One of my warmest memories of Egypt will always be my time in laid-back Aswan.
Located in the extreme south of Egypt on the spot where ancient Egyptians believed the Nile was born out of a mighty spurt from the ground, the sleepy city of Aswan competes strongly for the title of best tourist town in Egypt. For any visitor coming to see the iconic temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, Aswan is a necessary stopover, but it is so much more than a place to pass out between sweaty tours. Thanks to its easy-going Nubian heritage and the scorching sun above that complicates any concerted effort outside, Aswan moves lugubriously like the lazy Nile alongside it. A chilled-out evening on one of the many riverside restaurant terraces has one watching felucca captains effortless maneuver their wooden vessels gracefully through the mighty granite boulders and isles that segment the waters. Hookah (Sheesha to you Europeans) gets started up upon nightfall and the beer—yes, there is beer aplenty—fuels the relaxation well into the eve. Furthermore, the locals are true to their humble roots and seem to be the least pushy folks in all of Egypt. The hawkers may even treat you like a real person!
If that doesn’t have you sold, the attractions around Aswan will. The plethora of tombs and temples in the environs of the town are absolutely worth a detour, including the ones at Abu Simbel, Philae, and the monastery of St. Simeon. It may not have the overwhelming archeological selection that Luxor has upstream, but it certainly makes up for the lack of places in terms of quality. Plus, it’s worth it to see the area’s monuments for the simple fact that they were all to be destroyed by the Aswan high dam and Lake Nasser, and were only saved through the inestimable efforts of an international UNESCO team in the 60’s. The temples and monuments were meticulously taken apart, stone-by-stone, and reassembled on high ground in the exact forms of their originals by archeologists collaborating together from all over the world. This success of international cooperation alone is enough to see places like the island temple of Philae.
The Journey South:
I got to Aswan by taking a 60 USD per-ticket night train south, which included but not drinks nor demanded tips from train personnel. This issue was actually quite a thorn in my side on the trip; each cabin is serviced on the Cairo-Luxor-Aswan sleeper train by ingratiatingly servile men who are literally trained to not look you directly in the eye without bowing and nearly whispering with reverence. You feel disgusting when addressed like this, as if you just beat the shit out of the fellow and he’s deathly afraid of round two. But it’s all a big ploy for them to get tips from you, and my attendant asked “What do you want for me?” at the end of the trip in an effort to indirectly get me to cough up change. I had nothing left (true story) so I gave nothing! Despite this, the train was a comfortable choice, although I had no other because the other passenger trains had been shut down due to a massively fatal train crash in Giza two days prior.
Abu Simbel: this awe-inspiring rock-cut temple of mighty Ramses II, featuring four mega-scale seated figures of the pharaoh and the gods, was originally built to scare the bejeezus out of invading African tribes from the north so much that they’d turn back home rather than face the colossal Egyptians. After being re-discovered in 1814 by an Italian traveler who saw the tip of the far-left head peeking out from under a sand dune, it became a hit tourist site. 150 years of Graffiti from careless visitors marks the torsos of the figures and parts of the interior temple, but the general beauty and pure strength that the structure communicates are totally intact. In the 60s, the site was moved to a man-made rock face to save it from Lake Nasser, and the movers did a damn fine job keeping it the way it is. I personally loved the temple to Ramses’ wife, which had much more intricate carvings than her husband’s!
Nearly every hotel and every tourist agency offers trips which start in the early morning (3:30-4:00) and arrive at the site around 7:00. Tourists are given a few hours to mosey round the main temple and that of Ramses’ favorite wife, Nefertari (Not to be confused with Nefertiti), and then the buses return to Aswan in the late morning. Tickets to the site are not usually included with the transport cost.
Philae: located on an island surrounded by Lake Nasser, this graceful temple provides repose from the hustle and bustle of an Abu Simbel morning. To get to the island, you need to pay 25 EP and get a private boat there. My travel mates and I haggled hard to 20 pounds for five people, but as a condition of the low price we only stayed on the island for around 45 minutes.
The temple, dedicated to various gods like Hathor and Osiris, has a unique asymmetrical layout and is fun to wander through sanctuary to sanctuary. One of the fascinating aspects to notice about the place is the brutal iconoclasm of early Christians, which destroyed many of the reliefs and left rough crosses carved into the limestone walls. However, I discovered a sweet carving of a monkey-dog playing a lute in the temple to the arts, and the huge-columned Kiosk of Trajan will forever change your perception of just how big a kiosk can get. I would have preferred a full hour or one-and-a-half to see everything, but I made do with the demands of our jilted boat driver.
St. Simeon Monastery: this early Christian monastery is the real deal when it comes to seeing the tranquility and roughness of monastic life in the desert. Although the structure is in ruins, its picturesque location and solitude really communicate the spirit that early Christians sought to better ponder God and Jesus.
The Ins and Outs of Visiting St. Simeon (And other tales):
It’s an unvisited place with crappy winter hours—only open until four—and transport there is a little more complicated than for other sights. I met up with a German friend named Martin and we took a swift felucca from the eastern bank to the western in about 25-30 minutes. The ride was awesome as we got to glide in between the currents of the Nile and the imposing boulders that are strewn about in it; felucca captains use a zig-zagging method of movement down the river to catch unfavorably-directed wind and use it to push the boat in the right direction. Our captain, “Nimo”, advised us to get back before it got dark (Jackal zombies, most likely), and upon landing we jumped out and trekked up purposefully the path towards the monastery.
The mud-brick complex sprawled across the empty wastes of the desert. It looked so cool. But it was all closed up. Damnit! However, we didn’t despair, and I found a low-level wall that my friend and I could jump over and we more-or-less broke in. Despite the questionability of this, we were both rational lovers of history and thus any damage to the site would be unthinkable to us. I wandered around on my own through some chapels, hermit cells, and the soft darkness of the main hall. The second floor was inaccessible, probably because stomping around in a 1600 year-old mud structure is inadvisable. Yet it was all really fun to silently admire, even though medieval Arabic graffiti is splattered all over many surfaces. In one place, the marauding Arabs never looked up (haha, stupid-heads!) and the original frescoes of saints remain on the 8 foot-tall ceiling remain intact.
We mounted a crumbling perimeter turret to watch the sunset and then got out without a soul seeing us from nearby. As hardy kindred adventurers, we decided that a saunter cross the desert back to the ferry loading point a few kilometers north of where our felucca dropped us off would be a most enjoyable idea. So we marched on over dunes and across an empty tract, before scaling the muscle-aching incline of a large hill covered in sand. Dripping with sweat, we got to the top and were struck by the marvelous view of Aswan in the fading dusk light, with the lazy Nile below. It was a great climax to an awesome day. On the way down, the going got bumpy as we were without lighting devices (Oh, that’s what the felucca captain was talking about) but we at least could go towards floodlights placed on the hill by the tourist authorities to illuminate some rock-cut tombs. These tombs also received a short visit from us, and I must say they looked deliciously evil with bats flying around in the dark and the pale crescent moon above.
We later caught a ferry and chilled out at Saladin restaurant, smoking hookah and discussing Western and Egyptian cultural differences, along with a pinch of linguistic chat thrown in there. Martin introduced me to the ugliest word I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear, which is “cuckoo clock” in some variety of Swiss German. There is not one but three iterations of guttural throat sounds in the word, giving it resemblance to an emphysematic’s dying cough.
And that was just about it for my time in Aswan. The next morning I ran around the city looking for feluccas to take me to Luxor like how people went the old days, but no cheap and quick ones were to be found so I settled for a luxurious two night Nile Cruise that shall be lauded in the following blog post. So, if you’ve gotten thus far, thanks for reading and check in soon for the ins and outs of my Death on the Nile experience without the death!