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.
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),
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.