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.
What most amazes us about this looming limestone structure is how intact it is. The roof is still in place, and our footsteps echo as we navigate the forest of columns in the two hypostyle halls. We wander among sanctuary rooms dedicated to the six major gods and Seti I (who, as pharaoh, was considered a god himself), expecting to see a priest appear any minute to collect our offering of food, incense or exotic animals.
The walls are filled with carved reliefs, rendering the limestone delicate as a seashell. Worshipers parade with their gifts, the gods gracefully rule -- it's all there, right down to the detail on a sandal strap. In some sections, you can still see paint that might be 3,000 years old -- teal, earthy red and yellow ocher -- or the black brushstroke of makeup around a forever-open eye.
The temple at Dendera, two hours south, is dedicated to Hathor -- the goddess of "love, drunkenness and motherhood," our guide tells us. It's easy to see how love plus liquor could lead to motherhood, so maybe things haven't changed all that much in the past 2,000 years.
Hathor, the essence of beauty, is often represented by a cow -- an odd concept until you check out a few Egyptian cows, which are more doe-eyed and coquettish than the American variety. At this temple, Hathor's head tops massive columns, appearing as the face of a woman with the ears of a cow -- although these images and many other human figures have been defaced, most likely by early Christians.
Dendera, is a later temple, nearly intact, built during Greek and Roman rule. Relief scenes on several of its sandstone walls depict Augustus, Tiberius, Nero and other Roman emperors as pharaohs, and on the rear exterior we spot a gigantic Cleopatra alongside her son, Caesarion, fathered by Julius Caesar. Inside, the famous ceilings, scorched black from soldiers' and squatters' fires of centuries past, display zodiacs and the sky goddess, Nut, who swallows the sun every evening and gives birth to it in the morning.
Dendera, is the last remaining place in Egypt where you can visit a temple roof -- although even here, you aren't allowed to the uppermost levels because some careless tourist supposedly went over the edge. On the stairs to the roof, we march alongside a procession of carved priests who are also mounting the stairs; on the stairway leading down, the priests are descending.
We walk the grounds, exploring the palm-filled sacred lake, looking at Roman and Christian-era buildings and admiring the basic mud-brick enclosing wall that has survived for millennia in the arid Egyptian climate. We're back at our hotel by 6 o'clock -- enough time to collapse by the pool and catch a few rays before Nut gobbles up the sun.
Most Nile cruises will take you to a few tombs at the west bank's Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens. You're less likely to visit the Tombs of the Nobles or Deir el-Medina, the village where royal necropolis workers lived and died (in fact, death was the only way to leave this enclave that held the secrets of the pharaohs' tombs).
With a car, a guide and half a day, we visit these less-crowded sites that help fill out our picture of ancient Egyptian life.
While the grand tombs of the pharaohs and their queens are teeming with religious symbols, astronomical imagery and scenes from the sacred books, in these other tombs it's possible to get a feel for the occupant's personality and lifestyle. Sennefer, a mayor of the "South City," was laid to rest in his man-made underground cavern, beneath a serene ceiling covered in painted grape vines. The pigment is so fresh and clear, it's almost impossible to believe the work is thousands of years old. And unlike the plodding lines of tourists we queued with at the Valley of the Kings, here we are the lone explorers, with only the baksheesh-hungry guard to keep us company.
The tomb of Rekhmire, a vizier (chief minister to the pharaoh), depicts him receiving booty from far-flung lands. A panther, giraffe, monkeys, lion and elephant parade across the walls, accompanied by men of various exotic races. An inscription brags that there was "nothing on earth, Heaven or any part of the Beyond of which he was not apprised." Except, perhaps, that tourists would be invading his grave to snap digital photos of his delightful tomb paintings.
The tomb of another vizier, Ramose, appears unfinished. A red grid is drawn behind the reliefs, and black lines sketch uncompleted carvings. It's a window onto the tomb builders' craft. And in the tomb of Userhet, a royal scribe, the guard uses a fragment of mirror to flash sunlight onto the tomb walls -- an uncanny reenactment of scenes depicted in 18th-century engravings, made by some of the earliest European tourists.
The Egyptians believed they sailed away to the afterlife on elaborate boats. For tourists who cruise the Nile today, that's a good hint: There is life after the boat -- and it could be the best part of your trip.
Gayle Keck is a frequent contributor to Travel.