Would you take a cruise on the Nile?

We had no trouble choosing to go ahead with our trip to uncover ancient Egypt


For many years a holiday hotspot, Egypt has lost some of its appeal for tourists recently. The shooting down of the Russian plane in November made a dire situation worse: visitor numbers plummeted down by as much as 90 per cent according to some estimates. Another telling statistic is that of the 350 cruise ships on the Nile only 70 are currently sailing.

Everyone is desperately keen to stress their security measures: the bank of cameras in a control room in Luxor which scan almost every inch of the place (one foiled an attempt to put a bomb in a car park last year); the guards on every Egyptair flight, the sniffer dogs, the scanners, the barriers at hotel grounds and attractions.

No guarantees can be given and the recent bizarre "hijacking" did not help the situation but it is worth remembering that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not advise against travel to Egypt's main tourist areas. Certainly we all felt safe. And we also felt very sorry for all those welcoming strangers who begged us to tell people back in Britain that they must please, please come to Egypt.

And so, for me the time was right to venture back there as a holiday-maker. I was keen to find out the origins of phrases light-hearted or blue-blooded? Or where the idea of haloes or the symbol for a woman - a circle with a cross at the bottom - comes from? I'd heard that the answers may be from ancient Egypt. Turns out that after death a person's soul was weighed against a feather, bad deeds would weigh it down, good ones buoy it up. Divinities were painted blue hence an association over the years with high rank. They were also depicted with the sphere of the sun god Ra on their heads which Christians, hiding from Roman persecutions in the old temples, might have adapted for their new religion. And academics think our sign for the female came from the ankh, the symbol of life and birth.

There's a huge amount of history to uncover and it's exhausting. That's why I opted for a Nile cruise ship which is the easiest way to see classical Egypt. Challenging yet stimulating days ended on-board the five-star vessel the Oberoi Philae for delicious food and drink, a dip in the sundeck pool or a pampering in the spa.

Getting there

Package: Cyplon holidays offers a night in Luxor at the Maritim Jolie Ville hotel, four nights on the Oberoi Philae with full board and an English speaking Egyptologist on all excursions and two nights at the Conrad Hotel in Cairo, all five star, from £2,489 per person. Price includes return flights from Heathrow with Egyptair and private transfers.

Perhaps one of the most astonishing aspects of ancient Egyptians is how avant garde they were for their time.

For this is a people who practised advanced dentistry, obstetrics and orthopaedics, who had female rulers as well as males, who drew pictures with such elegantly simple lines that they could have been produced by Picasso. And who built the most extraordinary constructions to which today's engineers still pay their respects.

We've all seen the images, but nothing can quite prepare you for the sheer scale of these great sites of antiquity. Karnak, our first stop in Luxor, for example, is over 60 acres in size, the largest place of religion on earth. Here are massive stone temples, giant statues and huge obelisks. The hand of one fallen statue currently being reassembled is the size of an adult. To walk among them is to feel you have shrunk Alice-in-Wonderland style.

But if they are impressive now they must have been even more so in their day 3,500 years ago when the obelisks were topped with gold and every inch of stone covered with pictures and hieroglyphs in dazzling colours.

If Karnak and the temple of Luxor itself - the two were connected by a three kilometre avenue of rams' headed sphinxes - seem old, they are New Kingdom youngsters in comparison to the works of the Middle and the Old Kingdoms. The great pyramid of Giza at Cairo had already been standing for a thousand years.

The country's dry heat has helped to preserve the sites. They were submerged beneath the silt of the flooding Nile or the sands of the desert and were largely ignored. The tombs, however, which we visit the next day in the Valley of the Kings were deliberately hidden to protect them from grave robbers.

The valleys - of the queens, the nobles and the artisans as well as the pharoahs - are all on the west bank. The east bank was where the sun rose, the place from which the sun god Ra began his daily journey and hence the city of life. The west, where the sun sets, and where the journey ended, was thus the city of death and the place where everyone was buried.

The most famous tomb is that of the boy king Tutankhamun, discovered in 1922 by the British archaeologist Howard Carter. The house where he lived during his long years of study and searching supported by his patron Lord Carnarvon (whose seat, incidentally, Highclere Castle is the setting for Downton Abbey) is open to the public and houses the young pharoah's actual mummy: small - just over five feet - and slight, blackened and shrivelled by mummification, a poignant contrast to the glorious gold death mask, golden sarcophagus and 4,000 pieces of treasure entombed with him.

Visiting the tombs is of course enormously rewarding but it can be quite hard work, mentally as well as physically: there are steep descents and lots of steps and you want to soak in as much information and atmosphere as possible.

There's also the crowd of hawkers and hustlers which can be quite fun - some of them have nice things to sell but it can be tiresome.

The next day we sail to Edfu where we take a jaunty ride in a horse-drawn caleche through the local town to the temple of Horus the falcon god, one of the best preserved of the ancient world.

At Komombo we visit the twin temple of Sobek, the crocodile god, and Horus, first in the evening when it is illuminated and again in the morning. Nearby is the quirky museum of mummified crocodiles. There are 20 of the creatures, revered for their strength and fertility.

The cruise ends at Aswan where we take a boat across to the temple of Philae. This originally stood on a site which would have been submerged when the great dam was built so it was dismantled, each one of its 41,000 stones were marked with a letter and a number and the entire edifice was relocated to its current location. Only one stone, our guide Tarek shows us, was wrongly placed upside down.

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