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Aswan

TO MOST VISITORS ASWAN IS A ONE-NIGHT STOPOVER EN route to Abu Simbel. However, with a vibrant street market, a fascinating museum, idyllic midstream islands, and a couple of intriguing pharaonic sites in the vicinity, it is definitely worth a longer visit. If you can, take two or three days to enjoy what is one of the most peaceful and relaxing spots in Egypt.

Historically, Aswan has always been Egypt‘s southern frontier town, the “gateway to Africa.” lt lies at the First Cataract, one of six sets of rapids in the Nile (the other five are all in Sudan) between here and Khartoum that made the river impassable for boats. Hence waterborne traffic has always had to stop here, and the town has thrived over the centuries as a trading post. In ancient times the area was known as Sunt, but later the Copts called the place Souan, meaning “trade,” from which comes the Arabic “Aswan.”

Elephant caravans from the south once brought gold, perfumes, the skins of lions, leopards, and Cheetahs, ostrich feathers and ivory tusks, and slaves, first for the pharaohs, then later for the harems of Islamic Cairo. Aswan was also an important military garrison, a base for expeditions into Nubia and Sudan. This garrison role continued right into the latter part of the 19th century, when the town was a marshaling point for Anglo-Egyptian forces sent down to Khartoum to quell the Mahdist Uprising (18811898) against the government.

About this time the town began to gain popularity among wealthy Europeans as a winter resort. The dry heat was deemed to be good for all kinds of ailments. Archaeologist Gaston Maspero (director of excavations in Egypt 1899-1914) deplored the influx of foreigners, complaining that what had been an unspoiled village was rapidly being turned into a copy of the French Riviera.

The main legacy of the early “excursionists” is the development of the Nile-side Corniche, created to provide moorings for the steamers. It is the most attractive waterfront boulevard in Egypt, looking over a beautiful stretch of the Nile, dotted with palm-crowded islands and with a backdrop of pure white sand hills rising from the water’s edge on the far side.

One block inland from the Corniche is the souq (market), which, although no longer carrying the kind of unusual wares that once came in on the African caravans, is still a riot of bright colors and exotic fragrances. Things to look for include spices, patterned textiles, and local jewelry made to traditional Nubian designs.

At the southern end of the Corniche, at the point at which it curves sharply inland, are the Ferial Gardens, a peaceful little public park on a gentle rise of land. Beyond the gardens are the rather more private grounds of the Old Cataract Hotel (Abra! al-Tahrir St., tel 097/316 006), another wonderful leftover from the early age of tourism. Opened in 1899, it i8 a great pink mansion of a place With Moorish interiors, vast high, wide corridors, and the most magniti~ cent of dining halls, which Could double as a stage set for The Thief of Baghdad. Most splendid of all though, is the setting, on a rocky outcrop high above the river. A big old wooden terrace makes the finest spot in Egypt to take an earlyevening aperitif. French president Franeois Mittérand was a frequent visitor, and other distinguished guests have included Winston Churchill, Jimmy Carter, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and, perhaps most famously of all, Agatha Christie, who wrote part of Death on the Nile (1937) while staying here. The hotel appears prominently in both the book and the movie of the book, made in 1978 and starring Peter Ustinov and Bette Davis. Unfortunately, in recent years the hotel has instituted a residents-only policy, and nonguests are allowed no farther than the main gate.’It may, however, be possible to make a reservation for 5 dinner.

SOUTH OF THE CENTER

Beyond the grounds of the Old Cataract Hotel stands a large, modern, light sandstone building, the Nubian Museum. A recent addition to the Aswan cultural scene, the museum opened in 1997. It is a rather belated attempt to preserve and honor the culture of the region’s indigenous people, a culture that was dealt a near fatal blow with the creation of the High Dam in the 19603 (see p. 312). The lake that formed behind the dam completely submerged the Nubian heartland causing countless villages I to be abandoned, forcing their inhabitants to migrate. The museum houses a collection of artifacts from the region, which are logically organized to tell the story of the development of this part of the Nile Valley from prehistory, through the pharaonic age, the coming of Christianity and Islam, right up to the building of the damalthough with no mention of the consequences. Exhibits are well displayed, and labeling is in several languages, English included. There are good, large-scale models of Philae and of Abu Simbel, which are well worth seeing before you visit the temples.

Most striking of all is a series of beautifully decorated facades, reconstructions of typical Nubian dwellings. In the museum’s large, terraced garden there is a reconstructed Nubian house and a cave containing rock art rescued from areas now inundated with water.

High on top of the hill to the south of the museum is Nubian House (Nubian Museum Rd., tel 097/326 226), a modest café with a terrace offering superb views over the Nile and First Cataract. It Is wonderful place for sunset drinks i To get there, turn left out of the museum and head straight on up 5 the hill; it is a walk of about 20 minutes,back along empty, unlit roads. better to book it in a day tour with Cairo Private Tours aswan tours section Below the museum is the vast Fatimid Cemetery, a burial ground with many small, domed mausoleums dating back to the ninth century. Some of these tombs g belong to local saints-these are usually strewn with flags and often visited by locals seeking blessings. Walk through the cemetery and out of a gate on the far side to reach what is known as the Unfinished Obelisk. One of Aswan’s most curious sights, this is a huge obelisk perfectly shaped on three sides but still attached to the bedrock on the fourth. It was abandoned after a flaw was discovered in the stone. Nearly 140 feet (42 m) in length, had it been completed it would have been the largest, heaviest obelisk ever attempted. Archaeologists speculate that it was intended for Karnak (see p. 246), a twin for the obelisk of Tuthmose III, which has since been removed and now stands on the Piazza San Giovanni in Rome. If you do not feel like walking (the quarry containing the obelisk is just over a mile/ 2 km from the center of town), tours to Philae temple usually stop here on the way back.Alternative1y,

THE NILE & ITS ISLANDS
Shopping in the souq is fun, and the museum and obelisk are interesting, but the real attraction in Aswan is the river-broad and blue, and a conduit for cooling breezes that bring relief from the relentless heat. The best thing to do is get out on the water. One option is to rent a felucca, the traditional lateen-sailed boats that gracefully skim the Nile (see box p. 304). Another alternative is to visit some of the many islands.

Preeminent among the islands is Elephantine Island, so called for the giant gray granite boulders off the southern end of the island, which resemble a herd of bathing elephants. A local ferry service shuttles across every 15 minutes or so between about 6 am. and 10 p.m., departing from the Corniche in front of Thomas Cook’s office.

Long before the existence of Aswan, the pharaonic-era town of Sunt was on the southern end of the island, protected from attack by the turbulent waters. It was known as the Gate of the South and was also the center of the cult of the ram-headed Khnum, creator of humankind. Partly excavated ruins cover this part of the island and include a late-dynasty temple devoted to Khnum, with the remains of pillars painted by the Romans.

Overlooking the ruins is the modest Aswan Museum, which has lost its best artifacts to the Nubian Museum (see pp. 299-300). However, the museum building was formerly the residence of Sir William Willcocks, the English architect of the Aswan Dam (see p. 311), and it still has a fragrant flower-and-herb garden. From the museum a path goes southward to a sycamore tree, marking the location of an ancient Nilometer. Steps incised in the rock lead down to a square chamber at water level. The walls are marked off in Arabic, Roman, and faint pharaonic numerals. You can also view the Nilometer from the river, the only vantage point from which it is also possible to see inscriptions carved into the surrounding rock with cartouches bearing the names of Tuthmose III and Amenhotep 111.

The central part of Elephantine Island is thick with palms, cut through by looping pathways. Among the groves are two Nubian villages, with houses painted in oranges, yellows, and blues, the tightly grouped buildings separated

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