Journeys to Come: finding romance and renewal on the ancient river Nile
Taking the slow boat from Luxor to Aswan
Recently, the Wall Street Journal featured the trip behind this story as one of their “inspiring escapes” for reconnecting with the world. It resonates because it’s packed with wanderlust and keeps you away from the crowds. What’s more, lots of travellers are thinking about breaking the ice this year with a gigantic getaway – and something for the ages. Well, what’s better than a visit to one of the world’s most mythologized civilizations?
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For centuries, travellers have found themselves drawn to Egypt’s uncommon contrasts: to its deep history and its thriving, modern vivacity. We think of intensity and saturation; of the “tumultuous swirl” described by Naguib Mahfouz (perhaps the country’s most beloved author). We think of busy souks and bustling crowds, ancient temples and burial chambers. You can throw yourself into it. But sometimes, it’s good to take the scenic route.
Writing in 1971, Janet Abu-Lughod asked that when we think about Egypt we should think about its river, of the stately “flow of things, peoples and ideas [that ride along] the Nile’s narrow valley.” Oriented South to North (the traditional axis flipped), this ancient and massively mythologized waterway is the life-vein of Egypt; flat, hazed with swaying sedge and the orange fire of the setting sun. Beautiful, serene, iconic. Lawrence Durrell, that great chronicler of Egyptian life, said we should embrace the more laid-back side that the Nile lends us: “to tune in, without reverence, idly.” It is a highway we can cruise along; roof down, stepping back in time as the noise of the city fades behind.
The romance of the Dahabiya, the slow boat of the Nile
When foreign tourists first arrived in Egypt during the 19th century, they set their sights on the spectacle of its ruins. From Luxor and the Temple of Horus to Aswan and Abu Simbel. But these ancient destinations were rarely accessible by road. Taking a cue from the people who actually built these tombs and temples, they realised it was best to use the river as their highway. This is what gave rise to the Victorian romance of boat travel, and the serenity of the iconic Dahabiya; a method of transport that Eric, our on-the-grounder partner in Egypt, calls “the ultimate indulgence and privilege.”
After all, unlike large cruise ships and even steamboats (bulky, public, rigid), the Dahabiya can pull up to almost any river bank. “You can visit the weekly market, stop by lesser-known sites,” explains Eric. “You can even just stop for a walk in the desert.” And this is an elegant vessel; draped in its customary red and white sails, with comfortable, light-filled and decorous cabins. Their crews can number as many as 15.
“What I’m trying to say is that you feel free and remote even in the midst of the Nile – like this river is yours alone, and not someone else’s.” It is hard to repeat this experience anywhere else in the world. With a captain, crew and private chef on board board to serve you different types of dates and local dishes, you’ll build up a close relationship with people who truly understand Egypt and its culture – both past and present. Ultimately, as Eric puts it, “your hotel is moving with you.” Memdouh, a sailor with 30 years of experience on the Nile, builds the Dahabiya we use from the ground up. Afterwards, their interiors are provided with authentic touches and modern luxuries – all brought together by dedicated interior designer and owner, Eleonore. It’s truly a complete package.
And there’s a venerable history to this tradition.
By the late 1850s, the Dahabiya was the vehicle of choice for most travellers who came to Egypt. These distinctive vessels were based on traditional barge-like houseboats slung across with delicate cross-sails that had been in use for centuries. “Resembling the painted galleys represented on the tombs of the Pharaohs,” these vessels — as the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica notes — were also used by the later kings and rulers of Egypt, their decks and sails “ornamented by gilding.” This is what lends the boat its name; ‘dahab’ meaning gold.
As early as 1847, John Wilkinson penned an entire guidebook on how to charter one of these sleek and traditional vessels. At the time, this would include overseeing the boatmen – and even arranging to have it re-painted (and even de-bugged). Over time, the gilding began to rub off – the boats becoming less favoured and mildly forgotten.
Over time, however, as trains and steam-boats began to wend their way across Egypt, the Dahabiya experienced a thankful renaissance; going from the only way to travel to become the most exclusive and luxurious way to experience the Nile. A mode of transport reserved for only the wealthiest and most leisurely customers. By 1893, tour companies such as Thomas Cook were offering a well-stocked and properly provisioned Dahabiya tour; with “dragomans and other necessary servants” and “food supplies . . . carefully selected and provided.” Today, some 123 years on, little has outwardly changed. From the shoreline, these tug-drawn vessels (curvaceous and elegant against the shimmering mirror of the Nile) seem to have sailed straight out of the history books. And in a way they have
Cruising down Egypt’s historic highway
Back in 1895, Mary Brodrick — described somewhat backhandedly by the press as “perhaps the greatest lady Egyptologist of the day” — joined up with Anna Morton to document the ancient sites of the Nile. Needing to swallow thousands of its kilometres, the pair hired and furnished their own dedicated Dahabiya. The resulting journey would become their 1902 Concise Dictionary of Egyptian Archaeology. Travelling at a leisurely yet confident pace, the travellers “felt particularly enthusiastic about this mode of transport” explains Amara Thornton, who has written extensively about our late Victorian obsession with Egypt. After their tour was complete, the archaeologists confirmed that the Dahabiya was “the best and most comfortable method of seeing the Nile.” Morton was most effusive, arguing that “the river is the highway of Egypt.” When you hire a Dahabiya, she continued, “you become your own master.”
It’s an experience echoed so many years later by one very recent Black Tomato traveller, who shared with us her memory: “[the boat] and the crew create an experience that stays with you in your real life, as it is so easy to close your eyes and see the Nile, as Ahmed and Abdul ran up the mast to tie down the sails for the night, or the day we need to drop the mainsail to get under the Edfu bridge. Those memories continue our dreams of Egypt.”
Of course, the guarantee of the Dahabiya’s survival was not always certain. Lee Bacon, an American traveller to Egypt in the early 1900s, captured the distinctive beauty of the Dahabiya, but also shared her concerns that this way of life was increasingly under threat:
“It is such a picturesque procession that the temptation is to hold them up to make a sketch . . . these are the things that will pass away with the Cape to Cairo railroad . . . iron monsters driving ahead. Time will be gained, but how many other things lost!”
This sense of romance, exploration and history is apparent in so many of these excitable first encounters with the Dahabiya and the Nile, including those of Lee’s husband, the painter Henry Bacon – who captured a series of hazy, sun-tinted landscapes of Egypt as it passed by the window of their boat. Of a world suspended in time.
But even despite Bacon’s fear of encroaching “iron monsters,” writers and travellers would continue to find inspiration along the course of this ancient river. After all, it was a winter cruise that gave Agatha Christie the material for her 1937 mystery, Death on the Nile; a trip that saw her journey from Aswan to Wadi Halfa. In the pages of her book, we find characters “wistfully looking out across the Nile where the while-sailed boats glided up and down.” Another character finds it all very “picturesque,” watching “the river unfold before them.” The boats are sensual and slow and touched with romance. As Poirot himself remarks: “Yes, it is good to be alive.”
A riverside picnic in ancient Egypt
And this feeling has clearly rubbed off. After all, the Nile has been at the crux of so many of our own Egyptian itineraries. Some travellers take a felucca onto the waters by night. Others go for the full-bore Dahabiya experience, “gliding” — like Agatha Christie — from site to site, from Luxor to Aswan. A journey through time in a mode of transport that goes back millennia.
And it’s this sense of slowness and patience that attracts travellers to the Dahabiya. “Making your way from temple to temple . . . enjoying the river breeze” observes Eric, “you can enjoy the country at a leisurely pace, drinking in the landscapes, and exploring the monuments and villages on the riverbanks.”
Before kicking off your Dahabiya journey, you’ll spend time in historic Luxor, located on the east bank of the Nile. This is the site of the ancient city of Thebes – the capital of the Pharaohs between the 16th – 11th centuries B.C.E. The city sprawls across two gigantic ancient monuments; Luxor and Karnak temples. On the river’s west can be found the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, the legendary site of Egypt’s ancient tombs.
It is here that you’ll stay at the mighty and iconic Moudira Hotel, “one of the most beautiful and original hotels in the entire Middle East,” as Eric notes. A pink-stoned Oriental palace of domed suites set between sugarcane fields and folds of the desert not far from Madinet Habu temple. It is elegant yet unpretentious, taking its cue from abandoned 19th-century Egyptian houses. During your time in the city, you’ll have exclusive after-hours access to the Valley of the Kings; given the key for yourselves alongside an expert archaeological guide. You’ll also meet with one of the archaeological missions located nearby, exploring what it takes to excavate in this iconic place.
And once you’re done, it’s time to board the boat that’ll carry you peacefully to Aswan.
Typically, your Dahabiya journey will start off in Esna, 50km south of Luxor. This pleasingly glacial journey will take five nights to reach its destination in Egypt’s south, moving always toward the river’s ancient source. Along the way, the boat will take stops allowing you to “visit temples, tombs, banana plantations, camel markets and stopping for visits in local homes to share a glass of tea and to learn about daily life on the Nile.” You’ll see ancient Edfu, picturesque Gebel Silsileh, and the Ptolemaic town and temple of Kom Ombo, dedicated to Sobek the crocodile-headed god.
But perhaps the most astonishing site along the route is the Temple of Horus at Edfu. Slowly swallowed by the encroaching sands, this (properly Ozymandian) edifice retains its own freestanding roof, “offering a unique perspective on what these monuments used to look like in their heyday.”
All meals are prepared on board the Dahabiya by the boat’s private chef. At night, we will light a bonfire on the sands of the beach – a place to share stories, roast marshmallows, drink and stargaze.
All’s well at Aswan
The end of your Dahabiya journey comes with a staggering surprise – to the Nubian enclave of bustling Aswan. Slow, stately and culturally rich, the area is littered with UNESCO heritage sites and endless opportunities for water-based excursions. The Old Cataract, one of our favourite Egyptian hotels, will give you a chance to find your land legs again. This Victorian building dates back to 1899 when the Dahabiya craze was at its peak. The hotel even accommodated Agatha Christie herself.
From the town, there is a journey to Abu Simbel, the crowning achievement of Ramses II – the “Great Builder”. Built into the face of a mountain, aligned with the rising sun. Standing unscathed for millennia, the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1960 threatened its existence. A team of archaeologists and divers raised the entire mountain 61 metres. A private or scheduled aircraft can carry you across the sands to this remarkable place.
Other travellers choose to trek by camel and sail by the smaller and more nimble felucca, exploring the area’s many coves and islets, stopping – en route – at the local botanical gardens, the southern tip of Elephantine Island, and the historic village of Qubbat al Hawa. Meanwhile, you’ll be treated to a freshly-prepared, locally-inspired lunch onboard your vessel. After, you’ll experience a memorable camel trek to St. Simeon’s Monastery through surrounding periwinkle-coloured Nubian settlements. Like many buildings in Egypt, the monastery has served various purposes over the years – a place of worship for the local saint Hadra, a Christian monastery with enough space for 400 monks and pilgrims, and as a base for converting Nubians to Christianity.
Later, you’ll experience the environs of Kalabsha Temple – which we’ll open after-hours to ensure you have a fully private and undisturbed experience, having dinner while being entertained by belly dancers, whirling dervishes and local musicians.
Experience a journey like no other along Egypt’s ancient river
Our Journeys to Come — like this Dahabiya trip down the ancient Nile — offer much-needed space for escapism in a hectic world that flies by quicker than ever. But they also paint a roadmap for the world ahead. This is a trip you can plan today and take tomorrow (even if ‘tomorrow’ is months or more away). It has been chosen because it is remote, enriching and offers plenty of food for the soul. After all, the Dahabiya has been plying the waters of the Nile for centuries.
Get in touch today and find out how you can join this gentle journey to fascinating Aswan, and to find a pace of life that’s on your terms.
CURIOUS ABOUT EGYPT?
Our Egyptian journeys are always bespoke. Head below to find out about the kinds of things you can experience in the land of the pharaohs.