The steamship Sudan is the last of its kind.
Built as a gift for King Fuad I of Egypt in 1885, the vessel eventually changed hands and was recommissioned as a Nile passenger ship by British entrepreneur Thomas Cook in 1921, just in time to capitalize on the golden age of Nile cruising. For over a decade, the Nile swelled with an influx of such steamships. It was the best way for well-heeled travelers to escape dreary British weather for a month or more in order to sail leisurely between the archaeological sites of Upper Egypt. At the time, the Sudan was considered one of the Nile’s most luxurious vessels. Its original decor features all the Belle Époque comforts—dark wood-paneled walls, sturdy brass bed frames, wall-mounted telephones, ceramic bathtubs, sweeping carved wood staircases, rattan deck furniture, a bar lounge filled with chesterfields, so forth—a floating palace of British imperialism.
In its heyday, the ship hosted numerous dignitaries, socialites, and other notables, perhaps most famously Agatha Christie, whose 1933 voyage on the Sudan inspired her novel Death on the Nile. The corresponding 2004 ITV adaptation for Agatha Christie’s Poirot (starring a young Emily Blunt) was filmed on location on board the Sudan.
Unfortunately, World War II was a death sentence for tourism in Egypt—the Sudan was docked, abandoned, and all but forgotten for over 50 years. It wasn’t until the 1990s that European and American tourists began to seriously reconsider Nile cruising, and bit by bit, the industry returned. A German tour operator had a failed stint at revitalizing the Sudan in those years, but it wasn’t until 2000 when French travel company Voyageurs du Monde gave the Sudan the proper attention and investment it required. By 2006, the Sudan was fully restored to its former glory. I like to think of it as the famous montage from the beginning of James Cameron’s Titanic, when the ruined underwater cruise liner comes back to life—the lights turn on, the rust floats away, and the brass gleams with fresh polish. While there are numerous motor boats, sailboats, and traditional dahabiya offering passenger cruises on the Nile today, the Sudan is the last remaining steam ship that retains its original aesthetic identity, and probably the only one that is well over a century old—a living piece of history, a palimpsest of the explorers, artists, aristocracy, kings, and entrepreneurs who have touched this ship over its lifetime.
Needless to say, as a travel writer who is gay and has a predilection for highly aesthetic experiences, I have been lusting over the Sudan for over a decade, ever since I saw PBS re-runs of Emily Blunt getting murdered on it. Early mornings wandering through temple ruins, hot afternoons luxuriating with a gin and tonic as the Nile floats by, starlit evenings spent sharing stories about pharaohs, mummies, and ancient curses—what could be better?
However, a quick Google search for “Gay rights in Egypt” will give anybody serious pause. There has been a flare-up of conservative religious sentiment against LGBT people in Egypt in recent years, and while I’m not well-versed enough in the nuances of contemporary Egyptian life to speak authoritatively on the subject, I will say that it’s not great to be gay in Egypt right now. It could get you arrested. It could get you killed.
I reached out to my agent at Original Travel—the U.K.-based travel company that co-owns the Sudan and promotes its cruises in anglophone markets—and expressed concern about being a solo gay traveler to Egypt. She promptly emailed me back and assured that in over 20 years of operating in Egypt, Original Travel has hosted many LGBT clients without having a single issue. “The SS Sudan has an incredibly strict security policy and the police on the Nile have a strong presence,” she continued. “All access to the boat is monitored by security staff… When sailing north of Luxor we host police on board (not an obligation but our own policy to maximize security).”
I wasn’t necessarily expecting pitchfork-bearing locals to storm the Sudan and take me hostage, but now that she had mentioned all that security, would they? Probably not. The purpose of this trip was to cruise the river, not to cruise the local gay scene, so chances were that I could probably slip in and out of Egypt relatively under the radar. That being said, the ship is famously “Belle Epoque,” and wasn’t the Belle Epoque famous, among other things, for its dandies? I certainly wasn’t going to be the first gay person to cruise the Nile, and let’s be real, the camp element of cruising down a fabulously decorated, century-plus-old vessel down Africa’s largest river was not lost on me.
By the time I stepped on board the Sudan a few days later, the experience was as magical and instantly transporting as I had hoped, so much so that my hesitations dissipated immediately. It’s relatively straightforward to be transported to a different place—hop on an airplane, go somewhere you haven’t been before, and voilà—but to feel transported to another time is something else entirely.
In a matter of minutes between stepping out of my taxi and onto the Sudan, everything changed. I strolled from deck to deck, hand sliding along the well-worn wooden railings and taking care not to trip on the (charmingly) uneven stairs. I walked through some swinging saloon doors into the lounge area, which featured a rickety piano and shelves of books on Egyptian history. Each guest cabin was named after a figure linked to Egyptian history, and while I was disappointed to not be in the Agatha Christie suite, I was delighted to be placed instead in a room named after French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps (I am a huge Real Housewives of New York fan, and cast member LuAnn de Lesseps was related to him via marriage for a time). As I unpacked my suitcase, unfurling linen shirts and hanging up trousers in my closet, I felt the ship give a gentle lurch, and then heard a deep and distant hum. Flinging open my cabin’s shuttered window, I started to see riverbanks, palm trees, and groups of young Egyptian children waving us off. Our journey down the Nile had begun.
I quickly fell into the indulgent rhythm of life on board: productive, early mornings spent wandering aimlessly through temples; lazy afternoons back on the ship avoiding the hot midday sun; followed by elegant French-style dinners that wouldn’t start until 9 or 10 in the evening. At night, it was cool enough to leave my cabin’s window open, and I would fall asleep to the lilt and lull of a ship gliding over the water.
On day three or four of our journey—it became difficult to keep track, as each fever dream of a day blended into the next—I wandered through the sweeping temple at Edfu, built in honor of the god Horus and his mother Hathor. It’s one of the best preserved sites in all of Egypt. From the outside, Edfu is flanked by a soaring façade, the kind of geometric, almost Brutalist design one associates with Ancient Egypt. So imagine my surprise when my guide told me it was in fact built during the Ptolemaic period, when a Greek dynasty controlled Egypt, and Hellenistic influences seeped into Egyptian culture. The architectural style one might presume as being “totally Egyptian,” was, in fact, layered with influence from elsewhere.
We continued inside. My eye wandered from wall to wall, chamber to chamber, up and above the rows of enormous columns, to something that caught me off guard: the carvings and hieroglyphs were painted in brilliant blues, reds, greens and yellows—faded, but still there. Keep in mind that, as an American whose exposure to Egyptian history was limited to some children’s books and The Mummy movies, I had a very clear image in my mind of what I thought Egyptian ruins looked like: all the same sandy shade of limestone, giant rocks hewn from the earth and carefully put into place. So seeing color came as a surprise.
Puzzled, I asked my guide, “Was this some sort of interior decoration? Why is this ceiling painted this way?”
He replied that in fact, during the Ptolemaic era when these temples were built, every inch of them—façade, walls, columns, ceilings, everywhere—would have been painted. The colors we were observing on the ceiling at Edfu, for example, had been cleaned by the Egyptian government to remove soot and the grime of the centuries, but not restored in any way. While the exterior parts of the temple exposed to millennia of sun, blazing heat and erosion had faded to that uniform, sandy shade of limestone, we were here on the inside, looking up at the original paint (which in this instance was merely 2,000 years old, from the Ptolemaic era—relatively young by Egyptian standards).
That realization changed everything I thought I knew about Ancient Egypt. I had perceived Egyptian ruins as fixed and static, “these lifeless things” as Percy Bysshe Shelley called them in his poem “Ozymandias,” when in fact they were living, breathing monuments. My misconceptions about Egypt were colored by the limited information I was able to glean from behind my laptop screen back home in Boston. There were so many layers to Egypt—ancient and contemporary, colonizers and colonized, historic and modern, gay and straight, religious and secular. I don’t mean to say that some blithe catharsis suddenly made it OK for me to be gay in Egypt; on the contrary, LGBT people living there still face enormous challenges. But looking up at the painted ceiling, imagining how brilliant it must have been two thousand years ago, and how weathered, darkened, and transformed it became over the passage of time, I had a new appreciation for the complexity of this country which has so many more stories to tell beyond pyramids and sphinxes, and even century-old steam ships.
At that point, I had reached a level of comfort with my guide, and we spoke frankly about the status of LGBT people in Egypt, about the relationship between contemporary Egyptians and Ancient Egyptian history, about what we as Americans learn about Egypt compared to the lived experience of people there today. For the rest of my week on the Sudan, we spent numerous afternoons lost in conversation, sharing a pot of mint tea as the Nile flowed by.
I would ask about one thing or another, and whatever the question, his response would begin the same way: “There are no easy answers in Egypt.”