The ancient border outpost and the southernmost city of Egypt (256 thousand inhabitants) is located in one of the most picturesque corners on the Nile. Near Aswan, the desert comes very close to the river, framing its brilliant blue with soft amber sand and wrinkled outcroppings of granite rock. Feluccas under a triangular Latin sail glide past the ancient ruins and gigantic rocks of the island of Elephantine. Palm trees and rainforest bring the islands and dams to life until the bright blue sky fades into gently falling dusk.
The appearance of the city is noticeably African, and the inhabitants of Nubia are thinner and darker than the Sayidi, differing from them in tastes and clothing. Aswan’s own monuments are not too significant compared to those of Luxor. However, excursions depart from the city to the temples of Philae and Kalabsha, located near the great dams beyond the First Cataracts, and to the Temple of the Sun of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel, further south. You can also take a day trip from here to the Darau Camel Market, Kom Ombo, Idfu and Isna, the most important temples between Aswan and Luxor.
But more traditional is sailing upriver on a felucca, where you follow the turns of the Nile and explore the area as travelers have done for thousands of years, or take part in a comfortable cruise that has been available to tourists since the nineteenth century. Although the Egyptian city of Aswan itself is such a peaceful place that some can easily spend a week here just like that, without worrying about having to do anything, very many, on the contrary, try to fit everything they can into two days. Local features that tourists should be aware of are basically the same as in Luxor.
Climate of Aswan
The time of year has the greatest influence on the degree of activity of people. Located near the Tropic of Cancer, Aswan remains hot and dry at almost any time. The average daily temperature here varies from 23-30 degrees in winter to 38-54 degrees in summer. In late January and early February, thousands of Egyptians visit Aswan, booking hotels and trains from Luxor and Cairo. Late autumn or spring is the best time to travel here. Trains aren’t as busy as they are in winter, and travel isn’t as tiring as it is in summer, when long siesta, cold showers and air conditioning seem to be the most important things, and tourist numbers are dwindling.
A Brief History of Aswan
Elephantine Island, which lies opposite modern Aswan in the middle of the Nile, has been inhabited since ancient times. The fortified city of Yebu (or Abu) located here became a border post between Egypt and Nubia already at the beginning of the Old Kingdom. The local rulers, known as the “Guardians of the South Gate”, were in charge of border security and trade with Nubia, rich quarries of fine red granite, and mining of amethyst, quartz, copper, tin, and malachite in the depths of the desert. Military outposts further south could call for help from the Yebu garrison with beacons. The Egyptian fleet patrolled the river between the First and Second Cataracts.
In addition, Yebu was an important cult center for the Egyptians, who believed that the Nile flowed from underground caves at the First Cataracts just upriver. His local deities were Hapi and Satet, the god responsible for the floods of the Nile, and the goddess who embodies the abundance it brings. However, the largest local temple was dedicated to the general regional deity Khnum. At the time of settlement, active trade in ivory, slaves, gold, silver, incense, skins of rare animals and bird feathers led to the emergence of a trading city on the eastern coast (slightly south of modern Aswan, its direct descendant).
However, the island continued to play a leading role well into the classical period, when it was known by its Greek name, Siena. In the Ptolemaic era, the Alexandrian geographer Eratosthenes (276-196 BC) heard of a local well in which the sun’s rays, falling perpendicularly at midday on the summer solstice, leave no shadow. From here, he concluded that Siena lies on the Tropic of Cancer, proved that the world has the shape of a ball and calculated its diameter with almost modern accuracy, only 80 kilometers wrong (since then, the Tropic of Cancer has moved further south). The influence of the cult of Isis on neighboring Philae led to the fact that this part of Egypt later than others fell under the influence of Christianity, but, once converted, became a stronghold of faith.
From their desert, the monks of the monastery of St. Simeon sent missions to Nubia, eventually converting the local Nubads. The latter repaid the debt by helping them resist the dominance of Islam during the Fatimids until they were finally subdued by Salah al-Din. However, Bedouin raids continued until 1517, when Sultan Selim stationed an entire army here. Since then, the city’s name has changed from the Coptic Sauan to its current form, and the population converted to Islam. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, Aswan served as a base for the conquest of Sudan and the suppression of the Mahdist uprising in this country (1881-98) by the Anglo-Egyptian troops.
As British influence grew, the area became a favorite winter destination for the wealthy and in need of healing Europeans who flocked to Aswan, attracted by its dry climate and therapeutic hot sands, as well as luxurious hotels and magnificent surroundings that make you feel “on the edge of civilization.” The final transformation of Aswan into the city we now know was due to the construction of a high-altitude dam 15 kilometers upriver, which led to the flooding of Nubia, forcing its inhabitants to settle in new villages around Kom Ombo and Aswan itself, today predominantly Nubian.
In order to preserve its own identity, the city has achieved the opening of the African University in it to study the science and culture of Africa and the Nubian Museum, which tells about the history of the Nubians. Relations between the Egyptian and Sudanese governments are still quite chilly. The weekly ferry service between Aswan and Wadi Halfa was suspended in the mid-1990s due to tensions. However, by the time this article was written, the ferry was back in operation, and relations between the countries remained stable.