With King Tut’s riches on display in London and Kenneth Branagh’s remake of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile hitting the big screen next October, Egyptomania is in full swing and cruising the world’s longest river is back in vogue. No wonder. As Ms Christie’s cast of suspects found, a Nile cruise is the easiest – and most comfortable – way to explore Egypt’s treasures.
Their steamer, Karnak, left Aswan and headed south to Abu Simbel, a journey blocked when the Aswan High Dam opened in 1968, so budding Egyptologists now visit the rich seam of temples and tombs between Luxor and Aswan.
Vast Karnak, a complex of 29 temples; Edfu, where the pharaohs were once crowned; pretty Philae, moved stone by stone to escape the rising waters after the first Aswan dam was built; the Valley of the Kings and Queens. You see them all on this fascinating – and somewhat confusing – journey through myth and reality cluttered with murderous gods, cunning rulers and randy pharaohs (that’ll be Ramesis II, who was busy fathering 200 children when he was not having statues of himself built).
Those familiar with the film will remember Jacqueline de Bellefort popping up here and there with a few temple facts but overall Ms Christie was too taken up with murder to worry about the finer points of the Nile cruise experience.
So here are some of the more quirky things you’ll learn from your guide as you discover it’s not all death on the Nile.
1. The ancient Egyptians were concerned about smells. Nice ones that is. An antechamber in the Temple of Edfu is said to have been the perfumery back in the day, with its hieroglyphics outlining the various recipes the odour-meisters came up with. “Maybe Chanel No 5 is somewhere on these walls,” is the guides’ favourite joke.
2. Unfortunately you can’t do as our heroine Linnet’s scheming trustee Andrew Pennington in the film version and climb to the top of the hypostyle hall in Karnak (spoiler alert: he was up to no good) but secret tumbledown steps near the less-visited Temple of Khonsu give you a birds’ eye view of the complex. Be ready to cross the guard’s hand with silver to get in.
3. Still puzzling where else you’ve seen Karnak’s spectacular Hypostyle Hall? You’re thinking of that moment in Bond’s The Spy Who Loved Me when 007 and KGB agent Anya Amasova (aka Roger Moore and Barbara Bach) seek Jaws amid the 134 columns after he has escaped by biting through a chain. Makes your teeth hurt just thinking about it.
4. Thank the Greeks for the fact guides can read the hieroglyphics that adorn the walls of the temples. Sometime after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt (around 332), one of his subjects thoughtfully inscribed a stone with a text in hieroglyphics, demotic and ancient Greek. Using the latter, scholars were able to figure out the other scripts. The stone was discovered in 1799 by the French in a place near the port city of Rosetta. Hence it has gone down in history as the Rosetta Stone.
5. Stuck on demotic? It was a script-like form of hieroglyphics. Just as hard to read, but less decorative.
6. For the pharaohs, being grabbed by the hair while in battle was the ultimate dishonour so they shaved their heads before going into battle and engraved images of their foes being held by the tresses on temple walls so everyone could laugh at their shame.
7. These days you can still go from Aswan to Abu Simbel but it’s either a four-hour drive through the desert or a 45-minute flight. If you’re not awed by the temple, guarded by its four 20-metre (66ft) statues of Ramses II, you will be by the fact it was moved stone by stone to its present location to escape being submerged in Lake Nasser after the high dam was built.
8. Just as we now have an app for everything, the ancient Egyptians had a god for everything. The crocodile god Sobek, to whom half the Temple of Kom Ombo is dedicated, was presumably an attempt to placate all the toothy reptiles that inhabited the Nile back in the days of the pharaohs.
9. Ye gods! Which is about all you can say about ancient Egypt’s scheming deities. Osiris was a good egg but he was murdered by his brother Set, who wanted his sibling’s throne. He scattered bits of Osiris’ body around Egypt so he couldn’t be magicked back together and married his sister Nephthys (the ancient Egyptians were heavily into incest). Isis, wife of Osiris, hid their son, Horus, from Set until he was strong enough to fight for the throne. Horus then rewards her by chopping her head off. Thank goodness it was all a myth.
10. Rome has more Egyptian obelisks than anywhere else in the world: 13 vs Egypt’s nine. The UK has four, including Cleopatra’s Needle near Waterloo Bridge in London. Except it actually belonged to Thutmose III. The Romans moved it to Cleopatra’s temple in Alexandria, so when it was gifted to the UK in the early 1800s, her name stuck. But let’s face it, it sounded more romantic than Thutmose even before Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor fell for each other immortalising the love affair between Antony and Cleopatra on the big screen.
How to do it
It suited the plot of Death on the Nile to make sure the temples were devoid of visitors – you don’t want prying eyes when murder is afoot. They are getting busy now so plan to go soon to beat the crowds. Rivers of the World offers an eight-night holiday pairing a four-night Nile cruise from Luxor to Aswan or vice-versa on Sanctuary Retreat’s luxurious Nile Adventurer with four nights in Cairo from £2,400 per person departing March 5 2020. Price includes flights, meals and sightseeing on the cruise excluding the Abu Simbel excursion (from £299 per person) and room and breakfast in Cairo (0800 028 4272; riversoftheworld.co.uk).