Aswan, until Napoleon’s onslaught in 1799, marked the southern reach of the navigable Nile – the First Cataract – and therefore, the end of the civilized world. This formerly sleepy little trading post with the wonderful winter climate has always been the crossroads between Egypt and the African interior. Even today you’ll find goods, foods and crafts from Aswan’s melting pot cultures sold by a colorful ethnic spectrum in Aswan’s equally colorful souk (with prices better than in Cairo, as you might expect). Aswan’s pace is comfortably lethargic, tempered by time measured in millennia, and very conducive to the carefree float of a sailing felucca.
In the 20th Century Aswan came into its own with the construction of two dams designed to regulate the annual Nile inundation. The river’s flooding literally meant life or death for Nile Valley agriculture and the ancient Nilometer measured the extent of the inundation that could be expected down river in the north. The Aswan High Dam, a modern day triumph built in the 1960’s, created Lake Nasser and brought both water and hydroelectric power to Egypt. BUT threatened to flood over some of the country’s treasures. Stone by stone these treasures were relocated and painstakingly reassembled.
The beautiful Temple of Isis at Philae was saved, as was the rarely visited but fascinating Kalabsha Temple, also the tiny Temple of Dendera (residing now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – a gift in appreciation for America’s monument rescue assistance), and the world’s most impressive saved antiquities: the rock-cut temples at Abu Simbel. Built by Ramses the Great to honor himself (of course) and his beautiful queen, Nefertari, they served as a warning to southern peoples that Egypt’s border began at this point. It is absolutely worth the short air trip from Aswan to view not only the ancient monuments but the engineering marvel of their reconstruction into what is the 2nd largest dome in the world.
A Nubian banquet is just the thing to cap your Aswan visit. These joyful, graceful people can put on a great party and you’ll be smiling and dancing with them before you know it (bring lots of film!). Our set tours spend at least a full day in Aswan, but, if you have the time, there’s enough here to occupy a lazily spent two or even three days.