Notes From

Notes From the Nile

Writer Christopher Bollen on taking the Egypt trip of his dreams.

Where the Mummies Are Buried

On April 3, my first day of vacation in Egypt, my phone erupted in a flurry of texts from friends, asking if I was lining up on the streets of Cairo to watch the spectacle of the mummy parade. For those unfamiliar with recent terrestrial movements of ancient Egyptian immortals, the Pharaohs’ Golden Parade celebrated the conveyance of 22 royal mummies in elaborate, shock-absorbing chariots, from their longtime dwelling at the old Egyptian Museum in the city’s downtown nerve center, Tahir Square, to their new home in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Fustat. My friends assumed I wouldn’t miss the likes of Ramses II or Queen Hatshepsut ambling through the streets of Cairo.

As it happened, on that day, sweaty and sunburnt, I was managing to one-up even that pharaonic extravaganza. I was 400 miles south in the Nile city of Luxor (formerly Thebes); more to the point, I was spending the morning exploring the Valley of the Kings and Queens, descending deep into the ornate chambers and tombs from which many of those parading mummies had been excavated after 40-plus centuries of sleep.

The first tomb I entered was by far the most renowned: the boy Pharaoh Tutankhamun, famously rediscovered by British Egyptologist Howard Carter in 1922, which rekindled a global obsession with all things Egypt. Tut’s mummy is still preserved in the small, golden-walled chamber under the mountainous desert. His tomb would have been worth the pilgrimage alone, had I not ended up paying an extra fee and climbing down into the nearby tomb of Seti I, which had walls covered in exquisite hieroglyphics. And in the final chamber, my favorite element rivalled the Sistine Chapel: a vaulted midnight-blue ceiling depicting the celestial heavens. Standing underneath it, in a tomb lost for civilizations, I felt as if I had finally arrived.

Egypt-Mania in Suburban Ohio

Egypt-mania might have started in the 1920s but it flourished in my house as a kid, in the leafy suburbs of Cincinnati. My interest may have been kickstarted by my globetrotting aunt and uncle, who traveled to Egypt and sent back postcards and the usual trinkets: scarabs, cartouches, and guides to reading hieroglyphics. Other kids might not have taken these souvenirs as prophetic talismans, but I did. The ancient Egypt fixation triangulated with my youthful obsession for Agatha Christie, and a wall of my bedroom was devoted to the movie poster for the star-studded 1978 film “Death on the Nile.” Yes, instead of Reds or Bengals players, I had a campy illustration of Bette Davis, Peter Ustinov, and Angela Lansbury hanging over my bed. Their faces were arranged on the poster around a golden relief of Tutankhamun himself, as the film smartly exploited the fanfare around the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibition that same year. In other words, this vacation was something of a calling. And if the cataclysmic nature of the past year has taught me anything, it’s not to wait for the places you’ve been dreaming to touch since adolescence. This trip to Egypt would send me up the Nile on a leisurely boat cruise from Luxor to Aswan.

Cruising the Nile

I couldn’t book the classic Agatha Christie side-wheel paddle steamer ship. They weren’t running at the time of my trip in the spring. But as it turns out, I didn’t need to re-create Hercule Poirot’s cruise to immerse myself in the glamour and romance of the Nile. First, I headed to the tiny farming village of Esna to check in on the ancient Temple of Khnum. After a few minutes reveling at the temple’s 18 mammoth columns, carved at their crowns with gorgeous floral designs of lotuses, palm leaves, and papyrus fans, I went to the river port and boarded a sleek, white sailing vessel known as a dahabiya. This traditional Nile River boat is flat-bottomed, with two magnificent triangular sails jutting out on each end. It’s a custom that’s been revived by the small boutique cruise company Nour El Nil, which has managed to create an idyllic bohemian sanctuary that stays true to the character of Egyptian river travel. We were carried upriver, against the current, almost entirely by the motor of the wind.

My ship consisted of 12 cabins below deck (I splurged and chose a panoramic suite at the bow with wrap-around windows) and a roomy open-air upper deck fitted with cushions and low-slung couches for relaxing and recumbent river watching. The southward journey to Aswan took five nights and six days, with stops along the way at remote temples and curious off-the-grid historic sites (including a quarry where the ancient Egyptians chiseled out the sandstone for its famous obelisks). But the real adventure of boat travel involves simply reclining on deck, hypnotized by the undulating riverbanks, making the eye do all the physical exercise. The fluttering palms. The yellow Sahara stretching into the west beyond the lime-green farmland. White herons flapping through the marshes at sunset. It’s easy to understand why so many myths of the Nile — from Narcissus to Antinous — involve the lure of beauty and the dangers of appetite.

Jumping In

I admit, I was scared to go in. In theory, a swim in the Nile was too tempting to pass up, a once-in-a-lifetime leap. But as I stood in my trunks on the muddy riverbank in the soft orange late-afternoon light, staring at the liquid black river flowing north, I wondered if perhaps I had overestimated my bravery. I had already been assured that crocodiles (for reference, the 14-foot-long Nile crocodile is the largest of the species) no longer inhabit this section of the river. They were chased away by the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s. And to encourage my chances of actually entering the water, I didn’t ask about snakes or parasites. Maybe it’s my upbringing on the sludgy Ohio River, but I don’t associate rivers with swimming holes. If there was ever an exception, here it was. Reminding myself at which riverbank I was currently wavering in doubt, and that the chance likely wouldn’t ever come again, I made a few paddling steps through the murk and reeds and tossed myself into the river. The current was strong, the temperature a rushing cold. I went streaming downriver, my head bobbing, my arms and legs barely even paddling — five minutes of bravery before clambering back to shore, shivering, a little foolish, very proud.

King for a Day

After six days on a boat, I had to get my land legs back, so I walked down to the bustling open market of Aswan, where you can buy fine Nubian crafts, plumbing equipment, knock-off American sneakers, and fresh camel meat. The market is tucked behind a row of buildings that face the picturesque corniche. Of course, a drink on the terrace of the newly renovated Old Cataract Hotel helps as well. But I had little time for idling. Not long after disembarking the dahabiya, I crammed into the backseat of a van that was driving three and a half hours south past Lake Nasser, not very far from Egypt’s border with Sudan. I was intent on visiting a monument that had haunted me ever since I watched Mia Farrow appear at its feet in “Death on the Nile,” villainously pretending to be a tour guide while stalking the attractive rich newlyweds played by Lois Chiles and Simon MacCorkindale. But even 1970s Hollywood can’t capture the enormous and monastic majesty of Abu Simbel, where four figures cut from rock sit in eternal judgment in honor of Ramses II. Amazingly, Abu Simbel, which had stood since 1244 B.C.E. — for much of that time buried in sand — nearly didn’t survive the twentieth century. The construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1959 would have submerged the entire structure in a man-made lake. Thanks to the then newly formed UNESCO, the monument was cut into blocks and reassembled at its current perch on higher, dryer land. A second temple devoted to Ramses II’s beloved wife, Queen Nefertari, was also saved in the nick of time (the waters were rising toward the monuments while heroic preservationists frantically worked to save them). I’m not saying that I didn’t pretend for a second to be Lois Chiles and whisper her canned dialogue (“Get away from me!”) to an invisible Mia Farrow while lingering in front of this magisterial ode to immortality. But childhood fantasies are a lot like wonders appearing in the middle of a vast desert — places of mirage, fantasy. It’s a shock to discover they’ve survived all this time.

Cairo by Day, Cairo All Night

Cairo is not a city for the weary. Arguably (at least in my opinion), it is the most thriving, buzzing, racing, honking, swirling city on the planet. And yet I arrived after my boat trip on the first day of Ramadan, which, as luck would have it, allowed me to visit many sights with hardly a soul around, including the three great sister pyramids at Giza and the satellite Sphinx, always smaller in reality than it appears in the imagination. The mummies were no longer parading, and while there is much excitement for the new state-of-the-art, glass-and-steel museum, l personally loved the scrappy, dimly lit sherbet-pink antiques museum with its typed labels and dusty display cases on the foot of the Nile in Cairo. On my visit to the old museum, many of the marble halls were filled with packaging boxes ready to be taken to their new Giza address.

The next day, I visited the City of the Dead, a sprawling cemetery and Islamic necropolis that also doubles as a flourishing residential neighborhood. Here, everyday life is conducted right over the graves of ancestors. At its heart stands a towering fifteenth-century mosque from the Mamluk period, built for Sultan Qaitbay, which is currently being restored, with additional areas of the complex devoted to traditional crafts and contemporary art. Architect and co-organizer Agnieszka Dobrowolska took me on a tour of the premises, which includes a studio for the ancient art of glassblowing and a shop selling leather goods designed by local women artisans. That evening, I strolled the neighborhoods of Garden City and Zamalek, and was kindly invited to join a friend’s family dinner to break the daylong fast. I had so many vivid images running through my head from the last 10 days in Egypt; I wanted to close my eyes in my hotel bed and reflect on them. But my friend and his family had one more lesson to teach me about Egypt: Oh, no sleeping at night during Ramadan. That’s when Cairo comes back to life.


Caught on Film

A few days after I returned to New York City, my friend, the photographer Peter Schlesinger, sent me a batch of photos he’d dug up from his trip to Egypt in 1978. He’d traveled there with painter David Hockney and model Joe MacDonald. His beautiful photographs were a bit faded, and yet their glamour had only increased over the years. There it all was, the same sights I had just witnessed firsthand: the Sphinx, the pyramids, the mosques, the temples, even the postcard shop just below the Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor (where I had bought a ceramic scarab). Peter’s shots could have fallen out of my own album, some 40 years later, if I’d been a much more talented photographer. It’s such an obvious realization, and part of the reason we go to certain places, but it struck me as I admired Peter’s photographs — what a gift and inheritance it was to be able to visit these same monuments and share them across generations and over rivers of time. Thank god and Egypt, that they last.

Christopher Bollen’s Guide to Egypt

Christopher Bollen shares his favorite sights, bites, and stays in Egypt.

  • Sofra Restaurant & Café, Luxor

    Located on a quiet side street in hectic downtown Luxor, Sofra is a stylish oasis fitted with antique furniture, a rooftop terrace, and some of the most delicious Egyptian food in the country. It has a relaxed atmosphere and is tourist-friendly without losing a hint of authenticity.

  • Nour El Nil

    Luxurious but not fussy, traditional and intimate, with plenty of warm bohemian eccentricity — not to mention delicious food — this boat line really is a memorable and meaningful way to experience the Nile River.

  • Malaika Linens, Cairo

    Gorgeous, top-quality handmade Egyptian linens (sheets, pillowcases, tablecloths) and crafts can be found in this shop in Zamalek. This boutique is an enterprise with a heart, giving local women a chance to not only show off their superior design skills, but also include their economic interests in the business model.

  • Winter Palace Hotel, Luxor

    On the grand marble staircase of this enchanted Victorian hotel, Howard Carter announced to the world his discovery of King Tut’s tomb. Some may say that the hotel needs a renovation, but please don’t listen, Winter Palace. I love the old-world charm, the flowering back garden, and its fascinating history worn right on its sleeve. The front terrace view of sunset on the Nile is otherworldly.

  • The Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan

    A very tasteful renovation has turned this legendary hotel into a chamber of tranquility. It’s the perfect spa-like rest after a long voyage, with an extraordinary view of the feluccas sailing the Nile far below.

  • Souk Al-Khayamiya, Cairo

    There are a lot of souks and markets, including the famous and massive everything-and-the-kitchen-sink Khan Al-Khalili. But this market, also known as the Tentmakers’ Bazaar, is a fascinating, roving feast for fabrics — with tapestries, carpets, bags, and wall hangings galore. It’s walled in by impressive Mamluk architecture. It’s especially fun and frenetic at night if you can dodge all the motorbikes.

  • Sofra Restaurant & Café, Luxor

    Located on a quiet side street in hectic downtown Luxor, Sofra is a stylish oasis fitted with antique furniture, a rooftop terrace, and some of the most delicious Egyptian food in the country. It has a relaxed atmosphere and is tourist-friendly without losing a hint of authenticity.

  • Winter Palace Hotel, Luxor

    On the grand marble staircase of this enchanted Victorian hotel, Howard Carter announced to the world his discovery of King Tut’s tomb. Some may say that the hotel needs a renovation, but please don’t listen, Winter Palace. I love the old-world charm, the flowering back garden, and its fascinating history worn right on its sleeve. The front terrace view of sunset on the Nile is otherworldly.

  • Nour El Nil

    Luxurious but not fussy, traditional and intimate, with plenty of warm bohemian eccentricity — not to mention delicious food — this boat line really is a memorable and meaningful way to experience the Nile River.

  • The Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan

    A very tasteful renovation has turned this legendary hotel into a chamber of tranquility. It’s the perfect spa-like rest after a long voyage, with an extraordinary view of the feluccas sailing the Nile far below.

  • Malaika Linens, Cairo

    Gorgeous, top-quality handmade Egyptian linens (sheets, pillowcases, tablecloths) and crafts can be found in this shop in Zamalek. This boutique is an enterprise with a heart, giving local women a chance to not only show off their superior design skills, but also include their economic interests in the business model.

  • Souk Al-Khayamiya, Cairo

    There are a lot of souks and markets, including the famous and massive everything-and-the-kitchen-sink Khan Al-Khalili. But this market, also known as the Tentmakers’ Bazaar, is a fascinating, roving feast for fabrics — with tapestries, carpets, bags, and wall hangings galore. It’s walled in by impressive Mamluk architecture. It’s especially fun and frenetic at night if you can dodge all the motorbikes.

Our Contributors

Christopher Bollen Writer

Christopher Bollen is a writer and editor in New York City. He is the author of four novels, including his latest, "A Beautiful Crime," a literary thriller set in Venice. He is currently the editor at large of Interview magazine and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

Ahonen & Lamberg Illustrator

Ahonen and Lamberg is a multidisciplinary design studio based in Paris. Founded in 2006 by Finnish designers Anna Ahonen and Katariina Lamberg, the studio concentrates on art direction, creative consultancy, and graphic design.

',
Newsletter

Let’s Keep in Touch

Subscribe to our newsletter

Come On In

U.S. issued American Express Platinum Card® and Centurion® Members, enter the first six digits of your card number to access your complimentary subscription.

Learn about membership.