Cruising the Nile by felucca

Posted by Justin Fox on 2 July 2019

It was a golden mid-winter afternoon in Aswan. Below the corniche, our felucca nudged the pylons. This boat with its tall yardarm and furled sail would be our home for the coming days.

Salaam, welcome aboard the Phila,’ called out Mahmoud Abazied, our skipper. Climbing over the rail, it felt as though we could just as easily be stepping back a millennium or three in time.

Mahmoud Abazied, skipper of the felucca ‘Phila’, is a born and- bred river man. Image credit: Justin Fox

I’d come to Egypt as a guest of On the Go Tours to travel down the Nile from Aswan to Luxor, one of the world’s great river journeys. Half our group had opted for the luxury of a cruise ship. The rest had chosen to do the voyage on a felucca instead. By sailing in a traditional craft – descendant of the ancient boats of the Nile – we’d experience the river as it should be: at waterline on an open deck with only a triangle of canvas and the current and wind for propulsion.

We stowed our bags on an adjacent motor boat, which housed our ablutions and a kitchen. This vessel would follow us downstream and tie up alongside when we stopped, giving us access to amenities lacking on the felucca.

Our felucca ghosts downstream, bound for the Temple of Kom Ombo. Image credit: Justin Fox

Mahmoud and a crewman prepared to set sail, loping about the deck, unhitching ropes and casting off lines. A turbaned lad gave us a shove and we slipped astern, kissing another boat, a fender, a rail. Phila lay for a moment in dead water until our lug sail filled with the northerly coming off the Sahara, wafting us out of the mooring pond, past a sandbank and into the stream. Back and forth we tacked, riding the current between Aswan and the palm-fringed western shore.

The sun began to settle in a bed of palms and the river’s skin turned to satin. We creased the barest wake as cormorants flew by in tapered V formation. Mahmoud steered us into a quiet cove where our support boat was already lying at anchor. The crew gathered on deck for evening prayers just as a muezzin began to call from a nearby mosque, his voice echoing across the stream.

A whiff of cumin on the breeze, then out came plates of pitta, dates, falafel, beef tagine, and cold Sakara Gold lager to wash away the dust. Donning beanies and gloves, we wrapped ourselves in blankets to ward off the bitter winter chill and bedded down on the deck.

Listening to the night sounds, I thought of the annual flooding of the Nile (now throttled by the High Aswan Dam), which determined the seasonal rhythms of the past. I imagined the ancient traffic that came this way: the royal yacht of a pharaoh, reed vessels carrying produce, a funerary boat bearing a dead queen, barges laden with Aswan granite for the temples and tombs of Memphis. My musings were interrupted by the grumble and rock of cruise ships, racing past to the pulse of tourist clocks.

Left: Each evening, our felucca pulled into the Nile’s western bank and moored overnight. Right: Karnak Temple’s vast Hypostyle Hall once had a roof supported by 134 papyrus-shaped columns in 16 rows, which still exist. Images: Justin Fox

The yellow disk of Ra – the sun god – lifted from the eastern shore to spread a feeble warmth among the deck-bound sleepers: As-salamu alaykum, greeted another day. We upped anchor and set off downstream once again Mahmoud gave me the helm. With the heft of the tiller in both my hands and a bellied sail above, we glided north. Palms lined each bank, fields of sugar cane and salmon sands lay beyond; a dark blue sky and cooling zephyr. It was blissful.

After another night on the river, we moored and were collected by a minibus that delivered us to the Temple of Kom Ombo (180–47 BC). This ‘dual temple’ was dedicated to the worship of both the falconheaded Horus – the Good Doctor – and the crocodile god, Sobek. It’s unique in having a ‘double’ design in which the courts, halls and sanctuaries are duplicated on each side of its axis (the south for Sobek, the north for Horus).

The Temple of Philae sits on an island in the Aswan Low Dam, a short distance upstream from Aswan town.                     Image credit: Justin Fox

 

The temple stands on a bend of the Nile where crocodiles once basked on the banks in great numbers. Our guide, Mohamed ‘Dino’ Radwan, showed us where the first reptile of the flood used to be let into the temple through a water gate to a well, where it was worshipped and later mummified.

We proceeded to Luxor, known as Thebes to the ancients, where we visited its two famous monuments: Karnak on the east bank and the Valley of the Kings on the west. The sheer size of the former leaves you spellbound and drained. Karnak’s Temple of Amun is a grand succession of courts, halls, obelisks and colossi. In the Great Hypostyle Hall, stone lotus blossoms were suspended high above us and soft light filtered through the columns. Outside,
the remains of a two-kilometre-long avenue of sphinxes led to Luxor Temple. And everywhere I saw evidence of the river: boat motifs, papyrus and palm columns, images of crocodiles and portly hippopotamuses.

Our second day in Luxor was ‘the big one’ – the Theban Necropolis, one of the greatest open-air museums on Earth and testament to the Ancient Egyptians’ obsession with the hereafter. We hailed a water taxi and crossed from the land of the living, the east bank, to the world of the dead on the west. The approach is guarded by the 20-metre-high sandstone figures of the two Colossi of Memnon, which looked like Battlestar Galactica cylons.

For centuries, pharaohs, queens and noblemen were buried in lavish tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The Egyptian cult of the dead meant that much of society was geared towards the hereafter, with pharaohs spending their lives preparing for their deaths.

Abu Simbel: the might of Ramses II Image credit: Justin Fox

The embalming took up to 70 days, during which the mummies were prepared: brain and viscera removed and the cadaver wrapped in gum-coated linen bandages. The mummies were hidden in underground warrens (such as the famous tomb of Tutankhamun) along with the treasures they would take with them into the afterlife.

I was amazed at the vivid colours of the paintings and hieroglyphics on the tomb walls: so bright and, ironically, so full of life. And such imagination! Three-headed snakes with feet and wings, ceilings dotted with stars, sun-worshipping baboons, winged suns and ram-headed beetles.

Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple is perhaps the finest in Luxor. It consists of terraces set against a natural amphitheatre in the Theban Hills. Many of the wall reliefs depict the queen on a trading expedition upriver into Nubia, the Sudan and even further south. The stumps of myrrh (incense) trees – brought all the way from the Land of Punt (Somalia) – are still there.

Image credit: Justin Fox

On our last evening, I sat on the banks of the Nile and watched its waters muscling by, the occasional felucca ghosting past. The sun had set but the river still held a silvery gleam. Across the water, the realm of the dead was slipping into darkness.

The Sahara felt as though it were pressing in. I could smell its dryness, sense its implacable presence beyond the curtain of palms. This river was the source of all life here, as it had been since the beginning. Almost everything we know as modern humans, it seemed just then, has flowed down to us, filtered by Christianity and Islam, by the Greeks and the Romans, on the currents of this mighty river.

A muezzin began his call to prayer. The scene was impossibly romantic, heavily freighted with history and unnameable emotions. But for me, the journey had come to an end and the night train to Cairo was due.

Plan your trip

Getting there
South Africans need a visa. I got mine from the Egyptian Embassy in Pretoria using Visa Request (service fee R350, courier R240). visarequest.co.za

I flew with Egypt Air (code sharing with SAA). Return flights from Joburg to Cairo start from about R7,000. egyptair.com

Do this
On the Go Tours offers a range of enjoyable tours, escorted by local guides qualified in Egyptology. Stays are in fourand five-star establishments (the felucca and train transfers are more rustic). I did the nineday
‘King Tutankhamun Tour’, which included Cairo, the pyramids of Giza, temples such as Philae and Karnak, and the Valley of the Kings, as well as a voyage on the Nile between Aswan and Luxor, either on a traditional felucca (two nights) or a cruise ship (three nights, for an additional R3,900 per person).

The tour rate starts from R14,900 per person sharing, including eight breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners and transfers, plus two overnight train journeys. Certain side excursions, such as to Abu Simbel Temple (highly recommended) are excluded.
On the Go also offers tailormade options. 0800-990-311, onthegotours.com

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