World Wanderings ~ Aswan, a legendary town at Nubia’s door (Back To Egypt, Part 4)
Ancient Egyptians called Nubia Ta-Sety, the land of the bows because the skill of its archers was well known and dreaded. However they were not able to prevent their invasion by the Egyptians from 1550 BC until 1050 BC.
It comes as no surprise that the pharaohs coveted this land so much: its wealth was priceless. Its mines were full of gold, silver, copper, diorite, amethysts and it was the best place to find ebony, ivory, ostrich’s feathers, wild animals’ furs coming from Black Africa. It was also a time for unbelievable constructions: Abou Simbel, Philae, Kertasi, Kars Ibrim, Kalabsha are a few of many temples built by the Pharaohs. Much later in 1960 President Nasser decided to build a new dam south of Aswan to provide Egypt with water and electricity and to secure the country from the risk of the inundations. But in the same time the upstream Nile corridor was flooded and the Nubian villages were destroyed, their inhabitants forced to find new places to live in. From 1960 till 1980 the main temples were saved from flooding by a huge campaign led by the UNESCO, allowing us to visit them today.
Philae is one of the greatest temples in Egypt. Built during the Ptolemaic dynasty on the Philae Island it was first partly flooded in 1906 after the construction of the first dam and would have been completely submerged after the new dam was erected. So it had to be dismantled and relocated on another island reshaped to imitate the original one. Being on an island you will have to sail on a small motorboat to get to the temple. It’s a very pleasant short cruise and you will get a spectacular view of the temple. The principal deity is Isis and her temple is in very good condition with its huge and complete pylons. During the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD it was converted to a church and you will see several crosses engraved on the walls and on the columns. Unfortunately those first Christians were over-zealous and many Egyptian sculptures were hammered and lost forever! Outside the Temple of Isis on the bank of the island, stands the elegant Trajan’s kiosk which attracts many photographers. The Trajan’s kiosk and its own reflection on the water create a perfect image that many try to fix.
Another easy excursion is to get to the Kalabsha temples. On the bank of the Lake Nasser, at a short distance from the Great Dam of Aswan, a few monuments to be saved from the water have been relocated on a rocky headland that you have to reach by small boat. You will find the Kalabsha temple itself, the ruins of the temple of Gerf Hussein, the small rock-cut of Beit-el-Wali, and the nice tiny kiosk of Qertassi with four papyrus shaped columns and two other carved with heads of Hathor. On the way you will stop on the Great Dam to see the Lake Nasser on one side and to discover the Nile cataracts on the other side.
To build their temples the Egyptians needed granite. One of their numerous quarries was right in Aswan and in it is the proof that their architects were not infallible! Indeed an unfinished obelisk lies in its original location and was most probably abandoned when some cracks appeared in the rock. Maybe the engineers were too presumptuous to make what would have been the heaviest obelisk ever cut in Ancient Egypt. Standing next to this 42 m long monolith you might feel very small but impressed by these builders in spite of their failure.
But Aswan shelters another more recent legendary place: the Old Cataract Hotel. In 1899 Thomas Cook who owned several ships cruising on the Nile for wealthy people decided to build a luxury hotel to welcome his clients in Aswan. It was and still is a successful idea and since its opening party in 1902 many rich and famous people came to The Old Cataract: Winston Churchill, Tsar Nicholas II, Howard Carter, Jimmy Carter, the Aga Khan who spent his honeymoon there and all the winter seasons afterwards, Princess Diana… And of course Agatha Christie who wrote a few chapters of her novel “Death on the Nile” in the suite that was named after her since then.
To everyone The Old Cataract Hotel is synonymous with luxury holidays in a unique location. Closed from 2008 till 2011 it has been entirely restored and the result is simply amazing because everything has changed but everything is the same! The decoration is a stylish mix of Victorian, Oriental and French styles in the lobby with its original black and white striped Byzantine arches, in the four restaurants and in the rooms and suites which are fewer but much larger than before, new, but keeping the same timeless atmosphere. In the Nile Wing all the rooms have a Nile view even from the surprising big bathrooms with floor to ceiling windows allowing you to look at the scenery while having your bath.
Having breakfast at The Terrace overlooking the Nile is the best way to start your day enjoying the buffet while watching the feluccas sailing on the Nile below. It is also the place to be to have a drink at sunset when the sun dives into the desert. So romantic!
“1902” is the name of the legendary restaurant where the opening party took place in…1902! Its theatrical décor makes it look like a palace from the “Arabian Nights” under the 20 m high dome. To make your diner a complete success the fine international cuisine is up to the décor. In the Nile wing the restaurant “Oriental Kebabgy” serves Egyptian and oriental dinners either in the cosy dining room or on a terrace overlooking the river.
There are two places where you can relax after visiting Aswan and its temples. The new swimming pool is partly surrounded by trees to get to some shade and also has a great view on the Nile and the Elephantine Island. And for an even more relaxing moment go to the Spa and Hammam with its indoor swimming pool and its wide range of treatments.
From the hotel you can get on board a felucca. While drinking a ”karkade” a drink made with the hibiscus flowers you will sail up and down the 1st cataract that can be a little shaky or will go to the Elephantine Island to see the ruins of temples dedicated to Khnum, the ram-headed god of the cataracts and 2 nilometers. These are structures designed to measure the water level during the annual flood season. Ask the captain of your felucca to take you to Kitchener’s island close by. This island was given to Lord Kitchener as a reward for his services during the Sudan campaign in 1898. He made a paradise of exotic trees and plants of it. It now is a botanical garden where it feels good to get away from the heat of the city.
Aswan should be much more than a mere stop before getting on board your cruise boat to discover its temples, its islands, its amazing new museum and if possible enjoy a luxury and unforgettable stay at The Old Cataract.
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Text and photos © Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny