In the fifth century B.C., a hundred years before another Greek, Alexander the Great, conquered Egypt, the geographer Herodotus journeyed to the Nile.
He hoped to learn why annual floods ripped across the land, nourishing it with black silt. A boon to agriculture and the populace’s well-being, the deluges prompted generations of pharaohs to adorn the walls of their temples and tombs with images of the god Hapi, who represented this phenomenon. Although his quest was unsuccessful, Herodotus concluded that Egypt itself was “a gift of the river.”
More than 2,000 years later, on the deck of a sailing vessel named Agatha, an Egyptian guide echoes those sentiments. “No Nile, no Egypt,” Adel Anu Elhagag says as I seek to grasp the enduring magnetism of the river, which winds 4,132 miles north from Lake Victoria, Uganda, to the Mediterranean coast of Egypt. “Egyptians and the river found each other and created a great civilization.”
Egypt’s ancient culture, and the dusty shrines celebrating its long-ago glories, exerts an enduring pull on travelers. Now, 11 years after the pro-democratic uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, it returns to the international stage in a more future-oriented way. This week, the United Nations Climate Change Conference brought delegates from all over the world to Sharm el-Sheikh. This year also brings two important anniversaries: first, the bicentennial of Frenchman Jean-François Champollion’s deciphering of the Rosetta stone. (Egypt officially observes this milestone, but the country has also demanded the stone’s return from the British Museum, where it has been on display since 1802.) It is also the 100-year anniversary of English archaeologist Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, near Luxor.
It was in the spirit of old-fashioned Egyptomania—and at the fervent recommendation of my most discerning Parisian friend—that I boarded the sleek Agatha for five days to sail from Esna, south of Luxor, to Aswân. “The boat is like a dream,” she told me. From the first glass of fresh guava nectar, I sensed she was not exaggerating.
Before embarking, another guide, Ashraf Atyea, showed us Esna’s gleaming Greco-Roman temple, the first of many remarkable sanctuaries we would explore en route to Aswân. Inside were what are considered the most beautiful capitals in Egypt, brightly painted, colors intact. Workmen sat atop shaky scaffolding, cleaning the ceiling with cotton wipes and ammonia.
“The boat is like a dream,” she told me. From the first glass of fresh guava nectar, I sensed she was not exaggerating.
Our understanding of Egypt’s history evolves with each excavation. Some experts estimate that only 10 percent of its historical sites have been uncovered, and new treasures are revealed frequently. In 2021, 250 mummies were discovered at Saqqâra, near Cairo. Thousands of artifacts will be housed at the Grand Egyptian Museum, nearly 20 years and $1 billion in the making, whose opening is imminent. No wonder ancient Egypt always feels at least a little bit new again.
Stepping Back in Time
The Nile is well documented as a source of inspiration. In 1850, Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert (then an aspiring writer, who was accompanied by writer and photography pioneer Maxime Du Camp) ended up on the same boat. Agatha Christie cruised to Aswân on the S. S. Sudan in 1933 with her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan; four years later she published Death on the Nile. By the time Christie set off, steamships had replaced dahabeahs, the double-sailed, flat-bottomed boats of the Victorian era, which were designed to make Europeans feel as though they were floating in their living rooms.
That tradition of 19th-century craftsmanship was revived in the 1990s, when French-born Eléonore Kamir and her Mexican-American partner, Enrique Cansino, commissioned the construction of a classic dahabeah. With that, their company, Nour El Nil, was launched. Agatha is among the largest and newest of their six boats, and a seventh is being built under the direction of their third partner, the Egyptian sailor Memdouh Sayed Khalifa.
“We want people to see Egypt the way they did in the past,” Kamir tells me. “But with private bathrooms,” adds Cansino. It was my good fortune to have them aboard for my 86-mile journey, along with 11 other passengers and 15 crew members clad in traditional galabias.
The interiors reflect Kamir’s exquisite Parisian eye. “Every time I land in Egypt, my suitcases are so full,” she says. She carries vintage sconces and rolled-up oil paintings (for which she custom-makes intricate frames) from the Paris antique markets, and sources vivid fabrics for accent pillows. Throughout the boat, Venetian-glass chandeliers dangle from the ceilings; most were assembled piecemeal from parts found in Alexandria’s markets, when old mansions were destroyed and remnants sold off. The cabins and corridors are painted in a glossy white, and on the upstairs deck there are enough couches and chaise lounges—all covered in striped Egyptian cotton canvas, which Kamir orders “by the kilometer”—for everyone aboard to stretch out on.
The Nile air struck me pleasantly, almost like a sedative—or maybe it was the heat, which was stifling and, some insisted, unprecedented, even for September. Within days, the country would begin to cool down, and the optimal travel season would begin. Thankfully, the wide-open deck was fitted with duck-cloth curtains that could deflect the sun, and the bedrooms had air-conditioning. I spent much of my time absorbed in observation of darkened tombs in passing cliffs, water buffalo bathing in the shoals, and fishermen in vivid-blue dinghies. White-throated kingfishers swooped in from the rushes, with a high, percussive rattle. Each day, I drank a pot of mint tea and ate handfuls of dried dates that dissolved in my mouth like meringue.
Meals were served family-style, and after our first lunch, of crispy perch “that was swimming in the Nile this morning,” according to Cansino, the red-and-white striped sails, one fore and one aft, were hoisted. We breezed along the water. When he suggested I climb the rope ladder lashed to the 75-foot eucalyptus mast, I didn’t refuse. “Take it all in,” he said as I scaled it barefoot. The view of gilded palms, sugarcane, and mango trees aside the silvery-green water was worth the accelerated heartbeat.
It took some coaxing to get me swimming in the Nile, even with the knowledge that the crocodiles revered by ancient Egyptians (as well as the annual floods that mystified Herodotus) were eradicated when the Aswan High Dam was built, in the 60s. Our tugboat pulled us a bit upriver so we could ride the brisk current back to the Agatha. The silty water felt as fresh and velvety as an Adirondack lake. Each day, wrung out by temperatures that reached 109 degrees, these salutary dips slapped the energy back into me.
Some evenings, after anchoring on a small island or somewhere along the banks, we ambled through a village, chatting with children riding on donkeys. Enrique and I popped in to see his friend, the principal of a local school, who offered me a pull on his shisha pipe (I declined) and sent us away with bitter oranges to be used in the chef’s sweet marmalade. Mornings, I drank coffee on the deck, waiting for the planet Jupiter and the crescent moon to cede to daylight.
Each day, my fellow travelers and I wandered around one of the excavations along the Nile, darting into slivers of shade while Ashraf recounted the sites’ histories. In a hillside tomb at El Kab, the brave escapades of a naval commander from 1500 B.C. were documented for eternity in hieroglyphics by his proud grandson. In Edfu, a horse-drawn carriage ferried us to a colossal Ptolemaic temple. The pristinely preserved complex is dedicated to the falcon-headed god, Horus, the avenging son of Isis and Osiris.
On the final day, before being tugged to Aswân (the heat was suppressing even the wind, so our sails stayed tightly rolled), we made shore at Kom Ombo. Its still lustrous temple partly honors Sobek, the crocodile-headed god, who was believed to have created the Nile. We slipped into the wonderfully frigid museum for an enlightening display of crocodile mummies, all unearthed nearby.
In Aswân, I headed to the grandest-of-the-grand Old Cataract hotel, where Agatha Christie’s memory endures. She lived there for one year following her river voyage, writing the murder mystery it inspired. From the porch, under a cluster of ceiling fans, I looked over the water. As I had all week, I pictured ships loaded up with obelisks carved in the granite quarries of Aswân, and golden barges transporting pharaohs to their tombs.
“The river,” Ashraf had told me, “has seen everything.” But it was not sentimental, I thought, watching motorboats and small feluccas tear across the water. The wakes disappeared as soon as they were made.
A six-day journey on Nour El Nil’s Agatha begins at $2,350 per person
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Marcia DeSanctis is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure and writes essays and stories for Vogue, Town & Country, Departures, and BBC Travel. Her new book, a collection of travel essays called A Hard Place to Leave: Stories from a Restless Life, is out now