Aswan is where ‘Arabia merges into Africa.’ Home to the Nubians (from the land of ‘Nob’ or ‘Gold’) whose powerful kingdom once stretched from here to Khartoum in Sudan.
It is the buffer zone in our itinerary between the chaos of Cairo and the intense ancient temple and tomb circuit of Luxor.
We start at the temple of Philae, not technically in Aswan but 12 km south of the city. The temple is magnificent. An ode to the cult of Isis, Mother of Horus, Goddess of Healing. Originally built on Philae island, it was rescued from the rising waters of the Aswan High Dam and relocated stone by numbered stone to the island of Agilkia as part of UNESCO’s International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia.
It is here that a priest of Isis carved the very last dated hieroglyphic inscription in 394 AD. It was also one of the last ancient Egyptian temples to remain active until Emperor Justinian ordered the closure of pagan temples in 553 AD. That it served as a Christian place of worship briefly thereafter is evident from the remnants of Byzantine buildings and crosses carved over some of the Ptolomaic era wall reliefs.
Aswan is part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network in the category of craft and folk art aimed at promoting the sustainable development of local communities. An offshoot of this is the Nubian Museum.
Housed in a beautifully designed 7000 sq feet space, the museum is a true gem. It showcases the objects excavated during the rescue of Nubian temples along with a series of photographs of the process. The relics of the Nubian culture that could not be so precisely salvaged are equally priceless and poignant. The beautiful handicrafts and folk art section was a particular favourite.
Our felucca driver takes us to Elephantine island in the evening for a brief stroll through its palm and fruit tree gardens and the colourful houses of the villages at its centre. It’s an enjoyable glimpse into the simple Nubian lifestyle. We reluctantly skip the ruins of the ancient settlement of Abu on the southern edge and hop back onto our felucca to continue our sunset ride.
Aswan is an archipelago flanked by the desert, making for an enchanting landscape that seems to glow in the evening light. A brilliant canvas of burnished copper dunes cascading down to the verdant edge of a sparkly Nile.
The highlight of a visit to Aswan is to drift dreamily down this ancient waterway on a felucca and surrender – for a few hours – to the stillness of the tranquil Nubian landscape.
Later, we wander around the Sharia el Souk. While it isn’t the best souk we have been to by any stretch, it is far less touristy than any we visited in Egypt and atmospheric all lit up in the evening.
MORE THINGS TO DO IN ASWAN
SEHEL ISLAND INSCRIPTIONS
Scores of boulders covered with ancient rock inscriptions lie scattered across this peaceful island 4 km south of Aswan. Early travellers to Nubia would leave messages carved into the rocks to the gods of the cataracts, Anuket (Anukis), Khnum and Satet. The best known of the 600 or so inscriptions is the Famine Stelae: a large boulder on the summit of the eastern hill. Its 42 columns of inscriptions chronicle the seven year famine in the time of Pharaoh Djoser (of the Dahshur Stepped Pyramid fame) and drawings of his offerings to the triad of Nubian deities at the temple of Khnum on Elephantine island. The style and grammar of the inscriptions is from the ptolemaic period closer to 250 BC and considered to be a possible adaptation of the original from Djoser’s time (2667–2648 BC.)
The village close to the stelae is worth a wander. Friendly locals offer tea and even lunch (with prior notice. Check with your felucca owner). They’ll also act as guides for a fee.
Getting There: Hop on a public motor boat from the Aswan corniche. or hire a private felucca/motor boat for EGP 150/160 per hour. Entry Ticket: EGP 40/ EGP 20.
THE TOMBS OF THE NOBLES
Also called Qubbet el-Hawa, these tombs located on the west bank of the Nile are considered archaeological gems. Some of the tombs date back 3800 years and have painted reliefs and hieroglyphics. Six of the decorated tombs are open to the public and are easy to access via cheap public ferry. It drops you off right near the ticket office from where a set of steep stairs lead up to the tombs. The tomb keepers go missing sometimes so it might be better done with a guide. Getting across to the high point on the West bank is worthwhile just for the spectacular views. Entry Ticket: EGP 60/ EGP 30
An ancient island that was bought by Lord Kitchner in 1899. His love for exotic tropical plants has gifted Aswan with a botanical garden and agriculture research centre to be proud of. Not a bad place to while away an evening with sweeping views over that sublime landscape. Entry Ticket: EGP 80/ EGP 40
Much of the material used in Egyptian monuments from the rose granite cladding in Old Kingdom Temples in Giza to the Obelisks of Luxor were quarried in Aswan. A visit to the quarry (close to the Nubian museum) to take a look at the 3500 year old Unfinished Obelisk abandoned by Hatshepsut when it developed a crack, provides insights into stone-cutting methods of the time. Entry Ticket: EGP 80/ EGP 40
ASWAN HIGH DAM
The flooding of the Nile was intrinsic to the ancient civilization of Egypt and a means of rejuvenating the tiny strip of cultivable land along the Nile Valley. In a modern world the devastation it wrought countered any advantage.
An earlier dam built by the British in 1902 provided irrigation during drought but failed to contain the flood waters. It wasn’t until 1970 that the cycle of flood and drought was finally ended by the building of the controversial Aswan High Dam at a whopping cost of 1 billion USD. It also ensured a constant supply of renewable energy. The dam wrought considerable ecological damage too including degradation of soil that was once annually enriched by the floods.
The creation of the gigantic lake – named Nasser after the president whose dream project this was – threatened to submerge scores of Nubian temples in its wake. UNESCO stepped in to save several groups of monuments in the most ambitious rescue campaign in history. Abu Simbel and the Temple of Philae are among them.
Entry Tickets: EGP 100/EGP 50
We think the dam and the obelisk are mildly interesting sites, more important for their history and engineering rather than as attractions. I would advice skipping both on a short itinerary and save that time to savour Aswan’s landscape instead.
If you do go, do not miss the Kalabsha Temples: One of the groups of Nubian Temples relocated along with the Temple of Philae. The main temple is dedicated to the Nubian Sun God Merwel (Greek name: Mandulis) and contains a lot of painted reliefs of the God and the King. The site is accessed by boat near the high dam. Boats are technically available at all times at the departure pier but I suggest you get your hotel to reserve a boat in advance (approx. EGP 100). Entry Ticket EGP 60/EGP 30.
The Sound & Light show at the pyramids was a kitschy affair so we stayed away from the rest. The one at Philae temple is considered less so. The timing is staggered based on language. Pick a suitable timing from this schedule.
DAY-TRIPS FROM ASWAN
Abu Simbel, located 265 km south west of Aswan, is THE reason most tourists come to Aswan for. The monumental facades of the twin temples, carved directly into the face of the cliff, are iconic visuals nearly as symbolic of Egypt as the pyramids.
A visit takes around 9 hrs by road and can be combined with the Philae temple & Aswan Dam. Read my Abu Simbel post for more details and information on all the ways to get there.
KOM OMBO, EDFU & ESNA
If you plan to travel to Luxor from Aswan, these three Ptolemaic temples are best visited en route.
The temple of Kom Ombo is a twin temple with beautiful mural reliefs that start from the external wall. One temple is dedicated to Sobek the crocodile headed God of fertility and the other to the falcon headed Haroeris (Horus the elder, brother of Osiris.) Entry Tickets: EGP 140/EGP 70
The magnificent Temple Of Edfu, built in the 2nd century BC, is one of the best preserved temples in Egypt, with still standing pylons emblazoned with gigantic murals of Horus (the younger, Son of Osiris!) and Ptolemy King Neos Dionysos. Entry Tickets: EGP 180/EGP 90
Nine metres below street level is the Greco-Roman era Temple of Esna dedicated to the ram headed God Khnum, his wife Menhet (the lion goddess), Heka (their son and the personification of magic), Neith (the ancient goddess of war and weaving) and Satet (a goddess of the Nile.) The profuse wall murals hold detailed instructions for maintaining ritual purity. Entry Tickets: EGP 80/EGP 40
Kom Ombo is the closest to Aswan. If I had to choose just one, I’d pick Edfu.
An off the beaten track addition to the above outing is Silsila: A group of decorated temples and cave tombs that’ll require a detour by ferry and back from your vehicle. I haven’t been there myself but the riverside setting seems spectacular. You’ll certainly need a guide if including this stop.
DARAW CAMEL MARKET
Held every Saturday & Sunday, the livestock market is a great dose of local culture. It can be included in the Aswan to Luxor transfer if you cut out Kom Ombo & Esna. Remember, you need to reach your destination before all roads close at sunset.
ASWAN TRAVEL TIPS
BEST TIME TO VISIT: Winter months between mid October to mid March.
- GETTING TO ASWAN FROM CAIRO:
- Flights are the fastest and most convenient way to get here. Egyptair has frequent flights to Daraw Airport.
- Buses are the cheapest mode of inter-city travel (11hrs to Luxor; 15hrs to Aswan). GoBus is reputed to be reliable with an App for booking on the go.
- First Class air conditioned VIP Tourist Trains to Luxor (10hrs) and Aswan (13hrs) are reputed to be excellent. Others not so much. Tickets can be booked directly at the station, through a travel agent or via the Ernst website. Overnight sleeper trains need to be booked in advance.
- GETTING TO ASWAN FROM LUXOR:
- Hiring a car & driver is the best way to travel between Luxor and Aswan and vice versa. It takes under 4 hours without stops. Closer to ten with stops at the three Ptolemaic temples on the way.
- Trains take around 4hrs.
- A Nile Cruise will take between 2 – 4 nights but will inclide most sightseeing in both cities along with stay and meals.
- Feluccas are a more authentic way to travel. The journey will take nearly a week for the same number of stops. It can be cut short, however, and the rest done by road.
Private ferries to and from leading hotels are free and ply until late on request. Cheap public ferries transport people between islands. Taxis can be hired to get to the piers beyond Aswan town.
GETTING TO PHILAE TEMPLE:
The only way to get to the island is by boat. Approximate price EGP 200 per boat (4-6 persons) depending on your haggling skills. You’ll need to get to the pier by taxi.
TIP: Finalise boat price BEFORE buying temple tickets (Counter is before the pier) or your negotiation might not be very effective. And remember to only pay after your return.
If you only have one full day, I recommend pre-arranging transport with a tour company. Airport pick-up + all transport to and from Philae Temple, High Dam, Obelisk and Kalabsha temples (excluding entrance tickets) should cost around US$ 100 total for a vehicle plus guide for upto two persons. Add another US$100 for transfer to Luxor with stops at Kom Ombo, Edfu & Esna.
NOTE: All highways in the region are closed between sunset and sunrise.
WHERE TO STAY: The Sofitel Legend Old Cataract is a historic hotel where Agatha Christie camped out for a whole year while she wrote Death On The Nile. On hindsight, we feel we should have splurged on this hotel instead of the Nile Cruise although our stay in the Movenpick Resort & Spa was perfectly comfortable and we highly recommend it.
WHERE TO EAT: Al Dokka (River views.) | Soleih Nubian (On Bigeh Island with Philae temple views. Best combined with temple visit.) | The Terrace at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract (River views. Reservation recommended. Formal attire mandatory for the 1902 restaurant.) | Panorama Restaurant & Bar and Mezze at the Movenpick Resort (Elephantine Island) | Nubian Dreams (Elephantine Island)
WHAT TO WEAR: Nothing too short or revealing is the norm for women travelling to Egypt. Otherwise wear whatever you are comfortable in, but carry a light shirt or stole to throw over your shoulders when entering temples and walking through villages and markets. I would avoid shorts everywhere. Khakis, loose cotton pants or skirts are ideal.
HOURS & ENTRANCE FEES:
Hours: June to Sept: 07.00- 17.00; Oct to May: 07.00-16.00
Tickets: Adult: EGP 180 / Student: EGP 90
SOUND & LIGHT SHOW: EGP 45. No discounted tickets
Camera Photography: EGP 50 (Free with mobile phones.) Tripod: EGP 20
Hours: June to Sept: 07.00- 17.00; Oct to May: 07.00-16.00
Tickets: Adult: EGP 140 / Student: EGP 70
OTHER SITES – 2019-2020 Entry Ticket Booklet
FELUCCA RIDE: Approx. EGP 150 per hour (per private boat)
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