Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Aswan
Philae was a holy island in the Nile River where the ancient Egyptians built a temple to the goddess Isis. With the projects to dam the Nile - first with the Aswan Dam, then later in the 1960s with the High Aswan Dam - the island became increasingly submerged and the temple threatened. As part of UNESCO's project to rescue the ancient monuments threatened by the river damming, the island was itself dammed, surrounded by a high wall, until all the water was gone and the building could be cut into sections and moved. The project took 10 years.
Now the temple is on the higher, nearby Agilka Island and worthy of a visit. Isis was a very important goddess in ancient times. She was known as the Mother of God, giver of life, protector and healer of kings and her temple was once the site of many pilgrimages.
Built in the 1960s, the Aswan High Dam was an engineering marvel at the time and changed the face of Egypt. It increased the cultivable land by 30% and doubled Egypt's available electricity supply. It also created Lake Nasser, at the time the world's largest artificial lake, which would have covered the important Abu Simbel Temple monuments if not for the support of UNESCO and a worldwide appeal for funds to move them to higher ground, a massive feat which was successfully achieved.
The dam itself is massive, containing 18 times the material used to build the famous Pyramid of Cheops at Giza. It is 11,811 feet (3,600 meters) long, 3,215 ft (980 m) thick at the base, and 364 ft (111 m) tall. Today, it provides visitors with wonderful views up and down the Nile River.
The Unfinished Obelisk is a huge discarded granite obelisk. Three sides of the shaft, which is nearly 138 feet (42m) long, were completed except for the inscriptions. At 1,168 tonnes, the completed obelisk would have been the single heaviest piece of stone the Egyptians ever fashioned. However, a crack appeared in the rock at a late stage in the process. So it lies where the disappointed stonemasons abandoned it, still partly attached to the parent rock, with no indication of what it was intended for. It does give us an excellent insight into how these massive stone sculptures were made however.
Upon entering the quarry, steps lead down from the surrounding ramp into the pit of the obelisk where there are ancient pictographs of dolphins and ostriches or flamingos, thought to have been painted by workers at the quarry.
Designed by Lord Kitchener, the 16-acre Aswan Botanic Gardens is home to trees, flowers and plants from India, Africa and even the world beyond. Travelers can relax in the wide-open spaces of this garden’s breathtaking natural beauty or wind through the extensive exhibit hall of towering palm trees. More than 400 species of subtropical vegetation exist in this urban oasis that’s just a Nile cruise away.
Sandwiched between the ruins of Abu and the Mövenpick resort hotel are two colorful Nubian Villages, Siou and Koti. Strolling through their shady alleys and gardens is a wonderful way to experience life on modern Elephantines. A north-south path across the middle of Elephantine Island links the two villages and about halfway along is the Nubian Café, with a shady garden beside a traditional Nubian house.
Close to the wall separating the Mövenpick from Siou village is Nubian House, where the owner serves tea, sells Nubian handicrafts, and can arrange live music and dancing or henna 'tattoos' with local women. Western women should be respectful of local tradition and wear modest clothes.
Built as a tribute to the Lower Nubian sun god, Mandulis, Temple of Kalabsha is one of Egypt’s numerous ancient and historic structures and a prime destination for travelers looking to step back into the country’s incredible past. Built during the rule of Augustus around 30 BC, Kalabsh is known for its ornate stone carvings and ancient records inscribed on the temple walls. The temple was moved to its current location at New Kalabsha in 1970 and is in close proximity to the Kiosk of Qertassi and Beit al-Wali.
Elephantine Island is the site of ancient Abu (meaning both elephant and ivory in ancient Egyptian), both names a reminder of the island's once important ivory trade. At the beginning of the 1st dynasty (about 3,000 BC) a fortress was built on the island to establish Egypt's southern frontier. Abu soon became an important customs point and trading center. It remained strategically significant throughout the Pharaonic period as a departure point for the military and commercial expeditions into Nubia and the south. During the 6th dynasty (2345-2181 BC) Abu grew strong as a political and economic center and, despite periodic ups and downs, the island retained its importance until the Greco-Roman period.
The Nubian Museum is a showcase of the history, art and culture of Nubia and is a real treat. Established in 1997, in cooperation with Unesco, the museum is a reminder of the history and culture of the Nubians , much of which was lost when Lake Nasser flooded their land after the building of the dams. Exhibits are beautifully displayed in huge halls, where clearly written explanations take you from 4,500 BC through to the present day.
At the entrance to the main exhibition hall is a model of the Nile Valley and the main temple sites. The exhibits start with prehistoric artefacts and objects from the Kingdom of Kush and Meroe. Coptic and Islamic art displays lead to a description of the massive Unesco project to move Nubia's most important historic monuments away from the rising waters of Lake Nasser, following the building of the Aswan High Dam.
The fortress-like 7th century Monastery of St. Simeon was first dedicated to the 4th century local saint Abba Hedra, who renounced the world on his wedding day. It was rebuilt in the 10th century and dedicated to St. Simeon. From here the monks traveled into Nubia, in the hope of converting the Nubians to Christianity, until Salah ad-Din destroyed the monastery in 1173.
Surrounded by desert sands, the monastery was built on two levels, the lower level of stone and the upper level of mud brick, surrounded by 10 meter (3 foot) high walls. The basilica has traces of frescoes, and nearby is the chamber where St. Simeon prayed with his beard tied to the ceiling in case he fell asleep. The cells with their mastaba (bench) beds, once provided accommodation for about 300 resident monks and some 100 pilgrims. The last room on the right still has graffiti from Muslim pilgrims who stayed here en route to Mecca.
High up on the west bank stands the elegant marble Tomb of Mohammed Shah Aga Khan, the 48th imam (leader) of the Ismaili sect, who died in 1957, and of his wife the Begum, who died in 2000. Aswan was their favourite wintering place, and the family's white villa is in the garden beneath the tomb.
Spiritual leader of a worldwide Shi'ite sect, the Aga Khan was a very wealthy man. He was educated in Europe and became the 48th Imam in 1885, at the age of only seven. His grandson succeeded him on his death in 1957. During his lifetime the Aga Khan was knighted by the Queen of England, and received similar recognition from Germany, Turkey and other countries. It is said that in 1945, on his birthday, he was weighed in diamonds - he was a large man - and the jewels then distributed to his followers.
More Things to Do in Aswan
Dating from 180BC, this is an unusual temple because it is duplicated, mirroring itself on either side of a central axis. This is because it was dedicated to two gods: Sobek, god of fertility and creator of the world along with Hathor and Khonsu, and also Horus, and each needed their own set of rooms. Sobek was the crocodile god so, of course, crocodiles were mummified for him. Some of the hundreds that have been discovered nearby are now on display in the temple.
Time, the Nile River, earthquakes and later builders taking the stone for other buildings, have all taken a toll on this building. The surrounding town of Kom Ombo is now home to many of the Nubians displaced by the flooding to make Lake Nasser.
Named after the Egyptian President who started the process, Lake Nasser is a result of the construction of the Aswan High Dam which effectively modernised Egypt, doubling its electic supply and significantly increasing the amount of agricultural land. Between 1958 and 1970, the Nile River was dammed, causing much controversy, and forming Lake Nasser (83% of which is in Egypt, the rest lying in Sudan and called Lake Nubia). The lake is 340 miles (550 km) long, and 22 miles (35 km) across at its widest point.
The lake covers the entire area which once housed Nubain villages containing hundreds of thousands of people. They were relocated to new areas and the Sudanese port and railway town of Wadi Halfa rebuilt. Today ferries cross the lake from Aswan to Wadi Halfa and this is the only connection between the two countries: there is no paved road link. The alternative is to fly. The lake is popular for Nile perch fishing and boating.
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