Egypt’s southernmost city has the loveliest natural setting and the Nile flows through it. The frontier town was ancient Egypt’s gateway to Africa and it is one of the hottest, sunniest and driest cities in the world. Known as Swennet in the olden times, Aswan’s ancient name is derived from the Egyptian symbol of “trade”. Since everything in ancient Egypt revolved around the Nile, Swennet by its location was the beginning of ancient Egypt. The city stood on a peninsula on the eastern (right) bank of the Nile and it was possible to navigate the delta from there without any hindrances. Equally important as a military base for the ancient Egyptians, every dynasty used it as a garrison city and the influx of wealth from tolls levied upon passing boats through Swennet filled its coffers. Nearly all the governors of 6th dynasty sent exploration expeditions to Nubian states, located down south and Swennet was the points of origin of such excursions.
Exotic and Aswan (Swennet) are synonymous and in ancient time the city was famous for its beautiful souk. Because of its strategic location on the main trading route between Egypt and Nubian lands, Swennet was a great place to shop for gold, slaves, and ivory. Incidentally, one of its most visited islands was named Elephantine Island by the Greeks and it is believed to have been a trading center for ivory. The highlight of Aswan, however, was its granite quarries and they supplied stone for the construction of Egypt’s numerous temples, obelisks, and pyramids. The stones of Aswan are red, grey and black granite and they form dramatic boulders against a desert, lake, river and islands landscape.
Egypt’s frontier town is truly lovely and Aswan has a mild, relaxing pace. The Nile is broad and lazy there with feluccas and palm-studded islands and the blue waters of legendary Lake Nasser houses several reconstructed temples like the Philae.
Unfortunately, we had only one day to spare in Aswan and that night, we had been booked to sail down the Nile. Aswan had been experiencing garlic harvesting at the time of our arrival and the whole city had been enveloped in a strong, but not so unpleasant odour. Freshly plucked garlic complete with dirt clinging bulbs and green shoots, had been busily shipped around in donkey carts and the even the train station had been filled with crates of them. Mohammed, our guide who had accompanied us from Cairo, had immediately sent us packing to the lovely Sofitel hotel for a short break and it had been a gorgeous place to take a nap. Perched on a pink granite shelf at the edge of the Nubian desert, Sofitel Old Cataract in Aswan had been a beautiful 19th century Victorian palace which had been converted into a hotel.
River Nile had flowed in front of it and the stupendous views had included Elephantine Island. The interiors had been plush with red chandeliers, Persian carpets, Moorish arches and Pharaonic knickknacks. Designed by the creative Sybille de Margerie, it had been simply lovely and we had napped in its quiet luxury for a few hours before embarking on a day trip. The afternoon excursion of Aswan had been a mistake and the desert sun had been tortuously blinding. Our first stop had been one of Aswan’s stone quarries, where the ancient cutters had left visible work remnants behind. Although, nowadays, 80% of Aswan’s stone quarries had gotten submerged in Lake Nasser, the remaining ones had been well preserved despite their 3,000 years and they had become lovely open air museums. The harsh sun however had made the visit difficult to bear and we had soon escaped to the cool of the waiting car for relief.
The Nubian Museum, High Dam, Elephantine Island and Philae had been our next destinations and among all of them, I had remembered only the lovely temple of Isis. The Aswan or High Dam had been disappointing at best and the Nubian Museum had been surprisingly closed for tourists. The road to High Dam had been through the Nubian Desert and the landscape had consisted of monotonous shades of grayish yellow and blinding sky blue. The desert had looked completely inhospitable and endless and except for a lonely Aswan University bus stop, it had been stark of any structure. It had been mid noon by the time we had reached the dam and the harsh sun had been so hot that even the sturdy bright bougainvilleas in the garden patches had withered papery. The heat had been suffocating like a dry tangible haze and the blue Nile had looked too placid under its pressure. Colourful half domed circular Nubian villages of crocodile keepers had dotted the banks and a few ancient restored tombs had loomed next to them.
One of the most ancient civilizations of north eastern Africa, Nubians had lived in a region along the Nile and their homeland had included most of northern Sudan and southern Egypt. Rich in gold deposits, Nubia had also served as a gateway of luxury items like incense, ivory, ebony etc and their kings had ruled Egypt for about a century. The old kingdom which, had once been a great source of slaves had now been reduced to a handful of Nilotic villages around Aswan and their architectural style is one of the most unique in the world. I had been very keen to visit the Nubian village to meet the residents who had kept crocodiles as pets, but lack of time had made us rush towards Philae. The road to the cornice had been beautifully winding with superb views of the Nile, flowers, shimmering palms and gray granite boulders. A Coptic church had glowed a bright yellow at one of the turns and suddenly Egypt’s Christian history had popped up like a surprise.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE