Aswan – The City of Egyptian and Nubian Delights
The name Aswan may conger images of a pharaonically immense dam project from the 60’s. Or maybe you are trying to remember whodunit aboard Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile” river cruise boat. Or perhaps you may have never heard of it at all.
The city of Aswan lies at the far southern end of Egypt, and a 20-minute plane-hop north of the mega-sized monument to Ramses the Great in Abu Simbel. Situated at a bend in the Nile River called The Cataracts – not the kind that has to do with debilitated eyesight; these Cataracts are the rapids in the river caused by large boulders placed by nature in the bend in the river.
In the middle of the river are a number of small islands that were populated in antiquity by Egyptians and Nubians alike. Today, a working archaeological dig site can be observed on the larger of these called Elephantine Island.
Being so far from the main governmental influences of Cairo, Luxor, and Alexandria in the far north, the little local town of Aswan has a feel of a lost child in search of recognition. To the Western eye, the small towns of a developing country can seem forgotten and perhaps even intimidating. But look deeper.
Top 7 Things to do in Aswan
Aswan is the center point of a large variety of exotic activities. Being a city with a low crime rate, you will find beautiful people that seem to want only to please. Local people love tourists, and will likely ask to have their photo taken with you. Aswan is a unique and interesting place to visit if you like ‘off-the-beaten-path’ destinations. Check out these top 7 things to do in Aswan and tips on how to book cheap excursions.
1.Philae: The Temple of Isis
Isis was the mother of Horus and the sister/wife of Osiris. Their stories ring throughout Egyptian history. As legend has it, Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth, who scattered Osiris’ body parts all around Egypt. Isis finds these parts and magically brings Osiris back to life. This is the ‘pocket version’ of the story, and if you ever get down this way, it is one that you will learn in detail. Oh, the Shakespeare of it all!
The Temple that you will see today used to be located closer to the first Cataract. Because of the building of the Aswan Dam in the 1960’s, the temple was moved to an island in its current location. An excellent display in the Nubian Museum (in Aswan, Egypt) depicts the Herculean-sized effort of moving this historically-charged monument to Isis.
This island consists of a very complicated archaeological dig site, which has been going on for decades. The site has been inhabited and controlled by a variety of powers throughout that past several thousand years, making it a multi-layered archaeological event. Although you will see both preservation and restoration going on, it is difficult to restore it because they would have to either destroy something else around it or leave something else covered underneath it.
You can purchase tickets, gain access, and walk through this working dig site with a guide. This is the perfect place for you to put your Indiana Jones on, and enjoy the archaeology. Historically, the island held a temple for Khnum, the God of Elephantine. The island is a part of Nubia (which stretches way down into today’s Sudan) and has been controlled by Nubians and Egyptians alike throughout the millennia. A great way to visit Elephantine Island is to take a Private Felucca Boat Cruise, a traditional felucca ride upon Egypt’s grand River Nile.
3.Evening Stroll through the Market
Bring a pocketful of toys for the children – you will quickly become the awesome stranger that came to this little town and made the children laugh.
Aswan is known for the spices brought in from all over Africa. During your stroll, you will pass a variety of markets that off the most interestingly-wrapped, bundled and packaged spices. As you sniff your way through the city, you will find that so many of these spices have been incorporated into the local menus. If you are even the littlest bit of a foodie, you will LOVE the new flavors found in this southern Egyptian town. If you come across someone whom you would like to photograph, remember your good manners, and ask permission before doing so. You would most likely appreciate the same courtesy.
When your little photo session is finished, offer them something in thanks, for example some candy, but only if it is individually wrapped. During your stroll, you will be invited into shops, invited to sample food, and invited to have your photo taken. Do it all, as there are few places in the world where you will easily get to dive into and experience an exotic foreign culture – rather than simply passing through and observing it.
4.Old Cataract Hotel
Nestled comfortably at the bend in the river where the first Cataracts are located, sits the 5-Star luxury property, The Old Cataract Hotel. Many famous people have visited here since its construction in 1899. It reeks with old world fineness and tradition. From the wood-paneled walls to the soaring Arabian dome in its fine-dining restaurant “1902,” the hotel exudes an elegance you won’t soon forget. With their trademark glass of Hibiscus Juice in your hand, stroll out to the terrace that overlooks the great Nile and Elephantine Island beyond. It becomes easy to imagine why such luminaries as Agatha Christie, Winston Churchill, Princess Diana, and Jimmy Carter used this as their base when visiting upper Egypt.
An effortless ride from the Old Cataract Hotel is the granite quarry where the Ancients have mined the famous Aswan Rose Granite for millennia. Within the quarry lies the most prominent obelisk ever made. Or should I say, attempted? Queen Hatshepsut (1508–1458 bce) ordered its creation, but partway through the project, cracks began appearing, so the obelisk was abandoned. A great way to venture to this historical site, is to take a private tour of Philae Temple, the Dam & Obelisk as a combination trip.
This little museum is a surprise within a surprise. Upon entering, a full-scale of the Nile River in all her splendor greets you and gives you the sense of space, direction, and history. The numerous collections of ancient relics, art and artifacts are expertly displayed throughout the museum. A few favorites include the exhibit of the moving of the Temple of Philae, and the horrendous Aswan Dam construction project of the 1960’s and 70’s.
Additionally, the life-sized diorama of a typical day in the life of ordinary ancient Nubians will captivate you and whileaway your afternoon. When finished inside, take a stroll outside to the beautifully-designed botanical garden, and learn what kinds of flora were abundant throughout history in this area. Expedia offers a great private guided tour of the Nubian Museum for those who prefer to be shown around by an educated tour guide. You can even opt for a combination tour and visit the Kalabsha Temple as well as the Nubian Museum on the same trip.
This is the beginning of your Cruise down the Nile. The River Boats are lined up along the riverside below the Old Cataract Hotel. Once you board your boat, you will be transported to the world of the Nile, as you make stops all along the river. All you need to remember is that the Nile River flows North, therefore, when cruising downstream (North) on the Nile, you are going from upriver to downriver (south to north). Hence, Cairo and Alexandria in the North are called ‘Lower Egypt,’ and Luxor and Aswan, which are upriver from them are known as ‘Upper Egypt.’
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Author Bio: Patty Civalleri is a world traveler, archaeologically seasoned for 17 years. She is a multiple award-winning best selling author of Italy Travel tourist books for those that wish to do more than eat & drink when they go to Italy.
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