“Old is good, Madame,” an Egyptian tourist told me, nodding vigorously. She’d stopped me among the ruins at Karnak, the monumental temple complex built 4,000 years ago during Egypt’s triumphant Middle Kingdom period. She gestured again to the broken columns. “Old is good.” The same lesson had been impressed on me many times that week as I travelled from Luxor to Aswan on the SS Sudan, the Nile’s last remaining steamboat. A floating grand hotel, the Sudan was first built in 1885 as a private vessel for King Fuad before being bought by Thomas Cook and recommissioned as a passenger ship in the 1920s. Until it was abandoned after World War II, it temporarily housed generations of Egyptian nobles and Egypt-bound travellers. King Farouk sailed on the Sudan, as did Agatha Christie, whose voyage allegedly inspired her 1937 novel “Death on the Nile.” (The 2004 television movie adaptation was filmed almost entirely aboard the Sudan). In 2006, the French Luxury travel company Voyageurs du Monde rediscovered and painstakingly restored the boat.
The Sudan’s sense of nostalgia, though, is rooted in more than just its history. From the wood-panelled tea room to the rotary phones in the 23 cabins (the décor of each inspired by a different historical figure, from fashion designer Lady Duff Gordon to novelist Naguib Mahfouz), the Sudan, still powered by steam, seems to stubbornly resist updating. Its liveried crew still change uniforms daily—purple robes in the morning, black in the evening—with complimentary red felt tarboosh hats. Twice-daily, too, staffers anoint the outdoor stairs with a protective oil designed to preserve the original hardwood floors. Sure, it makes things a bit slippery for inattentive guests, said Omar—the grey-moustachioed steward who so closely resembled the Egyptian actor “Omar Sharif” that he insisted we address him as such. But, he noted with a smile, the historical integrity of the boat comes first.
Few places are better suited to getting lost in the past. Although the Sudan is normally available on a cabin-by-cabin basis, I was travelling with a group of friends, all vintage-clothing collectors. We’d booked out the entire boat, and were determined to spend the entire trip in Agatha Christie-appropriate 1920s and ’30s attire. I’d worried a little, beforehand, that the Sudan’s 63-strong crew might find our dusty style statements eccentric, or off-putting. Instead, they were delighted to find people who cared as much about the boat’s history as they did, pointing out King Farouk’s wedding photos on the walls and insisting on taking snapshots of us pulling the 19th-century chain that would send steam puffing from the ship’s stacks.
It would have been tempting to spend the whole five-day-cruise without leaving the Sudan’s hardwood decks: lounging in the wicker chairs on the roof-terrace, sipping gin and tonics and Turkish coffee, watching the Nile’s shores as squat, concrete village houses gave way to rural marshland: palm trees and reeds, punctuated from time to time by turtles or gazelles. But the Luxor-Aswan passage of the Nile is also home to the most archaeologically significant ruins of Ancient Egypt. Modern-day Luxor is the site of Thebes—the de facto religious capital during Egypt’s Middle and New Kingdoms (roughly 2000—1000 B.C.).
Plying the Nile
Unsurprisingly, the ruins are even more potently redolent of the past than the boat, especially the tombs: the pyramids and necropolises devoted to memorialising the pharaohs and their families as gods, designed to give them something close to immortality. Witnessing the adornments inside—the bright indigo and onyx-coloured pictographs of the falcon-headed god Horus at the Temple of Ramses III and the obsidian-dark depiction of the night goddess Nut in the Tomb of Rameses VI—feels strangely intimate. They were never meant to be seen by human eyes. The temples of Karnak and Luxor, along with the Valley of the Kings, are among the most popular sites in Egypt, and with good reason. Their scale is staggering, serving as a stark reminder of just how far humans will go to keep the past alive. Still, I found myself falling in love with the less-famous ruins: those that our leisurely pace allowed us to explore in depth.
We spent one night moored in the shadow of Kom Ombo, a Ptolemaic temple from the 2nd century B.C. devoted to the cult of the crocodile god Sobek. (Mummified crocodiles, worshipped in their lifetime as the embodiment of Sobek, can be found in the museum next door.) Another day, we headed via narrow, colourful motorboat to the labyrinthine complex at the island of Philae: a bougainvillaea-strewn temple believed to be the last site devoted to the Egyptian gods. Another evening in Aswan, I spent hours learning to play Nubian drums from an instrument-seller in the souk who remained stubbornly unimpressed with my sense of rhythm.
The relative lack of fellow tourists made these excursions even more memorable. Tourism in Egypt has fallen drastically after a series of terrorist attacks in the wake of political unrest following the 2011 Arab Spring, including some specifically targeting tourists at Red Sea resorts. Some 5.4 million tourists came to Egypt in 2016, compared with 14.7 million in 2010. A quiet sense of freneticism permeates many of the major tourist sites: vendors hawking postcards and jewellery in the souks can be aggressive, desperate to make a sale. That said, I’ve rarely felt safer at a tourist site than in Egypt. At most sites, visitors must pass through several levels of security, and the Egyptians I met were invariably welcoming: as eager to take photographs of foreigners as I was to photograph ruins. But back on the boat, it could have been 1937. On our last night, an impromptu concert unfolded in the dining room as waiters began playing the flutes, drums and an oud in honour of a passenger’s birthday. On the deck above, I tried to steady myself on the slippery, newly polished stairs, attempting in vain to keep the beaded hem of my 1920s evening dress from catching on the railing. With a bow, Omar Sharif took my arm. Slowly, delicately, he led me down to dinner.
Sailing There A 4-night trip on the SS Sudan, starting at Aswan and heading to Luxor, starts at about $2,000 per person; fares include an English-speaking guide and all meals. The Sudan also offers a more expensive 6-day cruise from Luxor to Aswan. Both Luxor and Aswan are easily accessible from Cairo, with regular hourlong flights departing throughout the day. The boat, which contains 18 cabins and five suites, can also be chartered for large groups. steam-ship-sudan.com
Staying There If you’re looking for a place to stay before or after your trip, don’t miss the Sofitel Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan. Another favourite of Agatha Christie, the hotel, which dates back to 1899, is a decadent hodgepodge of Egyptian and French architecture. Even if you’re not staying there, their cocktail bar—with a terrace overlooking the Nile—is well worth a visit. From $180 a night, sofitel.com
Credit: Tara Isabella Brown for The Wall Street Journal, 30 May 2018.