Aswan, Egypt: At the edge of world.
Overview. Anyone who has been to Aswan, Egypt immediately gets the sense that this city is far removed from anywhere else. The vast stretch of the Nubian Desert in all directions, with the exception of the thin sliver of Nile River that cuts through here, only adds to this perception. Isolation is the feeling of the day in Aswan but it’s not one of despair and loneliness. It’s more exotic and the feeling that you are at the edge of the world is a good one. Aswan is located in southern Egypt about 150 miles north of the Sudanese border and only 50 miles north of the Tropic of Cancer an serves as the most logical launching point to explore southern Egypt’s Nile River Valley. Since ancient times the city has stood on Egypt’s southern frontier as it does today huddled closely to its prized water source the Nile River - a striking contrast to the barren dune-laden Sahara which seems to encroach menacingly on the city’s and river’s greener outlook. In ancient times this would have been known as Upper Egypt which seems counterintuitive today since it anchors the country’s southern regions. Aswan’s existence, not unlike most other ancient cities in this cradle of civilization, is indebted to the Nile and it is here in Aswan where the Nile flows through its First Cataract which is a swift, narrow, and deep dell that funnels the river through granitic rocks called Syenite. Ancient Egyptians quarried Syenite from the hills aroundAswan and carved their famous obelisks and then floated them downstream to various temple sites. Today Aswan sits at the foot of the famous Aswan Dam which created Lake Nasser in the 1960s – the seventh largest reservoir in the world by area. It was a mixed blessing as it provided a long term solution to Egypt’s growing demand for water while at the same time submerging a number of ancient temples and monuments. Egypt’s most southern big city, with a population of 275,000, is a must-see for anyone who should visit this land of ancients. While its climate is hot and arid its sites are numerous so plan to spend at least three days.
Things to Know. The summers are hot, the winters are mild, and it does not rain. Dress for the season. Aswan is located just north of the Tropic of Cancer at latitude 24º05’20”. Arabic is widely spoke as that is the language of Egypt. You will also see a larger presence of darker skinned Egyptians, or Nubians, in Aswan than in points north.
Getting there/Orientation. Aswan sits at Egypt’s south end along the Nile River. It is Egypt’s most southern city. Trains run from Cairo to Aswan and the city is also served by regular commercial air service. Nile cruise boats, notably run by Oberoi and other companies, also make the trip and frequently dock at Aswan, the most southern of their Egyptian river cruise destinations.
When to Go. Unless you love the desert heat try to plan your trip toAswan in the winter or early spring when temperatures are more comfortable. The summer daytime temperatures easily top 100º F. Winter months are pleasant and mild but a jacket or sweater is recommended for the evening.
Abu Simbel. Abu Simbel is significant because they are older than many of the nearby structures and date to the reign of Ramesses II, or New Kingdom (19th dynasty). Built along Egypt’s southern frontier, as a show of Egypt’s power again southern neighbors, there are two main temples, one of Ramesses II and a smaller one of his queen Nefertari. The temples weren’t rediscovered until 1813 after falling into disuse and being completely buried in sand over the centuries. They sit some 150 miles upstream, or south, of Aswan and remain on of Egypt’s best known monuments. Bus and plane service are available to this popular and well known monument.
Mausoleum of Aga Khan. This simple yet curious building sits on the west bank of the Nile on a hill prominently overlooking the Nile and Elephantine Island and as such is hard to ignore. It looks vaguely like a mosque and clearly isn’t a ruin. It’s the burial mausoleum of Aga Khan III, who was the 48th Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims and served as the President of the League of Nations from 1937-1938. He was married four times, the last three times to European women. He was involved in the All India Muslim League which helped found Pakistan in 1947 and was an alumnus of Eton and Cambridge.
Archangel Michael’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral. Located on the Nile waterfront,the beautiful Coptic cathedral was only consecrated in 2006 and adds to the diverse fabric of Egypt’s southern most city. It takes on very traditional Coptic elements despite its modern appearance and features one single dome and large windows. Coptic Christianity is the largest branch of Christians in Egypt.
Aswan Dam. The massive Aswan Dam was Egypt’s answer to a chronic water shortage to supply its growing population and lack of freshwater supply. There are actually two dams, the Low Dam, completed in 1902, and the 111 meter High Dam, completed between 1960 and 1970 behind which is Lake Nasser.The High Dam was built with Soviet financing and a large Egyptian-Russian Friendship Monument marks its completion. As a result of the dam construction many Egyptian archeological sites were flooded. Some of the better known ones such as Abu Simbel and Philae were spared by removing them to higher locations.
Edfu (Idfu) is located about 75 miles north of Aswan in the city of Edfu and is best coupled with a trip to Kom Ombo, which is between Edfu and Aswan. Edfu is well known for its finely preserved Ptolemaic era Temple of Horus which dates to 237 and 57 BCE (32nd dynasty) during the reign of Cleopatra VII. The massive edifice was built atop older New Kingdom ruins.
Elephantine Island. The granite island separates the Nile at the famous First Cataract, or the first point in its course (or the last point) where water is rifled swiftly because of a sudden drop in elevation. There are no falls here, but the granite dells at this point run deep and swift and are a curious geologic phenomena. The island is home to a number of resorts, including the luxurious Oberoi as well as some ruins which date to 11th dynasty, theTemple of Khnum, the god of the source of the Nile.
Kom Ombo. Kom Ombo isabout 30 miles, or 50 kilometers north of Aswan, is famous for the Temple of Kom Ombo another beautiful Ptolemaic-era structure from the 32nd dynasty known for its distinct Hellenic style columns. It is also one of two main temples in Egypt dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile god.
Monastery of St. Simeon. The monastery’s history began in the 7th century and is one of the better preserved monasteries in the country. It is located about one kilometer in the desert on the west bank of the Nile, in Deir Amba Samaan and is accessible by camel or jeep. Known for its thick walls it looks more like an abandoned fortress but it remains a significant early Christian ruin in Egypt.
Sharia el-Souq market. Aswan’s central market is a great way to experience the local shopping taking in the spices, local foods, and bargain hunting for clothing and Nubian souvenirs. Be prepared to haggle – this is a great way to experience Egypt at the local level.
The Old Cataract Hotel. The area’s first luxury hotel and still in operation newly remodeled. The Old Cataract Hotel sits just above the First Cataract overlooking the Nile and opposite Elephantine Island taking in spectacular views. Built in the late 19th century the Victorian hotel has indulged guests such as Winston Churchill and Tsar Nicholas II. It was also mentioned in the Agatha Christie novel Death on the Nile.
Philae. The Temple of Philae now sits conspicuously on an island in the middle of Lake Nasser spared flooding only by its removal to higher ground. It formerly sat on an island on the First Cataract. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Philae is a beautiful temple now sitting on Agilkia Island in Lake Nasser. At its oldest Philae’s Temple of Isis dates to 380-362 BC (30th dynasty).
Tombs of the Nobles. A number of tombs and burial chambers dating as far back to the Old and middle Kingdoms can be found on the west bank of the Nile and open to the public. Access is by ferry.