A young man in a tailcoat and bow tie sweeps open the door of the most famous hotel room in Egypt and stands back with a sly grin. The opulent labyrinth he reveals is located on the second floor of the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan and for six months in 1937 it was home to Agatha Christie while she wrote her jolly tale of murder in the land of the pharaohs, Death on the Nile.
The smart young man is Michael, the hotel’s VIP butler, and he has rehearsed some comical patter for the moment he shows curious guests the Agatha Christie Suite. Asked the inevitable question of how much it costs, he replies, "eight thousand dollars US a night – including breakfast and a butler." He emphasises, though, that this is a relative bargain. "Before Covid it was twelve thousand!"
The jocularity hides a painful truth, that Egypt has taken a big hit over the last two years. An economy built on tourism has had to twiddle its thumbs while visitors stayed away in their millions. Explorers of the Nile are generally of the discerning variety – this vast river not only attracts inquisitive travellers from across the world who crave sun and heat in the midst of winter, but also draws those who appreciate the most dramatic archaeology the world has to offer.
For people who don’t like crowds, there has arguably never been a better time to visit. The exquisite tombs of the West Bank at Luxor, the monumental temples that line the Nile, are usually thronged with pasty-legged Westerners at this time of year. Yet on my recent week-long cruise from Luxor to Aswan and back (a round-trip of about 400kms) with Uniworld, I saw cruise boats tied up four abreast along the river banks and felt the desperation in the souks for the return of tourists.
"It was dead," said Hatem Abdl Aziz, the professional Egyptologist and travel director aboard the brand new 42-cabin SS Sphinx, who revealed that visitor numbers to the country were down by as much as 90 per cent in the darkest hours, "but I am very optimistic about it now to be honest." Hatem’s optimism is well placed – the country is now relatively easy for British travellers to visit. Vaccinated adults and unvaccinated children under 12 can enter Egypt without taking a test or having to self-isolate, while unvaccinated travellers and children over 12 just need to show proof of a negative PCR test taken 72 hours before travel (96 hours if flying from Heathrow).
In addition, the UK’s eradication of Day 2 testing for returning travellers is the shot in the arm Egypt has been waiting for and the day it came into force, Friday February 11, also happened to be the launch date for the much-anticipated new film version of Death on the Nile.
The original 1978 film (with an ensemble cast that included Bette Davies, Maggie Smith and Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot), was filmed on the Nile, with Aswan, Luxor and the temple of Abu Simbel serving as dramatic backdrops. The latest, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as the Belgian sleuth, was made in the studio and in Morocco – but with its clever sets and digital trickery you’d never know it.
A Hollywood blockbuster set on the Nile is just what the pharaohs ordered as Egypt emerges from Covid and for those that are seekers of Egypt’s cultural delights – rather than those that flock to the Red Sea resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada for winter sun and diving – 2022 promises plenty more. Not only will the long-awaited Grand Egyptian Museum finally open, but November 4 marks the centenary of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter, in 1922, in the Valley of the Kings.
Our audience with Tut (his blackened mummy lies in a climate-controlled glass box in the tomb) reduced our group of cruisers to awed silence broken only by the soft clicks of smartphone cameras. KV 62, as the tomb is designated, is modestly sized and decorated compared to the three we had just seen (the tomb of Ramses I, for example, containing wall paintings of dazzling brightness).
This was my sixth visit so I wasn’t so dumbstruck, but I had the vicarious pleasure of observing the reaction of first-timers – and in the case of my tour group, they were not just newbies but almost exclusively American. Sitting comfortably in the middle-aged to elderly bracket, with previous Uniworld river cruises in Europe and Asia under their belts, they came from Dallas and Portland, from the MidWest and East Coast and their wide-eyed enthusiasm for the wonders of Ancient Egypt made for great company.
"I think part of it is that our country is only 300 years old," Sandy Spasoff, from Boise, Idaho, told me after visiting Karnak, a temple complex so huge that several cathedrals would slot inside it.
"When you see the first temple it’s like, holy cow, these people were ahead of their time," said Tim Anderson from Prescott, Arizona, "then you see another one…" "…and you feel your head’s going to explode," finished his wife, Sally.
The Egyptologists on board – Mohammed as well as Hatem – made all the difference. I visited only one temple (Esna, sunk within a dusty village) I had not seen before but – as with the comparably extraordinary destination of Venice – there is always something new to learn. The passengers I spoke to all agreed that these men not only really knew their stuff, but did that vital most thing – breathed vivid life into unimaginably other worlds.
At Kom Ombo, Hatem explained the difference between raised and incised designs, the sunken reliefs and the bas reliefs, and pointed out a unique feature which proves the sophistication of medical knowledge in Ancient Egypt: an incised panel of surgical tools comprising scales, forceps, scissors and bone saws. "This is nineteen hundred and fifty years old, and in the time of the pyramids [i.e. much further back] we even did head surgery – not that I‘m showing off!," he said, allowing himself to bask momentarily in the reflected glory of his ancestors.
Another first for me was taking a dreamy felucca ride around the rocky riverscapes of Aswan, which Agatha Christie would have contemplated every morning from her hotel balcony before she settled in front of her portable Remington. These ancient sailboats glide over the water "like quill pens across papyrus" – not Christie’s apt description but that of the author of The Rough Guide to Egypt.
The one false note came at Aswan when we were taken to a Nubian village on the west bank of the Nile. The Nubians are the people whose ancestral lands south of Aswan were obliterated in stages by the building of the two Aswan dams, in 1902 and the 1960s. Displaced to towns such as Aswan and Kom Ombo the Nubians have clung to their distinct cultural identity.
We drank tea in a courtyard house – then a young man pulled back the cover from a concrete tank to reveal a captive Nile crocodile that he said has been there for 30 years, existing in a space barely bigger than itself. There are supposedly justifications of tradition and superstition that condemn this torpid animal to a living death, but you have to conclude that the spectacle of its confinement is intended primarily as a point of interest for visitors. Yet it should have no place on a tourist itinerary.
I prefer to remember the quick forms of life on the Nile. My plan had been to spend as much sailing time as possible on the sun deck, with its small swimming pool, sun beds and bar/buffet, and watch the river and the centuries roll by. To quote Mark Twain on another mighty river, "it is all as tranquil and reposeful as dreamland, and has nothing this-worldly about it – nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon" – except, on this occasion, sunny but unseasonably cold weather that kept most passengers in their cabins.
Down below, the décor is what you might call pharaonic bling: marble floors on the reception deck, heavy wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl in the restaurant; wooden floor and bright fabrics in the lounge. The big draw, though, was the food, which by common agreement was outstanding. Both buffet lunches and the four-course à la carte evening meals offered a generous and imaginative choice of Middle-Eastern and Western cuisine: baba ganoush, spring rolls, roasted tarot, rice, flatbreads, duck consommé, chicken shawarma, pasta, beef-and-mushroom pie, baklava and fabulous chocolate cake. I’ll even vouch for the Egyptian wine being drinkable.
The restaurant staff, and indeed the crew throughout the boat, were also unfailingly excellent – "gracious and kind and most have a twinkle in their eye," as one guest put it. The lounge, with its hard-backed upholstered benches, I found rather austere while my basic cabin was functional but not a place in which to while away the hours, even with a dog-eared copy of Death on the Nile on the go.
Instead, I Mummified myself in layers and took that Nile-front seat on the sun deck as often as I could. As we cruised along the ancient waterfront, the boat captains, who follow a calling passed down through families, hailed friends on the bridges of passing ships with jaunty toots of the horn. White donkeys grazed the emerald green foreshores. Once again the mythic Nile was breathing life into Egypt’s future.
The Daily Telegraph