If Egypt's only attractions for travellers were the Pyramids and the Sphinx, this would still be a country worth visiting, If it offered nothing but the Nile, Aswan and the Valley of the Kings it would still be worth adding to your list of places to go before you die, and even if Egypt's wonders had vanished like the other Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Egypt would still be worth visiting for the stark beauty of the desert and the life and colour of Cairo. The difficulty with Egypt is much more about what you'll have to leave out than what you'll see.
This is one of the world's oldest civilisations so though many tour operators promise to show you the highlights in a matter of half days it's worth trying to plan at least nine or ten days if you're hoping to see the treasures of Cairo and the gems of the Nile at Aswan and Luxor. And that's before you consider the diving and snorkelling treasures of the Red Sea, or camel rides off into the desert.
By dividing your trip into two parts, the first flying in to Cairo and the second planning to sail between Aswan and Luxor you'll get the classic Egyptian experience, but you can tailor make the details of exactly what you see and how you see it - from booking the trip it its entirety, to doing Cairo and Giza alone then sailing on a small craft or even sailing yourself.
Cairo, with its colourful and frenetic population of 16 million, sprawls over both banks of the Nile and has spread out to the west to absorb Giza and the Pyramids. Days in the city should include trips to the Egyptian Museum, the entertainments around Tahrir Square, the Sultan Hassan Mosque and the crazy bazaar and night markets of Khan-el-Khalili. The Egyptian Museum alone demands half a day.
Then time should then be made for Egypt's pride, the Pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza, and Memphis for the Necropolis. Tours are run out of Cairo for as little as half a day, but this kind of whirlwind would only leave you wanting more.
People have been journeying along the wide, flat waters of the mother Nile on the puffs of breezes for centuries, trading, exploring and sight seeing. The thing about cruising the Nile is that it’s a relatively simple trip, but it’s really the only way to carve through the desert and see the sights of ancient Egypt – this is the way the Pharaohs travelled. The traditional dahabiya, felucca and sandal boats, the ones with the tall graceful sails and bows lying low in the water, suit the waters and lack of wind perfectly and create a particularly romantic white-sailed scene, but newer yachts are now mixing in among the paddle steamers that ran her waters in the 19th Century, so there's plenty of choice when it comes to crafts.
The main sailing route passes between Aswan and Luxor, while some people insist on going upstream towards the dam, the natural route would always be downstream leaving Aswan and arriving in Luxor. Aswan as a city is so much cleaner that Cairo. It’s a fusion of African and Egyptian design and culture.
One of the main stops on most Nile trips is Kom Ombo for the Temple of Sobek and Horus, which has beautifully tactile carved stone columns, and the Chapel of Hathor containing the mummified remains of hundreds of crocodiles. At Edfu there's a more famous Temple of Horus and many boats also call at Esna for the silt covered (or sunken as it’s often called) Temple of Khnum. But these are just leading up to the glory of Luxor, from where you visit the temples of Luxor and Karnak.
On the other side of the Nile is the Valley of the Kings. When you’re walking amongst the temple pillars and see the Nile beyond, lined with working farmers, the true historic weight of this journey is apparent.
Life on board isn’t as leisured and luxurious as an Agatha Christie novel. The desert is pretty impossible during the middle of the day, especially for people not used to it, so itineraries have to time temple visits for the mornings or afternoons. If you can manage it, mornings are generally less crowded.
A dahabiya is recommended if you’re renting a boat rather than booking a whole cruise package. Most often you’re renting them with a crew and other guests, but some companies will allow you to rent without. A dahabiya is a great for the wide, flat open deck: a perfect additional space for meals and picnics under the desert stars.
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The Nile river is like a highway between the treasures of the ancient Egyptian world. It's a simple trip that deserves to be on the 'do before you die' list - a Nile cruise is the way the Pharaohs travelled.