I went to far northern Scotland twenty years ago. Would I take Lonely Planet? Aloneness was the whole point, so there was nothing to be gained. Moon? Parts of northern Scotland are lunar, which makes them cousins, and you can never trust family to give you the skinny. The innkeeper at the Cape Wrath had a border collie named Fodor, or Fido, something, but it was always trying to herd me where I didn’t want to go and bit me, viciously, when I disobeyed. No, it would be me, Nagel, and 1,300 gossamer pages of lightly borne wisdom, even if it weighed more than one of those huge stones they heave around at the Highland Games. The airline made me check it, like a big suitcase, into the hold for the flight.
The Nagel Guide. It didn’t matter that it weighed as much as a brick of iridium. Its heft was significant and meaningful. It was the guide’s guide, the old-hand foreign correspondent who knew there was about to be a coup before the conspirators did. You put Nagel in your backpack, the same backpack that held the toothbrush you’d sawed the handle from to save weight, because Nagel was going to be the best traveling companion you ever had, speaking only when spoken to, and always only to make you sagacious and daring. Nagel died about thirty years ago. Long live the Nagel Guide.
It is only fate and genealogy that Toby Wilkinson is Toby Wilkinson and not Toby Nagel. Wilkinson is not as burly as Nagel, but nor is he in training to toss the caber. Wilkinson’s not even in Scotland. He’s in Egypt, drifting down the Nile, making landfall when the spirit moves him — and his spirit has a hyperactivity disorder — from upper to lower Egypt, which means south to north. Not headwaters to delta, not Speke and Burton, but nonetheless a history with brio and dash, and encyclopedic drift. The Nile could have been titled 20% of the Nile — which the marketing people would have rightly nixed — because the book covers only the stretch from Aswan to Cairo, but that coverage is extensive and deep, even if the twenty-first century hasn’t quite made it onto Wilkinson’s itinerary.
Wilkinson is an Egyptologist teaching at the University of Cambridge and the author of The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, which may be why he treats each stop along the way to Cairo like a palimpsest of all that went before, the Nile as key to Egypt’s history and secrets: “It has shaped Egypt’s geography, controlled its economy, moulded its civilization, and determined its destiny.” Ninety-six percent of the country’s population live in the neighborhood of its banks, and 100 percent of every marauder or occupier — Nubian, Assyrian, Persian, Ptolemaic, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, French, British, old Joe Everyman from Dubuque, Iowa, on the package tour — used the river to their advantage, a highway of plunder, full of crocodiles (though sport hunters, in their wisdom, nearly extirpated the Egyptian crocodile below the dam at Aswan), hippos, snowy egrets and pied kingfishers, and Nile perch as big as Morris Minors.
Wilkinson enjoys natural history — the flora and fauna, though particularly the flooding of the Nile each year, measured by “Nilometers,” which calculated the volume of the river, forecasting feast or famine — and he is a smooth writer about nature and place, matched by the liquid ease of his historical vignettes, the kind of ease that comes from long immersion in a subject, and open to new ideas. His delivery has an aural aspect to it; a story is being told, by a teacher who has the goods. He jumps off the boat here and there, as if at subway stops — Luxor, Thebes, Qift and Qena, Abydos, Cairo — and the landscape immediately lights him up. Come, he beckons, you must see this, how it finds the past pressed up against the present like bedfellows.
He is not above exploring the famous sites: the Avenue of Sphinxes, the Temple of Karnak, the Valley of Kings, the Winter Palace, the Valley of Kings. Though timeless, they are not as much of a challenge as the ancient tomb shafts he ferrets out, the Stone Age rock drawings at el-Hosh, the daily life of the Jewish communities, the shards of burnished pottery perhaps 7,000 years old made by valley farmers in Mostagedda, or Nekheb and Nekhen — one the gateway to gold, the other the gateway to a mug of beer: “Together, Nekhen and Nekheb were pioneers in the process of state formation and the foundations of pharaonic civilization.” Then there were the obelisks. Everybody had to have an obelisk — Caesar, the popes, Napoleon — and the tales of their removals are heart wrenching and farcical.
The history here is a swath, rolling on and on, but there are wonderful nuggets, too: that on the riverbank were twenty types of precious stone and twenty sources of brilliant pigments; that Inteff II, the mighty warrior-king, was buried with his dogs Hound, Kettle, and Blackie. And if Wilkinson wants to concentrate on one-fifth of the river, we should be thankful to get even that fraction. The modern day is not his bailiwick — “as I try desperately to fend off hawkers and caleche-drivers, it is difficult to recapture that sense of awe and wonder, of majesty and mystery, that cloaked the temple in its heyday.” He returns the sanctuary of the river, what the ancients called “the great green.” Wilkinson was born just a few millennia too late.