Travel Guide: Aswan, Egypt
No trip to Egypt is complete without a visit to Aswan. Aswan lies on Egypt’s southernmost frontier, some 425 miles south of Cairo, and is a place where time seems to stand as still as the Nile river on a windless day. Aswan feels like a different Egypt than its northern counterparts, Cairo and Luxor. Located only a few hours from the Sudanese Boarder, it has a distinctively African feel. Modern-day Aswan has a slower vibe then most places in Egypt, with a very laid-back and pleasant attitude. In ancient times, Aswan was a garrison town for the military campaigns against Nubia, the culture to the south of Egypt’s first cataract. Aswan’s quarries provided valuable granite used for so many sculptures and obelisks. Situated at the crossroads of the ancient caravan routes, the town became a prosperous marketplace where goods such as ivory, gold, and even slaves were traded and received.
Although no longer a hub for trading, present day Aswan, as it was in ancient times, is astoundingly beautiful. The Nile River is wide and languorous, flowing gently down from Lake Nasser, around dramatic black-granite boulders and palm-studded islands. Colorful, sleepy traditional Nubian villages run down to the water and stand out against the backdrop of the desert on the west bank.
With such a long history and stunning scenery, there is plenty to do and experience in Aswan. With its relaxed ambiance, the sightseeing seems less urgent and overwhelming than elsewhere in Egypt, allowing more time to take in the magic of the Nile at sunset or to appreciate the gentleness of the local Nubians. As an Egyptology student, I already knew a fair amount about Aswan before I visited the first time, but was still taken aback by just how grand the ancient Egyptian empire was and how far it stretched from it’s cultural and governmental centers in the North.
Despite this lush history, in an Egypt that is suffering from a severe lack of tourism since the Arab Spring in 2011, Aswan unfortunately appears to be completely off the radar for the few tourists who are traveling to Egypt. On my first visit to Aswan, I was provided an insight into just how few visitors are currently coming to this part of the county and the harsh reality that the touristic circumstances south of Cairo and Giza are in a much more dire situation. Formerly a major hub for Nile cruises on their way to and from Luxor, now hundreds of massive cruise ships are moored to the docks lining the river’s edge, just waiting for a large enough contingent of travelers to make the traditional cruise down the Nile. These boats have so few customers at the moment that it isn’t even worth it for them to set sail and instead they create a graveyard of sorts on the Nile — silent, empty, unused and, quite literally, rotting away. Until people start coming back to Egypt, they will remain nothing but a sad reminder of just how hard the Egyptian tourism sector has been hit since the Arab Spring.
All that being said, Aswan remains the gateway to some of Egypt’s most iconic archaeological sites and cultural experiences. And it is one of Egypt’s safest cities, which should be reason enough to convince skeptical travelers to take the plunge and visit this incredible area.
Aswan is the perfect place to linger for a few days, to rest and recover from the rigors of travelling in places like Cairo, Alexandria, and Luxor. I recommend two solid days to fit all the “must sees.”
Aswan can be easily reached by plane from Cairo with a flight time of little over an hour. Flying from Egypt’s capital city, watch the bustling city of Cairo disappear into the magnificent wild desert. Aswan then grows out of the Nile like a lotus flower.
The city can also be reached by car from Luxor, making for a lovely drive along the Nile. You can stop at numerous temples along the way, including Edfu, Esna and Kom Ombo. Lastly, taking a Nile cruise from Luxor to Aswan is a truly memorable experience and a unique was to arrive in Egypt’s southernmost city. The Nile River in ancient times was the primary mode of transportation in Egypt. Today, the lifeblood of the country is still heavily used to move goods and people through the country. An unforgettable travel experience is to reach Aswan as the ancient Egyptians did – by boat.
[Note the overnight train from Cairo to Aswan is currently not recommended because service is unreliable. Sometimes it runs and sometimes it doesn’t.]
What to bring:
Remember Egypt is a vast desert. The sky is a wide-open, cloudless expanse of blue. In Aswan, the sun is particularly strong, more so than in most of Egypt. Stay hydrated, wear plenty of sunscreen, and have an ample supply of hats or visors.
Where To Stay:
I recommend staying at the Sofitel Old Cataract Hotel. I didn’t do much splurging when I traveled in
Egypt the first time, but I did treat myself to staying at this five star luxury property with arguably some of the best views of the Nile and Aswan’s archaeological sites on Elephantine Island. The Hotel is a 19th century converted Victorian Palace located directly on the banks of the Nile River. It rises grandly from a pink granite shelf at the edge of the Nubian Desert and the design is a blend of Pharaonic treasures and French art de recevoir. It harkens back to the golden age of archaeology, to a time in antiquity that I thought I would never get the chance to experience. However, if you don’t have an opportunity to stay here, I do recommend getting a tour, as it has been home to many notable people over the years, including Agatha Christie, who has her own suite named after her.
(Website: http://www.sofitel.com/gb/hotel-1666-sofitel-legend-old-cataract-aswan/index.shtml; Phone: 231-6000; Price: starting at $230)
Other hotel recommendations in Aswan:
Moevenpick Resort Aswan: Located on Elephantine Island, the Movenpick is a beautiful hotel on the banks of the Nile. (Website: http://www.moevenpick-aswan.com; Phone: 230-3455; Price: starting $170)
Helnan Aswan Hotel: An excellent mid-ranged hotel, the Helnan has sweeping views over the Nile, Tombs of the Nobles and desert around Aswan. (Email: [email protected] ; Phone: 232- 8828; Price: starting $88)
Pyramisa Isis Island Aswan Resort: The Pyramisa Isis is another excellent island hotel located in the middle of the Nile on the southern end of Aswan. (Website: http://pyramisaegypt.com/pyramisa-isis-aswan-2/; Phone: (+2)(02) 33367000; Email: [email protected]; Price: starting at $77)
Philae Hotel: A solid mid-range hotel, the rooms are clean and tastefully decorated. The hotel restaurant is the best place in town to enjoy vegetarian, organic dishes. (Email: [email protected], Phone: 231-2090, Price: starting at $60)
Where to Eat:
Aswan has a number of excellent restaurants at very reasonable prices.
- Ad-Dukka Restaurant: Our vote for best restaurant in Aswan, this family-run restaurant serves excellent Nubian cuisine. (Located on Essa Island, they offer a free boat shuttle service. Dock located opposite EgyptAir office.).
- Panorama Restaurant: A wonderful little restaurant Nile-side. They serve excellent Egyptians stews and mezzes. (Located on the Corniche an-Nil)
- Al-Makka Restaurant: This restaurant is popular with locals for the tastey kebabs and excellent kofta. The chicken and pigeon are also very good and all are served with tahini, salad and fresh baked bread. (Located on Sharia Abtal at-Tahrir)
- Nubian Museum (9am-5pm daily): This museum showcases the Nubian culture and history.
- Unfinished Obelisk (8am-5pm daily): Lying on the edge of the northern granite quarries, this broken obelisk provides an up close look at how the ancient Egyptians quarried granite for their monuments.
- Elephantine Island: Contains the ruins of Abu (8am-5pm daily), Nilometer and the Aswan Museum.
- Monastery of St. Simeon (8am-4pm daily): 7th century mudbrick Coptic monastery.
- Tombs of the Nobles (8am-4pm daily): Old and Middle Kingdom tombs of local dignitaries. Tombs are only reached by a Felucca boat.
- Philae Temple of Isis (7am-4pm Oct-May, 7am-5pm June-Sept daily): This stunning Greco-Roman temple dedicated to the Goddess Isis is a must see on any visit to Aswan. Philae was the last temple in Ancient Egypt built in the classical Egyptian architectural style, with construction beginning in approximately 690 BCE. Located on an island, the temple is reached by a small boat ferry.
- High Dam: Built to create Lake Nasser, the world’s largest artificial lake, the High dam is one of Egypt’s modern marvels. Unfortunately, many temples were destroyed or lost underwater in the process of damming the Nile.
- Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel: The Temples at Abu Simbel were built to commemorate the reign of Ramses II, arguably one of the most influential Pharaohs in Egyptian history, as well as his beloved wife Nefertari. These structures feature massive stone statues that were intricately carved out of rock faces depicting Ramses taking his place among the ancient gods that were worshipped throughout the country. Currently, this temple complex can only be reached by daily convoy from Aswan.
- Enjoy a sunset boat cruise on the Nile in a traditional Felucca.
- Take a boat through colossal granite boulders of the First Cataract (best combined with a visit to the Nubian village).
- Visit one of the Nubian villages to learn about traditional Nubian customs.
- Try your bargaining skills out at the colorful and vivacious Nubian market. This lively collection of stalls sells Nubian handcrafts, spices, classic Egyptian trinkets, as well as items brought in from the Sudan and neighboring Libya.
The Temple of Isis at Philae
The Temple of Isis at Philae was built to honor the Egyptian Goddess Isis, patron of Magic, wife to Osiris and mother to the god of living kingship, Horus. This temple was the last temple in Ancient Egypt built in the classical Egyptian architectural style, with construction beginning in approximately 690 BCE. It was moved from its original location on Philae Island, to its new location on Agilkia Island, after the flooding of Lake Nasser. A major multinational UNESCO team relocated Philae, and a number of other temples from the 1960s-1980. You can see the submerged original island a short distance away, punctuated by the steel columns used in the moving process.
I recommend travelers arrive early in the morning. The Temple perched in the middle of Lake Nasser on its own private island looks magical as the sun begins to rise over the sand dunes, casting the ruins in a pinkish glow and slowly revealing the saturated green of the Nilotic plants and the deep blue of the water as the sun climbs higher in the sky. With the very low population in the area, the only sounds you hear this early in the morning are the bird’s awakening in the papyrus and small waves lapping gently at the water’s edge.
I had hired a car to take me from the airport to the site, and I remember craning my neck trying to catch a glimpse of the temple from the car. As a huge expanse of water was separating us, I could barely make out the temple in the distance. I could, however, see dozens of small boats lined up along the banks, algae and rust growing up the sides of them from neglect. These boats used to ferry passengers from the parking lot to the temple before tourism took a turn for the worst and now sit deserted.
When I exited the vehicle, the site guards at the lake’s edge looked shocked to see me. My guide informed me that they didn’t’ welcome many visitors, although I felt like this went without saying. I walked down the docks to get on the boat that would take me to the island. As we cruised over the giant lake, with the Temple of Philae coming into view, like a magical temple surging out of water, and the fresh air blowing over me, I can’t remember ever having felt so alive, and so far removed from society.
I was the first visitor to the island that morning and had the wonderful opportunity to spend the better part of an hour touring the site completely by myself. It is a big complex, with a huge outer and inner courtyard, first and second pylons, a separate temple of Horus and a Mammisi (a symbolic birth house). It was so eerily quite, that I caught myself a few times being transported back into ancient times, and I swore I could almost smell the acrid scent of blood scarifies and hear the music of a priestesses sistrum. You too will most likely have this opportunity if you go to Philae, which is an amazing opportunity to take advantage of now while you can.
Elephantine Island and Qubbet El-Hawa
After my visit to Philae, I made a quick trip back to the hotel for a rest before venturing out to
Elephantine Island and Qubbet El-Hawa. Both of these archaeological sites are located on the Western Nile shore in Aswan, and hold some of the richest Egyptian and Nubian History. You have to take a Felucca, a small river vessel propelled by oars and lateen sails, to get to both of these sites. Qubbet El-Hawa contains, as far as known so far, some 60 tombs of administrators from the South, most from the Old and Middle Kingdom (2600-1750 BCE). The power held by these administrators was centered on the island of Elephantine. The Governors of Elephantine were practically kings of their territory, because the Pharaonic capital of Memphis was located 500 miles to the North. For the Egyptian Rulers, Elephantine Island was extremely important both strategically and commercially. From this location, military expeditions left for Nubia, usually in order to fight against the warlike Nubian neighbors, and African products like exotic animas, gold, ivory, were imported into the Egyptian Empire via this location.
As an area rich in archaeological remains, there are usually teams of foreign archaeologists hard at work here. When I visited, I went over and had conversations with a few of them, who were more than willing to entertain the one and only tourist to Elephantine Island. If you have the opportunity, I would recommend interacting with these teams. It is an incredible experience to immerse yourself in an actual archaeological dig!
Last stop on Day 1 of my Aswan Agenda, is the elite burial ground of Qubbet El-Hawa. It took me about 45 minutes by Felucca to get there from Elephantine Island and served as an amazing opportunity to see the sleepy city of Aswan, the Sahara sand dunes, and the Nilotic life from the river. Unfortunately, it also gave me a front row seat to the huge toll the lack of tourism has taken on Aswan. As we sailed down river, I caught a glimpse of the seemingly endless rows of abandoned cruise ships, sitting like ghosts from the golden age of Egyptian Tourism, lost and alone.
Qubbet El-Hawa was incredible to see just as the sun was beginning to set, and I recommend all travelers see it at around the same time as I did, the slanting sun that flows down the sand and ignites the water’s edge is simply stunning. The site itself is built on a hill banking the Nile and is composed of a group of 60 rock-cut tombs, mainly dating from the Egyptian Old Kingdom. The hill the tombs are built on is also a site of a Coptic Monastery, and some of the Ancient Egyptian tombs were reused as a Coptic Church. The area is thus a symbolic juxtaposition of the monotheistic Christian iconography and that of the polytheistic Egyptians, where Coptic crosses stand toe to toe with Egyptian carved motifs of the funerary God’s Osiris and Anubis.
Visiting these tombs stands in stark contrast to a visit to the Valley of the Kings, where things are much more organized and controlled. I felt a bit like a kid in a playground, able to explore the tombs at my leisure, without time constraints or tickets. It was a truly memorable experience, and a chance to see tombs from the Coptic and Old Kingdom, when all the tombs I had visited in the heavily touristic areas were from the New Kingdom time period (1550-1070 BCE). It was a perfect way end to my first full day in Aswan.
The Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel
Aswan, being the gateway to the deep south of Egypt, is where you can access one of the most iconic
and impressive monuments of Ancient Egypt. The Temples at Abu Simbel were built to commemorate the reign of Ramses II, arguably one of the most influential Pharaohs in Egyptian history, as well as his beloved wife Nefertari. These structures feature massive stone statues that were intricately carved out of rock faces depicting Ramses taking his place among the ancient gods that were worshipped throughout the country. He ordered the construction of the temples following his great victory at the Battle of Kadesh, during which Ramses defeated an army of Hittites in what may have been the largest chariot battle ever fought. Its location along the southern border of the Egyptian empire was to serve as a warning to invaders from Africa, and a testament to the power of the Pharaoh himself. Being so far away from the countries capital cities, the temple is a symbolic representation of just grand the Ancient Egyptian Empire was at its height and far it’s power and resources stretched. The temples at Abu Simbel, like the Temple of Isis at Philae, were saved from the rising waters of the Nile and the building of the Aswan High Dam, thanks to the International Campaign launched by UNESCO, in 1960 to 1980, who moved it from it’s original site to where it now sits.
Abu Simbel has always been a popular attraction for travelers, although it is quite a trek out to the desert just to see it. It sits 186 miles to the south of Aswan, about 45 minutes from the Sudanese border, in a remote region far from any other sites. This equates to about a 3-hour drive through the barren desert both there and back. I woke up at 3:00am and had to join a policy convoy to get there, along with other tourists. When the Egyptian tourism economy was doing better, planes used to fly from Aswan to Abu Simbel, but now, due to lack of passengers, those have halted. However, I would advice travelers to not be deterred by this, or the term “policy convoy”, this is just a safety precaution because of the amount of tourists traveling to the site at any one time. Driving there was actually one of the highlights of my visit to Egypt. I have never seen anything so vast, empty, expansive and beautiful as the Sahara desert south of Aswan. It was the most glorious, unpopulated nothingness I have ever experienced and it was unforgettable to see how massive the sunrise appears when there are no mountains or dunes to obscure your vision.
The two temples at Abu Simbel delivered impressive grandeur! They have stood the testament of time, immortalizing Ramses II and his famous Queen, Nefertari. Both the beauty of the construction and the location make Abu Simbel a site not to miss on any trip to Egypt.
The Nubian Village
There are many traditional, and still occupied, Nubian Villages in Aswan, the closest town located 150 meters from the cornice on Elephantine Island in the Aswan archipelago. Nubians live in houses painted with the most exquisite bright colors; wonderful hues of orange, blue and pink stand out vividly against the backdrop of the golden desert sand. Traditionally, the floor of these houses was made of sand and not all the rooms were roofed. Protection against rain is not a priority since Aswan is one of the driest places in the world.
A visit to this village is a fantastic opportunity to interact with locals. As a traveler, you will be invited into many of their homes, for a cup of tea or “Karkade”, a drink made of hibiscus flowers. In the village, you can also learn to make “Shamsi” bread, which has a special baking technique. The bakers, usually the women of the village, let the dough rise in the sun before baking it.
My time in the village illustrated for me that Nubians are some of the most generous and hospitable peoples I have ever encountered. Despite the hard economic times of Egypt, the spirit of these southern people is not weighed down and they remain as friendly and welcoming as ever.
After my two full days in Aswan I departed for Luxor by car. If you have the opportunity, I would do it by cruise ship to experience Egypt the way the Ancient Egyptians did, traveling along their flowing highway.
Aswan is a land that time seems to have left unaltered from the ancient past. It’s small and traditional populace and environs provide a glimpse into what the world was like in Antiquity. Being so different from the rest of Egypt, Aswan broadened my understanding of modern Egypt. Despite the heavy hit tourism has taken recently, the general character of Aswan remains as pleasant and light hearted as ever. Experience the magic this area offers first hand and to see not only how powerful and glorious the Ancient Egyptian empire was but how, I believe, the modern country of Egypt still is.
Making A Difference Through Travel
There are many great ways for travelers to, through small measures, make a big impact on locals lives and livelihood. Tourism professionals, from guides to vendors selling trinkets to drivers to hotel owners to restaurant owners, have all been hit hard by the downturn in the economy. When traveling in Egypt, consider hiring a local guide (especially a female guide, women have been experience dramatic unemployment). Visiting a site with a local guide is like traveling with your savvy local friend who knows the country inside and out. It’s a great way to get a real local experience of a place and also help put the talented women and men guides back to work. Keep a few Egyptian pounds handy at sites to purchase a few trinkets for friends and family back home. One of the most vivid memories I have of visiting sites was the destitute circumstance of the souvenir vendors. Most storefronts were empty, and as if to dramatically emphasize this point, dust and dirt would blow in from the desert with great speed, making it so that the few tourist at sites often rushed past the vendor’s stalls in an effort to avoid the wind and dirt. Purchasing a trinket for a few Egyptian pounds makes all the difference in the world to the people who sell them. Also, eat at local mom and pop restaurant and stay in the smaller, boutique hotels. This is the real Egypt, the local Egypt. And as travelers, eating at these cozy, family-run restaurants and staying at these small pension-style hotels directly makes a powerful impact in people’s lives – helping them feed their families, send their kids to school, and pass on this prosperity through employment.
Joanie Maro is a writer, teacher, archaeologist, and self-proclaimed travel addict. She has worked abroad as an English teacher and archaeologist in numerous countries throughout the Middle East, and Europe. And has worked domestically for European tour operators. Joanie has only ever been completely sure about two things in her life. First, is her complete unfailing love for Egypt, both modern and ancient. Second is her lifelong ability and fondness for writing. She is excited to finally be able to combine these two passions to create this column, On The Road With Joanie Maro, for ArchaeoAdventures. She is also an Egyptology adviser for ArchaeoAdventures.