Everybody knows that the Nile River plays an important role in the founding of Egyptian civilization. Even today, around 90% of the population lives along the river, with 50% in the delta itself. Luxor (Thebes), is an old capital of ancient Egypt that marks the beginning of Upper Egypt during the New Kingdom period. It was named “a glorious city of Amun”, with so many incredible and mysterious sites on both sides of the river bank.
And after I had seen these places in Luxor, we hopped on a Nile River Cruise and got ready for the highlights of both sides of the Nile in the south. The cruise is a great way to explore the rest of Egypt because most of the heritage sites are located along the river Nile, meaning that no matter if you are traveling on road, or on a cruise, you won’t be far from the water anyway. By staying on a cruise, you have the advantage to keep moving while you are eating or sleeping, enjoying the comfort and the amazing view without worrying about traffic or the danger of driving on the road. There are many operators with cruises at different price levels. Most Nile cruises sail between Luxor and Aswan visiting the East Bank and West Bank in Luxor, Edfu, temples at Kom Ombo, Esna beside Philae temple, and High Dam in Aswan. Their route and travel itinerary are generally the same (unless you hire a private cruise that you can design your own time and schedule), the differences are usually the quality of the cabin, the food, and the facilities that come with it. Some cabins are larger, with more luxurious amenities, and even a private balcony, but my main concern is the food as I would have to stay on the cruise for a few days and it’s not that convenient to get food while the cruise has sailed.
You will have to do your own research and select the cruise that suits your requirements and budget, and I would say the middle priced package with some good reviews is generally the safe choice, they are more reliable and the quality should be good enough, unless you are really on a budget, or looking for something extra.
Making the Most of Your Nile River Cruise
Our package, and it should be for most of the other packages, is a full board arrangement with three meals and accommodations in a private cabin (with a hot shower). We didn’t need to go extra but we wanted to make sure at least the food was okay. For some cruises, as I mentioned, may have a private balcony in the cabin, ours didn’t but it has a big window that could be opened for a view. Besides, the top floor is an open deck with tables, pool chairs, and a small pool to spend the time when the cruise is on the go. It was a little bit cooler as we were there in January, but it was perfect for a sunbathe in the afternoon when the sun was out. We also had a great time just ordering a coffee and sat on the deck to unwind and feel the cooling breeze.
The lowest floor of the cruise was the restaurant, and there was a small gift shop, selling custom-made tee with the Egyptian Hieroglyphs, they could be a good souvenir back home. So you might think that staying on a cruise could be “boring” and have nothing to do, it usually ends up quite hectic to interact with the fellow travelers in the dining hall, shopping, taking photographs, and getting ready for all the excursions and day trips while the cruise is parked. The trips also have you entertained with programs like cultural performances, and you can even enjoy a massage at the spa center to just relax and rub the exhaustion away.
Anyway, the key to the cruise is to visit the fascinating sites along the Nile River, and for sure you won’t be disappointed, here are a few most important sites that you will (or should) see and discover!
Edfu, Temple of Horus
Edfu is located about 100 kilometers south of Luxor on the west bank of the Nile River in Upper Egypt. It was built during the Ptolemaic Kingdom between 237 and 57 BC. A signature of the temple is a rather well-preserved Pylon, in fact, this is the most complete and well-preserved pylon in Egypt. The temple was built on higher grounds along the river, and therefore escaped the erosion from the river’s flooding.
The wall of the temple is an illustration of the divine birth of Horus – and so it’s also called the Temple of Horus. Once we hopped off the cruise, we were greeted by a number of horse carriages, and we walked through the city of Edfu before arriving at the temple. While most of the cruises arrive at the same time, the early morning starting from 5:30 am can be the busiest time of the day at the temple.
What happened to their faces?
The temple of Edfu is the largest temple dedicated to Horus and Hathor of Dendera. One thing you may notice is that many of the Hieroglyphic god faces were razed on the walls. The damage was done by followers of Christianity when the religion became dominant in Egypt. You will find red crosses on the wall that are a hint of the act by Christians.
Why the ceiling are black?
Do you know that Napoleon was actually here in Edfu in the past? When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he brought along an ‘army’ of scholars, whose studies of this ancient culture became the foundation of Egyptology.
Unfortunately, the army stayed in the temple and set camp here, their campfire’s fumes and smoke damaged the ceiling and turned them black! Not only did Napoleon vandalise the temple’s wall, but also he took so many important and valuable items and that’s why Le Louvre has one of the world’s largest collection of Egyptian Antiquities, including the original solar barque in the sanctuary.
The temple was buried in the sand for centuries until the French expedition discovered it in 1798, and revealed it to the world in 1860 by the supervision of Egyptologist Auguste Mariette.
Edfu has great significance to the study of ancient Egypt because of its scale and completeness. Apart from the 37-meter high pylon, it has battle scenes that represent Pharaoh Ptolemy VIII conquering before the god Horus. Many of the reliefs, structures, and courts of the temple still manage to keep the details of the engravings that tell a story of what happened in the past. It is a literal library with evidence of ancient Egyptian history.
Ptolemy XII Auletes, the father of Cleopatra, was featured on the left of the temple’s Pylon, holding a stick and defeating his enemies.
The temple features the pylon, a pillared hall, two transverse halls, and a baroque sanctuary surrounded by chapels. The hypostyle hall and sanctuary are also fine examples of classic Egyptian architecture. There are many religious scenes on the walls of the sanctuary. In the birth house, the bas relief tells a story of how the pharaoh was born and got mandated by god.
Horus, the sky god, and the Contendings of Horus and Seth
Horus, Her, Heru, Hor, or Har, is one of the most significant Egyptian deities and serves as the god of kingship and the sky. While Horus serves many other purposes, and plays many roles, the god is the symbol of power and mandate. He was worshipped from the late prehistoric Egypt until the Ptolemaic Kingdom and Roman Egypt.
Why? Edfu is a depiction of the story about the conflict between Horus and Set. Horus was told by his mother, Isis, to protect the people in Egypt from Set, the god of the desert and the uncle of Horus, and also, the killer of his father, Osiris (The relationships in myths are always that complicated). Many battles went on between the two, not only as a revenge of Osiris, but also to choose the rightful ruler of the country.
For a rather interesting stories about their battle and fight, it’s all in The Contendings of Horus and Seth, which involves sex, semen, boat races, and so much more.
The Festival of Victory is a festival that celebrates the victory of Horus over Set; and it usually involves a dramatic scene about how Horus defeated a Hippopotamus, which is actually in disguise by Set, and the hippopotamus escaped down the River Nile. But remember, Horus’ eye was gouged out during the fight.
As a sky god, the Eye of Horus is an ancient Egyptian symbol of protection and royal power from deities, in this case from Horus or Ra. They can be seen in many places. The symbol is seen on images of Horus’ mother, Isis. The Wedjat was intended to protect the king in the afterlife.
In the end, the realm was divided – Horus received the fertile lands around the Nile, and Set took the barren desert or the foregin lands. Horus could rule the earth while Set dwells in the sky; and each god may take each half of the country – Upper and Lower Egypt. The Upper Egyptian rulers called themselves “followers of Horus”, and Horus became the tutelary deity of the unified polity and its kings. However, everything is not that clearly set, because there were several cult centers across Egypt through the years. As the civilization moved toward the Second Dynasty, there was believed to be a clash between the followers of the Horus King and of Set.
Kom Ombo means “Plenty of Gold” and it was a vibrant town famous for sugarcane and wheat farming. It is also an important military base and a trading hub of gold between the Egyptians and the Nubians, and of elephants with Ethiopians.
The Temple of Kom Ombo is one of the most complete and beautiful temples that we can see today in Egypt. The site was built in the Middle Kingdom between Ptolemy VI and Ptolemy XIII. It had a wall built by the Romans in the year of 30AD, yet most parts were destroyed. The reliefs? They were created by Ptolemy XII and the Romans. Kom Ombo is a unique temple dedicated to two deities – Haroeris (Horus the elder) and Sobek (God of Crocodile). This is the only temple like this in Egypt, and it’s the rare temple that’s honoring the god of evil.
The Nile crocodiles were frequently seen in the area, the building of this temple is because of the fear of this dangerous animal, in the hope of being protected from their attack. That’s why it is dedicated to two gods – Haroeris is supposed to “tame” the crocodile. There are two gates at the entrance, and on the left is honoring the falcon, and on the right, the crocodile. In the middle of the gate are the prayers by Ptolemy XII.
I have to say the temple’s reliefs are very interesting. Look closely, you will find a lot of “medically-themed” engravings on the walls, from the calculating table of sacrifices, surgical dishes, scalpels to lots of people with broken arms! Could it be a textbook for how to treat a patient injured by a Nile Crocodile? a guidebook for a religious ceremony? or making mummies?
There is an old well outside the temple, and it was an important water source to the locals; it was also where the worshippers got water to clean themselves.
The museum is located at the entrance outside the temple, and it’s a small exhibition hall that showcases mummies of crocodiles. Kom Ombo is farther away from the capital at that time, and so the bas reliefs and their functions are related more to the local lives. The locals seek spiritual support and guidance from the priests and gods and they needed that to move on with their lives. That’s why you’d see calendars that helped to map our dates of harvesting, sowing, flooding, and seasons. It also records medical knowledge and treatments – in fact, the word “Pharmacy” came from the Egyptians. There was a lot of proof and evidence about their medical achievements.
Sobek, which means crocodile, is the god who manages harvest and water. In the myths, the Nile River came from the sweat of Sobek. Kom Ombo is the cultural center of Sobek, and the temple was called the “Per-Sobek”, meaning the “house of Sobek”.
The beautiful temple is on an island, unfortunately being threatened by the flooding because of the Aswan Dam. To get there, tourists will have to take a ferry from the Shellal in Aswan. Each boat can accommodate eight passengers, but since the shuttle service is not regulated, the pricing could be complicated. You will need to haggle if you are visiting the temple by yourself, for a single trip, it should be around 10 Egyptian pounds.
The oldest building in this temple dates back to the 3rd century BC, during Nectanebo I. The best part of the structure was built by Ptolemy II, and it had been expanded and renovated for more than five centuries. This temple is carefully maintained under Roman rules, and it’s one of the most beautiful heritage sites in the center of the Nile River.
However, the temple was actually not located at the same spot as we see it today. The temple was once flooded entirely when Aswan Dam was built between 1902 and 1932. To save it, UNESCO decided to move this temple to Agilika Island, an island that is similar to its original location, but 20 feet higher in altitude. The temple was disassembled and restored, 45,000 pieces of rocks were moved in this project, and when it’s completed in 1980, it looked as close to the original as it was.
The temple is a sanctuary, with various temples dedicated to a number of gods, like the Temple of Isis, the Kiosk of Trajan, and the Gate of Diocletian. Don’t forget to enjoy the view with it by the water.
Abu Simbel was an architectural wonder, it took 30 years to build, and it is dedicated to the guardian of Memphis, Ptah, the guardian of Thebes, Amun-Ra), the guardian of Heliopolis, Ra-Horakhty, and Ramesses II himself.
While the two massive rock-cut temples (yes there were two), are located basically at the border of Egypt and Sudan, the temple, like Philae, is not located at its original location as it used to be. The temple was threatened in 1960 due to the build of the Aswan Dam, 51 experts arrived in Egypt and selected a new site that is 65 feet higher, and over 1,000 pieces of rocks were moved to this new site. The project was completed in 1968.
Is it worth going to Abu Simbel?
Abu Simbel is 280 kilometers south of Aswan. A single trip by car to Abu Simbel from Aswan takes about six hours, and there is literally nothing else to see and do in the area (Abu Simbel village is a small settlement with about 2,600 people). Flights are available from Cairos and Aswan, the flight schedule usually goes back on the same day, and it gives you about one and a half hours at the temple. Yet, it’s rather costly, and the availability depends on security and a lot of other conditions. Is it worth the hassle to see the temple? My answer is: YES. The temple has significance to one of the greatest pharaohs, Ramesses II, and he built this temple with an aim that no one else can add anything to the temple – therefore, it’s one of the most original heritage of ancient Egypt, and you don’t want to miss it coming all the way to Aswan.
You may wonder, why is it located at the border? Abu Simbel was a trading port at the opening of Sudan’s border – this place has been at war for a really long time. One of the most notable conflicts is the Battle of Kadesh with Hittite. Eventually, no one wins, and they signed the Egyptian–Hittite peace treaty to stop the war (the first of its kind in history). The conclusion of open hostilities between the regional powers was a personal triumph for the aging pharaoh and, as his monument at Abu Simbel shows, the pharaoh made his subjects well aware of the fact that Ramesses had conquered the Hittites. Hence, the Abu Simbel is a representation to the rest of the world (or to the south of Africa) of this story, and make no mistake, the four giant sculptures that are sitting at the front of the temple are four identical Ramesses II.
It was a really early trip going there as we took off at 3 am and we arrived at almost 10. The morning light that hit the temple gave it the best lighting though. For a more magical moment, visit the temple on Feb 22 and Oct 22, because the sunlight will pass through and shine on the three gods in the sanctuary. Ptah, will not be shined on and remains in the dark. These two days are supposed to be Ramesses II’s birthday and the day he was enthroned. Having the sunlight entered the temple gives the Pharaoh the energy to be reborn. This is the highlight of Abu Simbel that attracts the tourist crowd to see this every year.
Aswan, and the Nubians
Aswan is the endpoint of the Nile River Cruise, and it’s the center of Nubian, connecting Egypt to Central Africa. To learn more about the Nubian, visit the Nubian Museum, where it showcases 6,000 years of history about their history, culture, and art. If you want to see the locals in action, Syria as-Souq is the shopping center of Aswan, and you will see souvenirs, spices, and flowers on both sides of the street.
If you are planning to stay in Aswan for a few more days, check out the Temple of Khnum, a temple dedicated to Nile River God Khnum and his wife Satis. The Aswan Museum showcases ancient Egyptian artifacts collected from the area, and the building was Sir William Willocks’s residence, the architect of Aswan Dam. To go a little further, take a boat and head to Elephantine island. This is one of the oldest developments of entire Egypt.
Aswan High Dam
Aswan High Dam was built in 1971, and it was the world’s largest dam at that time – with a height of 110 feet and a length of over 3.8 kilometers. While I have mentioned a couple of times that building a dam has threatened the existence of several important heritages, the project expanded the agricultural area by 30% and doubled the amount of electricity generation, improving the livelihood of the locals.
The unfinished obelisk
Remember I talked about Hatshepsut when I was in Luxor? She ordered the construction of a 42 feet tall obelisk – the one that was supposed to be the tallest in the world at that time. The project wasn’t quite successfully finished, as it cracked before it was erected. The remains tell a story about the ambition of Hatshepsut, or the pressure that she was under, being a female Pharaoh. It also showed us today, how an obelisk is created.