Paddle-Wheeler Sails Into History

A Lake Nasser cruise ship opens up ancient Nubian sites closed to tourists for decades

EGYPT'S latest holiday experience is a cruise around Lake Nasser, a pristine inland sea in the midst of Egypt's southern desert.

This is the region known throughout history as Nubia, once the cultural gateway to Africa's heartland and still rich in the relics of its Pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Christian, and Islamic heritage, stretching back 5,000 years.

Since the early 1960s, most of Nubia has been inundated by Lake Nasser, the world's largest man-made lake, created by the damming of the Nile River. Dotted around the shores of the reservoir, which stretches south for 500 miles, are ancient monuments saved from its blue waters by a huge international effort that began four decades ago.

Yet many of these unique tombs, temples, and fortresses have been off-limits to visitors since they were salvaged, isolated by tight military restrictions and the lack of roads. That situation changed earlier this year when a new deluxe cruise ship, the Eugenie, began touring Lake Nasser.

This offbeat adventure is ideally suited for the amateur or professional Egyptologist who wants relief from the crush around the ancient sites farther north in the Nile Valley. Here, one can explore monuments rarely seen by the public.

``This ship has made an amazing difference,'' says Urs Masche of Basel University in Switzerland. ``Until recently it was nearly impossible to see these temples. You could hire a Land Rover in Aswan and drive through the desert, but the sites themselves were surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by the military, and they absolutely refused access.'' Dr. Masche is one of many Egyptologists who are enchanted by the opportunity to see these monuments from the comfort of the Eugenie, rather than trekking through the desert.

The Eugenie, operated by Belle Epoque Tours of Cairo, was built just south of the dam and launched last winter. Behind its facade of a Mississippi paddle-wheeler, it is a 240-foot-long modern cruise ship with all the elegance of a turn-of-the-century luxury hotel, complete with a Jacuzzi and swimming pool. The cabins are comfortable and beautifully finished in wood, leather, and natural fabrics. The decor mixes the austere designs of ancient Nubia with the comfort of an English club, complete with antique furniture. Plastic does not intrude on the Eugenie.

Not for the party crowd

This cruise is not for those whose priority is a wild night life. But the food and service is excellent. Breakfast and dinner are served in the formal dining room. Lunch is a substantial buffet on deck under shade.

The launching of the Eugenie has pushed the Egyptian Antiquities Organization (EAO) to clean up the ancient sites virtually abandoned since they were relocated. Workmen are already cleaning the reliefs at Wadi al-Sebua (Valley of the Lions), an Arabic name inspired by the rows of sphinxes lining the approach to a temple built by Ramses II - Pharaoh of Egypt for 67 years.

``This is the temple on which the names of Ramses II's 110 sons are recorded, as well as those of his 130 wives, daughters, and concubines,'' explains Ali Hassan, chief of Pharaonic antiquities for the EAO.

More delicate is the older temple at Amada, the site of a second cluster of monuments, built at a lovely bend in the lakeshore. As dragonflies swoop in the hundreds, visitors can troop up to the temple built by Tuthmosis III and Amenophis II some 3,500 years ago, which retains its elegant murals sculpted onto the interior plaster. To save these murals, the temple's inner sanctuary, weighing some 900 tons, had to be put on rails and dragged up the hillside in one unit - a Herculean effort.

The third major site, newly open to visitors, is at Qasr Ibrim. It beautifully demonstrates the layers of Egyptian history. First there is evidence of a Pharaonic temple from the New Kingdom; then the Romans under Augustus took control and built a fortress. A Christian church was built on the ruins of the fort, which was subsequently transformed into a mosque probably during the 10th century when most of Nubia converted to Islam.

On some of its tours, the crew of the Eugenie arranges a memorable evening moored alongside Qasr Ibrim. As powerful lights emphasize its striking ruins, classical Turkish music provides a superb backdrop.

The most famous of the treasures salvaged from the rising waters of Lake Nasser are the temples built by Ramses II at Abu Simbel. For decades, visitors have been driving overland for 12 hours or flying in for a lightning visit. By contrast, the Eugenie docks just off the forecourt of the temple. After touring the temple with a guide, refreshments were served at the feet of four statues of Ramses II cut out of solid rock. They towered nearly 100 feet overhead.

This interlude gave visitors valuable time to contemplate the four years it took to cut up the two temples at Abu Simbel and drag them uphill at a cost of $40 million - and the massive ego that inspired the monuments in the first place.

Touring in peace

Hopes are high that the opening up of Nubia will help regenerate Egypt's ailing tourist industry, which has been seriously affected by Islamic militants on a campaign to scare away visitors. Nubia is a beautiful region, potentially a powerful magnet for bird watchers and those simply looking for a restful holiday in exquisite surroundings. The spice is a daily itinerary of fascinating antiquities. Amid the flocks of migratory birds along the pristine and largely deserted shores of Lake Nasser, Egypt's political problems seem distant and submerged in the tranquility.

Indeed, it is possible to fly directly from Europe to the delightful resort town of Aswan to board the Eugenie, avoiding the overcrowding of urban Egypt. Once in Aswan, Belle Epoque Tours will transfer travelers to the Eugenie. The cost (minus airfare) is $120 per night per person double occupancy. This includes transfer from Aswan Airport, three meals a day, excursions, and guides.

* Belle Epoque Tours, 17 Tunis St., New Maadi, Cairo, Egypt.

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