The Southern Gate of Egypt- Aswan
Many belly dancers around the world travel to Egypt to take in the pyramids, shop at the costumers, and see exciting shows. Unfortunately, many also miss some of the highlights of the southern gate of Egypt, Aswan. With this destination being a short one hour twenty minute flight away from Cairo (or take an air-conditioned overnight train), it’s easily accessible.
Visitors to Aswan will have a hard time deciding what to see first. If you opt for a package tour, most will include visits to the Unfinished Obelisk, the High Dam, the temple at Philae and a felluca ride, so I will start with those options.
Aswan has been famous for its granite quarries for centuries. The unfinished obelisk of Queen Hatshepsut was begun here centuries ago. At 137 feet tall, it would have been the largest in existence had a crack not developed in the stone. Tourist from all over climb the rocks to see with their own eyes the ambitious work of the ancients.
The High Dam was begun in 1960 by President Nasser to protect the land from low annual floods, conserve water, and provide hydroelectricity. The impressive structure that saved the country from famine is 12,500 feet across and 364 feet high. While the view from the visitor’s pavilion is lovely, no photographs of dams or other government structures are permitted.
If you find the temples of Egypt interesting, the temple at Philae should not be missed. It is unique in many ways. First, the temple is on an island and must be reached by boat. It was relocated here after being submerged under water after the construction of the Aswan and High dams. This natural, somewhat remote landscape adds to the sacredness of the site and helps the traveler to appreciate its beauty.
The temple of Philae was the center for the worship of Isis. The last temple to use Egyptian hieroglyphics, it is a blend of Ptolemaic and Roman architecture. While some scholars point out the differences in structure as “mistakes,” the carvings depicted throughout the temple indicate a commitment to the established religious beliefs.
Fellucas are sailboats used for the practical purpose of transportation, for cruising, and for enjoying a leisurely ride on the Nile. They are available at all hours of the day and night, but I believe the most beautiful time for a felluca ride is at sunset. If you are with a large group, ask the captain if musicians are available. The Nubian sailors are happy to sing and entertain you with traditional songs. Large groups may also be charmed by the approach of small children in tiny boats singing folk songs in the language of the tourists in the boat. Don’t be surprised by high pitched voices singing, “Oh Susana.”
No visit is complete without a stop at the market. While it has become increasingly more touristy, the souq was and continues to be a place for locals to shop. Stalls offer an interesting array of products including spices, fabric, live chickens, music, papyrus, and antiques. The Nubians dressed in long galabeyas and white turbans dodging donkey carts down narrow streets create an exotic picture unlike any other. It’s a must-see experience.
Nubians are a distinct people with a culture and language all their own. They are not Arabs. They are not Egyptians. These people used to live between the southern part of Egypt and the northern part of Sudan. The creation of dams flooded their native homeland. In an effort to save some of their culture, the Nubian Museum was created by UNESCO. This fascinating museum takes you from the Nubia’s prehistory, the Pharaonic dynasties (yes, some kings were actually Nubian!), and onward through the Christian and Muslim periods. Although the artifacts are diverse and wide-ranging, sadly, it only reflects a small part of this rich culture.
Elephantine Island is the oldest known inhabited part of Aswan. The center for the worship of Khnum, creator of humankind and god of the Nile flood, was here. In addition to his temple, the Necropolis of the Sacred Rams and Hatshepsut’s Temple of Satet are here. Much of this area is closed off for excavation. Indeed it is so overrun with archeological artifacts that every step taken threatens to destroy ancient culture.
In the center of the island lie three Nubian villages, easily distinguished by their colorful homes. In one, there is a section of town where the houses are made of brick. These are the homes of some western women who have adored Aswan and the people so much that they have married into the culture.
The Aswan Museum is found at the southern end of Elephantine Island. It houses a nice collection of items found in and around Aswan including prehistoric weapons, ancient maps, jewelry, and Greco-Roman mummies.
These are just a few of the highlights of Aswan. If you wanted to spend a few days here, there are many more temples, historic sites, and gardens to visit. As a bridge between the Arab and African worlds, Aswan has a lot to offer. One has not experienced all of Egypt without a stop in this culturally diverse city.