Follow in Agatha Christie's footsteps on a Nile cruise with Uniworld - Cruise International

Follow in Agatha Christie's footsteps on a Nile cruise with Uniworld

By Sara Macefield | 2 Mar 2022

Luxor Temple at sunset. Picture: Alfredo Garcia Saz / Alamy Stock Photo

As a new film of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile puts Egypt in the spotlight, Sara Macefield explores ancient temples and age-old tombs without the crowds

 

With a grand flourish, the butler throws open the hotel suite’s wooden louvred doors leading on to the balcony, and everyone gasps in astonishment. Before us lies what can only be described as an astounding visual feast: the indigo waters of the Nile sprinkled with lush emerald islands and the ivory sails of gliding felucca yachts, against a backdrop of golden Saharan sand dunes.

Put bluntly, it’s a view to die for – and the irony of this is not lost on me as we are standing in the Agatha Christie Suite of the historic Old Cataract Hotel in Egyptian city Aswan. This is where the best-selling murder mystery queen stayed for six months in 1937 while writing her thriller Death on the Nile, the latest film adaptation of which hit movie screens in February.

Sitting down for afternoon tea on the terrace overlooking the Nile’s sparkling waters, I can’t help wondering how a beautiful location like this could inspire such dark thoughts, but as the treats are laid out in front of us, I’m simply content to savour the sweetness of the moment and the views.

We are at the most southerly stop on our one-week cruise from Luxor on Uniworld’s new opulent riverboat, Sphinx, which started sailing between the two cities last September, adding to the record number of vessels scheduled to cruise the Nile this year. Resembling a floating boutique hotel, this 84-passenger craft is full of Egyptian flavour, with plush interiors of local fabrics and hand-carved blonde wood ceilings that are complemented by traditional furnishings, including beaded brass lamps and artworks sourced from local artisans.

The top deck is a palatial hangout that makes a perfect base to spend lazy hours absorbing riverside views from its mosaic-tiled pool, surrounded by sumptuous daybeds with tented drapes, inspired by ancient Egyptian barges. My suite, with its smart petrol-blue decor and spacious marble en suite – with the luxury of a bath as well as a shower – is similarly enticing, especially as the French balcony makes another ideal viewing point.

Sun deck on Uniworld’s Nile ship, the Sphinx

But as we set off on our 250-mile round trip from Luxor to Aswan, I’m surprised at how few other cruise boats there are. We have the river to ourselves most of the time, and spot many other vessels tied up along the banks in lines up to seven or eight deep. Apparently, there are 362 riverboats on the Nile this year, reflecting a boom in demand for cruises along this noble waterway, though only 55 were believed to be operating when I was there in January.

The tourist sites are hardly overflowing either, with very few Europeans and no other Brits as far as I could tell. Even on Sphinx, apart from the small group of Britons I’m travelling with, everyone else is American. Yet the lack of tourists makes it an ideal time to explore this stretch of Upper Egypt before the crowds return, as they surely will.

Travelling to Egypt in 2022

The country is pinning its hopes on a trio of momentous events this year to help restore tourism fortunes to the heady heights of 2010, when it pulled in nearly 15 million holidaymakers. The first is the new Death on the Nile movie, with a stellar cast led by director Kenneth Branagh who also plays Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, providing a fitting shop window for Egypt’s awe-inspiring backdrops and breathtaking antiquities. Additionally, this year is the centenary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s treasures by British archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter on November 4. This has also been flagged as a potential date for the much-delayed opening of Egypt’s $1 billion Grand Egyptian Museum, which has been built near the pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo to house more than 100,000 artefacts.

They feature at least 4,500 items from the boy-king’s tomb, including the iconic gold death mask. It will be the first time the collection has come together since being removed from his burial chamber 100 years ago, following a detailed process of preserving and cataloguing that took nearly 10 years. Another star exhibit will be King Tut’s mummified body, which for the moment remains in situ in his tomb, meaning that I’m lucky enough to see it on our visit to the Valley of the Kings. Before the pandemic, 1.5 million visitors thronged to the sandstone cliffs of the Valley of the Kings each year, with crowds and queues commonplace. On our visit, fellow tourists are sparse – our boat makes up the largest group – giving us the luxury of space and time to savour its secrets.

Who knows how many tombs exist here, but so far 63 burial chambers have been discovered, carved into the craggy landscape, the largest dedicated to the family of Rameses II and containing an astounding 150 rooms. However, only nine tombs are open at any one time, their walls decorated with intricate paintings of the afterlife, the vivid colours seemingly undimmed by the passing of the millennia.

Tutankhamun’s is the main draw, but also the smallest and least impressive of the four we view, though the account of its discovery and unimaginable riches found inside have given it legendary status, while the presence of his mummified remains lends an extra frisson. I’m intrigued as our guide, Tommy, tells us how the famous Tutankhamun curse has been blamed for a number of premature deaths within months of the tomb’s discovery. Lord Carnarvon’s demise following a mosquito bite has been well documented, but a key member of the excavation team is also said to have died in a mysterious car crash, and a colleague of Carter’s took his own life. Who knows if this is pure coincidence or the workings of sinister forces, but it all adds to the air of mystique surrounding these ancient dynasties and the long procession of temples and relics of their rule.

At the start of the week Tommy warned us there would be a lot of information to take in – and after a few temple visits, I understand what he means. But that is not to downplay the extraordinary legacy of the ancient Egyptians and the mass of hieroglyphics carved into the walls and columns of the temples of Karnak and Dendera, among others, telling vivid stories of their existence and journeys into the afterlife.

While fascinating, details about the many deities can be hard to absorb, but such information overload is a contrast to the timeless peace that comes with cruising the Nile. I relish the relaxed pace on Sphinx, with attentive service from the Egyptian crew and an exceptional mix of local and international cuisine that ensures we dine royally and are treated like pharaohs.

Yet my greatest pleasure comes from sitting on deck, mesmerised by a passing panorama of fishermen throwing their nets from rickety old boats, and the occasional camel plodding steadfastly along the banks. As the sun drops below the shimmering horizon at the end of another day, its dying rays turn the desert landscape blood red and a deep, soul-stirring silence descends. Egypt’s ancient rulers may have departed for the afterlife thousands of years ago, but on evenings like this, you sense their spirits still prevail.

Getting there: Uniworld offers 12-day Splendors of Egypt and the Nile packages that include four nights in Cairo and a seven-night round-trip sailing from Luxor to Aswan, between September and May. From £5,499 per person, including flights, drinks, excursions, onboard gratuities and Wi-Fi. Find out more and book at uniworld.com

What to expect on a Nile cruise: the facts

Nile cruises operate in Upper Egypt, between Aswan and Luxor, from September to May, although the best time to visit is in the cooler months of November to March.

Most visitors make the most of Egypt by adding to the cruise. Stay in Cairo for a few days to see the Pyramids, the Sphinx and the Museum of Antiquities. Or take a second cruise, from Aswan, across Lake Nasser, for the blissful tranquillity of life on a lake boat and some of the lesser-known temples. Alternatively, do the Nile and then hit the beaches of the Red Sea at Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada.

Packing for a Nile cruise is straightforward. You’ll need good walking shoes, cool clothing that covers knees and elbows (Egypt is a Muslim country), a sunhat, camera, binoculars and a good guidebook; this is one destination where it really helps to understand the history. Also take small change (US dollars, Euros or Egyptian pounds) for souvenirs, and just as a precaution, Immodium and rehydration salts.

All Nile cruises call at the same ports, either starting or finishing in Aswan or Luxor and visiting the riverside temples of Kom Ombo, Edfu and Esna.

 

Sunset at Luxor on the River Nile. Picture: CALIN STAN / Alamy Stock Photo

Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city and the setting in which Agatha Christie wrote part of Death on the Nile, sprawls dustily on high ground on the east bank of the river, its centre a lush, green oasis of palm trees. The Nile braids itself around several small islands here and feluccas, traditional Nile sailing boats, zigzag backwards and forwards across the river on sightseeing trips.

Aswan has grown up around stone quarries which were exploited by the Egyptians some 1500 years before Christ. It’s also located next to the Aswan High Dam, which was built to create the vast reservoir of Lake Nasser and is a tourist attraction in itself. Take a side trip from the town to the breathtaking temple of Abu Simbel on Lake Nasser, which had to be moved, piece by piece, when the reservoir was created.

As well as the dam and the stone quarries, visits here include the beautiful Temple of Philae, dedicated to Isis, goddess of magic. Like Abu Simbel, Philae was actually dismantled and moved to a safer, higher spot as the Nile waters began to rise.

The stretch of the river between Aswan and Luxor is particularly beautiful. Spend the voyage on deck, just looking at life drift by: water buffalo standing motionless in emerald-green fields; herds of goat kicking up dust; small children playing football; people fishing from old wooden boats and the occasional train snaking its way across the desert landscape.

There are three temple stops between Aswan and Luxor. Just 20 miles to the north of the town lies the temple of Kom Ombo, where you’ll see amazing reliefs on the ancient walls, clearly depicting surgical tools, including bone saws, scalpels and dental tools.

Further along the river, surrounded by fields of sugar cane, is the temple of Edfu, one of the best-preserved in the whole of Upper Egypt, and to the north, the Temple of Khnum at Esna, much of which is still to be excavated.

Luxor is the biggest attraction of Nile cruises and it’s debatable whether it’s best to see it first or last; in a way, the Valley of the Kings and the mighty Karnak Temple are best kept as a grand finale to a Nile cruise.

Karnak, a vast complex covering 100 acres, lies just outside the city. Bigger and more spectacular than anything else you’ll see in Egypt, it took 1,300 years to build. A sound and light show takes place every night, mysterious voices echoing out from towering columns and solid walls as evocative lighting illuminates different aspects of the ancient site. Luxor Temple, in the middle of the town, is smaller but nonetheless impressive.

Abu Simbel Temple. Picture: Unai Huizi Photography/Shutterstock

Across the river, on the west bank, are the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, where the pharaohs were buried in underground tombs. Most tours come here at sunrise, when the desert and the mountains glow ochre and red in the early morning light and clusters of hot air balloons lift gracefully off the ground, an unforgettable vantage point from which to watch dawn break over the Nile Valley.

The Valley of the Kings, though, is the real highlight. There are 66 known tombs, and a typical visit includes entrance to three of them. Most tombs don’t actually have anything in them, their treasures long plundered, but the hieroglyphs and paintings on the walls are stunning, with incredible colour that has remained unchanged over the millennia.

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