Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Places of my Heart: Aswan

I am currently reading "Down the Nile - Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff" by Rosemary Mahoney. The first 100 pages deal with her time in Aswan in Upper Egypt, when she is trying to buy a rowboat.  When I read those chapters, all my memories of Egypt came back to me.

For a long time I had thought about starting a new series on my blog, telling about my favorite places in this world. Since Egypt definitely belongs to those places, I can start the "Places of my Heart" right here and now, with Aswan.

Aswan is smaller than Cairo and Luxor, but certainly not less exciting. Its population is very different from Lower Egypt, consisting mainly of Nubian people, most of whom are displaced people after the Aswan dam was built and their villages had to give way to huge Lake Nasser.

Aswan Dam

One of the thousands of stray dogs you find all over Egypt - Lake Nasser in the background

I visited Egypt in May 1996. I went into the Sinai (which I love), spent a few days in Cairo, took the plane to Luxor and traveled up the Nile to Aswan on a cruise ship, the MS Orchid. Those cruise ships are a wonderful relaxing way to go up the Nile. The trips on land are often exhausting since it is so hot, but just sitting on deck sipping a karkade (cold punch made from dried hibiscus leaves and sugar) and watching life at the banks of the river was something I truly enjoyed. Of course this way you are kept away from the "real" life in Egypt which is harsh and unforgiving.

But let's go back to Aswan. Situated in Upper Egypt, the banks of the Nile are the edges of the desert - the Arabian Desert to the East, the Libyan Desert to the West and the Nubian Desert to the South. It is incredibly hot, the Nile is difficult to maneuver here due to the cataracts. The most popular "vehicle" on the river are the many feluccas, that run up and down the river. 

You can see the cruise ships in the background, often anchoring six boats deep.

Of course I went up the Nile in a felucca as well. It's the best way to see the extraordinary landscape and landmarks of Aswan.

Ruins on Elephantine Island,

the famous Old Cataract Hotel (Agatha Christie loved to stay here),

Nubian families,

the Tomb of the Nobles on the West bank

and the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan III who died in 1957. 

His wife, the Begum Inaara, gave orders to build this mausoleum. She lived in the white villa on the right until her death in 2000.

About a quarter mile or so up river you can leave the felucca and walk up to St Simeon's Monastery, an old Coptic monastery of which only ruins remain. It's right up the hill in the desert - and yes, we walked up there.  It was later in the day, so not too hot anymore, but still rather uncomfortable. However, the monastery was pretty interesting and the view of Aswan and the desert was fantastic (picture on top of this post).

There were foreigners who paid good money to ride up into the desert on camels (or dromedaries).

This picture shows clearly the difference between the new and the old, traditional Egypt. The young, modern, college educated man and the old man in his traditional galabiya, hanging out in the touristy spots, living on some pittance. You see this everywhere, and it often is heartbreaking. I often felt uncomfortable, because compared to them I was tremendously rich.

Back down at the river, our next destination was Kitchener Island, an tropical island with the most beautiful gardens. Lots of shade, I could have spent hours here.

Of course you haven't been in Aswan if you didn't visit one of the souqs. This is a world of its own. It comes to life in the evening when temperatures cool down. It was a whirlwind of impressions: cars trundling over the old cobblestone, their drivers pressing the horns constantly; donkey carts; people who ride a bicycle, holding a toddler at the same time; young mothers pushing their strollers; yelling dealers, bread sellers, and tourists, of course. The scent of unknown spices, fresh fruit, meat and incense hang all over it. It was fascinating (and I didn't take any photos because I didn't dare to bring my camera).

The most beautiful time was dusk, when the setting sun painted everything in a slightly pink shade, the river became calmer and the sun set behind the enormous desert dunes.


La Vie Quotidienne said...

I have always wanted to go to Egypt...I have always heard it calling to me and especially since I read the Amanda Peabody novels...which if you haven't read I know that you would enjoy. Thank you for sharing these wonderful photos.

Elephant's Child said...

Egypt is another of the places I regret not seeing. My partner has now been back a number of times and, like you, loved Aswan. He travelled up the Nile by felucca and I was seriously jealous. His photos are much like yours too. Timeless, drama, beauty.

Willkommen auf meiner Kreativseite. said...

Danke für die Impressionen aus Ägypten. Die Bilder weckten Erinnerungen in mir. Wir waren 1985 auf einer Reise durch Ägypten auch ein paar Tage in Assuan. Ich hoffe, das Land erholt sich wieder von den ganzen Unruhen zur Zeit und findet wieder seinen Frieden.


patty said...

How interesting, Carola! I love seeing countries that are so "foreign-looking" that just one photo tells you that you are very far away from home.... great job capturing some of the essences of Egypt!!

JoZart Designs said...

I popped in to tell you that I have added some pics of quite different Christmas Markets from my German trip and now I'm so glad I didn't miss your fabulous photos. I've yet to visit Egypt but I doubt I would ever see the gems of your trip. Really enjoyed browsing and dreaming.
Jo x

Marcie said...

This is beautiful!! Thanks for bringing me here with you. It's a place I would never have otherwise seen!

Ella said...

Have never been to Egypt so I appreciated that you showed us some photos from other places than Cairo and Luxor.

seabluelee said...

This was fascinating, all the more since I just finished reading a book set in ancient Egypt. I've always wanted to visit there, though to be honest, I'd be too afraid in these days of political unrest.

I hope you will do a series on your favorite places. I remember how much I enjoyed your series on Germany.

Rosemary Aubut said...

Beautiful photos! Thanks for sharing!

Ginnie said...

You write about this experience, Carola, as though it all happened yesterday! I can just imagine what this must have been like for you. I doubt it'll be something I'll experience in my lifetime, but I feel like I've just had a taste, thanks to you!