“‘This is grand,’ he said as he too leaned on the rail. ‘I’m really looking forward to this trip, aren’t you Linnet? It feels somehow, so much less touristy – as though we are really going into the heart of Egypt.’ His wife responded quickly: ‘I know. It’s so much – wilder, somehow’ Her hand slipped through his arm. He pressed it close to his side. ‘We’re off Lin,’ he murmured.”Agatha Christie
Death On The Nile
From the mid-1800s to the end of the 1930s, visiting Egypt meant boarding a Nile steamer in Cairo and taking the three week voyage up to Aswan and back. Passengers could watch the country unfold before them from the comfort of their wicker chairs on the sun deck, take excursions to the monuments of ancient pharaohs, spend the evenings enjoying the decadent food served in the dining-salon and pass the rest of their leisure time in the company of their fellow passengers.
Of Thomas Cook & Son’s famous original fleet of Nile steamers, the steam ship Sudan, is the only boat that survives today and still operates on the Nile.
Setting sail on it’s maiden voyage on the 8th of February 1921, the Sudan steamed it’s way up the Nile from Cairo to Aswan, taking over the sailings originally intended for another steamer named the Arabia (which had been chartered for a full six weeks by His Highness Fu’ad I, the sultan of Egypt). It would be the last first class steamer Cook & Son would ever add to their nile fleet, operating tours up until the outbreak of war in 1939.
After the war Cook & Son were forced to sell off the majority of their fleet, and the Sudan (after being used as a floating officer’s club in Cairo for a time) was sold to Faud Serageldin, the secretary general of Egypt’s Wafd Party in the 1940s. His political career came to an abrupt termination by a coup and the boat was seized in the name of nationalization. Eventually she was put back to work carrying tourists for the Egyptian owned Eastmar Line and was then acquired by a French tourism company Club Mediterranee, who moored the ship in Luxor and used her as a floating hotel. The Sudan was finally sold again in 2003 to the french travel company Voyageurs du Monde who painstakingly restored the Sudan to her original condition.
During the restoration, the company reduced the number of rooms on board from the original 56 cabins and 4 suites, down to a mere 18 far larger cabins and 5 suites, naming each after fictional characters and historical figures who have prominent ties to Egypt and it’s history.
What You Need To Know
Agatha Christie & The Steam Ship Sudan
While Agatha refused to set foot on a nile steamer during her first visit to Egypt during her coming out season in 1910, she did take two trips up the Nile later with her second husband, archeologist Max Mallowan, and her daughter Rosalind in 1931 and then again in 1933. And while we don’t know exactly *which ship* she sailed on for each of these voyages on the Nile, in all probability it would have been a ship very similar to the Sudan if not the Sudan herself.
After those trips she returned to England and wrote a short story entitled, Death On The Nile which was originally published in 1934 as part of a collection entitled Parker Pyne Investigates. (The steamer in this story she names the S.S. Fayoum.) Then in 1937, she published a novel by the same name, but with a different plot, in which a voyage on a Nile steamer (to which she gives the fictional name of the Karnak) is vividly brought to life as the floating backdrop for the her murder mystery. (It is believed that Christie may have based her description of the Karnak on a boat that ran Cook & Son’s Second Cataract service at the time of her visit named Thebes. The annotated deck plan she includes in her book is almost identical to that of the Thebes.)
When Death On The Nile was adapted in 1978 into a motion picture, another old Cook & Son steamer (now sadly gutted and lying sawn in two in a boatyard in Cairo) named the Memnon, was used during the filming. However, it was the steam ship Sudan that was cast as the backdrop for the 2004 British television-film version of Death On The Nile starring David Suchet.
As a side note, one of my favorite parts of this cruise was that the ship actually had a movie night in the salon one evening where they played the 2004 version of Death On The Nile, which made my fangirl heart basically explode with joy to be sitting on the boat Christie may have sailed on herself, watching the film adaptation of her book on the boat on which it was filmed… yeah… happy fangirl moment right there.
In addition to the movie night, on board the Sudan you’ll find several other little ode’s to Christie as well, from the two suites on the ship named after her and her famous detective with the little grey cells (The Agatha Christie suite and Hercule Poirot suite) to the dozens of copies of Death On The Nile in a variety of languages available to borrow during the voyage in the ship’s library.
This Isn’t Your Average “Touristy” Cruise
Let’s just start with the fact that I’m just not an organized tour person. I hate organized tours with a passion. I like to go it on my own (with Joe of course), and loath being surrounded by loud obnoxious tourists. I just hate how cheesy, commercially packaged and inauthentic those types of things tend to be.
So when I stumbled upon the steam ship Sudan during my research I was elated to find something that felt more rooted in history and was staunchly devoid of the “cheese factor”. Even so, I was still nervous about being part of an organized tour and worried if I would enjoy myself or be constantly frustrated that I was being herded around by a tour guide that sort of, kind of, seemed like they maybe looked up a few facts before leading the tour.
I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised by my experience.
From start to finish our stay on the steam ship Sudan was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. The moment we stepped on board was like stepping back in time, the world slowed down just a little, the real world melted away, and were were lost in our Nile adventure.
From start to finish our stay on the steam ship Sudan was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. The moment we stepped on board was like stepping back in time, the world slowed down just a little, the real world melted away, and were were lost in our Nile adventure. From our accommodations, to the staff and the food, every aspect of our life on board oozed with character, hospitality and old world charm.
For our scheduled excursions, the passengers were split into groups of around 10 members, based on the language they spoke, and assigned a dedicated guide that their group would have for the entirety of the trip. Our group’s assigned guide Eid spoke excellent English and was incredibly knowledgable about all the sites he took us to tour, and was able to answer any and all questions we posed to him throughout our trip.
The ONLY small complaint I have about the entire cruise was the amount of time we had at each excursion site to wander around on our own. After being walked through each site on our guided tour with Eid, we were typically given about 15-20mins to explore the site on our own and take any additional photos we’d like. While this is probably more than sufficient for the majority tourists, as a professional photographer this resulted in me frantically running around trying to get all the photos I wanted so that our group wasn’t left waiting on me so they could leave. That said, I did end up coming home with over 11,000 images. So maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t have as much time as I wanted at each site lol…
Since This Is A French Tour Company What Languages Do They Speak On Board?
One of my biggest concerns going into this trip was if any of the crew on board, or more importantly any of the excursion guides, would speak English. To that the answer is yes. While the primary language on board is French, most of the staff speak enough English to communicate with you if not fluently, well enough to get the gist of what you want. As for excursion guides, the company ensures that there is a dedicated guide present who speaks your language. During our trip this resulted in there being 2 French speaking groups, 2 English speaking groups, and a German speaking group.
The Food & Drink
Again, one of the reason’s I typically avoid organized tour groups is that the food just isn’t typically the best, and life is too short to eat mediocre food. That was NOT the case on the Sudan. To back up a bit, all your meals are included in the price of your cruise, the only additional charge being for alcoholic drinks, which were on the pricey side (but alcohol is expensive basically everywhere in Egypt).
Being a French company, the meals typically slanted more that way. In the morning we were given a selection of breads and pastries for breakfast with the option of a freshly cooked omelets to order and whatever type of coffee concoction or tea we preferred (we usually had cappuccinos). Lunch was typically served buffet style and heavily featured local inspired dishes and foods. For dinner we were always served a decadent three course meal complete with desert. The cruise was also always incredibly willing to accommodate for Joe’s vegetarian diet, cooking him something special when the set menu wouldn’t work.
In addition, the tour hosted two afternoon teas up on the sun deck during our voyage where they served tea, coffee and an assortment of cookies.
The Cruise Itinerary
When we sailed, the company offered two different tours, both the same duration, but one that sailed up the Nile from Luxor to Aswan, and one that sailed down the Nile from Aswan to Luxor. We decided to take their “Eternal River” cruise that sailed down the nile from Aswan to Luxor and saved, what in our minds, was the best sites for last.
Below is the itinerary our ship followed and the sites it stopped at for us to tour along the way. I’ve created separate stories for each of the different excursions, so you can click on the name of each site to see more about it!
- DAY ONE: ASWAN
- Transfer to the Steam Ship Sudan. Settle into your cabin.
- Lunch on board.
- Afternoon visit of the Temple of Philae– the Pearl of Egypt – in Nubia, dedicated to the cult of the Goddess Isis since the 3rd Century BC.
- Late afternoon free time in Aswan.
- Dinner on board and overnight stay in Aswan.
- DAY TWO: KOM OMBO & EDFU
- Early start sailing to Kom Ombo, north of Aswan.
- Visit of the Temple of Kom Ombo, erected on the Nile banks, on one of the most seducing site of Upper-Egypt. This singular temple was dedicated to two devinities : Horus, the Falcon God and Sobek, the Crocodile God.
- Lunch on board while sailing to Edfu.
- Late afternoon visit of the best preserved temple of the Ptolemaic Dynasty the Temple of Edfu; its buildings are perfect examples of Ancient Egypt sacred architecture.
- Back on board. Night sailing to Esna. Overnight stay in Esna.
- Early start sailing to Kom Ombo, north of Aswan.
- DAY THREE: KARNAK & THE TEMPLE OF LUXOR
- After the passing of the Esna lock, sailing to Luxor, the Ancient Egyptian City of Thebes.
- Afternoon visit to the majestic site of the Temple of Karnak, dedicated to the God Amun, patron of the New Kingdom’s Pharaohs.
- Evening visit of the Temple of Luxor. The evening light particularly highlights the perfection of Amenophis III’s columns. That’s where the Feast of Opet was held every year to celebrate the flooding of the Nile and the fertility of the land.
- Dinner and overnight stay in Luxor.
- DAY FOUR: QENA & DENDERA
- Sailing to Qena, north of Luxor. Only a few ships sail this splendid stretch of the river Nile where you will be able to enjoy a relaxing morning admiring both banks of the Nile.
- Lunch on board
- Visit to the Temple of Dendera -Dendera is the name of the spectacular temple of Hathor, goddess of love and joy, also known for protecting women and nursing Pharaohs. Secluded at the border of cultivated land and desert, with its richly decorated chapels, its Hathor-headed columns, its obscure corridors and stairs, the unique vestige of the ancient city of Dendera is one of the best preserved most famous monuments in Egypt and offers a splendid view of Upper-Egypt countryside from the roof.
- Dinner and overnight stay in Qena.
- DAY FIVE: ABYDOS
- Early start (2 hours drive) to Abydos, a holy city and the cult centre of Osiris, regent of the Kingdom of the Dead and god of resurrection. From the Ancient Kingdom era, Abydos was an exceptional site of pilgrimage. The Temple of Seti I is a wonder with its colorful and fine bas-reliefs which mark the birth of Ramesside art.
- Lunch on board. Relaxing afternoon sailing to Luxor. Dinner and overnight stay on board in Luxor.
- DAY SIX: THE WEST BANK OF LUXOR
- Early start to the Theban Necropolis, a place of mysteries and the territory of Osiris under the New Kingdom,
- Visit to the Colossi Of Memnon, two massive stone statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III.
- Visit of the Valley of the Kings, whose magnificently decorated tombs tell the afterlife journey of the dead.
- Visit the Valley of the Queens, the secret necropolis of the royal wives.
- Late morning visit to Djeser-Djeseru also known as The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari
- Afternoon visit of the Temple of Medinet Habu where Ramesses III engraved for eternity its successful battles against the Sea People.
- Return to the Steam Ship Sudan to gather belongings and disembark.
A few notes on our itinerary. It’s worth noting that the official schedule did not have us visiting Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple during our visit to the west bank of Luxor, during our cruise our guide gave our group the option of either visiting the Tombs of the Nobles or visiting Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple and we opted to explore the temple at Djeser-Djeseru.
In addition, during our visit to the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, our guided tour only included three of the “regular” tombs (the cruise cannot tell you in advance which these will be as the government choses different tombs to have open each day in order to minimize damage to the tombs). However, we were given the option (and time) to pay an additional fee in order to explore three of the “special” tombs if we wished to (those of Nefertari, Tutankhamun, Rameses IV and Seti I). If you can only afford to do one of these I highly recommend Nefertari’s tomb as the wall paintings are amazingly well preserved and vivid.
Booking Your Cruise & Costs
If you’re interested in booking a cruise on the steam ship Sudan for yourself you can simply head over to their website HERE. If for some reason the site doesn’t load in English, there is a button to translate it into English at the top right.
As for the base cost, at the time of writing, both cruises (The Dynastic & The Eternal River) were the same price. With cost varying based on the time of year you were looking to travel:
*the rates above are based on the Euro to Dollar exchange rate at the time of writing.
As for additional fees you may incur during the trip, the Sudan in general is an all inclusive cruise, however there are a few hidden fees that are good to be aware of in advance:
- It is customary to leave a small tip for the cruise staff at the end of your voyage
- It is also customary to give a small tip to your group’s guide
- You will need to pay an extra fee if you wish to enter any of the special tombs while on your tour of the Theban Necropolis. Admission to enter the tombs of Nefertari, Tutankhamun, Rameses IV and Seti I are all a separate additional fee to enter and are not included in your cruise fee.
- You will have the option to purchase a photo pass at several of the sites, this is also not included in your cruise fee and will be a small extra charge.
- You may have the option of adding on a hot air ballon ride over the Valley of the Kings for an additional fee.
- Alcoholic beverages are not included in your cruise.
- During the trip we were given three optional shopping opportunities, one at a perfume makers in Aswan, one at a goldsmiths in Luxor, and another at an alabaster craftsman in the west bank of Luxor.
Learn More About What Sailing On The Nile Was Like During The Golden Age Of Travel
If you are in any way, shape, or form considering sailing on the Nile during your visit to Egypt, especially if you plan to take a trip on the Sudan, and you enjoy history, I cannot recommend Andrew Humphrey’s book On The Nile: In The Golden Age Of Travel highly enough. The book beautifully weaves together stunning vintage imagery, snippets from victorian travel journals, ships records and other historic documents to tell the story of a century and a half of cruising on the Nile and how Thomas Cook brought about a new golden age of travel for Egypt.