LUXOR, Egypt - Don't get me wrong: I was awe-struck when I first saw the Pyramids and the Sphinx, located in suburban Cairo. But if political unrest in Cairo is causing you to put off a trip to Egypt, delay no longer. There's much more to the storied country than the famous icons
LUXOR, Egypt — Don’t get me wrong: I was awe-struck when I first saw the Pyramids and the Sphinx, located in suburban Cairo.
But if political unrest in Cairo is causing you to put off a trip to Egypt, delay no longer. There’s much more to the storied country than the famous icons.
None of the Pyramids or statues would exist if not for the Nile River, which brings life to the desert. The oldest civilization in the world developed along its banks as countless pharaohs (including Cleopatra) built temples, palaces and tombs using stones transported on its waters.
Royals traveled the Nile in luxurious vessels, but even Cleopatra would have envied our four-night cruise aboard the Sonesta Star Goddess — a five-star, all-suite ship with private balconies off each of its 33 cabins.
From Cairo, we flew south (35 minutes) to Luxor, where we boarded the ship for a leisurely lunch, then set off to explore Luxor, also known as Thebes, one of the ancient capitals of Egypt.
At the Temple of Karnak, we wandered with our Sonesta guide through a maze of stone sanctuaries and statues dedicated to Theban gods and pharaohs.
Construction began there 4,000 years ago and continued some 1,700 years, until the complex covered more than 200 acres.
Unless you see it from aloft in a hot-air balloon, the scope of the temple complex (much of which is still being excavated) is difficult to grasp.
But on foot there’s no mistaking the features that dwarf humans, such as the Great Hypostyle Hall with 134 stone pillars, each almost 12 feet thick and 70 feet tall.
At dusk, we moved on to the Temple of Luxor, where soft lights cast giant shadows and made the drawings carved into the walls stand out. Colossal statues of Ramses II flanked the temple entrance and stared down an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes leading to Karnak, 2 miles away.
The Star Goddess remained docked in Luxor so we could explore the other bank of the Nile the following day.
Rising early to beat the heat, we were the first visitors to climb to the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Built into the base of a sandstone cliff, the temple honored one of Egypt’s most successful pharaohs — and one of the few women to hold that post.
Nearby was the Valley of the Kings, a stark, sun-baked place surrounded by barren cliffs — a good place to hide a body, someone joked.
The small visitors center houses a 3-D clear plexiglass model of the valley showing the 63 known underground tombs.
Tombs are open to the public on a rotating basis because the breath and sweat of visitors causes damage to the fragile paintings. In the tombs we toured (trying not to breathe or sweat), the walls and ceilings were covered in hieroglyphs so colorful they could have been painted yesterday.
The Star Goddess sailed south, docking at Esna and Kom Ombo for us to visit more historic sites, villages and an alabaster shop. While under way, we sat on our balcony or by the pool on the ship’s upper deck to watch daily life on the river — water buffalo wallowing in the shallows or pulling plows, farmers tending their crops, mothers spreading laundry on rocks to dry, and kids frolicking in the water.
When the ship reached the Aswan Dam (built to tame the Nile floods), we boarded small boats on Lake Nasser to visit the Temple of Philae. I had seen 18th-century paintings of Cleopatra lounging in the gardens of Philae — images I held in my mind as we strolled the temple terraces.
In Aswan, we bid farewell to the Star Goddess and flew across the lake to the temples of Abu Simbel, which were saved from rising waters when the dam was built. During the 13th century, it took 20 years to sculpt the temples of Ramses II and his queen, Nefertari, into the rock face next to the Nile.
In two short years (1964-66), a UNESCO team carved the massive structures into pieces and reassembled them on higher ground — a herculean effort.
Abu Simbel was our last stop before flying home, where we began planning our next Nile cruise. Why return? First, because we found the Egyptian people to be wonderful hosts. Second, because the stretch of the Nile between Cairo and Luxor, closed for 15 years, has been reopened. It’s now possible to cruise between Cairo and Aswan, with stops at newly opened ancient sites.