Another option for people wishing to take a voyage down the Nile is to travel aboard ‘dahabeyas’. Before Thomas Cook launched steamer travel on the Nile in the 1870s, wealthy tourists wanting to make a Grand Tour of the ancient Egyptian ruins along the banks of the Nile travelled aboard these luxurious Ottoman-era sailing barges.
The word dahabeyas describe a shallow-bottomed, barge-like vessel with two or more sails. The vessels have been around in one form or another for thousands of years, with similar craft being depicted on the walls of the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs. And the name derives from the Arabic word for “gold”, owing to similar, gilded state barges used by the Ottoman rulers of Egypt in the Middle Ages.
Originally built to carry celebrities and royal families, the Dahabeya was a luxury pleasure boat for the Nile. The name means “golden one” alluding to the gold and dongola decoration.
Today a number of travel companies in Egypt have recreated replica dahabeyas, which generally travel both upstream and downstream between Aswan and Esna. (Most dahabeyas don’t travel beyond Esna to Luxor, as this would involve going through the Esna barrage, which is time-consuming and expensive for the companies involved.) The downside of these trips is that the dahabeyas are on a fixed schedule, and since the winds along the Nile are often very light, the dahabeyas very often need to be towed by a tug in order to make fast enough progress, which rather defeats the purpose of travelling on a sailing boat…
A much better option than the replica dahabeyas are the tiny handful of original C19th dahabeyas that still survive on the Nile. One of these is the ‘Vivant Denon’, based out of Luxor. There is no set timetable for voyages, but French owner Didier Caille will arrange bespoke trips according to taste – he can be contacted via www.dahabeya.net. Didier captains these highly recommended trips himself, and is excellent company, as well as a great guide to all the fascinating places that you can visit along the Nile.
main image: Egypt. Luxor [selected images]. View 02: Egypt – Dhahabiyeh of American Tourists, Luxor., n.d., T. H. McAllister, Manufacturing Optician. 49 Nassau Street, New York. Brooklyn Museum Archives (S10.08 Luxor, image 9924).