Aswan is where Egypt travelers go for relaxation, besides shopping and sightseeing. About 680 km (425 miles) south of Cairo, just below the Dam and Lake Nasser, Aswan is the smallest of the three major tourist cities based on the Nile. You feel you have reached Africa (as most westerners imagine the continent), mainly because it has a large population of Nubian people, mostly resettled from their homeland in the area flooded by Lake Nasser.
The area is rich in granite quarries exploited since antiquity. Most of the obelisks seen in Luxor were sourced from Aswan. And speaking of rocks, there’s Elephantine Island, so called because its huge dark smooth rocks resemble the skin of elephants.
Savvy tourists take advantage of Aswan location in Upper Egypt and book a tour to Abu-Simbel, to witness one of Egypt’s most amazing sites.
Tourists can explore the city of Aswan by horse drawn carriage and take in the sights of the area. These may include the Ferial Gardens and the Nubian Museum. It’s a great opportunity to witness captivating views of the Nile and see why Agatha Christie chose this area as the setting for her famous novel “Death on the Nile”.
On the west bank, expect to be offered a camel ride by the locals. The ruins of the St. Simeon Monastery, located some three quarters of a mile (1,200 meters) from the west bank opposite the southern tip of the island of Elephantine, is usually accessed on a camel’s back.
The monastery was given the name St Simeon by archaeologists and travelers, but earlier Arabic and Coptic sources called it Anba Hatre (Hidra, Hadri, Hadra), after an anchorite who was consecrated a bishop of Syene (now Aswan) by Patriarch Theophilus (385-412 AD).
Anba Hatre married at the age of eighteen. Tradition says that just after the wedding, he encountered a funeral procession which inspired him to preserve his chastity and later become a disciple of Saint Baiman. After eight years of ascetic practices under the supervision of his teacher, he retired to the desert and applied himself to the study of the life of Saint Anthony. He died during the time of Theodosius I.
Aswan is the point of departure for most Nile cruises. Much of the river still retains the same scenery that would have been familiar to the ancient Egyptians. It is a scene of which you never tire – a way to leave everyday pressures behind as you travel from Aswan to Luxor.
Nile cruises take either 4 or 8 days and offer all kinds of modern amenities including private bathroom, laundry service, satellite TV, swimming pool, sundeck, massage service, boutiques, gift shop, lounges, restaurants and night entertainment featuring Nubian dancers and music. Scheduled tours on a cruise departing from Aswan include the Valley of the Kings, Karnak and Luxor Temples, Kom Ombo and the beautiful Temple of Isis in Philae.
Philae Temple was carefully moved to its current location (around 500 meters from the original site) when the construction of the High Dam caused the surrounding Nile waters to rise. A short motorboat ride takes you to the island. Dedicated to the goddess Isis, Philae Temple has a beautiful setting on an island in the river which has been landscaped to match its original site. Its various shrines and sanctuaries celebrate the deities involved in the myth of Isis and Osiris. At night you’re treated for the spectacular Sound and Light show, a multimedia presentation which vividly reveals the form and majesty of this ancient site. Visitors walk through the dramatically lit temple as its history is narrated.
Tourists can also sail the Nile on a felucca. From this vantage point, the closest you ever get to the legendary river, the scenery unfolds and the Agha Khan Mausoleum appears situated on the top of a hill, commanding a magnificent view of Aswan. On the west bank, the desolate hillside is dotted with the Tombs of the Nobles as you sail by to the Botanic Gardens on Kitchener Island.
A felucca ride to Kitchener Island takes around 20 minutes, depending on wind speed and Nile currents. Visit the small botanical museum before strolling through the botanical gardens which are home to many exotic species of plants and trees imported from all around the world. The Aswan Botanic Gardens are a quiet and peaceful oasis from the hustle and bustle of everyday Egyptian life, and young couples and families from Aswan often spend their day enjoying the island.
A felucca ride is also available to Soheil Island for a visit to a Nubian village, to learn about their history, culture and lifestyle.
Located near Aswan, the world famous High Dam was an engineering miracle when it was built in the 1960s. Containing more material than used in the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the Dam is 11,811 ft long, 3215 ft thick at the base, 364 ft tall and is carved into from the existing granite, providing irrigation and electricity for the whole of Egypt. From the top of the High Dam you can gaze across Lake Nasser, the largest man made lake in the world.
While the Aswan High Dam was being built, egyptologists and archaeologists the world over heeded UNESCO’s appeal to salvage the monuments of Egyptian Nubia before the rising waters of Lake Nasser submerged them forever. More than sixty expeditions ultimately joined the “Nubian Rescue Campaign”, which resulted in the excavation and recording of hundreds of sites, the recovery of thousands of objects, and the salvage and translocation of a number of important temples to higher ground.
Due to the quantities of material recovered from tombs, temples and settlements, UNESCO was encouraged in the 1980’s to plan a new Nubian Museum in Aswan where the objects could be stored and exhibited. It was universally felt at the time that they should be kept as close as possible to their principal places of origin.
Nearly 12 years later, the Museum became a reality and opened its doors in November 1997. The architecture of the Museum and the enclosure walls are intended to evoke traditional Nubian village architecture, as it was along the Nubian Nile before entire Nubian villages were forcibly relocated as the region was flooded by Lake Nasser. The building is set within a landscape, on graded levels, that includes a sequence of waterfalls. When the waterway reaches the lower part of the garden, it divides into 2 branches to surround an open-air stage and amphitheater where already many local and foreign groups have performed. The remaining 43,000 square meters have been planted with palm trees, flowers, and climbing plants, spread over natural rocks.
Kalabsha Temple, originally built at Kalabsha (Talmis) was moved to its present location at New Kalabsha (Chellal) in 1970, together with other monuments from Nubia, including the Kiosk of Qertassi (Kertassi). Also nearby is Beit al-Wali.
Reachable by taxi or by boat, depending on the water level, the sandstone edifice was built by the Roman Emperor Octavius Augustus (30 to 14 BC) and dedicated to the fertility and Nubian Solar deity known as Mandulis (Merwel who was the Nubian counterpart of Horus). It was the largest free-standing temple of Egyptian Nubia, and the design of Kalabsha Temple is classical for the Ptolemaic period with pylons, courtyard, hypostyle hall and three room sanctuary.
However, the Pylon is offset, which creates a trapezoid in the courtyard beyond. It was built on the site of an earlier structure built by Ptolemy IX as evidenced by a chapel. There is also a small chapel and gate on Elephantine Island from Kalabsha, and a gate built by Augustus was given to the Agyptisches Museum in West Berlin.
Aswan is home to the largest granite quarries of Egypt, where much of the red granite used for ancient temples and colossi came from. The Unfinished Obelisk, located in the Northern Quarry, still lies where it was carved 3000 years ago for Queen Hatshepsut. It is an amazing site as the visitor is shown how the inmense obelisk was carved in one piece, and why the crack discovered during its construction caused it to be abandoned.
Elephantine Island is the largest of the Aswan area islands, and is one of the most ancient sites in Egypt, with artifacts dating to predynastic periods. This is probably due to its location at the first Cataract of the Nile, which provided a natural boundary between Egypt and Nubia.
As an island, it was also easily defensible. In fact, the ancient town located in the southern part of the island was also a fortress through much of its history. At one time, there was a bridge from the mainland to the island.
Elephantine is Greek for elephant. In ancient times, the Island, as well as the southern town, was called Abu, or Yabu, which also meant elephant. The town has also been referenced as Kom, after it’s principle god of the island, Khnum (Khnemu).
It is believed that the island received it’s name because it was a major ivory trading center, though in fact, it was a major trading post of many commodities. There are large boulders in the river near the island which resembled bathing elephants, particularly from afar, and this too has been suggested as a reason for the island’s name.
The souqs (markets) in Aswan are refreshingly exotic without the same level of high-pressure selling found in some tourist towns further north. You will generally find that Nubian handicrafts are of higher quality and better value in Aswan.