One of my more intrepid ancestors, John Pendlebury, is probably smiling right now as I drift along the Nile – in a boat that’s a floating hotel with luxuries of which he’d surely approve.
A frequent visitor to Egypt in the 1930s he lived for archeology but liked his home comforts as well. In one letter home he wrote: ‘A few idiotic luxuries; caviar, asparagus tips, pate de foie gras. These are the inessentials which make life worth living in a world of hard-boiled eggs and hacked meat.’
He’d certainly have been satisfied by the hearty and healthy food we enjoyed on the recently refurbished Sanctuary Nile Adventurer. It’s an elegant and luxurious ship. And with just 32 cabins and experienced Egyptologists on board it offers a wonderfully relaxed way to scratch the surface of the country’s 7,000-year heritage.
The Mail on Sunday’s Sarah Siese enjoyed a four-night cruise on the Sanctuary Nile Adventurer. Pictured is the boat on the Nile
Grand tour: Sarah described the food served on the ship as ‘hearty and healthy’. Pictured is the dining deck
An early highlight of my four-night cruise was the stop at Edfu, said to be the best-preserved temple in Egypt.
As we sailed into port I was woken by the muezzin before taking a horse and carriage (there are few cars here) from the riverbank to the temple. Husain, the trap driver, and his pony Monica – who he jokes is ‘Ferrari number one’ – run the gauntlet of hawkers drawing in tourists with cries of ‘lovely-jumbly-scarf-one-dollar-one-dollar!’
Just over a mile from the river, the vast temple is almost entirely intact. Walking in is truly like stepping back in time.
There’s a lovely lack of uniformity to the complex and a human side to its story that I adored – our guide, Mo, pointed out the ‘sloppy homework’ all over Edfu where the workmen hadn’t quite done their job properly. This is no reflection on their skills, but rather a small-scale insubordination and sign of how they tried to rebel some 2,000 years ago.
It’s also proof that human nature never really changes.
More evidence of this can be found nearby where we’re shown signs of a huge scale, ancient perfume and embroidery business. It’s where traders sold their wares to the visitors of yesteryear who, even then, had to exit via the gift shop.
Treasure trove: Sarah visited the tomb of Tutankhamun, which is located in the Egyptian Museum in the heart of Cairo
A highlight of Sarah’s trip was a stop at the Temple of Edfu. ‘Walking in is truly like stepping back in time,’ she writes
Ancient perfume recipes line the walls in a small side room, describing more than 250 flowers stored in underground alabaster jars where remains of breath mints, scented candles and perfume were found.
When a young Frenchman wrestled to decipher the hieroglyphs during the Napoleonic era, he got as far as comprehending that they contained a mix of two spoken languages: Egyptian and ancient Coptic. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone proved the master key and meant Mo could confidently point at the dash and horseshoe and tell me it is a number, ‘probably 11’.
Further down the Nile, 2,000 years of silt protect the temple in Esna, where a relief of Ptolemy III shows him smiting his enemies who raise their hands to beg forgiveness.
Another relief shows the disliked Roman Emperor Augustus with six toes – again, an act of defiance as deformities were considered a curse, so the two fingers to Rome was as easy for Egyptians to read as a newspaper headline is for us.
The showstopper of my Egyptian adventure was, of course, the tomb of Tutankhamun. His legend was reborn on November 4, 1922, when British archaeologist Howard Carter and his benefactor Lord Carnarvon discovered his tomb – an encounter that remains the most spectacular unearthing in the history of archaeology.
Meticulous excavation took more than ten years, and the four small chambers hidden beneath the Valley of the Kings delivered more than 5,000 fantastic objects which gave a real insight into the life and death of this ancient ruler who continues to fascinate the world, including the 24 lb mask covering his face.
Solid gold, beaten and burnished, the death mask was placed over the head of the mummy outside the linen bandages in which his whole body was wrapped.
It shows actual facial features so that Ba, the soul, could recognise the mummified body and help it to be resurrected. It paints a picture of the era’s artistic mastery, revealing the great cosmopolitan wealth of the Egyptian empire and its royal treasures.
Sarah says Cairo, above, is a ‘glorious whirl of colour and confusion and the ultimate mix of ancient and modern’
All of a sudden, I’m swept up in dreamy wonderment and ponder what my life would look like as a tomb raider in 2021. It must be in the genes.
I saw the treasures of Tutankhamun at the start of my holiday in Cairo, the city that’s a glorious whirl of colour and confusion and the ultimate mix of ancient and modern. For now, King Tut’s tomb and treasures remain in the old and overcrowded Egyptian Museum in the heart of the city. Visit late next year, though, and he may have finally been moved to his magnificent but much delayed new home in the Great Egyptian Museum.
It’s set to be one of the biggest museums in the world, an architectural wonder of the modern age and a new showcase for the city. Better still, it’s set right alongside the pyramids, which you’ll be able to view through its vast, floor-to-ceiling windows.
Abercrombie & Kent offers seven nights to Egypt, with three in Cairo at the Four Seasons Nile Plaza on a B&B basis, including full-day visit to Cairo, and four nights on the Sanctuary Nile Adventurer, from £2,850pp based on two people sharing. Includes flights, accommodation and full-board while cruising in low season (abercrombiekent.co.uk).