the island back to the Old Kingdom's third dynasty (which ran from 3,000 BC to 2,610 BC). While we couldn't see it from our boat, the legendary Old Cataract Hotel -- where frequent guest Agatha Christie wrote "Death on the Nile" -- sits opposite the island. Now run by Sofitel (which also manages the historic Winter Palace hotel in Luxor), the Old Cataract reopened after an extensive three-year renovation. Akram told us that Uniworld hopes to offer a British-style high tea there eventually.
From our felucca, we transferred to a motorboat for our next stop, a Nubian village on the banks of the Nile. An African tribe that has lived in Egypt's Upper Nile region for centuries, the Nubians descended from the Kush of ancient texts and appear frequently in Egyptian history as trading partners, friends and enemies. While many Nubians live in northern Sudan, their traditional homeland became threatened in the 1950's when the Egyptian government built the Aswan High Dam, submerging their territory under Lake Nasser.
Today, only 360,000 Nubians live in Egypt, mostly in the Aswan area where they were relocated. Our guide Deya -- himself part Nubian -- told us that the people received free land, healthcare and education as part of the bargain. "Some older people, they say they like the old life," he said. "But those of us who grew up this way think it is better. We have toilets, electricity, television. There are more opportunities for the future."
The small village boasted a few craft stalls and a cultural center, where we docked for tea and snacks. Both Akram and Deya had promoted this area of the Nile as a clean and safe place for swimming, and Deya asked us if anyone wore a swimsuit. I raised my hand and then looked around. Given that my group wasn't the most adventurous, I wasn't surprised to see that I was the only one who was dying to take a dip in the Nile. I shed my clothes and walked into the cool water, which felt refreshing in the mid-morning heat. I paddled for about 15 minutes, even dunking my head, before rejoining the others.
Little did I know how my decision would haunt me. That night, a friend on Facebook told me that my Nile swim could have exposed me to bilharzia (schistosomiasis), a nasty parasite that takes up residence in your liver and can cause all kinds of damage to your internal organs. Paranoid, I spent most of the night camped in front of my computer, scanning the Internet for details and Skyping my husband in tears. "What if I get worms?" I moaned to Don, back in Seattle. "I guess we'll take you to the vet, just like we do the cats," he replied.
My midnight trip to the front desk didn't go as I anticipated. When I told the clerks about my fears, they stifled smiles and told me to go back to sleep. "You won't get sick," one of them said. "People swim there all the time."
"Egyptians swim there and don't get sick," I retorted. "But what about Americans?" I went back to bed, trying to quell my psychosomatic paranoia. Was that a rash I saw developing on my leg?
The next day, Akram stopped by my breakfast table. The front desk told him about my parasite concerns, and he also assured me that I wouldn't contract the disease. "I have brought many people there to swim over the years, and there's never been a problem," he said. "If you get sick, you can sue me." (For the record, Akram knew more than Dr. Google. I've been back for months with no sign of parasites or illness.)
Return to Cairo
After a quick stop in Edfu, our river cruise back to Luxor unfolded uneventfully. We had taken on a new group of eight-day tour passengers in Aswan, so we had some fresh faces in the dining room. While some of the program seemed to be repeated for the newcomers -- that night marked the second Egyptian-themed evening of our trip, albeit with different meal offerings -- Uniworld continued to impress with the quality of its service.
Back in the room, I turned on the satellite TV for my nightly dose of BBC. A picture of downtown Cairo in chaos appeared, along with reports of rioting and violence near the capital's state television building. For the second night in a row, I ventured downstairs for some answers. Akram sat in the lobby, and when I asked about the riots, he pulled up a map of the city and showed me where the television tower was in relation to the Four Seasons. "We shouldn't have any problems," he said.
Once again, he was right; this time it was because Uniworld had plans in place to take care of its passengers. When we arrived in Cairo, our Uniworld rep announced that we would travel with a security detail into the city, despite our group's small size. (Tour groups of more than 10 automatically have security, per U.S. State Department recommendations that have been in place since 9/11.) At the Four Seasons, the front desk clerk quietly asked me what my plans for the day were; guests were warned against going downtown. For those who might feel uneasy booking a trip to the Middle East, rest assured that high-end hotels and tour companies will do everything in their power to keep you safe and secure.
That night, a van drove our group out to the Pyramids of Giza for the famed Sound & Light show. Words cannot describe the feelings that you experience when you see the pyramids for the first time, and I enjoyed watching the awe of my tour group. Sure, booming narration and fancy lights may seem cheesy to some, but it was fun to let go of the present and immerse ourselves in the past.
I left Egypt with my mind full and spirit enthused; the small size of my tour, combined with the breadth of its offerings, meant that I had received a crash course in the country, both its ancient past and its tumultuous future, in just a few weeks. While it's unclear how Egypt's government will evolve, the country will remain a bucket list draw for travelers eager to explore its artifacts, just as it has for the past 3,000 plus years; it's the ultimate timeless journey.