Aswan is Egypt’s southernmost city and lies, like Luxor and Cairo, on the shores of the Nile River, at its first cataract. To its north lies some 750 miles of the Nile until it reaches the Nile Delta and the Mediterranean Sea. What sets this beautiful city apart from Cairo and Luxor, however, is that its buildings occupy only the East Bank and two islands in the river, with its barren West Bank’s sand dunes, literally, on the watersedge. The West Bank has only a handful, albeit supremely notable, structures including the Monastery of St Simeon, the Aga Khan Mausoleum and the Tombs of the Nobles.
Aswan is located roughly where the Western Desert and the Eastern Desert meet, and just north of the great expanse of water created by the Aswan Dam known as Lake Nasser.
Aswan has a gorgeous winter climate and is a popular sun resort from November through to March with Egyptians as well as international holidaymakers. Temperatures tend to be around 22-32°C (89.6°F).
Hugely attractive, Aswan is the busy market centre of the region. In fact, its ancient name of Swenet, if translated literally from symbols of the time, means ‘trade’. It can trace its history back to ancient times when it is believed to have been the site of the very first Egyptian community.
Its people had moved from the desert dunes to the fertile banks of the Nile in search of a supply of water, fish and land on which to grow produce. They would then trade their goods and so its reputation as a trading centre developed.
As Swenet, the city had the important role of protecting Egypt from invaders at its southernmost boundary. In Pharaonic Egypt times, during it is believed every dynasty, the city was a military town. Its stone quarries are said to have provided the granite rock known as Syenite for most of the fabulous temples, columns and obelisks built by the pharaohs, including the Pyramids of Giza.
Today, Aswan is characterised by its abundance of palm trees and tropical gardens, standing beside one of the widest parts of the Nile River. As such, it has many islands dotted off its shores. Two of the largest are Kitchener’s Island, known for being covered with exotic plants, and the much larger Elephantine Island.
Kitchener’s Island lies mid-stream and is so called because it was given to Lord Kitchener in recognition of his services to the Egyptian army during the Sudan Campaign of the late 1800s. A keen horticulturist, Lord Kitchener created an island of fantastic trees and plants. In fact, it would not be inaccurate to call it a botanical exhibition. Many of the species were imported from around the world, and include huge palms where birds nest. Today, it is one of the loveliest places along the Nile and a great place to relax. You can hop across on a boat and go ashore to take advantage of the shade.
The much larger Elephantine Island can trace its history back to ancient times when, as a fort, its role was to defend the city. It marked the southern border with Nubia.
Dotted around the island are reminders that it once was home to many people, in fact it is believed to have been one of the oldest inhabited areas of the city
There are the remains of the temple dedicated to Khnum, the ram-headed god of the cataracts, which dates from the Old Kingdom.
You can also visit the Aswan Museum where there is a fascinating collection of artifacts from the Graeco-Roman period on display, and see the Roman Nilometer, the device used to establish the level of the Nile. This one in particular was also used to assess the circumference of the earth in around 200 BC.
The great Philae Temple (dedicated to the goddess Isis), was dismantled and reconstructed on Agilika Island after Aswan dam was constructed.
The Nubians, renowned for their love of festivals and colourful dress, lived on the shores of the Nile as they had done for centuries until quite recently. In fact, the area is widely believed to be where the first Nubian civilization lived as far back as 2000 BC. The Nubian Musuem in well worth a visit to have a better idea about this rich culture.
Modern day Egyptian Nubians moved to Aswan, along with Cairo and Luxor, when the Aswan Dam was built and huge areas of the desert became Lake Nasser.