2017-01-11 19:40:18
Cultured Traveler: Ancient History Along the Nile

The engine room started rumbling about 3 a.m. the first night of our four-day Nile River cruise, setting the mirror knocking against the wall and stirring me from sleep. The shaky start to our first-ever cruise was continuing.

My wife, Susan, and I and our two daughters, Jenna and Michaela, both in their 20s, are not an organized-trip type of a family, and we hadn’t done our homework before arriving in Aswan, about 540 miles south of Cairo, to start the voyage north to Luxor.

After checking in at noon we were surprised to discover that we were not actually cruising until the middle of the night. We had boarded what was essentially a moored hotel, sandwiched between identical four-story boats — one of which was blocking a river view from our tight cabin.

Instead of airy nautical décor, our 77-cabin boat was fitted with the dark wood, coffee-colored carpets and red and purple fabrics you might find in a private library. And on our outing that first day to the Philae Temple of the goddess Isis, my image of strolling in solitude amid its colonnades was upended as we arrived on the island with two large groups of Egyptian tourists.

Later, as I lay in bed, something else distracted me. Outside the sliding glass door the moon was a white circle, low on the horizon, racing along as if to keep up with the boat. It seemed to barrel through the palm trees and mud-brick houses that dotted the hushed riverbank, casting a white beam on the water. It was magical, and soon it was gone, fading in the haze of daybreak.

Life, especially in Egypt, can be confounding and exasperating, then suddenly filled with enchantment. That contrast pretty much summed up our Nile cruise.

We had a vague idea of what to expect from the glowing reviews from our friends who had taken such cruises. Susan and I moved to Egypt in 2015, and we knew we would be visiting spectacular ancient temples like Karnak. We also knew we would be starting out in Upper Egypt, even though it’s in the south, because the river flows north to Lower Egypt, where it empties into the Mediterranean. That twist of geography also meant that our 130-mile ride would be against the wind, which explained the strong breeze on the upper deck on the second day of our trip. But at least we were moving. The engines purred, and the teak wood of the hallways, lounges and cabins seemed appropriate now.

It’s incredibly soothing, gliding along this storied river, the wide ribbon of gray-green water flanked by tropics on the riverbanks and desert mountains in the distance. You feel a connection with the past as the wind fills the sails of feluccas that have glided the river for centuries, as the call to prayer echoes from minarets spiking up from lush farmland and brown villages.

We and a couple from Canada were the only North Americans on board, a reflection of the steep drop-off in tourism since Egypt’s 2011 uprising. Most of the 50 passengers were from Germany, with a few from France, Italy and Turkey. Many of them were in their 60s and 70s, chatting on deck, or sunning near the small pool.

We booked the late-February cruise on the Steigenberger Minerva through the tour operator SEEgypt and the World Travel, paying $450 a person, not including flights, drinks or tips. And there were plenty of tips — for the staff and our guide, drivers and the turbaned attendants at monuments who led us to hidden hieroglyphics and posed for pictures.

Our itinerary included a motorboat ride to Philae, begun by a pharaoh in the fourth century B.C. and abandoned by pagans in the sixth century A.D. As we meandered through its courtyard, pylons and sanctuary with our guide, Ahmed A. Kader, an Egyptologist, it became clear that this trip was going to be filled with a bewildering array of dynasties and deities. I did commit to memory a god we would be running into a lot — Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris, often depicted as falcon-headed. And I took note of the menus etched in the stone doorway of the pylon, with Mr. Kader explaining that the five vessels held the ancient Egyptians’ beverages of choice — milk, water, honey, wine and beer. Alas, there was no bar at the temple.

As we traveled downriver the next day, stopping at temples of the crocodile god Sobek and Horus the hawk at Kom Ombo and Edfu, it became somewhat clear how centuries of raids, desecration and time had turned once beautifully adorned monuments into ruins. From countless walls and columns, vandals had hacked away the heads and legs of the gods.

“We don’t know who or when,” said Mr. Kader, adding there was evidence of mutilation by early Christians and Muslims.

We sailed to Luxor as a brilliant sunset painted the sky and Susan tried to read in our cabin. “It’s just too hard to focus,” she said from an armchair near the open glass door that framed passing scenes of fishermen in rowboats, a little girl with a donkey waving hello, water buffaloes lolling on the riverbank. “It’s probably been like that for hundreds of years, and they don’t care about me being on this big fancy boat.”

After sunset, as the boat emerged from a lock south of Luxor, we looked two stories down and saw a powder-blue rowboat tethered to the ship. The white-robed pilot spread out a prayer rug on the back. He steadied himself as he stood and folded his arms over his chest, bowed, knelt and touched his forehead to the mat. He repeated the ritual, the boat hopping along, his djellaba fluttering in the wind.

Dinner was at 7:30. The low-ceilinged dining room had white tablecloths and cushy purple armchairs, and at each meal we circled the buffet island selecting duck or Florentine fish, couscous or rice, stuffed zucchini or mixed vegetables. The food was good and the staff attentive. And the cleaners were creative, making a crocodile or a monkey out of our bathroom towels daily and posing them in our cabins.

The third day was a spectacle of underground colors. After seeing faint pigments on columns and walls of temples, we descended the tombs of the Valley of the Kings into shafts and chambers blazoned with orange bodies standing in profile with blue heads of lions or rams, and hieroglyphics painted in gold, silver, blue, green, red and yellow. Scores of the kings like Tutankhamen and multiple Ramses were buried in the arid hills of Luxor. Susan was mesmerized by the detail, thinking how unreal it was to be standing before images she had seen only on pages.

The final day, we entered the most grandiose of the temples, Karnak in Luxor. Mr. Kader said the immense complex of pylons, columns, colossi and obelisks was patched together by pharaohs over more than 1,500 years. He emphasized that its entrances were perfectly aligned with the rising and setting sun of the winter and summer solstices, proclaiming their intimate knowledge and worship of the life-giving star.

Most impressive were 134 massive columns topped with flying-saucer-like capitals. My mind flipped through stills of a tuxedoed James Bond pursuing a villain around the sandstone pillars, and flickered with imagined scenes of Ramses II striding the stone blocks more than 3,000 years ago.

Even the universe of gods and symbols seemed to come into focus. Entering a dim sanctuary, I looked up and saw fragments of blue streaked with light crosses and recognized the pattern from a tomb the day before. “Hey, the same stars as in the Valley of the Kings,” I said.

“Yes,” Mr. Kader said, “but they have a different meaning.”

Naturally.