Beyond the Nile Cruise

Temple of Dendera
After the Nile cruise is over, stay on and explore sights such as the Temple of Dendera. (R. Paul Herman - For The Washington Post)
By Gayle Keck
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 16, 2005

It may be some sort of mummy's curse. Nearly all of us who visit Egypt will find ourselves on a Nile cruise. But it does make sense: The ancient blockbuster sights are situated along this ribbon of life that slashes the country north to south. Once on board, though, cruisers may find the sightseeing stops frustratingly brief, the crowds oppressive and the number of ships jockeying for position at the docks boggling.

As many as 400 boats ply the Nile during high season. Most work the same 125-mile stretch of river, between Aswan and Luxor, and most visit the same attractions on a typical three- or four-day voyage. So even on a luxury cruise, you could end up traipsing across six other ships to reach the dock, only to be wedged into a sacred sanctuary with hordes of sweaty travelers.

But spend a night or two on land at the end of a cruise and you'll see attractions that aren't overwhelmed by mobs of package tourists and sense the rhythm of Egypt's 5,000-plus years of history. If you want to get a deeper feel for the "splendors of Egypt" (every tour brochure's fave phrase), you really should jump ship.

Luxor, often referred to as the world's largest open-air museum, is the perfect grand finale for a Nile cruise. After my husband and I disembark there, our Egypt adventure really begins.

* * *

Now a city of 400,000, Luxor -- about 400 miles south of Cairo -- was known in ancient times as Thebes and reached its height during the New Kingdom (1550 to 1070 B.C). Through the end of the dynastic era, it remained the ceremonial capital of Egypt, with the country's most glorious tombs and temples scattered on both sides of the Nile.

Our cruise tours have already taken us to spectacular Luxor and Karnak temples, Hatshepsut's temple and a few tombs in the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens. But these sights are crowded as tight as the offerings on our ship's bounteous buffet table. In fact, we may have spent more total time eating than sightseeing. I'm counting on escaping the cruise crowds for the rest of our stay.

We consider returning to the Valley of the Kings, where more than 60 tombs have been excavated, of which we saw only three on our cruise tour. Tomb openings are rotated, with about a dozen available to the public on a given day. But do we want to bake in tombs turned to ovens by the afternoon sun, or take a break in lounge chairs next to our hotel pool? We opt for a stroll in the 20 acres of hotel gardens and a nap.

The next morning we're up early, having arranged for a car and guide to take us to the temples at Abydos and Dendera, sites north of Luxor that aren't covered in the typical Nile cruise. It's possible to visit them both in one long day, but you can't just motor off into the Egyptian countryside; you need to join a security convoy. It's a legacy of the 1997 attack in which 62 tourists were killed on Luxor's west bank, the deaths attributed to an Islamic extremist group. In the past year, two bombing incidents on the Sinai Peninsula have been a grim reminder.

Now tourism and antiquities police are everywhere, lugging semiautomatic weapons. Most Nile cruises have guards, too, but the security convoy really brings it home. Our car is bookended by trucks full of soldiers, and at intersections all along the way men stand guard in the dusty crossroads.

Three hours later we reach the town of Abydos. Our contingent of soldiers pauses for a moment to buckle on bulletproof vests -- none for us tourists, a bit unnerving -- and before long we're at the temple. As we climb from the car, guards are everywhere, but the only imminent attack is from postcard and souvenir sellers.

Abydos was first used as a necropolis around 4000 B.C. and became famous as the traditional burial ground for the Egyptian god Osiris, lord of the afterlife. The major attraction now is the Temple of Seti I, built for the pharaoh who ruled from 1294 to 1279 B.C., although some of the outer courtyards were completed by his more famous (at least these days) son, Ramses II.

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