Romancing the Nile

Romancing the Nile
The facade of the smaller temple at Abu Simbel dedicated to the Goddess Hathor.

Le steamship Sudan is in a league of its own among the many luxurious cruises on River Nile.

It was built in 1885 as a gift for King Fouad, King of All Egypt and Sudan. After the collapse of the Egyptian dynasty, SS Sudan was retrofitted into a cruise ship.

Travelling on the SS Sudan was a journey back to the bygone era of La Belle Époque. Cabins adorned with rich wood panelling, gilded classical furniture and sumptuous fabrics take passengers back to the early romantic days of travel, where the pace was leisurely and style was the order of the day.

Novelist Agatha Christie was one of its many illustrious passengers - there is a suite named after her - and her voyage inspired her to write one of her most famous crime mysteries, Death On The Nile.

My own journey would take me from Luxor to Abu Simbel, taking in many of the sights associated with the glory of ancient Egypt.

Luxor

Luxor is a popular port for River Nile cruises. In ancient times, the city was known as Thebes of the Living. Across the river was Thebes of the Dead, now known as the Valley of the Kings, and its lesser-known neighbour, the Valley of the Queens.

The Temple of Karnak and the Temple of Luxor, connected by a grand avenue of stone sphinxes, are the most significant pair of monuments in Luxor. The 134 highly decorated columns in the Hypostyle Hall of Karnak temple dwarf any human standing below.

Continuing on the grand scale were the statues of Ramses II at Luxor Temple - these were built to impress and leave no doubt about the wealth and power of the mighty pharaoh. The lone obelisk at the entrance to Luxor was once part of a pair. The other one stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

Thebes of the Death

For 500 years, pharaohs and nobles of Egypt's New Kingdom were buried in the barren hills of the Valley of the Kings.

Dawn is the best time to see the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut - the only female pharaoh to rule Egypt. Her temple was built facing east at the foot of a sheer cliff. It is a breathtaking sight to see the rising sun illuminating the long colonnades of the exterior terraces.

Since antiquity, tomb robbers and Egyptologists had made numerous discoveries in the valley. None has matched archaeologist Howard Carter's legendary discovery of the Tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922.

Not only is King Tut's tomb famous for its immense treasures - including his gold sarcophagus and famous burial mask - but it is also associated with a mysterious curse.

Legend has it that those who dare to disturb his mummy will fall ill or die. Not one to tempt fate, I tried not to breathe too hard or touch anything in his tomb.

Before the Arab Spring and the subsequent political turmoil in Egypt, the place was packed with tourists. The wait to enter his tomb was at least an hour and the visit was limited to about 20 minutes.

During my visit, there was no queue outside and few tourists inside. Although reasonably lit, the tomb was still creepy. King Tut's charcoal-black mummy was on display outside the original coffin chamber.

There is recent evidence to suggest that his body may have spontaneously combusted inside his sarcophagus after his burial. And so the mystery deepens.

Towards Aswan

The SS Sudan was to sail upstream for four nights, from Luxor to Aswan, stopping at Edfu and Kom Ombo.

Outside my cabin was a beautiful, long, timbered passageway lined with rustic furniture. Like passengers from an earlier century, I sat here, drank tea and watched the Egyptians go about their daily lives along the bank of the river.

The Temple of Edfu was dedicated to the falconheaded god Horus and was built by the Greek Ptolemaic kings who ruled Egypt from 305BC to AD30. With the death of Cleopatra, the most famous of the Ptolemies, the last dynasty of Egypt came to an end, and the country passed into Roman rule.

The Temple of Edfu is well preserved, and has one of the tallest surviving entrances. The many buildings within are still intact.

After the temple passed into disuse in 391, it fell victim to neglect and, over the centuries, lay buried under 12m of drifting desert sands and silt from the Nile. It was only in 1860 that French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette began the work of freeing the Temple of Edfu from the sands.

My next visit was to the Sanctuary of Philae, dedicated to the goddess Isis, and now a Unesco World Heritage Site. The original island of Philae was submerged in Lake Nasser after the construction of the Aswan Dam and the temple was moved piece by piece to the current Agilka Island.

Philae was the centre for the cult of Isis, ancient Egypt's best-loved goddess. Even Greek and Roman pilgrims traversed treacherous distances to worship here.

Today, the mysterious cult still exists. I saw an entourage of them and was told that they bribed the guards to allow them to ascend to the upper floors of the temple to conduct their secret rituals.

Ramses the Great

At Aswan, I bade farewell to the beautiful steamship and flew to Abu Simbel, a village in Nubia in southern Egypt. This is the site of the Temple of Ramses II and the accompanying temple dedicated to the Goddess Hathor and the wife of Ramses, Queen Nefertari.

Ramses II - also known as Ramses the Great - was the third pharaoh of Egypt's 19th dynasty and is often regarded as the greatest and most celebrated ruler of ancient Egypt.

These temples at Abu Simbel were a declaration of his power and wealth, not only to his people and the Nubians living there, but also to Egypt's southern neighbours like Sudan. Indeed, it was a brilliant choice of location. The temples would be impossible to miss for miles around.

The temple complex was entirely relocated in 1968 on an artificial hill to avoid submersion during the creation of Lake Nasser, the massive artificial reservoir formed after the building of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River.

Now, the massive rock temples sit on the west bank of Lake Nasser, and easily top my list of all the Unesco sites I have seen.

The famous facade of the Ramses temple consists of four colossal statues of the pharoah. Inside, eight pillars in the shape of the king support the ceiling of the great hall.

There are beautiful reliefs of the military conquests of Ramses on all the walls while the liveliest panel depicts him on a war chariot shooting an arrow at his enemies.

Many of the tourism sites in Egypt offer sound and light shows, but the one at Abu Simbel was my favourite. There were only two tourists in town that night, including me, and after much negotiation, the organisers agreed to screen the show for us. Naturally, the staff took this rare opportunity to invite all their friends and families.

The expanse of open space amplified the music and added to the theatrical effect of the show. It was surreal to see the temples' facades recreated in full colour, as they would have been originally.

It had been my lifelong dream to see the glories of one of the oldest civilisations on earth, and I was lucky to experience many of the awesome ruins in relative solitude.

GUIDE LINES

I flew on Qatar Airways from Singapore to Luxor with a transit stop at Doha. I boarded the SS Sudan at the river port in Luxor. Next day, we set sail to Edfu and Kom Ombo, finally arriving at Aswan. After disembarking, I flew to Abu Simbel.

English is spoken widely.

There are 18 cabins and five suites on the SS Sudan. The cabins on the upper deck have better views.

- The Eskaleh Eco Lodge at Abu Simbel is a comfortable Nubian mud-brick house. All meals are prepared from produce grown on the farm.

- Internet connection is very slow on the SS Sudan, so be prepared to unplug and enjoy a gadget-free cruise.

- All meals are included in the cruise fare and are a white tablecloth service, so take smart casual clothes.

Visit www.steam-ship-sudan.com/en for details of Steam Ship Sudan.

Go to sgtravellers.com for more stories.

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