In his book about the world’s longest and most famed river, Toby Wilkinson lets history and culture flow freely.
On his fifth birthday, Toby Wilkinson, renowned Egyptologist and author of The Nile: A Journey Downriver Through Egypt’s Past & Present (Knopf, $28), was given an encyclopedia that featured writing systems from around the world. “I was immediately drawn to the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics,” Wilkinson tells American Way. “I worked out how to write my name. From that moment, I wanted to be able to read the writings of ancient Egypt and to understand its culture.”
In Wilkinson’s new book, out this month, he takes readers down the Nile from Aswan, Egypt, to Cairo, passing through ancient cities such as Luxor, which has, he says, “the greatest concentration of monuments anywhere in Egypt — and possibly the world. It was the ancient-Egyptian equivalent of the Vatican City: a place of spectacular religious festivals and royal ceremonials. The temple of Karnak, in the north of Luxor, is the largest religious complex anywhere in the world.”
The idea for the book came from one of Wilkinson’s frequent trips down the Nile, this one in fall 2010. His boat was moored on the western shore of the river opposite the city of Aswan. As twilight approached, local village boys came to the water’s edge with their donkeys and camels. In the soft golden light of the great river, buffalo and wading birds soon surrounded the boys, “a scene that was unchanged for thousands of years,” Wilkinson says.
“Yet, just a few hundred yards away, on the other side of the Nile, the picture could not have been more different: the urban sprawl and traffic congestion, the overpopulation and incessant din of 21st-century Egypt. The juxtaposition of ancient and modern, separated yet unified by the Nile, was striking — and at the same time, I realized, quintessentially Egyptian.”
Wilkinson suggests the best way to experience Egypt and its amazing artifacts is by boat on the Nile. For the novice traveler, he recommends using an organized tour service. “Although Egypt is safe to visit, getting around can be difficult and frustrating. Solo travel is always an adventure, but not for the fainthearted.”