Aswan, Egypt’s ideal winter destination
Cairo - The reflection of the rays of the sun gliding over the Nile turns the colour of the river into an attractive silver that strikes a strange but concordant note with the spacious surroundings of the area.
On one bank of the river stands Cataract, one of the oldest hotels in Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost province. On the opposite bank, granite hides the view but functions as nesting places for birds that peck in the water for food and then return to the rocks as if making them their home.
In the river, small wooden boats, from which fishermen throw trawling nets into the water in hopes of a good catch, sail quietly, not really interrupting the area’s serenity.
Nestled close to the border with Sudan, Aswan is hot in the summer but, in the winter, it is an ideal choice to enjoy the real meaning of warmth.
About 800km south of Cairo, Aswan is far from the overcrowding of the Egyptian capital but the province, whose residents are usually distinguished from other Egyptians by darker complexions, is not only about calm. It is also about a treat so generous that a short visit can be far from enough to digest.
“Aswan visitors always have a very rich schedule from the first minute they set foot in it,” said Shukri Seif, the head of Aswan’s Tour Guides Union. “The Elephantine Island, the Temple of Khnum and the Nubia Museum are but a few of the places visitors can visit in this wonderful province.”
One of the most famous in Aswan’s landmarks, the Elephantine Island is most perfectly visited by felucca. The island is the largest in Aswan and home to many traces of its ancient history. It owes its name to its past function of being an ivory trade centre.
It is known in mythology as the home of Khnum, the god of water who guarded the Nile from caves deep under the island. The island’s museum exhibits exquisite artefacts, including a mummified ram of Khnum, the god responsible for the fertility of the Nile Delta hundreds of kilometre away.
Mohamed Saber, an Egyptian computer engineer in his 40s, said he was charmed by the Elephantine Island when he visited it a year ago.
“The place is unbelievable,” Saber said. “The journey from the bank of the Nile to the island — 150 metres away — is like one into the depths of time and when you get on the island you feel like right in the middle of history.”
Nonetheless, the island is only one of many must-visit sites in Aswan. Most remarkable among these sites is the Temple of Abu Simbel, a few kilometres south of Aswan. The temple is a piece of art carved out of solid rock by pharaoh Ramses II. He built it for the sun gods Amon-Re and Re-Horakhty.
It was discovered in 1813. The temple is oriented so that twice every year — February 22nd and October 22nd — the first rays of the morning sun shine down on the entire length of the temple cave to illuminate the back wall of the innermost shrine and the statues of the four gods. The events draw thousands of tourists to the temple every year.
The Nubia Museum is also interesting. Completed in 1997, it is dedicated to the history of Nubia, the area that stretches from Aswan to Sudan. The museum is organised along a chronological path illustrating the development of the region from prehistory to the present through a large number of artefacts.
Aswan boasts several hotels, from very luxurious and expensive to the very affordable. The province also has many floating hotels that offer guests a memorable stay on the Nile.
Visitors can also stay at the homes of Aswan residents, indulge in their very simple life and enjoy Aswan and Nubian cuisine. A stay at one of these homes can be much cheaper than hotels. A one-night stay at a home can cost about $20, meals included, Saber said.
Tour guide Mohamed Osman advises Aswan visitors to scrap air travel and enjoy the experience of going there from Cairo by train or on a cruise ship. He said although the journey from Cairo by train takes ten hours, it is very delightful.
“Most enjoyable still is for visitors to go to Aswan on a cruise ship,” Osman said. “This is usually a four-day voyage on the Nile but one whose sweet memories last for years,” he added, noting that the journey costs less than $100 per person.