Egypt's Ancient Dahabeeyahs: Sailing into Egypt's Victorian Past

Egypt's Ancient Dahabeeyahs

Sailing into Egypt's Victorian Past

by Jimmy Dunn

A view of the Royal Cleopatra

Anyone who has traveled along the Nile River, either on one of Egypt's modern floating hotels, or by other transport, usually feel as though they have stepped back in time. Watching the bank, one sees farming and other activities conducted in much the same way they were hundreds, and even thousands of years ago. Donkey carts piled high with produce struggle along, while in the background mudbrick houses, perhaps not altogether different than their pharaonic counterparts, dot the landscape. It is, for many people, a unique experience that literally makes one feel as though they have stepped inside a time machine. However, the experience is almost always tempered by their means of transport, consisting of modern Nile Cruisers, busses or trains.

However, recently, there can be seen upon the Nile ghosts from a bygone time when Victorian travelers first began to explore this ancient land as tourists. Those were magical times when modern archaeological methods had yet to uncover many of Egypt's ancient mysteries.

A view of the Royal Cleopatra

Today, Egyptian Nile cruisers have evolved into floating hotels with all the amenities, including swimming pools, hot tubs, in-room videos and even internet access. Many of these boats are exceptional and elegant, but they all have as their common ancestor the Dahabeeyah (Dahabia), which in Arabic means "golden boat", because the boats of the kings and nobility of ancient Egypt were painted gold. However, the Dahabeeyah originated with Thomas Cook, the English pioneer in tourism who almost single-handedly invented modern Egyptian tourism. Doubtless, this is the means by which many early explorers and Egyptologists plied the Nile in order to reach their archaeological sites many years ago.

In fact, Amelia B. Edwards mentions in her book, "A Thousand Miles up the Nile", that she had to choose just such a boat among 200 to 300 Dahabeeyahs which were offered for rent in the harbor of Baulak. Then, these boats were the preferred method of transportation among upper class Egyptians and western tourists. But when, in 1869, the steamship was introduced to the Nile, this type of sailing vessel soon lost its importance to the tourism industry. They were mostly scrapped, though some were made into houseboats, such as those that can still be seen in the Cairo district of Imbaba. Today, only about five of these boats are still in operation.

A view of the  Dongola

People who wish to experience a more "authentic" tour of Egypt frequently make inquires about traveling by Felucca boats, which are small sailboats seen all along the Nile. Such trips are possible, but the accommodations are usually very primitive, not to mention inconsistent. Such boats were simply not intended for overnight travel and the experience is most akin to camping out. However, the several restored Dahabeeyahs that once again sail the Nile are another matter all together. They offer both luxury and exceptional ambience, while at the same time, allow their passengers to sail into the past, very literally. If a modern Nile Cruiser might be equated with staying at a Hilton, then a Dahabeeyah would represent a floating bed and breakfast.

A view of the  Dongola

Given their smaller size, these boats can also offer other advantages. Most large, modern cruise boats offer standard itineraries and carry passengers from a number of different tour operators. Hence, their schedules and the stops that they make are inflexible. However, these smaller vintage boats are capable of having less rigid schedules and can have customized itineraries, while at the same time offering many of the amenities of the larger Nile cruisers. In fact, these smaller boats can also land at sites that are for the most part impossible for the larger Nile Cruisers to dock, such as El Kab and Gebel el Silsila. But of course, the real lure of these boats is their nostalgia.

Lounge on the Royal  Cleopatra

Two of the best examples of this type of boat are the Dongola and the Cleopatra. Both are small enough to be completely booked by several families or a group of friends. The Dongola can carry up to ten passengers, while the somewhat smaller Cleopatra can handle as many as eight.

The Cleopatra is owned and operated by the Royal Cleopatra Nile Cruises and is a member of the AETBI, Tour Egypt's association of Egyptian tour operators. It is a lateen-rigged vessel of 62 feet (18.89 meters) with a beam of 24 1/2 feet (7.46 meters) . It has two large guest cabins and two baths. Other facilities include a lounge area, a bar and a sun deck. Both cabins have sitting areas and are relatively spacious.

Cabin on the Royal  Cleopatra

The Dongola, built around 1835 is 113 feet (34.5) meters in length with a beam of 18 feet (5.5) meters). It has five cabins, including three with private baths, while the other two smaller cabins share a single bath. All cabins are doubles with king size beds. It has a salon which doubles as a dining room during chilly winter days, and a small galley.

Both boats are designed for activity to be centered on deck, even though both have comfortable cabins. These are truly "social" boats that encourage interaction between their guests. In addition, both have good reputations for their food services, offering a full range of international cuisine, which like all aspects of these small vessels, may be customized according to the tastes of their likewise small contingent of guests.

Cabin on the Dongola

The management of both of these boats also offer a full range of tourist services including airport pickup, tours and tour guides. Hence, they can be booked as a complete, packaged tour.

While the allure of these boats is strong, there are obviously drawbacks. They certainly do not have all the amenities of larger Nile Cruisers. Absent are the swimming pools, hot tubs, shops and internet service. Also absent is the nightly entertainment found on larger boats. Some of these drawbacks may be compensated for by more frequent shore stops where shopping and entertainment may be land based. However, perhaps the main drawback is the lack of air conditioning which, during many times of the year, may not be necessary, but during the heat of the summer may be a problem for some.

Yet, this is an experience that most will never and could never have. These restored old boats offer antique passage in an antique land. Even if one takes a restored steam ship on the Mississippi, the modern world is still all around, but in Egypt, on one of these old cruisers, one really does seem to travel back in time.

Sun Deck on the Dongola

Sun Deck on the Dongola

It should be noted that, like all Nile Cruisers, these boats only travel from (or to) Aswan and somewhat north of Luxor. No cruise boats currently travel between Cairo and southern Egypt.

The Royal Cleopatra has a web site where reservations can be booked. Some information on the Dongola, together with a contact reference can be found here.