Aswan – modern capital of Upper Egypt
Aswan is Egypt’s Southern-most city and was once the Egyptian Empire’s frontier town; today it’s a bustling market and tourist town of some 300,000 souls. Most of the Nile River cruise boats start or end here in Aswan, and due to the lack of tourists, the river-front corniche is lined with boats at the moment (we’re starting our river cruise tomorrow). The Nile is quite narrow here, with the sparkling blue waters of the river channeled through granite hills and lush green gardens lining the riverbanks on both sides. It makes for an amazing sight, especially with the yellow sand dunes of the desert in the distance. We arrived here early this morning and have already fallen in love with Aswan’s riverside location – we can see water birds dipping in and out of the water and feluccas sailing down the river from our balcony. It’s awesome!
Not so awesome was the 4:00am wake-up call this morning. Our flight to Aswan left at 7:00am, which seemed a little early to us, but completely understandable now that we’ve seen how hot it gets here in the middle of the day. The flight only took 1.5 hours and by 9:00am we were in town and ready to start sightseeing. It was also already 29C by 9:00am – and this is winter (in summer it gets up to 58C here)!
Aswan was most famous in ancient Egyptian times for 3 things:
- It’s granite quarries, which was shipped down river and used in the construction of the colossal statues, obelisks and monolithal shrines that are found throughout Egypt, including the pyramids.
- For being the a frontier town and military station – under every Egyptian dynasty it was a garrison town; and here tolls and customs were levied on all boats passing Southwards and Northwards.
- The Great Temple of Isis, which has been preserved and partially restored – and which we went to see today.
The Temple of Isis (sometimes called the Temple at Philae as Aswan was known as Philae by the Greek rulers of Egypt) was built during the Greco-Roman period of Egyptian history and was dedicated to the Goddess Isis, the wife of Osiris and mother of Horus. As we learnt today these 3 religious characters dominate ancient Egyptian culture and their story possesses all the drama of a modern soap opera. First the God Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his brother Seth. His wife Isis then searched for the pieces of his body, collected them and with her magic powers brought Osiris back to life. Isis and Osiris then conceived the god Horus. Osiris then died again (this time for ever) and became God of the underworld. Meanwhile Isis gave birth to Horus. Later when Horus grew up, he avenged his father by defeating his uncle Seth in combat. Add to this a whole host of other Gods and Godesses and it makes for a very interesting (if somewhat confusing) story!
Isis is a very important figure in Egyptian culture: she was the mother of Horus, the main Egyptian god, and is associated with healing, fertility and all things wifely and motherly. During the Roman period her cult spread throughout Greece and the Roman Empire; then when Christianity spread across the Mediterranean, some say Isis morphed into the Christian Virgin Mary.
So popular was the worship of Isis that her temple was actually still used right up until the 6th century AD when an edict from the Byzantine emperor, Justinian, ordered the temple closed. For a period after that the temple was then used by Christians as a church, the remnants of which we saw today. Unfortunately these early Christians defaced many of the Egyptian sculptures and motifs, though overall the temple is amazingly well preserved.
The Temple at Philae was actually dismantled, relocated to its current location, and partially renovated in the 1960s when the High Aswan Dam threatened to flood the temple forever. In a UNESCO-funded project the island the temple was on was surrounded with a dam and the inside pumped dry. Then every stone was labelled, removed and reassembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle, some 500m away on a higher island. The whole project took 10 years and saved one of Egypt’s most beautiful temples from certain destruction.
After a morning at the Temple of Isis we went to our hotel for lunch and a qayloulah (translation = midday or early afternoon nap). Our hotel is awesome – it’s right on the riverbank in the middle of Aswan with great views over the water. Hard to snooze when you have this to look at…..
We managed to tear ourselves away from the view around 4:00pm however to go for a short cruise up the Nile with “Captain Jamaica”, or JJ as he’s known locally. JJ is from a Nubian village just upriver from Aswan; for 25 years he has been running short river cruises and inviting tourists to spend the evening with a his family to have a traditional Nubian dinner with the villagers. This kind of “village reality experience” is not really our thing – past experiences have shown us that village life usually involves a whole lot of animal poop and hard manual labour, neither of which we enjoy (see visit to Viscri, Romania for further details). It’s part of the Intrepid tour itinerary though and Intrepid does good stuff, so we set off with JJ hoping for the best….
It was AWESOME! The short trip up the Nile was wonderful – so quiet and peaceful, with very few other boats around (we’re loving the lack of other tourists around at the moment!), and just the egrets and water birds keeping us company.
We sailed past Elephantine Island, one of the Nile’s largest islands, and on past the outskirts of Aswan. Out of town the sand dunes and granite cliffs rose up either side of the river, casting a welcomed shadow over the boat (it’s seriously HOT here). Being late afternoon the sun painted the sand dunes the most beautiful colours and it was so striking seeing the lush greenery along the banks with the dry desert sands just behind. THIS is what we came to Egypt to see!
We got to the village around 5:00pm and had a lovely time chatting with JJ and his extended family about life in the Nubian village and how it differs to “regular” Egyptian life. The family was so welcoming and were more than happy to answer all our questions about Nubian life and customs – it was great! And dinner wasn’t bad either – very simple fare with lots of lentils, rice and beans. Sure the village was a bit on the stinky/poopy side, but it was by far the cleanest place we’ve seen in Egypt so far – everything was dusty, sure (not surprising what with the desert next door and all that), but there was no rubbish in the streets and people’s homes looked loved and looked after.
The Nubians are an African people who inhabit Northern Sudan and Southern Egypt. Ancient Nubians traded extensively with the Egyptians for ivory, gold, slaves, feathers, animal skins, copper, ebony and other wares from Equatorial Africa. Nubians were famous for their horsemanship and skill and precision with the bow, and are often depicted in Egyptian art and sculpture as dark skinned warriors with bows. Ancient Egypt conquered Nubian territory and incorporated parts of the area into its provinces; the Nubians in turn went on to conquer Egypt during the 25th Dynasty. However, relations between the two peoples were also peaceful at times, with cultural interchange and cooperation, including mixed marriages, a common theme in Egyptian art. There were even a number of pharaohs of Nubian origin, particularly during the 12th Dynasty.
There are few villages like the one we visited left in Egypt – the High Aswan Dam flooded the ancestral lands of the Egyptian Nubians in the 1960s. Some Nubians resettled and rebuilt villages after this, and continue working as farmers (share croppers), but most have left the area entirely and work in Egypt’s cities. Due to this modern tragedy, the Nubian language and many aspects of its culture is fading. We feel very fortunate to have been able to see even a little of Nubian life today.
Today has been one of our best days in Egypt so far. We were hardly harrassed by touters, there are virtually no other tourists here, and everything we saw today was amazing. Even better: tomorrow we get to sleep in as our flight to Abu Simbel has been delayed (from 6:00am to 10:00am). We LOVE sleep almost as much as we love food so tomorrow is looking good already. Tune in tomorrow night for our report on Abu Simbel – home to the famous Sun Temple of Ramsses II.