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Sail through time on a journey down the Nile
on 11 July 2014
“Without the Nile, there would be no Egypt” according to Toby Wilkinson, paraphrasing the famous quote from Herodotus, as true today as in ancient times. In a country that is 95% desert, it is the great river that brings fertility and agricultural wealth, forming a “green thread” connecting isolated settlements in space and time.
Wilkinson sets out on a slow boat downriver, from the First Cataract to Cairo, on a journey through seven thousand years of history from the vantage of the Nile itself.
He begins his journey where the river enters Egypt, at Aswan, which the ancient Egyptian’s believed to be the source of the Nile. In spite of the current turmoil, he sees a timelessness to life on the banks of the river, watching people farming and fishing as they have done throughout history, although perhaps there are a few more satellite dishes now than in ancient times. Sailing northwards, he looks across to the banks of the Nile where “every age has left its trace” and deftly weaves in and out of different moments in history as he floats by.
Thus at Aswan he describes Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s amazement at witnessing the seemingly impossible task of dragging boats across the rapids (the Egyptians succeeding in spite of noise, chaos and confusion, which Wilkinson – wryly – describes as their modus operandi then and now). He describes the final stand of Ankhwennefer, last native pharaoh of Egypt, forced to submit to Ptolemaic rule in 186 BC and then comments on how a sudden spattering of rain in the modern town delights local drivers as a rare chance to use their windscreen wipers.
At El Kab, Wilkinson sees the scenes in the tombs there come to life in the modern village, with cattle grazing under a tree and children riding home by donkey, noting that as much time has elapsed between now and the building of the ancient wall of El Kab as separates that wall from the mudbrick construction of Khasekhemwy’s ‘fort’ on the opposite bank, which he believes is “one of the great unsung wonders of the ancient world”.
Reaching Luxor, he describes the scramble for obelisks by Nineteenth Century European powers, the “modern roadside excrescences” on the West Bank and he narrates the stories of the almost forgotten Intef II – the founder of Karnak Temple, the infamous Deir el-Medina foreman Paneb, and Montuemhat, the “architect of Thebes’ very survival, at its darkest hour”. Heading past Amarna, Tuna el-Gebel and Asyut, we meet Emperor Hadrian, Petosiris High Priest of Thoth and Nazeer Gayed Roufail, who in 1971 became Coptic Pope Shenouda III.
After a quick stop off in the Fayum, we finally reach Cairo, an “unbelievable press of humanity” and setting for the recent ‘Arab Spring’ uprising.
Just sit back, relax and explore some of the highlights of Egyptian history with your personal guide on a leisurely armchair cruise.
Reviewed by ancientegyptmagazine dot com