Cruising with the pharaohs: Below the Aswan dams, the 500-kilometre-long Lake Nasser is home to numerous ancient monuments

By Alison Appelbe

They say it never rains in southern Egypt — a concept that elevates this desert region, bisected by vast Lake Nasser, in my mind at least, to the status of heaven.

But there’s more to draw travellers to this 500-kilometre-long lake — extending from Aswan, and two dams of the same name, south into The Sudan — than lack of rain.

In flooding this entire stretch of the Nile Valley for the creation of Lake Nasser and the opening of the Aswan High Dam in 1971, a massive world effort led to the rescue of several dozen of the many ancient monuments that once lined the river banks.

And by travelling on a luxury cruise ship that plies the lake between Aswan and Abu Simbel in the south, you can disembark at some of the Nubian temples and Coptic churches that were lifted, at enormous cost and effort, up onto the sand or rocky knolls.

A wise choice is the Kasr Ibrim or Eugenie — sister (Nile-style) cruise ships purpose-built to bring visitors to this thinly populated region. A four or five-day cruise costs a relatively modest $200 a day (sumptuous meals and gracious service included).

We began by flying from Aswan to Abu Simbel — a scattering of breezeblock buildings, Nubian huts and simple cafés — 40 kilometres from the Sudanese border. The region is populated by the few Nubians — Egyptian looking but of darker complexion — who remained after the flooding, or more recently returned from more northern Egypt, to which 100,000 Nubians were relocated in the 1960s.

Down at the lake, a launch operated by young men in navy sweaters and sailor’s caps transported us to the Kasr Ibrim — an 80-metre, four-storey affair that looks not unlike the hundreds of floating “wedding cakes” that work the Nile north of Aswan.

But inside she’s a world apart — a glory of 1930s Egyptian Art Deco design and detailing. Panelled entirely in blond African teak, the ship is the epitome of elegance. Everything — floors, furnishings and fixtures — are artful and intelligent, even whimsical.

According to the affable ship manager Galal Hamed, the interior design is by Paris-based Amr Khalil, son of early Egyptian fine arts advocate Mahmoud Khalil (1877-1953), to whom a small museum in Giza, near Cairo, is devoted.

As dusk fell, some of us headed back to Abu Simbel to see its celebrated temples (also visible as the ship sailed in the morning) — the Great Temple of Ramses II, with its four seated statues, and the adjacent Temple of Hathori, with six standing figures.

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