We are back in Aswan by noon and head out to the docks, where our cruise ship awaits. We will spend the next two days sailing up the river Nile, towards Luxor. Hightailing it up to the sundeck, I watch the light change and the sand dunes of Aswan pass by. There are verdant farms and spiky palm trees by the river banks, white sailed feluccas zig zag across the water. As the light leaves there is an Egyptian sunset over the sand dunes.
We dock at Kom Ombo, literally, “Mountain of Gold”, one of a very few temples left in Egypt with access to the Nile. This temple is dedicated to the gods Horus and Sorbek, the falcon and the crocodile. Lit up at night, the temple has a mystery, an ambience that is missing in the bright light of day. The columns boast papyrus and lotus flower capitals – an influence of the Greco-Roman. There is a calendar, with a chart showing the specific offerings for each day. There are drawings of medical instruments. There are carvings over every surface, hieroglyphs and beautiful scenes of worship and every day life.
The next day we are amongst the earlier visitors to the Temple of Horus at Edfu. In the quiet hours the temple feels large, majestic. The light is soft and golden. The courtyard is ringed by columns and on the inner walls, reliefs of Horus defeating the evil god Set tell the story of the falcon god’s vengeance for his father, Osiris’ murder. Set is depicted as a hippopotamus, the most dangerous animal in Africa – unpredictable, powerful, chaotic and bad tempered, a fitting animal spirit for Set.
There are stray cats at Edfu and a ginger tabby tries to climb into my lap as I kneel down to snap a picture of the double crowned falcon god statue. Yan and I lark about; we have been given an entire hour to while away in this relatively young, at 2,500 years, temple, and so go around pretending to read hieroglyphics at each other. Eventually we just sit on the base of one of the pillars in the courtyard and contemplate the scene.
We have no more temples for the remainder of the day, and obligations to Ancient Egypt done, we head up to the sun deck to soak up the sun, write postcards and chat desultorily about everything and nothing at all. There is the wide expanse of the river, a blue sky feathered with clouds, pierced by slender minarets of mosques. Upright palm trees and new-green fields of sugarcane are in evidence everywhere. Winged feluccas drift with us and we pass a few two sailed dahabiyyas, the ultimate in Nile travel – sleek, elegant, luxurious houseboats.
We pass the locks at Esna, listen to the calls of the azan ring out from solitary mosques. There are no longer any crocodiles sunning themselves on the bank of the river, but the pace of life out here remains quiet and calm. Until the early 20th century, much of the farming continued in the same way as it was done in the time of the pharaohs – dictated by the river and her moods. Egypt has been called the gift of the Nile, and it is true that without her life giving waters, the country, both modern and ancient, would not have existed. The annual Innundation made many things possible – fertilising the land, resulting in surplus crops that made the rise of Ancient Egypt’s stunning art possible. When the Nile flooded the fellaheen, or farmers, would flock to numerous building sites and work on the pharaoh’s eternal tomb. It decided the level of tax (high if the flood was good, low if the flood was average) and whether or not there would be famine in the next season. The water of the Nile was the first thing a newborn tasted, and his body was cleansed in its waters before mummification. The Nile, in Egypt, is everything.
We dock at Luxor as the evening azan rings out in ever growing discord – there are many more mosques here and the overlapping layers sound strident. In the golden, liquid twilight, a fisherboy and his father row past our ship, waving a hello. There is the mass of feathery net in a bundle at one end of the boat, the only sound now the slip and splash of their oars gliding them by. The boy is wreathed in smiles, the turban of his father glows white in the silver light reflected off the still, dark green waters of the river Nile.