Peppered with palm tree plantations and sloping villages of colorful mud-brick houses, Elephantine Island is Aswan’s major highlight. At its southern end are Aswan Museum and the Ruins of Abu, Aswan’s most ancient settlement, which contains the Old Kingdom Temple of Khnum and the Temple of Satet. On the eastern embankment near the ruins and down a flight of steps is Aswan’s Nilometer. Ancient Egyptians measured the Niles rise and fall with these stone-hewn wells allowing them to estimate the height of the annual flood and thus predict the success of their harvest.
Once you’ve finished exploring the ruins head north into the island to wander the backstreets of the villages of Koti and Siou where the houses are painted with vibrantly colored designs. Sheep graze, and chickens peck in the narrow alleyways, and farmers till their gardens as they have done for centuries. From the boat landing on the western side of the island in Siou you can catch a rowboat to Kitchener’s Island. Now officially known as Aswan Botanical Gardens though no one actually calls it that this island was once the property of Lord Kitchener who transformed it into a verdant garden of exotic plants from Asia and Africa.
2 Nubia Museum
Aswan’s rather fantastic Nubian Museum is one of Egypt’s best and a must for anyone interested in the history and culture of both ancient and modern Nubia. It documents the riches of a culture that was all but washed away with the building of the Aswan Dam and creation of Lake Nasser. There is an excellent collection of artefacts from the Kingdom of Kushand plenty of wonderful black-and-white photos of UNESCO’s incredible project to save Philae Temple and Abu Simbel from the rising waters of the dam along with extensive photographs of the huge range of other monuments that are now lost forever under the lake’s waters.
The artefacts in the museum collection include a statue of Ramses II, a statue of Amenras, the head of the Shpatka, and the black granite head of Tahraqa. As well as thoroughly explaining the history of Nubia and its people, the ethnographical section displays gorgeous Nubian handicrafts and folk art.
Don’t miss the slumping mud-brick mausoleums of Aswan’s Fatimid cemetery, just behind the Nubian Museum. The cemetery caretakers are happy to take visitors on a tour and can point out the most interesting mausoleums for you. Don’t forget to leave them a small tip.
3 Philae Temple
The sacred Temple of Isis is one of Upper Egypt’s most beguiling monuments both for the exquisite artistry of its reliefs and for the gorgeous symmetry of its architecture, which made it a favorite subject of Victorian painters. Like Abu Simbel, the temple was saved by the rising waters of Lake Nasser by UNESCO’s rescue project and moved lock-stock-and-barrel from its original home on Philae Island to nearby Agilika Island where it sits today.
The Temple of Isis, a center for the ancient cult of Isis, is the main part of the Philae complex, but the island is also home to the Temple of Hathor, the Kiosk of Trajan, and various other buildings from the Roman and Byzantine periods. You can easily reach the temples by taxi from Aswan, although most people arrive here as part of an Abu Simbel day trip tour.
Aswan’s Northern Quarry is home to the famous Unfinished Obelisk – a 41-meter-long and four-meter-wide chunk of stone that was probably abandoned because of a crack in the rock. It’s estimated that if completed, the obelisk would have weighed 1,168 tons and would have been the largest ever hewn. On the surrounding rock faces, you can also see the many traces of the work of ancient stonecutters. The blocks here would have been detached from the rock by boring holes along a prescribed line, driving wedges into these, and then soaking the wedges with water to detach the block.
5 Aswan High Dam.
Aswan’s High Dam is modern Egypt’s most lauded and yet controversial building project. Begun in 1960 and taking 11 years to complete, the dam was President Nasser’s pet project and greatest achievement and was achieved through funding and technical help from the Soviet Union. The High Dam has some staggering statistics. Its building took 42.7 billion cubic meters of stone with its total length being 3.6 kilometers. It is 980 meters thick at the base and 40 meters at the top. The average capacity of the dam’s reservoir is 135 billion cubic meters with a maximum capacity of 157 billion cubic meters.
The dam brought fantastic benefits to the country, allowing sustainable electricity across the country and increasing the amount of arable land in Egypt. However, it also put an end to the annual Nile flood, which fertilised farmer fields with its rich silt deposits, and the creation of Lake Nasser wiped away much of Upper Egypt’s vast heritage as the waters rose.
A four-lane highway runs across the top of the dam where there is a triumphal arch and an inscription commemorating the completion and the cooperation between Egypt and the Soviet Union to build it. Trips to the Aswan High Dam are often included on day trips to Abu Simbel, or you can easily hire a taxi to get here.