Aswan is my favourite place in Egypt. It has the loveliest setting on the Nile and the river there is as blue as sapphire. The water beautifully reflects the tawny hued desert which comes very close to the river and outcrops of black granite create Aswan’s famous cataracts. The milky white sails of the feluccas gliding on the river billow against this stunning combination of blue and gold and they look gorgeous especially against the backdrop of the humpbacked Elephantine Island. Now add some relaxed small town vibes, palm trees, blue skies, perennial sunshine, and you have the lovely destination of Aswan.
So where is Aswan located on the Nile?
Located on the end of the First Cataract, Aswan was remarkable as ancient Egyptian kingdom’s southern frontier. It was used as the garrison town for the military campaigns against Nubia and its quarries supplied stones for the larger than life obelisks and sculptures. In fact, the Unfinished Obelisk is one of the attractions of Aswan and it is in the heart of an ancient quarry. Technically although Aswan is the third largest city in Egypt, it is often considered by many as a quick stop to begin or end the Nile Cruise. It is a pity because Aswan has lots to offer including some enchanting natural beauty.
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The Nubian heritage of Aswan
To understand Aswan is to recognize Nubia and its very unique Nubian culture. Everything in Aswan is a bit different from the rest of Egypt and it includes the people. The ancient Egyptian literature refers to Nubia as the land of Cush. It was from here that luxury goods from Sudan like ebony, ivory, leopard skins and resins were obtained. For thousands of years Nubians have inhabited until the middle reaches of the Nile and their lifestyle revolved around agriculture, fishing, transportation and as professional warriors. In fact, many Pharaohs hired professional Nubian armies and they were famous as great fighters. The original Nubia is written off in the ancient texts as a dry hot land located between the city of Aswan and northern Sudan.
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What’s happening with the Nubians in Aswan today?
Today most of the original Nubian land lies beneath the water created by the High Dam Reservoir (Lake Nassar/Lake Nubia). With its construction, an entire population of a hundred twenty thousand people and ancient monuments were relocated. Although with note-worthy UNESCO efforts, the temples were saved from destruction, the relocation of the Nubians remains a sticky, painful affair. Nowadays, the Nubian village of Gharb Seheyl has become a major tourist attraction and its colourful traditional houses stand out like toy buildings on the Nile’s west bank desert. Needless to say, Aswan has a distinctively African essence and its trading traditions are still carried out in the lively local souq. In fact, even the name Aswan is an Arabic corruption of the ancient word swenet which means to trade. Aswan has always been a prosperous trading town until recently when most of its visitors opt for Luxor over this Nubian hub. This makes life in Aswan slower and sweeter without the aggressive hassling of the Luxor merchants.
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My Aswan visit then and now
I loved our stay in Aswan last year (2018) in winter. It was the perfect place to getaway from Cairo’s freezing weather and Aswan is one of the sunniest places in the world. The days were warm there, free from the warm covers and at night the balmiest Nile breeze breathed into the city. On my last visit, spring produce scented the city with petrichor as donkey carts bearing freshly picked Egyptian garlic trotted on the streets. The earth clinging to the tendril-like roots gave off a cloying smell and it reminded me of good, old, rich earth deposited by the Nile on its banks. In winter, flowers especially lots of Arabian jasmines gave out heady scents and I loved taking it all in on the lovely sunny balcony of our homestay overlooking the Nile.
There’s more to Aswan than just a Nile Cruise start/endpoint
We stayed at the Elephantine Island which apart from the ugly concrete block like Movenpick Hotel was a strictly residential area. Any motorized vehicle including cars is not allowed on it. The local children play without fear on the main thoroughfares and quintessential Nubian paintings of feluccas, palm trees, and crocodiles decorate the brightly coloured domed houses. It was a very laidback place to be and a few pennies of felucca rides took us to the other parts of Aswan. We stayed there for 3 nights and 4 days and based all our excursions from there. On the first day, we visited the Philae temple, along with the Nubian museum and kept the Aswan town and Tombs of the Noble for the following day. That was a relaxing itinerary because we even managed to visit the Botanical Garden at Kitcherner’s Island and ended our evening at the colourful, touristy Nubian village of Gharb Seheyl. It was a full moon night when we sailed down the Nile on a felucca to Elephantine from Gharb Seheyl and it was epic experience in Aswan. We kept our last day free for shopping, relaxing and eating out, with a day visit to Abu Simbel in a private car the next morning.
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