Aswan, a city on the Nile River, has been southern Egypt’s strategic and commercial gateway since antiquity. It contains significant archaeological sites. Once ancient Egypt’s gateway to Africa, this is a perfect base for exploring the temples and monuments in the southern reaches of Upper Egypt and the area’s distinctly different Nubian culture.
Best Time to Visit
Egypt is a year round destination – although the summer months can be particularly hot, especially towards the south of Egypt in Luxor and Aswan. The best time to visit Aswan is from September through to April.
Top Places to Visit in Aswan
1. Elephantine Island
Peppered with palm tree plantations and sloping villages of colorful mud-brick houses, Elephantine Island is Aswan’s major highlight. At its southern end are Aswan Museum (currently not open) and the Ruins of Abu, Aswan’s most ancient settlement, which contains the Old Kingdom Temple of Khnum and the Temple of Satet. On the eastern embankment near the ruins and down a flight of steps is Aswan’s Nilometer. Ancient Egyptians measured the Niles rise and fall with these stone-hewn wells allowing them to estimate the height of the annual flood and thus predict the success of their harvest.
2. Nubia Museum
Aswan’s rather fantastic Nubian Museum is one of Egypt’s best and a must for anyone interested in the history and culture of both ancient and modern Nubia. It documents the riches of a culture that was all but washed away with the building of the Aswan Dam and creation of Lake Nasser. There is an excellent collection of artefacts from the Kingdom of Kush (ancient Nubia) and plenty of wonderful black-and-white photos of UNESCO’s incredible project to save Philae Temple and Abu Simbel from the rising waters of the dam (along with extensive photographs of the huge range of other monuments that are now lost forever under the lake’s waters). Don’t miss the slumping mud-brick mausoleums of Aswan’s Fatimid cemetery, just behind the Nubian Museum. The cemetery caretakers are happy to take visitors on a tour and can point out the most interesting mausoleums for you. Don’t forget to leave them a small tip.
3. Philae Temple
The sacred Temple of Isis (more commonly known as Philae Temple) is one of Upper Egypt’s most beguiling monuments both for the exquisite artistry of its reliefs and for the gorgeous symmetry of its architecture, which made it a favorite subject of Victorian painters. Like Abu Simbel, the temple was saved by the rising waters of Lake Nasser by UNESCO’s rescue project and moved lock-stock-and-barrel from its original home on Philae Island to nearby (higher) Agilika Island where it sits today.The Temple of Isis, a center for the ancient cult of Isis, is the main part of the Philae complex, but the island is also home to the Temple of Hathor, the Kiosk of Trajan, and various other buildings from the Roman and Byzantine periods.
4. Unfinished Obelisk
Aswan’s Northern Quarry is home to the famous Unfinished Obelisk – a 41-meter-long and four-meter-wide chunk of stone that was probably abandoned because of a crack in the rock. It’s estimated that if completed, the obelisk would have weighed 1,168 tons and would have been the largest ever hewn. On the surrounding rock faces, you can also see the many traces of the work of ancient stonecutters. The blocks here would have been detached from the rock by boring holes along a prescribed line, driving wedges into these, and then soaking the wedges with water to detach the block.
5. Monastery of St. Simeon
The gloriously photogenic Monastery of St. Simeon sits between the sand dunes on the Nile’s West Bank. Founded in the 7th century and finally abandoned in the 13th century due to water shortages, it’s one of the largest and best preserved Coptic monasteries in Egypt. Inside the monastery courtyard, an aisled Basilica takes up the southern side of the monastery. At the east end of the wide nave, once covered by two domes, is the large apse, with three rectangular niches under semi domes. In the central niche are the remains of a fresco depicting Christ enthroned between angels. To the north and west of the church are various subsidiary buildings and small grottoes, while the eastern side is made up of living quarters.
6. Tombs of the Nobles
This series of rock tombs chiseled out of the West Bank’s cliffs were where Elephantine Island’s governors, priests, and other grandees were buried during the Old and Middle Kingdoms. They’re accessed by a series of steep staircases just to the left of Gharb Aswan’s boat landing.
This group of temples were all saved from a watery end by UNESCO’s rescue project and now sit on the banks of Lake Nasser. Kalabsha Temple is the best preserved of the three temples here and also the youngest, dating from the time of Roman Emperor Augustus. The most imposing monument in Nubia after the Temple of Abu Simbel, it was built on the site of an earlier temple founded by Amenhotep II and re-founded during the Ptolemaic Dynasty. The decoration was never completed and the reliefs that do exist are crudely executed. During the Byzantine era the temple was converted into a church.
8. Aga Khan Mausoleum
Presiding prominently atop of the West Bank’s cliff, the Aga Khan Mausoleum was built to hold the tomb of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah (1877-1957), leader of the Shi’a Islam Nizari Ismaili sect. He is chiefly remembered for his various charitable acts, setting up educational and medical institutions throughout Africa and Asia, as well as for the influential role he played in discussions about the partition of India. Although born in Karachi (then part of India under British colonial rule), the Aga Khan often summered with his family in Aswan and so had a deep connection to this part of Egypt. You can’t visit the actual mausoleum, but you’re sure to spot it sitting high above the Nile’s bank.