How to explore Egypt in full Agatha Christie style
Beetles and mosquitoes crawl along the walls. Snakes rear up, as if levitating, and then a line of hawks appears, each with a human head. The deeper I go, the weirder it gets.
By Ruaridh Nicoll, Travel writers
Other visitors begin to disappear and we, a select and pampered little group of fellow travellers, find ourselves alone in the tunnel deep within the Valley of the Kings. Alone, that is, but for jackals, slaves tied to sticks, and, at the deepest point, the shattered sarcophagi of Ramses V and VI.
We grin, unable to believe our sudden solitude. We point out favourite hieroglyphs and pose for photographs. And then down the burrow come men with guns.
I push up against the wall. Flanked by the guards is an ageing lady, lacquered and coiffured and moving like a ship under sail. “Like a rich Florida pensioner,” says one of my friends, the hint of cruelty sounding as if it had risen from the pages of an Agatha Christie novel. I ask one of the guards who she is. “The Queen of Jordan,” he replies. A queen come to visit the tombs of long-dead kings.
There is a new film of Death on the Nile due to be released in October, by the same people who gave us the 2017 rehash of Murder on the Orient Express. Kenneth Branagh will tweak his moustache as Poirot, while Tom Bateman, Jennifer Saunders and Russell Brand gambol on the famous steamship.
The film – with all its (alleged) new twists – comes just as travellers are returning in numbers to this, one of the truly necessary places to visit in a lifetime.
Four days before running into the queen, we fly into the southern Egyptian city of Aswan, descending across Saharan sands that give way to the snaking Nile, the ochre and blue separated by the thinnest strip of green. We are met, and driven to the river where Sanctuary’s white and sleek 32-cabin Nile Adventurer is moored.
The boat, one of the finest on the river, is newly refurbished – “like she has a new dress,” says general manager Moustafa Awad. The crew welcomes us with lemonade, while memorising our names. The shimmering and polished wood of the reception, bar and restaurant is calmed by pastel awnings and cushions.
I take in my shipmates. Many are ageing elegantly, but there’s a smattering of the wealthy young, and a family or two, including that of a Singapore government minister. All seem perfect for a murder mystery.
After leaving the bags, we head out to tour the city, starting with the quarry that is home to an unfinished obelisk. At 137 feet, it was the largest ever attempted in ancient Egypt, ordered by Hatshepsut, a queen who by the end of the trip will have become an idol of mine.
We’re a small group – only eight strong – so I can take it in. I stand in the heat of the sun, imagining the workers – who the guides insist were not slaves but rather the devout – sculpting this vast, 1,200-ton pillar out of the bedrock with only smaller stones as tools, and shudder.
Our next stop is Philae, a temple on an island in the middle of the river, believed to be the resting place of the god Osiris. After he had been chopped up into 14 pieces by his jealous brother, his wife Isis spent much of her time trying to reassemble her husband – only to discover a Nile catfish had eaten his penis.
This early in the trip, such stories seem fragmentary and confusing. Ancient artists carved their history into the sandstone in hieroglyphics, but then later visitors scratched out the bits that offended them. Coptic Christians then left their mark in an altar, and then, later yet, idiot British grand tourists chiselled their names. Memories are stacked on memories.
As I take it in, I’m struck by how much the glamour of Agatha Christie’s book, and the earlier film with Mia Farrow, have coloured people’s expectations and clothing. A wannabe explorer passes in tight shorts with a tighter expression. A young flapper slowly unwinds from the base of a column, glancing around as if for a stranger to sweep her out of the way of a falling rock. An old lady ties her straw hat down with a silk scarf.
More deeply though, the feeling of a shared cultural history persists. We climb on board a felucca, a timeless wooden boat, to sail among the islands. We pass Lord Kitchener’s house, and then the monument to the third Aga Khan, who moved to this arid land for his health, while disinheriting his son who was courting Rita Hayworth.
The water whispers under the sails, and within it I hear the siren song of fantastical lives.
The ropes are slipped as we step back onboard the Nile Adventurer, and we are pulled into the stream. From the sun deck, under the gently flapping awnings, I watch the river accept us. Egrets lift off from the bank. A pair of two masted riverboats – long and elegant dahabiyas – push upstream while lashed together, making their sails like a butterfly’s wings. And the call to prayer drifts in on the breeze, from minarets that rise from the shore like bullrush stalks.
This will be my favourite part of the trip. Masterpieces, mysteries and marvels will be revealed to us in the temples that interrupt our progress, but the ease of the journey downstream amidst the river traffic of this foreign land, while being brought drinks by sympathetic waiters, is exquisite.
Still, the stops come thick and fast. First Kom Ombo, with its astonishing columns that top out like flowering papyrus and its trove of mummified crocodiles. Then it’s the Temple of Horus, the god with the hawk’s head, reached by a journey from the river in a horse- drawn carriage.
With such a small group, our guide, Mohamed Taher, has the room not only to tell us the stories, conjuring up the gods and kings, but also to reveal small treasures. He nods us around corners and into rooms to show us the offices of the perfume seller, the secret carved insult to Alexander the Great, the surviving paints that reveal how colourful this world would once have been.
I make friends with Sharon and Greg Amaya, doctors from Atlanta, who forswore children so they could have the money to travel. “In 2500 BC they had the engineering, architecture and brilliance to build these treasures,” marvels Sharon. “And then it all falls to ruin because of conflict. What could have been achieved if we hadn’t spent so much time fighting each other?”
Moustafa Awad leads us to the bridge for a sunset drink, introducing the captain. Rather than a patriarchal figure of cruising lore, he is a modest, watchful old man dressed in a jalabiya, a traditional robe. It seems a knowledge of the riverbed only inches beneath our keel is more important than an urbane presence.
“This is the place where I can have peace of mind,” Awad tells me as the sky turns scarlet. “In this environment, being close to the river is a blessing. In ancient times, the first job of the pharaoh was to pray for the river, because the river means life.” On the bow, a mast is festooned with flags and topped with the words Allahu Akbar, God is Great.
We pass through the locks at Esna. Hawkers in rowing boats offer to throw up tablecloths. Lunch is a huge spread of foreign and local delicacies, the waiters competing to carry my plate to the table. Dinner is soup and fish, washed down with local wines, of which the Egyptians are perhaps a little too proud.
We play murder mysteries at the dinner table, but occasionally the subject of real security arises; the terrorism that scarred Egypt’s reputation in the past – and still sees some areas beyond the Nile Valley subject to FCO advice against travel. Sharon tells me that they have been wanting to come for years, but their mothers are still worried. “We’ve spent a little more on this trip,” said Greg. “Just because of security.”
The guides refer to the “so-called” Arab Spring and Awad is keen to convince me the worst has passed: “There was a moment when we lost hope, but now we can see the future. Our Egypt is a mix of many different religions. So if someone comes with a certain view, and says you have to be like this, it doesn’t go down well. We invented religion here so we understand it.”
It all feels very relaxed. Before flying south, I spent three days in Cairo, staying at the Four Seasons Nile Plaza and visiting the ancient pyramids at Giza and Saqqara. Gazing out over the great river from my balcony, I could feel the city’s 5,000 years of living assault my senses. I wish I had ended, rather than begun, my trip in the capital – its hectic nature would have fazed me less.
On my last day, I am woken by the call to prayer at 4.30am. The boat has moored at Luxor, the city that was once Thebes, and I lie cocooned in crisp linen. I have been dreaming of Hatshepsut, the 1500 BC queen who Mohamed the guide claims murdered her half-brother/husband in her quest for power. My sleepy state is enchanted by the muezzin’s voice, and the luxury within which I am being kept – the soft linens, the pale cool of the woods, the shimmer of the silvery curtains keeping out the night. It is all giving me delusions of grandeur.
It’s not helped by spending the day among Luxor’s glories, including the regal encounter in the Valley of the Kings and Hatshepsut’s temple, which could pass as a modernist masterpiece. Mohamed’s stories are no longer fragmentary, but are fully formed and intoxicating. Come the evening, I am looking at huge statues of Ramses II in Luxor temple. The pharaoh, known as the Great Builder, leaves our modern TikTok stars in the dust when it comes to narcissism.
The sun’s going down and the muezzin is at it again. A guard yells at me for straying too far into the ruins. I return to my fellow travellers, one of whom looks remarkably like Russell Brand, and then to the boat.
650 BC, but most of the ruins visible now (left) go back to 330 BC.
Two sets of massive pylons (monumental gateways), with depictions of Ptolemy XII grabbing his enemies by the hair and hitting them with a club. Story Philae’s network of temples are rich with treasures, but are also an example of the ups and downs of modern engineering. Flooded by the Nile due to the British- built Aswan Low Dam, Unesco moved the whole complex to higher ground during the 1970s, in 40,000 pieces.
Philae has inspired generations of romantic tourists. “If a procession of white-robed priests bearing aloft the veiled ark of the God were to come sweeping round between the palms and pylons – we should not think it strange,” wrote the writer Amelia Edwards in 1873.
A relief shows medical implements, which reveal, with startling clarity, the state of surgery at the time.
Much of the temple had disappeared under Nile silt, until the French archaeologist and mining engineer Jacques de Morgan cleared the site in the late 1800s. Now it is one of the riverbank’s most wonderful sights (left). Half of the temple is dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile-headed fertility god, and so there is a nearby museum with many mummified crocs (there were originally 300).
2000 BC, although with 30 or so pharaohs building on the site, building continued all the way up to 300 BC.
Too many to mention, but the Great Hypostyle Hall is hard to beat with its 134 columns. Story A vast complex (right), with as many as 20 temples, and much of it still closed to the public, Karnak is best known for the Precinct of Amun-Ra, with its great hall, avenue of ram-headed sphinx, sacred lake and the grand obelisk put up by Queen Hatshepsut and then covered up by her successor.
Karnak has inspired many writers and film-makers. It is the name of the boat in Death on the Nile and plays host to the scene where the stone is pushed from the great hall’s roof. It also appears in movies from The Mummy Returns to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Djoser’s step pyramid. Story Rather than the pharaoh Djoser, the star of this story is his high priest, Imhotep. Doctor, magician, sage and architect, Imhotep invented the pyramids by placing one traditional burial chamber, or mastaba, on top of another. Other pharaohs went on to build around 130 of the monuments, before realising that these were place markers showing where their graves were hidden, and moving to the Valley of the Kings. Unlikely claim There has long been a theory that the pyramids were created by aliens, due to the difficulty of construction and Giza’s apparent alignment with Orion’s Belt. Such a view really annoys Egyptians. Yomna Salama, a guide, debunked it by pointing out the mistakes the builders made, most notably in the bent pyramid of Dahshur. “Aliens don’t make mistakes,” she says, without revealing her evidence.
Imhotep’s tomb is yet to be found – professor Walter Emery of London University spent years looking for it – but is believed to be hidden in Saqqara.
Abercrombie & Kent
Offers a seven-night trip to Egypt, with three nights in Cairo at the Four Seasons Nile Plaza on a bed & breakfast basis, including a full-day visit to Cairo, and four nights on the Sanctuary Nile Adventurer, from £2,850pp, based on two people sharing. Includes flights, accommodation and full-board while cruising in low season (01242 547703; abercrombiekent.co.uk).