In antiquity, Upper Egypt started at Memphis and ran as far south as Aswan on the border with Nubia. Nowadays, with the designation of Middle Egypt, borders are a bit hazy, though the Qena Bend is generally taken as the region’s beginning and Aswan is still effectively the end of the line.
Within this stretch of the Nile is the world’s most intensive concentration of ancient monuments – temples, tombs and palaces constructed from the onset of the Middle Kingdom (c.2050 BC) up until Roman and Byzantine times. The greatest of the buildings are the cult temples of Abydos, Dendara, Karnak, Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Philae and Abu Simbel, each conceived as “homes” for their respective deities and comprising an accretion of centuries of building. Scarcely less impressive are the multitude of tombs in the Theban Necropolis, most famously in the Valley of the Kings, across the river from Luxor, where Tutankhamun’s resting place is merely a hole in the ground by comparison with those of such great pharaohs as Seti I and Ramses II.
Monuments aside, Upper Egypt marks a subtle shift of character, with the desert closing in on the river and dom palms growing alongside barrel-roofed houses, designed to reflect the intense heat. One of the greatest pleasures to be had here – indeed one of the highlights of any Egyptian trip – is to absorb the river-scape slowly from the vantage point of a felucca. This is easily arranged in Aswan, whence you can sail downriver with no fear of being becalmed; Nile cruise boats and dahabiyas provide a more luxurious experience. While cruises can be booked at short notice in either city, better deals are usually available in Aswan.