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          Best Places to Visit in Egypt


Aswan, Egypt 


The city of Aswan as seen from the Nile.

Facts on Aswan

The city of Aswan is a historic trading center located on the east bank of the Nile at the approximate location of the river’s First Cataract (an area along the river’s course filled with rapids - there are six cataracts between Aswan and Khartoum, Sudan).  The city’s population is estimated at approximately 300,000 and it is the largest, southernmost city in Egypt.  Aswan appears more prosperous and inviting  than many other areas of Egypt

Aswan has long been at the center of history as it was the city that marked the border between Egypt and Nubia.  Eventually the area attracted the attention of "foreign conquerors, including the Greeks, Ottomans, and British,  who established forts and military rule in the area.

The Aswan area is extremely arid and years without rain are common. The days are always bright and usually quite warm, with temperatures reaching  oppressive levels in summer.

The flow of the Nile is wide at Aswan and its valley is relatively colorful. thus making  a pleasant backdrop to the city’s setting.

The leading attractions in Aswan proper are its antiquities, especially Philae Temple and Kalabsha Temple, as well as the Nubian Museum. The High Dam at Aswan attracts many  visitors, as does the original “Low” dam built by the British at the beginning of the 20th century.

Finally, the shopping can be very good in Aswan (good, but not necessarily cheap) and you will have the opportunity to visit large shops focused on jewelry, papyrus art, sculpture and other fine arts.

Best Places to Visit in Aswan

Philae Temple and the Agilkia Island Monuments

Philae Temple (Greco-Roman), a monument to the goddess Isis, was one of a large number of  “Nubian” temples that was moved to protect it from the flooding associated with building the High Dam at Aswan.  Its present location is between the "High" and "Low" dams across the Nile.

When the British built the “Low” Dam across the Nile in 1912, Philae Island and its  temples were flooded by the Nile for six months a year and the site was toured by boat during these periods. Between 1972 and 1979 the entire temple complex was moved a short distance away to Agilkia Island to preserve it from complete flooding that would result from the new High Dam. A coffer dam (which can be seen from Agilkia Island) was built around the original temple and the water pumped out so that the buildings could be taken apart, numbered, inventoried and prepared for transport.

Although Agilkia was leveled and widened to accommodate the buildings from the original Philae, it was not quite large enough to fit all of the monuments in their original ordered layout.  As a consequence, the orientation of the temple and "crowding" of some of the monuments reflect the lack of space in the new setting.

You will need to take a short boat ride to visit Philae Temple. Have your camera ready as you approach Philae as there is an opportunity for some nice photos of the Temple’s massive pylon from the boat.

Both at the dock and during the boat ride you will have opportunities for shopping, especially for jewelry. Young boys (sharp negotiators nonetheless) will accompany the boat and display oodles of inexpensive jewelry (1-3 $ USD). The hematite jewelry can be quite stunning and great bargain (we found similar pieces at a store at home for twenty times the price that were not as lovely). You might also want to take a look at the necklaces made of dyed camel bone, which are quite fetching, unusual and inexpensive.

The first shrine at Philae was built for Nectanebo I (30th dynasty, 380 BC) one of the last true Egyptian pharaohs, but most of the buildings here are of Roman origin and parts post-date the birth of Christ. The “pagan” temple was closed by Justinian, the Christian ruler of the Byzantine Empire, in the 6th century AD. Over time many of the reliefs were defaced by Christian iconoclasts (promoted by the way by several Byzantine emperors), and, then by Muslims, as each group was affronted by what they considered the idolatry shown at Philae.

Click the photo above for a gallery featuring the Temple at Philae,

As noted above, Philae reflects the  infatuation of "Roman" pharaohs with Isis, one of the "Great Ennead" comprised of the nine original gods of Egypt. Isis was associated with motherhood and was also revered for her magical powers, especially in respect to healing the sick. One of the most famous of the goddesses, she was the wife of Osiris and the mother of Horus. In addition to the main temple to Isis, there are temples dedicated to Hathor, Mandulis, Augustus and others, as well as Trajan’s Kiosk, and the Gate of Hadrian.

The main temple with its two pylons has many reliefs that recreate the myth of Isis, her husband Osiris, Seth and Horus. Osiris was murdered by his jealous brother Seth who chopped the body of Osiris into pieces and scattered it along the Nile. Isis searched for these pieces and was able to reassemble most of the body. Due to her remarkable magic and healing skills of Isis she was able to briefly rejuvenate the body of Osiris and was impregnated with their son Horus during the restoration.  Horus, when grown, was involved in a series of epic battles with Seth designed to "right" the murder of Osiris. The original fable holds that one of the pieces of the body of Osiris was hidden at Philae, which made the original island a prime setting for a temple dedicated to Isis.

The Nectanebo Kiosk is to the left of the dock for boats, next to long colonnades that edges the outer courtyard and lead to the First Pylon of the Isis Temple. The courtyard includes two minor temples (one dedicated to Imhotep designer of the step pyramid of Djoser (see this section of our Egypt Guide for details on Saqqara).

Beyond the First Pylon is a birth house (Mamissi) and the Second Pylon which leads to a Hypostyle Hall followed by the sanctuary and a number of inner chambers. To the west of the Hypostyle Hall (through  a small doorway cut in the wall) is the Gate of Hadrian (a noted Roman Emperor) and the remains of a Nilometer, a mechanism used by the ancients to measure the depth of the Nile. This device was helped predict the depth of the annual Nile flood and its potential influence on agriculture.  As you might suspect, this really meant that it was used to determine tax rates for the farmers.

To the north of the Temple of Isis there once were modest temples dedicated to the god Horus  and another to Augustus Caesar, but these did not survive to present day. At the northeastern edge of the island is a Roman quay, a gateway for access to the Nile.

On the southeastern edge of the island are two monuments to Hathor and Trajan that offer nice views of the water and shade for those needing respite from the sun. Hathor’s Temple on Philae, which along with Dendera were her most important shrines, is filled with interesting, although damaged, reliefs, including some featuring  Bes, the god of frivolity, babies and motherhood. Further along is Trajan’s Kiosk, named for the famous Roman emperor. It is in quite good shape with majestic columns ringing a core rectangular monument that was never completed.

Click the image above to see a photo gallery showing the other temples at Philae.

There is a "Sound and Light show at Philae for those interested. Two shows a night is the  normal schedule, but the language of presentations varies, so check the official website for details.

The Kalabsha Temple Complex Abu Simbel

The complex of temples on Kalabsha island just south of the High Dam can be combined with a day trip to the Dam, although it is sometimes visited on the return to Aswan as a part of a Lake Nasser Cruise. A trip to Kalabsha includes a chance to explore the  temples of Beit el Wali, Kalabsha, Gerf Hussein and the Kiosk of Kertasi (Qertasi).

Click the photo above for a gallery of photos from Kalabsha.

It was originally thought that the site of Kalabsha would be safely on the shores of Lake Nasser.  Apparently there was a miscalculation and today it is reachable only by boat. The fact that the water rose higher than expected and created an island, delayed construction, as the original supply routes were submerged.

Kalabsha Temple (Greco-Roman) was originally located in ancient Talmis, Nubia and was thought to be constructed by Amenhotep II in 1450 BC, but later rebuilt on the same site by the Romans.  The reconstruction occurred around 30 BC, during the reign of Augustus Caesar, whose image can be found throughout the temple. The monument, which was never completed, was dedicated, in part, to Mandulis, a god of the Nubians, who was loosely related to one of the Egyptian gods.   The temple was, also, dedicated to the Egyptian gods Isis, Horus and Osiris. Kalabsha, known for its walls covered with both fine reliefs and texts, was the largest free-standing temple in Nubia.

The Temple of Kalabsha is ringed with a protective enclosure wall starting at the First Pylon, which is offset at a slight angle to the orientation of the rest of the structure. The entrance to the temple passes into a modest colonnaded courtyard followed by a hypostyle hall where the reliefs show the Roman pharaoh paying homage to the Egyptian gods. Further back is a classic three-room sanctuary that was used to celebrate the gods in residence at the temple.

Be sure to take the time to walk outside around the sides and back of the Temple as there are interesting reliefs along the walls of the building. In addition, you will find a Nilometer, used to measure the height of the Nile and to collect water for purification and ceremonies to fete the gods.

In front of the Kalabsha Temple is the  Kiosk of Kertasi, a tiny, free-standing temple dedicated to Hathor. This compact monument is all that exists of what was once a much larger temple. The preserved Roman construction consists of six columns that were once capped with a rock roof. The capitals of the entrance columns are decorated with representations of Hathor’s face, while capitals of the side columns are in the palm-style. The view of the temple with Lake Nasser in the background is quite stunning.

Click the camera symbol above to open a gallery showing the Kiosk of Kertasi and the Gerf Hussein Temple at Kalabsha.

Down the walkway from the Kiosk is the Gerf Hussein Temple, another construction of Ramesses II. Originally known as the “House of Ptah”, it commemorated this “chief” god who was especially celebrated in Memphis. The major section of the original temple was hewn into  rock and not rescued due to its poor condition. There are several Colossi of Ramesses II here that are worth seeing, although another from the same site, but now in the Nubian Museum in Aswan, is in much better condition.

The temple known as Beit el Wali is up the hill, behind the Kalabsha Temple. It, along with Gerf Hussein, are the oldest temples on the island. Beit el Wali another of Ramesses II’s Nubian temples dedicated to Amun and is carved into the rock with walls protecting each side of the three entranceways. The reliefs here are interesting but of relatively poor quality. If you are short on time, you might consider skipping this temple.

Between the temples of Kalabsha and Gerf Hussein is an extremely interesting walkway filled with prehistoric art cut into stone slabs. Here you will see images of elephants, and  representations of other animals. The path leads the Chapel of Dedwen that was built by an unknown pharaoh to honor the Dedwen a Nubian god now thought to be associated with Nubia’s natural resources, especially incense, as well as the gods Horus and Isis.

Nubian Museum at Aswan

Click the photo above to see some of the stunning exhibits at the Nubian Museum in Aswan

The Nubian Museum in Aswan is an important stop for those interested in the  history and antiquities from this area. In this well-designed, modern museum you will see numerous artifacts from the Nubian Temples, dioramas of Nubian villages, and an amazing photo collection showing many of the Nubian temples before they were relocated to their present locations.

Take time to wander all the halls here and you will discover interesting statues, petroglyphs, a few pieces of fine Islamic art, and several elegant mummy cases. The large statue of Ramesses  II in the museum was moved from the original site of Gerf Hussein where it was carved  from local sandstone.  The statue was deemed too fragile to move to the Kalabsha site and has a place of significance at the museum.

Other Local sights in Aswan that you might want to see

The High Dam

The Aswan Dam is approximately 364 feet high (111m) and over two miles in Length. Although famous for controlling the Nile and creating the massive Lake Nasser, the Aswan Dam itself it quite hard to see from the top, which is very narrow compared to its base. Better views can be had from the water. At the top of the dam there are several display kiosks that show the dam’s location and setting, statistics on materials used, cross-sections through its construction and models of the dam.

Click the photo above to open a gallery of images of the High Dam in Aswan.

The power plant is no longer open to the public and the leading attraction here is the monument to Egyptian-Soviet Friendship , which is a dramatic, lotus-shaped tower. The Friendship tower has an elevation to the observation deck where the views of the dam and the lake are quite stunning.  From time to time access to the dam is regulated due to security concerns.

Elephantine Island  (named because its shape is similar to that of an elephant tusk) was  the initial settlement for Aswan, as its position in the middle of the Nile was a historically important  transfer point for goods moving east and west across the river.  It was, also, a very defensible settlement due to its location. The island  is the home for many Nubians, some of which do not have roofs since there is little rain, and includes several interesting ruins.

Statuary.  Aswan is famous for the quality of its local rock and the area was the source of much of the materials used in many of the antiquities throughout Egypt,  including many of the Egyptian Obelisks now scattered around the world. Even today sculpture competitions are held throughout the city and as you tour you are likely to see free-standing statues that have been featured in this contest.

Kitchener’s Island   is home to a famous botanic garden to the east of Elephantine Island. The island was given the British Lord Kitchener for his military prowess demonstrated in the Sudan. In his retirement he populated the island with plants and trees from around the world and created a very pleasant garden, which is now run by the Egyptian government.

Overlooking the Nile from the west on the top of a hill is a scenic tomb of a local holy man, with more tombs of local nobles located down slope. The area is best viewed from the Nile and is usually on the tour when you take a ride in a felucca, one of the native sailboats that ply the Nile.

Many tourists are interested in the Tomb of the Aga Khan   (Aga Khan III, died 1957)) that is a simple but elegant monument dedicated to the deceased Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims.

Click the image above to see a photo gallery of a felucca ride on the Nile

Aswan is a popular place to take a Felucca ride, although in this case the feluccas are larger version of the sailing vessel that are designed to carry twenty people. The “captain “ and his mate will usually regale you with live local music, including a sing-along and still find some time to show you their collection of jewelry that is available for purchase. This is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two in Aswan and the views of the city and its attractions from the Nile are quite nice.

Finally, the Kornish al Nile, is a road hugging the banks of the Nile where glimpses of the city’s legendary hotels are possible (such as the Old Cataract , where the beloved English mystery writer Agatha Christie wrote her novel “Death on the Nile”), and where most river cruises dock. Along its extent you will find numerous places to shop and eat.

Shopping in Aswan is a pleasure, especially if you are looking for something higher quality than the usual touristy stuff.  Jewelry is a staple of shopping in Aswan and you should be on the lookout for mementoes with an Egyptian flare.  For something extra special check out the papyrus art at the Osiris Papyrus Museum on El Sadat Street (south of the city center), where you can buy stunning Egyptian art (most showing scenes from the pharaonic age) created using papyrus.  There are several other interesting shops (including jewelry and perfumes) on El Sadat for your shopping pleasure.

If your tour of Egypt ends in Aswan, you will likely fly back to Cairo for your departure.  If you are going on Lake Nasser cruise, there are two options.  Some travelers prefer to fly to Abu Simbel and sail north, while other prefer to sail south from Aswan and fly back to Cairo from Abu Simbel.


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