Aswan lies majestically along the banks of what many regard as the Nile at its most beautiful. Its forbidding summer heat makes it an ideal winter destination where you can spend your days walking along the Corniche or relaxing on a felucca ride at the end of a long day of sightseeing.
Start with Elephantine Island, which dates back to the pre-dynastic period. So named because the boulders off its shore are said to resemble bathing elephants and for the trade in ivory that continued there through 2600 BC its attractions include the Nilometer, which was used to measure the Nile’s water levels. On the west bank, visit the Aga Khan Mausoleum, where the Indian spiritual leader of the Ismailies is buried. The impressive pink granite structure was built in 1950 and it is said that, until she died in 2000, his widow placed a red rose on his tomb every day during her annual three-month stay in Aswan.
The mausoleum is not presently open to the public, but you can get a good view of it from Elephantine. Also check out the extensive Yebu ruins on the southern end of the island and the Nubian villages of Siou and Koti on the northern shore.
Nearby Kitchener’s Island is a feast for the senses. This botanical garden filled with exotic plants and trees imported from all over the world was named after Lord Kitchener, who was given the island as a reward for his successful campaign in Sudan in the 1890s. Take a boat to reach it, but avoid going on Fridays when it is swarmed with picnicking crowds.
Two must-sees in the area: The Temple of Philae (pronounced fee-li) in Aswan and the Great Temple of Ramses II in Abu Simbel (see page 42 for Abu Simbel). The island of Philae housed the temple complex of Isis, which was disassembled and reconstructed by UNESCO between 1972 and 1980, moving 20 m higher to the nearby Agilkia Island to save it from the swamps created by the High Dam (which happens to be a major tourist attraction itself). The temple can be reached by a short boat trip.
Aswanis themselves are the highlights of a visit here. Mostly Nubians, they are as kind-hearted and hospitable as they come. The serene smiles of the little boat boys in their spotless white galabeyas make you want to move permanently to this jewel of a city. It’s a delight to haggle with vendors in one of the most engaging souqs outside Cairo, and Aswan’s market street overflows with colorful, tempting and aromatic spices. It is most famous for henna, karkaday and sun-roasted peanuts you’ll come home with bagsful.
It took the ancients a mammoth effort to build their monuments. And it took the Egyptian government a mammoth effort to painstakingly relocate them before they were swallowed up by the Nile forever.
Today, Nubia lies at the bottom of the huge lake, but you can still see its awesome antiquities on the shores of Lake Nasser. The most romantic getaway this country has to offer (aside from vacationing up in the desert) is a cruise along the Nile from Aswan to Abu Simbel and back. If you can take the heat, go in early summer when rates are slashed. The sites you will see are nothing short of magnificent: Kalabsha Temple, the largest free-standing temple built in Nubia; the Shrine of Kertassi temple built in honor of the Goddess Isis; the Temple of Dakka, dedicated to the God Thot, lord of divine wisdom, science and literature; the Greco-Roman temple of Meharakka and the Temple of Amada from the 18th Dynasty, the oldest monument in Nubia, to name just a few.
Enjoy a romantic candlelit dinner against a backdrop of the majestic Temple of Abu Simbel. Travel agents can arrange transportation from Aswan Airport or you can grab a shuttle taxi from the Aswan airport to the harbor next to the High Dam where these cruises are docked.