Falling asleep beneath a blanket of stars listening to the distant sound of Nubian drums, awakening to the timeless call of the muezzin summoning the faithful to prayer, sailing under deep blue skies past villages frozen in time, and visiting the magnificent temples of ancient Egypt are just some of the experiences that make sailing down the Nile in a felucca a one-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Most tourists take a felucca, the traditional boat of the Nile, for a one hour evening sail, never realizing the unique experience so close at hand. For those endowed with a spirit of adventure and a sense of history, a 6-day sail from Aswan to Luxor is a trip through an open-air museum. There is no better way to become acquainted with the mysteries of Egypt and to explore the wonders of the Nile than by sailing the ancient river in a 30-foot, lateen sail felucca.
Egypt is the Nile. From ancient times to the building of the Aswan Dam, the unpredictable Nile shaped the country and its people. The yearly flooding led to the development of mathematical, astronomical, and engineering knowledge way in advance of other civilizations. Planning for the years when the harvest was poor led to the development of government and a system of laws. That Egypt has survived for 6000 years is due to the bounty of the Nile. Life along the Nile has changed little over the millennium.
Felucca trips start in Aswan and stop at the most important sites of antiquity along the river before reaching Luxor. While in Aswan, waiting for final arrangements to be made, there are several interesting side trips including tours of the Aswan Dam and the Temple of Philae.
The new Aswan Dam, completed in 1970, created 300-mile-long Lake Nasser. One of the earth’s largest structures, the rock-fill dam, has a volume about seventeen times that of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The Temple of Philae, on an island between the old and the new dams, is the most interesting of Aswan’s antiquities. The creation of Lake Nasser would have completely covered the temple complex permanently had it not been for a cooperative world-wide effort that dismantled, crated and moved of the Great Temple of Isis to new location where it was reassembled. The oldest part of the Temple dates back to the 4th century.
Between Aswan and Luxor, there three important archeological sites and even though there are no fixed stops on a felucca sail, effort is made to stop at the most important - Kom Ombo, Edfu, and Esna.
Kom Ombo, situated on a hill overlooking the Nile, was a strategic location on the desert route to Nubia and Ethiopia. The temple is dedicated to Harwar, the hawk-headed god, and Sobek, represented in the form of a crocodile. To avoid offending either god, a twin temple was constructed, the left half dedicated to Harwar and the right half to Sobek. Although only the cases of the columns and the back walls remain, the temple’s majestic proportion and grace are impressive. The fine reliefs throughout the temple are worth careful attention. At the side of the temple is a small sanctuary containing mummified crocodiles.
Waiting by the embankment at Edfu are horse-drawn carriages ready to transport visitors on the short ride through town to the magnificent Temple to Horus (Apollo to the Greeks). The falcon-headed god guards the temple, the largest after Karnak. The foundation was laid in 237 BC under the reign of Ptolemy III, but the temple was not completed until two centuries later. The temple, considered one if the finest examples of Ptolemaic art in Egypt, is practically intact and is unique in that the roof is still in place.
The Temple of Khnum, in Esna, is one of the best preserved and restored because, for centuries, it was concealed under 25 feet of sand.
The leisurely and informal nature of the trip means that everyone takes a different trip. Some trips include a night as a guest in a Nubian village, others stop at villages to replenish supplies, buy fresh baked bread, and to visit the colorful bazaars. The scenes along the Nile are timeless. A man in a long flowing galaibya leads a donkey laden with sheaves of grain down the dusty road. A young boy flicking a switch herds a flock of sheep. A woman fills an urn with water from the Nile, places it on her head, and walks back to her home. A man leads an ox around the waterwheel bringing water up from the Nile to irrigate the fields of corn. Every day brings a new montage of sights and sounds.
To the people the Nile is everything. They drink it, wash in it, cook with it, fish in it, water their animals, and use it for irrigation and transportation. Life along the river seems to have changed very little through the years.
The trip is controlled somewhat by the elements. If there is no wind, or if the afternoon wind is too strong, then time is spent along the shore or on one of the sandy islands in the middle of the river. Often, to make up for lost time, sailing continues well after sunset. Falling asleep in the cool night air under the blue-black sky, counting shooting stars, hearing only the gently flap of the sail makes sailing at night magical.
All too soon the adventure ends, but what a place to end. Luxor, on the site of ancient Thebes, was the center of Egyptian power from 2,100 to 750 BC, and is a city unlike any other in the world. Its awesome tombs, temples, and statues are a witness of man’s ageless achievement.
The Temple of Karnak, two miles north of Luxor, houses the Hypostyle Hall. It is the largest of any temple in the world, covering 50,000 square feet, and containing 134 huge columns, and Queen Hatshepsut’s 97-feet obelisk. The South Gate, which is in almost perfect condition, was the ceremonial gateway through which the festivals passed from Karnak, along the Avenue of the Sphinxes, to the Temple at Luxor, several miles a way.
Across the Nile from Luxor, on the West Bank, the Valley of the Kings was the burial ground for the great pharaohs of the Empire. Sixty-four tombs, including The Tomb of Seti I with its breathtaking drawings and reliefs, have been found; but, only a few are open to the public. Nearby is the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut and the Colossi of Memnon.
A felucca sail down the Nile, which is reasonable in cost, can be scheduled for 3 or 6 days, and is usually part of a trip to Egypt that includes a stopping Cairo and visiting the pyramids of Giza.
Meals are basic but adequate. Breakfast is usually hard-boiled eggs, fresh Egyptian flat bread, apricot jam, and tea. A light lunch of fresh fruit, bread and tea is usually sufficient. Dinner often consists of rice, okra, fish, tomatoes, bread, and tea. Meals are cooked by the captain on a one-burner stove. Cranberry-colored kakade is a refreshing local drink made from the flowers of the sorrel plant.
Conditions on the feluccas are primitive, but the inconvenience caused by the austere accommodations and the lack of facilities are offset by sailing past biblical-like scenes during the day and under star-filled skies at night.
A felucca sail provides an intimate glimpse into the power, grandeur, and timelessness of Egypt. The culture, people and lifestyles make Egypt one of the most fascinating countries in the world. It was true in 450 BC when Herodotus wrote, “There is not a country that possesses so many wonders,” and it is still true today.