Hope floats up the Nile

Temple fatigue. It afflicts us all. This pharaoh, that goddess, some dynasty or other. More columns, more carvings. It’s embarrassing, to be bored by something you know is wondrous.

And then, one bright day, up pops the antidote.

“Come and see!”

His name is Hesham Mansoor, and he may be the best history guide in Egypt. In Hesham’s world, every moment holds a story worth telling.

Amid the gloom of the great temple at Abydos he led a huddle of us onward with a whisper. “This is really a wow scene.”

A histrionic sunbeam was doing the Indiana Jones thing, slanting dustily down from far overhead to spotlight an ankle-high patch of wall-carving. The hum of voices was retreating. At a place of sacred pilgrimage 3,000 years old we were face to face with the gods.

And in amongst the flow of bulls and hieroglyphs, cartouches and almond eyes, Hesham picked out a single bas-relief. Beside falcon-headed Horus, eerily transcendent, stood two wasp-waisted figures, their hair, faces and fingernails carved with ancient, intimate perfection.

“Renpet, goddess of the year, and Maat, goddess of truth,” cooed Hesham. “They are telling us that Horus is always honest. Just look at these beautiful ladies. You have nothing to do but love them.”

And we did.

Then again, under fierce sun before the immense mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Luxor. As glistening busloads trudged to their photo-ops, Hesham took us aside.

“You know, this isn’t a temple,” he said, rising on his toes to gesture at the columned terraces. “It’s a philosophy. Death did not scare the Egyptians. You can feel the smile on Hatshepsut’s face here. Let me amaze you – listen.”

And deftly, passionately, with pacing and arm-waving, Hesham brought the ideas hidden in those hot, old stones to life before our eyes.

We lucked out with Hesham, for sure. But in truth this was never going to be an ordinary temple-hopping tour.

The story starts in 1992. Back then, during a violent insurgency against the Egyptian government, the Gamaa Islamiyya (“Islamic Group”) began targeting tourists. Militants attacked buses, trains and boats, killing foreigners and Egyptians alike. The horror culminated in a massacre of 62 people at Hatshepsut’s temple in 1997 which outraged public opinion across Egypt and paralysed the country’s tourist industry for years afterwards.

By that time the government had already halted tourism in the whole central section of Egypt. Nile cruises and organized excursions to sites between Cairo and Luxor were stopped altogether, and independent travellers who chose to venture to Middle Egypt cities such as Minya or Assyut found their movements heavily restricted by the police.

Tourism became concentrated in Cairo, the Red Sea coast and the south. Nile cruises focused solely on the stretch of river between Luxor and Aswan. Even after 2003, with the insurgency defeated and the Gamaa Islamiyya renouncing violence, river journeys south from Cairo remained a memory.

It was the 2011 revolution which prompted a rethink. Amid drastic falls in tourism – and broad consensus that the threat to foreigners has passed – politicians finally approved a relaunch for the once-popular route. The first public cruise from Cairo to Aswan in two decades set sail on 19th April this year. I was lucky enough to be on board.

First, let me reassure readers who aren’t fans of cruise tourism: neither am I. But oh my goodness! What a soul-stirring marvel of a journey this was. Michael Haag takes a cerebral tone in his brilliant guide for Cadogan: “It is godly to cruise the Nile through Egypt,” he writes. But for a cruise virgin like myself, being kissed for the very first time by 700 miles of the most famous river in the world made for an earthy old knee-trembler of a fortnight. It was travel of the most stimulating, seductive, deliciously slow kind.

And it doubles as an amazing opportunity for travellers curious to look past Egypt’s headlines. Of the 83 passengers on board our ship, the Mövenpick MS Hamees – mostly British, with a small group from Germany and two Swiss – I found only one who had never visited Egypt before. We’d all seen tombs and temples, many had already cruised the Luxor-Aswan stretch – but nobody had been through Middle Egypt, and nobody had travelled this part of the Nile. Protests or no protests, we all wanted to see for ourselves.

For six serene days – from Cairo through to Abydos – we saw no other tourists, and met no souvenir hawkers. Air-conditioned comfort, three meals a day and five-star service aside, it was as if we had gone back to an Egypt before mass tourism. Women washed morning pots at the water’s edge in village after tragically underdeveloped village. Hoopoes took flight. Fishermen heaved at plank-like oars. The banks narrowed, so the groves of banana and sugarcane felt a stone’s throw away. Then they widened, casting the whistles of children by tall-chimneyed brick kilns faint on the breeze. On one side, long-horned buffalo lounged on sweet rugs of grass, backed by moptop palms. On the other, a Coptic monastery wedged into a fold of desert hills turned its cupola-point cross to face the water.

Mid-conversation below decks, I’d catch myself wondering what was floating past unseen. Every page or two I’d have to check the view. While others snoozed shadily I’d be at the rail in velvet heat, watching a local ferry load up with farm trucks as be-robed men gossiped by the wheelhouse, or following a migrant glossy ibis as it swooped against the mango trees. I often woke early, catching drifting views alone in the sunrise cool.

Every archaeological excursion – and there were sixteen – was a winner. Thanks chiefly to Hesham’s narrative talent, Egypt’s endless tide of gods and pharaohs finally made sense, our drift southwards matching the chronological sweep from Old Kingdom pyramids at Giza to Middle Kingdom tombs at Beni Hassan, and then New Kingdom temples at Amarna and Luxor.

I’m no great fan of package tours, but it quickly became obvious that to see what we saw in those once-prohibited regions of Middle Egypt would have been nigh-on impossible without the backing of a tour company.

Beni Hassan is a case in point. These stunningly decorated tombs, cut into rocky cliffs high above the eastern bank of the Nile 250km south of Cairo, were once accessible only by private taxi with police escort. Our ship, though, had clearance to dock nearby. By 7 in the morning, our convoy of coaches and minibuses was sweeping past the bleary eyes and open mouths of villagers direct to the site.

From a high ledge by the tombs’ entrance, the strip of cultivation flanking the Nile – borne of the fertile soil deposited by annual flooding – shone electric-green against the dusty beige of the wilderness beyond.

Within the tombs, scenes of wrestling – two figures grappling across the walls, as if on celluloid film – were outdone by one of the most famous scenes in Egyptian art. Around 1890 BC, it seems, a caravan from Canaan (Palestine) visited the pharaoh, bringing gifts. The foreigners are depicted at Beni Hassan with unusual goatee beards, wearing sandals (Egyptians went barefoot) and dressed in striking multicoloured robes. Nobody is suggesting they are Israelites, but Joseph – known, too, for a coat of many colours – was in Egypt around the same time. The parallels with the Old Testament story rang like a bell. It was my turn to gaze open-mouthed.

Hesham, once he’d told the tale, shrugged and smiled.

Our convoy whisked us to the beauty of remote Tuna El Gebel, its angular stone mausolea romantic in the afternoon sun against tawny dunes, hair-raising catacombs beneath filled with mummified baboons sacrificed to Thoth, god of knowledge.

In farflung Tell El Amarna we roamed the sun-temple, built 3,400 years ago by the revolutionary pharaoh and queen Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Their newly egalitarian forms of government and worship lasted barely two decades in the teeth of a furious hardline counter-revolution. Pacing the rubble of betrayed dreams, I bit my lip for Tahrir Square.

And then we returned to the river. Excursions fell between mesmerically long stretches of cruising. Average speed on the Hamees was 8 knots (roughly 9mph), but even that wasn’t nearly slow enough.

Once, close to Esna, I experimented with real-time writing. First I logged a range of sawtooth cliffs rearing up on the western shore, topped by a squat, domed lookout. They were still passing when I noted a photogenic pair of date palms, one resting on its neighbour’s shoulder. I broke off for the putt-putt-putt of a mudbrick pumping station on the opposite shore, drawing water up to cascade into beige irrigation channels. Before that faded, six or seven kids were leaping off a grassy bank, their bodies slick in the afternoon sun. A buffalo bathed, snorting in the shallows. Then came a picnicking family, whooping as our five-storey mobile hotel rudely parped.

Worlds kept revealing themselves, minute by minute.

And it didn’t let up after dark. Before, if you wanted to travel through Middle Egypt, you faced tediously long train or bus journeys, a scant choice of hotels and a fair bit of suspicion – and that’s if the security situation allowed a visit at all. Now, the Hamees delivered us direct to a succession of cities completely untouched by tourism. I was out every night.

In Minya, where a swanky new archaeology museum is due to open, I ambled through a city centre as charming as anywhere in Egypt. A 20th-century cotton capital, exporting to Europe and beyond, Minya sings with the textile magnates’ colonial Rococo and Art Deco villas, many now artfully crumbling. Stares broke into smiles at my “salaamu alaykum”. Fathers nudged their moon-eyed children. Lads jostled for photos.

Dodging taxis emblazoned with Jesus stickers – Minya’s population is roughly half Christian, half Muslim, evidenced by the cheerful mix of hijabs and hair-bands – I stopped for tea off the main square. A dreadlocked hipster was talking to a blonde woman – his sister? girlfriend? – in sign language. A passing cigarette-seller boomed (in Arabic), “Foreigners are welcome.” The guy over the road smoking a water-pipe pointed and waved. The tea cost me 20p.

When I lived in Cairo in 1993, only journalists visited Assyut, preferably in body-armour. Times have changed. My Rough Guide enthused about Assyut’s Qasreya souk: “A web of shadowy lanes smelling of incense and offal,” it said. I asked the dockside police how to get there. After their initial surprise (“How does he know about Qasreya?” I overheard), one agreed to take me. It was sensational. Forests of cotton-polyester draped broken alleys in day-glo. There were saucepans, spice grinders and plenty of eyebrows, as coffeeshop loafers registered a tourist in their souk. Shouldering between cobblers and herb-sellers, I – literally – stumbled into a medieval wooden-galleried caravanserai, unrestored and gloomy, perhaps from the miserable days when Assyut hosted the biggest slave market in Africa.

By midnight I was sipping tea on a packed café terrace, while music played and laughter danced over the implacable Nile. The cruise had unlocked a whole new Egypt.

For Egyptians, times are as hard as they’ve ever been. Of 6,000 tour guides nationwide, 5,500 are out of work. Fewer than a quarter of the Nile’s 300 cruise ships are operating. Nine out of ten hotel rooms in Luxor are empty. The country may be going through political transition but that shouldn’t be a stick for us to beat it with. Quite the opposite. Planes are flying. Tours are running. Prices are low. Sites are quiet.

And Egypt’s spirit, of course, remains undaunted. At Meidum, our excursion to the 4,600-year-old Collapsed Pyramid happened to coincide with National Orphans’ Day. Beneath the high old walls girls in yellows, blues and pinks twirled together, clapping and chanting on their day out from school. Boys posed, one or two boldly asking my name. A teacher shook my hand.

“We’re happy that you come to visit us in such circumstances,” he said. “You are fighters, really.”

But it didn’t feel like a fight at all. In truth, it felt silky smooth.

Assyut, Minya and the other cities of Middle Egypt, for so long denied the opportunity for growth, now, finally, have a chance. This cruise links them with Cairo and Luxor in an entirely new way, on a single, hassle-free itinerary. They benefit from the cruise companies, who take on supplies mid-voyage. They should also benefit from tourist footfall.

In the echoing souks of Luxor and Aswan, forlorn shopkeepers brought me tea. Everyone was angry that protests limited to a small zone around Tahrir Square, 700km away, should still be blighting the whole country’s prospects.

I promised them I’d get the word out.