WE MISSED THE boat. Or at least there was no way we would make it at this point. Our adorable, dysfunctional little airport in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was doing its usual routine and our flight was eight hours delayed. “Equipment malfunction,” the gate agent offered ominously. This meant a cascade of consequences for our connections (Dallas, London, Cairo, then Luxor) and that, eventually, the S.S. Sphinx would shove off up the Nile without us. So David and I started the grieving process, for a dream trip never-to-be. But suddenly, a glimmer of hope! Upon closer study of the itinerary, we realized that the Sphinx remained near Luxor for two days. And we had just witnessed Agatha Christie’s Jacqueline de Bellefort casually hop aboard midcruise in two “Death on the Nile” adaptations. So we flew to Dallas-Fort Worth late that night and ultimately on to Egypt, where we were treated to a gasp-inducing aerial glimpse of the pyramids on our final descent into Cairo. And the cruise line, Uniworld, upon our arrival in Luxor, helpfully arranged a car to drive us over 60 miles to Dendera, alongside endless, Nile-adjacent wheat and sugarcane fields, and through tiny agrarian villages, catching up with the Sphinx a mere day late.
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The Temple of Hathor at Dendera, dedicated to the cow-eared goddess, looked very cool on a Google Images search, but David and I were missing that excursion due to our tardiness, so we occupied ourselves with a tour of our new home away from home. The ship’s overall decor concept was a contemporary, high-end homage to Islamic design motifs, with a healthy dose of Jonathan Adler. And our stateroom (there were 42 in all) approximated the size of my old New York apartment, trimmed liberally in lapis-blue velvet, with a king-sized bed, two sliding glass “French balconies,” vigorous AC, and a large, luxe bathroom fit for a pharaoh. We also discovered a gym, several bars, an elegant dining room, and an inviting pool on the top deck.
Preliminary walk-through complete, we then got to clandestinely appraise the rest of the cruisers as they filed back aboard (our room was right above the gangplank). Who would be entertainingly high-maintenance? Which one’s the Egyptology know-it-all? What about the laggard? I already knew that would be David, even if he weren’t also lugging around his cumbersome analog photo equipment for the purposes of this piece. After lunch I thought I’d read by the pool, but all the stimuli of port and starboard had the upper hand on my book. Families frolicking all along the banks; Victorian-era sugar refineries set among verdant date palm groves, with desolate yellow ridges (the Sahara) looming just beyond; Islamic calls to prayer; the drone of our engine; the hee-hawing of tethered donkeys; the scent of river water vaporizing in the Egyptian sun laced with whiffs of melting sugar. I was intoxicated! Though the crisp, free-flowing local white wine shared the blame. That first afternoon, we also made introductory small talk with fellow passengers who were understandably confused by our belated arrival, exact agenda, and our relationship with each other. We also got our first taste of boat gossip.
The setting sun sparkling on the river below, the breeze gently whirling through the weave of our wicker chairs, the hotel’s high colonial architecture and pop-cultural significance — I was in heaven.
Before dinner, we ventured out to the Temple of Karnak in Luxor for an endearingly dated “light and sound show,” the voiceover for which reinforced the trope that all ancient peoples talked like either Richard Burton or Elizabeth Taylor. The campiness, however, did nothing to diminish Karnak’s grandeur, especially amidst its forest of massive papyrus stalk columns. And this was only the tip of the pyramid!
Breakfast on the boat was another scrumptious buffet, and I do not use that term lightly — crepes, homemade muesli, traditional Egyptian breakfast beans (or ful), fresh dates and figs, eggs, yogurt, etc. Properly fueled, we loaded onto our coach and headed for the Valley of the Kings, guided by our onboard Egyptologist, Hany, who thoroughly charmed us with his boundless knowledge, kindly patience for people of all abilities in his charge, and Cockney-tinged lectures peppered with dad jokes. The Valley’s anthill-like network of tombs, buried beneath barren, rocky cliffs, is the final resting place for 63 post–pyramid era pharaohs, including such bold-faced names as Ramesses II and King Tut himself. The fanciful scenes and hieroglyphics adorning their walls contrasted starkly with what lay above. I was shocked by how vivid and enduring the colors were and learned that the secret was the ancient Egyptians’ pioneering employment of egg tempera paint. I was less taken with the nearby Temple of Hatshepsut because it’s largely a modern reconstruction (and I demand authenticity!), but the preservationists did an impressive job. Later, as the boat glided the more than 90 miles up the Nile to our next destination, I kept my balcony doors open wide while I slept (forgoing the AC), so the thick and redolent night air and the Nile’s nocturnal soundscape could waft in at will — a sensory immersion that managed to both lull and exhilarate.
The Temple of Kom Ombo lay just above where we’d docked for the night, so we woke up to a thrilling view of it just out our window, and after breakfast, we made our way up on foot. Built during Greco-Roman times to honor not one but two Egyptian gods — the falcon-headed Horus and the croc-headed Sobek — it was used as a hospital back then, in a nod to Horus’ dominion over the healing arts. The group was particularly delighted by the temple’s engravings commemorating a spate of 30 circumcisions done on-site, and we documented them exhaustively. Then we all tramped through the tiny but captivating Crocodile Museum next door (a nod to Sobek), before heading back to the boat.
We freshened up for high tea at the Old Cataract Aswan Hotel, made famous beyond the Louis Vuitton steamer-trunk set for its cameo in “Death on the Nile.” The setting sun sparkling on the river below, the breeze gently whirling through the weave of our wicker chairs, the hotel’s high colonial architecture and pop-cultural significance — I was in heaven (or, more fittingly, the metaphysical reed field where worthy ancients spent their afterlife). The tea service itself was pure, perfunctory tourist bait (Lipton, plus dryish finger sandwiches and tarts served on the standard tower), and I eagerly lapped it up.
I was especially excited for Abu Simbel, likely due to a pivotal Mia Farrow “Death on the Nile” moment. So it was easy waking at 4 a.m. for the EgyptAir flight (arranged by the cruise line) that would take us approximately 180 miles south, to where the Nile straddles the Sudanese border. At the Aswan Airport, David engaged in his recurring drama with Egyptian security agents, seeking to avoid the damaging effects that X-ray machines could have on his analog film. Sadly, David’s pleas fell on deaf ears this time, and the film was run through. The upside was that the episode served as a bonding experience for our group, forged out of shared sympathy for poor David. And, of course, we were heading to Abu Simbel! The 3,000-year-old main temple was mind-blowing from first glimpse, and the enormous statues (all of Ramesses II) flanking its entrance seemed to regard with haughty disdain all the selfie-takers at their feet. But how could they blame us? David took his shots with fingers crossed that the film was salvageable (it was), and then we flew back to Aswan and the Sphinx. That night’s onboard entertainment was a rollicking Nubian folk-dancing show. David was recruited to participate, while I shrank back in an effort not to be called up.
First, we drove out to the modern engineering marvel known as the Aswan High Dam, built in the early ’60s to tame the Nile’s erratic seasonal flooding. Our next stop, the Temple of Isis, was equally mind-boggling. This excursion was an unforeseen favorite, because this beautiful, imposing temple (they’re all beautiful and imposing, really) had been rebuilt on a picturesque little islet, which we reached via another enchanting boat ride, and we had the place almost to ourselves, aside from all the stray cats. That evening, we got gussied up again for a candlelit “farewell dinner.” It was predictably fabulous — a choice of impeccably prepared meat dishes, fresh Egyptian salads, outrageously flavorful soups, and the lurid dessert spread we’d come to expect — but the taste was bittersweet given the implications.
Our final day on the boat had arrived, and we were in denial. Puns aside, we were simply not ready for this experience to end. And we’d all only just begun getting to know each other and the S.S. Sphinx’s gracious and dynamic staff and crew. But thankfully, we had one last day of Egyptian culture and history to edify and distract us. First on the agenda was the Temple of Khnum at Esna, just south of Luxor. We reached it by going down a long staircase, with the rest of the town of Esna looming above. The colors that remained on the temple’s columns and ceiling were almost startling, approaching what I imagined was their truly psychedelic former glory after a recent restoration. Afterward, we cruised back into Luxor, bound for Luxor Temple. The showstopper for me was the Avenue of Sphinxes, which connects this temple with Karnak, two miles to the northeast. It was once lined with over a thousand statues of the mythical beasts, and was a highlight among many highlights.
That next day, we all bid a fond farewell to the ship’s crew and flew back to Cairo for a whirlwind tour of the city’s greatest hits. We spent those last two nights in the shadow of the pyramids at the historic Mena House (another of Agatha Christie’s haunts) and then schlepped back across the Nile to Cairo International Airport for our early morning flight. Twenty-seven hours, a rerouted final leg into Albuquerque, and a pricey Uber ride later (the Santa Fe Airport strikes again), we were back in the embrace of our beloved border collies, though our hearts, minds, and circadian clocks were still aboard the S.S. Sphinx. Egypt is a land of many splendors, but it’s intimidating even to contemplate tackling it all without our guide Hany and his knowledgeable colleagues’ guiding hands. Even if David and I don’t consider ourselves the target “cruise demo,” we’re officially Nile cruise evangelists for life.
Shaw Bowman Writer
Shaw Bowman is a writer and Emmy-winning producer. He’s held senior digital roles at Comedy Central and Netflix, and most recently served as head of creative at the national political organizations Swing Left and Vote Forward. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his partner David Benjamin Sherry and their border collies Wizard and Magic.
David Benjamin Sherry Photographer
David Benjamin Sherry is an American artist whose work consists primarily of large-format film photography, focusing on landscape and portraiture. His work has been exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Aspen, London, Berlin, and Moscow.