Middle East and North Africa: 10 spectacular sights off the beaten track
The Middle East and North Africa have plenty of world-famous attractions – Petra and the Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings and the souks of Marrakesh, the mi…
Egypt’s southernmost city and ancient frontier town has the loveliest setting on the Nile. At ASWAN the deserts close in on the river, confining its sparkling blue between amber sand and extrusions of granite bedrock. Lateen-sailed feluccas glide past the ancient ruins and gargantuan rocks of Elephantine Island, palms and tropical shrubs softening the islands and embankments till intense blue skies fade into soft-focus dusks.
Although its own monuments are insignificant compared to Luxor’s, Aswan is the base for excursions to the temples of Philae and Kabasha, near the great dams beyond the First Cataract, and the Sun Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, far to the south. It is also the best starting point for excursions to Darow Camel Market, and the temples of Kom Ombo and Edfu, between Aswan and Luxor. Though Kom Ombo and Edfu are easier to reach by road, the classic approach is to travel downriver by felucca, experiencing the Nile’s moods and scenery as travellers have for millennia – or on a luxurious cruise. Aswan itself is laidback to the point of torpor, with a local tourism scene essentially similar to Luxor’s but far less dynamic.
Situated near the Tropic of Cancer, Aswan is hot and dry nearly all the time, with average daily temperatures ranging from a delicious 23–30°C in the winter to a searing 38–54°C over summer. In late January and early February, many Egyptians visit Aswan, block-booking seats on trains from Luxor and Cairo. Late autumn and spring are the perfect times to visit, being less crowded than the peak winter period, yet not so enervating as summer (May–Oct), when long siestas, cold showers and air-conditioning are essential, and nocturnal power cuts not only deprive you of cooling and lighting, but mean that food may go bad in fridges overnight.
Elephantine Island – opposite modern Aswan in the Nile – has been settled since remotest antiquity, and its fortress-town of Yebu became the border post between Egypt and Nubia early in the Old Kingdom. Local governors, entitled Guardians of the Southern Gates, were responsible for border security and trade with Nubia; for quarrying fine red granite; and mining amethysts, quartzite, copper, tin and malachite in the desert hinterland. Military outposts further south could summon help from the Yebu garrison by signal fires and an Egyptian fleet patrolled the river between the First and Second Cataracts.
Besides this, Yebu was an important cult centre, for the Egyptians believed that the Nile welled up from subterranean caverns at the First Cataract, just upriver. Its local deities were Hapy and Satet, god of the Nile flood and goddess of its fertility, though the region’s largest temple honoured Khnum, the provincial deity.
Classical and Christian Aswan
During settled periods, the vast trade in ivory, slaves, gold, silver, incense, exotic animal skins and feathers spawned a market town on the east bank, but the island remained paramount throughout classical times, when it was known by its Greek appellation, Seyene. The Alexandrian geographer Eratosthenes (c.276–195 BC) heard of a local well into which the sun’s rays fell perpendicularly at midday on the summer solstice, leaving no shadow; from this he deduced that Seyene lay on the Tropic of Cancer, concluded that the world was round and calculated its diameter with nearly modern accuracy – being only 80km out. (Since that time, the Tropic of Cancer has moved further south.)
The potency of the cult of Isis at nearby Philae made this one of the last parts of Egypt to be affected by Christianity, but once converted it became a stronghold of the faith. From their desert Monastery of St Simeon, monks made forays into Nubia, eventually converting the local Nobatae, who returned the favour by helping them to resist Islamic rule until finally subjugated by Saladin. However, Bedouin raiders persisted through to 1517, when Sultan Selim garrisoned an entire army here, by which time the town’s name had changed from Coptic Sawan to its present form, and the population had embraced Islam.
Colonial and contemporary Aswan
During the nineteenth century Aswan was the base for the conquest of Sudan and the defeat of the Mahadist Uprising (1881–98) by Anglo-Egyptian forces. As British influence grew, it also became the favourite winter resort of rich, ailing Europeans, who flocked to Aswan for its dry heat and therapeutic hot sands, luxurious hotels and stunning scenery. Its final transformation into the Aswan of today owes to the building of the High Dam, 15km upriver, which flooded Nubia, compelling its inhabitants to settle in new villages built around Kom Ombo and Aswan itself – as related in the city’s superb Nubia Museum.
Aswan’s bazaar is renowned as the best in Egypt after Cairo’s, but – as in Luxor – it’s had a kitsch makeover, with Moorish gates at every crossroad and antique shopfronts torn down to widen the street. Yet the variety of products and smells is irresistable, from perfumes and incense to fruit and fish, by way of jewellery and lingerie.
Popular tourist buys include colourful Nubian skullcaps and long scarves; heavier, woven shawls; woven baskets and trays, some semi-antique and others new. Galabiyyas and embroidered Nubian robes can be bought off the peg or tailored to order. Also eye-catching are heaps of spices and dyes; dried hibiscus (used to make karkaday), fake so-called “saffron”, henna powder (sold in different grades) and peanuts. One product that even locals admit is an acquired taste is mlouha, or spicy pickled fish, whose silvery-red flesh stinks even in sealed jars.
Aswan’s Corniche is the finest in Egypt, less for its hotchpotch of buildings than for the superb vista of Elephantine Island and feluccas gliding over the water like quill pens across papyrus, with the tawny wastes of the Western Desert on the far bank. If the view from riverside restaurants is spoilt by diesel-belching cruise boats moored alongside, it’s worth shelling out to enjoy sunset from the public Ferial Gardens (daily 9am–5pm; £E5) or the exclusive Promenade Terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel, which both afford a sublime view of the southern end of Elephantine Island and the smaller islands beyond.
Although the Corniche follows the river bank for more than 4km, restaurants, hotels, and banks only line the 1.5-kilometre stretch between the Rowing Club and Ferial Gardens. There traffic swings inland, as a steep side road ascends past the Old Cataract to the Nubia Museum. Public ferries from docks at three points along the Corniche link downtown with Elephantine Island and Aswan Gharb.
Overlooking town from a hillside above the Old Cataract, the Nubia Museum showcases the history and culture of this ancient land in an impressive building based on traditional Nubian architecture, surrounded by terraced grounds, which posthumously crowned the career of architect Mahmoud al-Hakim when it opened in 1997. The museum displays some five thousand artefacts, excellently organized and clearly labelled in English; check out their website for a preview.
At the entrance to the main hall, a scale model of the Nile Valley shows the magnitude of the Nilotic civilizations and their architectural achievements. Exhibits lead you from prehistory through the kingdoms of Kush and Meröe into Christian and Islamic eras, until the drowning of Nubia beneath Lake Nasser and the salvage of its ancient monuments.
A striking quartzite statue of a Kushite priest of Amun attests to Nubian rule of Thebes during the XXV Dynasty (c.747– 656 BC). While there’s little to show for Meröe, tumuli from the later Ballana culture of Lower Nubia have yielded superb horse armour and jewellery, and you can see frescoes salvaged from the Coptic churches of Nubia. There are life-size models of traditional Nubian houses and photographs of the mud-brick fortresses, churches and cemeteries that were abandoned to the rising waters of Lake Nasser as the temples were moved to higher land.
Terraced and boulder-ridden, with a watercourse falling over weirs, the grounds evoke the landscape of Nubia and form an outdoor museum of Nubian architecture. To the south is an artificial cave containing prehistoric rock art removed from now inundated areas of Nubia, and a mud-brick house furnished as a century ago, with mannequins wearing silver jewellery. Islamic monuments and antiquities, including the mausoleum of 77 wali (sheikhs), can be found in the opposite direction.
A side-road beside the museum provides a short-cut to the Fatimid Cemetery and the Unfinished Obelisk.
Covering a dusty slope below the Nubia Museum, Aswan’s fenced-off Fatimid Cemetery is a sprawl of low mud-brick tombs dating from Tulunid times (ninth century AD) up to the present, ranging from basic enclosures to complex domed cubes. Though not as grand as Cairo’s Cities of the Dead (or inhabited by squatters), many have a shape unique to southern Egypt, with protruding “horns” below their domes.
The identities of most of the people buried here have been lost since their marble plaques fell off after a freak nineteenth-century rainstorm and were taken to Cairo without anyone recording their origin, although the tombs of local sheikhs (marked by green flags) are still revered by many Aswanis – but not by Salafists, who abhor such practices as idolatry.
By walking down from the main entrance towards the four-storey building facing the back of the cemetery, you’ll emerge on Sharia Dr Abdel Radi Hanafi near the site of the Unfinished Obelisk.
The Northern Quarries (actually south of town) are the best-known of the many quarrying sites in the hills around Aswan, which supplied the Ancient Egyptians with fine red granite for their temples and colossi. From chisel marks and discarded tools, Egyptologists have been able to deduce quarrying techniques, such as soaking wooden wedges to split fissures, and using quartz sand slurry as an abrasive. A visitors’ trail runs through the quarry past some pictographs of dolphins and ostriches, painted by ancient quarry workers.
The quarries’ fame derives from a gigantic Unfinished Obelisk, which was roughly dressed and nearly cut free from the bedrock before being abandoned after a flaw in the stone was discovered. Had it been finished, the obelisk would have weighed 1168 tons and stood nearly 42m high. It’s reckoned that this was the intended mate for the so-called Lateran Obelisk in Rome, which originally stood before the temple of Tuthmosis III at Karnak and is still credited as being the largest obelisk in the world.
Aswan’s Elephantine Island takes its name from the huge black rocks clustered around its southern end, which resemble a herd of pachyderms bathing in the river. From a felucca you can see cartouches and Pre-dynastic inscriptions carved on the rock faces, which are too sheer to view from the island. Elephantine’s spectacular beauty is marred only by the towering Mövenpick Resort Aswan, reached by its own private ferry and cut off from the rest of the island by a tall fence. A vast extension is under construction further north.
Siou and Koti
Two Nubian villages nestle amid palm groves, their houses painted sky-blue, pink or yellow and often decorated with hajj scenes. Chickens and goats roam shady alleys where elders gossip and women share chores, as their menfolk work in the fields. You can stroll from one village to the other in fifteen minutes, but may be invited into somebody’s house.
The northern village, Siou, has a small museum, Animalia (daily 8am–5pm; £E5, or £E10 with guided tour) in the family home of birdwatching guide Mohammed Sobhi. Exhibits include stuffed animals, geological samples and photos of Nubia before it was submerged by Lake Nasser, which he enjoys explaining over tea. Nearer the Mövenpick fence, Baaba Dool (no set hours; free) is a beautifully painted house whose owner Mustafa (t 010 0497 2608) arranges live music and dancing, henna tattooing by local women, and serves tea on a rooftop overlooking the Island of Plants, perfect for birdwatching at sunset.
The other village, Koti, has its ferry landing-stage just downhill from the Aswan Museum and the ruins of ancient Yebu.
The small Aswan Museum casts light on the island’s past, when its southern end was occupied by the town of Yebu or Abu (meaning both “elephant” and “ivory” in the Ancient Egyptian language). Most of the museum’s best exhibits have been moved to the Nubia Museum, but a mummified gazelle and jewellery found at the island’s Temple of Satet are worth a look, as is the Annexe, whose highlights include a life-size granite statue of a seated Tuthmosis III, a colobus monkey embracing a pillar and a pre-nuptial agreement from the reign of Nectanebo II.
The museum was originally the villa of Sir William Willcocks, who designed the first Aswan Dam, and is set amid fragrant subtropical gardens.
In ancient times the Nilometers at Aswan were the first to measure the river’s rise, enabling priests to calculate the height of the inundation, crop yields over the next year and the rate of taxation (which peasants paid in kind). There are two on the island, built at the tail end of pharaonic civilization but based on far older practice and used for centuries afterwards.
The easier to find is the Nilometer of the Satet Temple, by the riverside; ninety enclosed rock-cut steps lead down to a square shaft with walls graduated in Arabic, Roman and pharaonic numerals, reflecting its usage in ancient times and during the late nineteenth century. To get there from the museum, follow the path southwards for 300m to find a sycamore tree (the pharaonic symbol of the tree-goddess, associated with Nut and Hathor) which shades the structure. Should you approach it by river, notice the rock embankments to the south, which bear inscriptions from the reigns of Tuthmosis III, Amenhotep III and the XXVI Dynasty ruler Psammetichus II.
The Nilometer of the Temple of Khnum is further inland amid the remains of Yebu. Built in the XXVI Dynasty, it consists of stairs leading down to what was probably a basin for measuring the Nile’s maximum level; a scale is etched by the stairs at the northern end.
Ruins of Yebu
The dusty southern end of the island is littered with the ruins of the ancient town of Yebu, which covered nearly two square kilometres by Ptolemaic times. You can follow a trail from the Aswan Museum past numbered plaques identifying structures excavated or reconstructed by German and Swiss archeological teams working on Elephantine. The German mission’s guidebook, Elephantine: The Ancient Town describes its 4400-year history and monuments.
A massive platform and foundation blocks (#6, #12 and #13) mark the site of the Temple of Khnum, god of the Aswan nome. The temple was founded in the Old Kingdom but entirely rebuilt during the XXX Dynasty. On its north side are the remains of pillars painted by the Romans, and Greek inscriptions; to the west stands the imposing gateway added by Alexander II, shown here worshipping Khnum.
Immediately to the north lies a Greco-Roman Necropolis of Sacred Rams (#11), unearthed in 1906, while further northwest stands the small Temple of Hekayib, a VI Dynasty nomarch buried in the Tombs of the Nobles who was later deified; the stelae and inscriptions found here by Labib Habachi in 1946 revealed much about Aswan during the Middle Kingdom.
Due east is a Temple of Satet where excavations continue to produce discoveries. Built by Queen Hatshepsut around 1490 BC, it was the last of more than thirty such temples on this site, dating back four millennia, dedicated to the goddess who incarnated the fertile aspect of the inundation. Beneath the temple archeologists have found a shaft leading 19m into the granite bedrock, where a natural whirl hole is thought to have amplified the sounds of the rising water table (the first indication of the life-giving annual flood) and was revered as the “Voice of the Nile”. Although the High Dam has since silenced its voice, a half-buried statue near the temple still draws new brides and barren women longing for the gift of fertility.
To the southwest of Khnum’s temple, the layered remains of ancient houses have yielded Aramaic papyri attesting to a sizeable Jewish colony on Elephantine in the sixth century BC. A military order by Darius II permitting the Yebu garrison to observe Passover in 419 BC suggests that they defended the southernmost border of the Persian empire. Although nothing remains of their temple to Yahweh, the Germans used leftover blocks from Kalabsha to reconstruct a Ptolemaic sanctuary with decorations added by the Nubian pharaoh Arkamani in the third century BC, at the tip of the island.
Almost hidden from sight by Elephantine Island, the verdant Island of Plants (or Botanical Garden) is still known to many tourists as “Kitchener’s Island”. Nubians from Elephantine recall how their ancestors were evicted so that the island could be awarded to Sir Horatio Kitchener for his military exploits in Sudan. Here he indulged his passion for exotic flora, importing shrubs and seeds from as far afield as India and Malaysia. Today this island-wide botanical garden is slightly scruffy but still a wonderful place to relax, with birdlife, butterflies and stately palms suffused with the aroma of sandalwood for an hour before sunset.
Hewn into the cliffside facing Aswan, the Tombs of the Nobles recall local governors and other ancient dignitaries, with artwork whose immediacy and concern for everyday life makes a refreshing change from royal art. Situated at different heights – Old and Middle Kingdom ones uppermost, Roman tombs nearest the river – the tombs are numbered in ascending order from south to north. Taking the path up from the ticket kiosk, you reach the high-numbered ones first.
You can combine a visit to the tombs with the Monastery of Saint Simeon by walking 2km across the desert via the domed hilltop Muslim shrine known as Qubbet el-Hawa (Tomb of the Wind), from which there’s a superb view for miles around. Be sure to wear a hat and carry plenty of water.
Tomb of Sirenput I (#36)
Turn right at the top of the steps and follow the path downhill around the cliffside to find the tomb of Sirenput I, overseer of the priests of Khnum and Satet and Guardian of the South during the XII Dynasty. The six pillars of the tomb’s vestibule bear portraits and biographical texts. On the left-hand wall Sirenput watches bulls fighting and spears fish from a papyrus raft, accompanied by his sandal-bearer, sons and dog. On the opposite wall he’s portrayed with his mutt and bow-carrier, and also sitting above them in a garden with his mother, wife and daughters while being entertained by singers; the lower register shows three men gambling.
Among the badly damaged murals in the hall beyond, you can just discern fowlers with a net (on the lower right wall), a hieroglyphic biography and a marsh-hunting scene. Beyond lies a chapel with a false door set into the rear niche; the corridor to the left leads to the burial chamber.
Tomb of Pepi-Nakht (#35)
To reach the other tombs, return to the top of the steps and follow the path southwards. Among a cluster of tombs to the left of the steps is a two-roomed structure ascribed to Hekayib (whose cult temple stands on Elephantine), called here by his other name, Pepi-Nakht. As overseer of foreign troops during the long reign of Pepi II (VI Dynasty), he led colonial campaigns in Asia and Nubia, which are related on either side of the door of the left-hand room.
Tomb of Harkuf (#34)
Harkhuf was the overseer of foreign troops under Pepi I, Merenre and Pepi II. An eroded biography inside the entrance relates his three trading expeditions into Nubia, including a letter from the eight-year-old Pepi II, urging Harkhuf to bring back safely a “dancing dwarf from the land of spirits” (thought to be a pygmy from Equatorial Africa), whom Pepi desired to see “more than the gifts of Sinai or Punt”. The tiny hieroglyphic figure of a pygmy appears several times in the text.
Tomb of Sirenput II (#31)
The largest, best-preserved tomb belongs to Sirenput II, who held the same offices as his father Sirenput I under Amenemhat II, during the apogee of the Middle Kingdom. Beyond its vestibule (with an offerings slab between the second and third pillars on the right) lies a corridor with six niches containing Osirian statues of Sirenput, still vividly coloured like his portraits on the four pillars of the chapel, where the artist’s grid lines are visible in places. Best of all is the recess at the back, where Sirenput appears with his wife and son, attends his seated mother in a garden and receives flowers from his son. Notice the elephant in the upper left corner of this tableau.
Tombs of Mekhu (#25) and Sabni (#26)
At the top of the double ramps ascending the hillside (up which sarcophagi were dragged) are the adjacent tombs of a father and son which are interesting for their monumentality – a large vestibule with three rows of rough-hewn pillars, flanked by niches and burial chambers – and for their story. After his father Mekhu was killed in Nubia, Sabni mounted a punitive expedition that recovered the body. As a sign of respect, Pepi II sent his own embalmers to mummify the corpse; Sabni travelled to Memphis to personally express his thanks with gifts, as related by an inscription at the entrance to his tomb.
Founded in the seventh century and rebuilt in the tenth, the fortress-like Monastery of St Simeon (Deir Anba Samaan) was originally dedicated to Anba Hadra, a local saint who encountered a funeral procession the day after his wedding and decided to renounce the world for a hermit’s cave before the marriage was consummated. From here, monks made evangelical forays into Nubia, where they converted the Nobatae to Christianity. After the Muslim conquest, the Nobatae used the monastery as a base during their incursions into Egypt, until Saladin had it wrecked in 1173.
One of the custodians will show you around the complex. Its now-roofless Basilica bears traces of frescoes of the Apostles, their faces scratched out by Muslim iconoclasts. In a nearby chamber with a font is the place where St Simeon used to stand sleeplessly reading the Bible, with his beard tied to the ceiling so as to deliver a painful tug if he nodded off. The central keep has room for three hundred monks sleeping five to a cell; graffiti left by Muslim pilgrims who camped here en route to Mecca can be seen in the last room on the right.
The arid west bank is the domain of funerary monuments, ancient and modern. From a walled villa with a riverside garden, stairs ascend the hillside to the domed Mausoleum of the Aga Khan. Its marble sarcophagus enshrines Aga Khan III, the 48th Imam of the Isma’ili sect of Shi’ite Muslims, who was weighed in jewels for his diamond jubilee in 1945. Drawn to Aswan by its climate and hot sands, which relieved his rheumatism, he fell in love with its beauty, built a villa and spent every winter here till his death in 1957.
Until she was buried beside him in 2000, his widow ensured that a fresh red rose was placed on his sarcophagus every day; legend has it that when none was available in Egypt, a rose was flown in by private plane from Paris on six successive days. The compound has been closed since her death but remains an imposing sight.
The remote Western Quarry in the desert beyond the Tombs of the Nobles is harshly evocative of the effort to supply stone for pharaonic monuments. Huge blocks were prised from the sandstone of Jebel Simaan and dragged on rollers towards the Nile for shipment down-river; the stone for Luxor’s Colossi of Memnon may have come from here. An Unfinished Obelisk with hieroglyphs extolling Seti I (c.1294–79 BC) was abandoned by the wayside after a flaw in the rock was discovered. This desolate site is seldom visited – beware of snakes.
On a winter’s day there’s nothing more relaxing than a cruise to Sehel Island by felucca or motorboat, easily arranged in town. Bring swimming gear, water and a hat, and come well shod: although the river is cool, the rocks and sand are scorchingly hot. En route, look out for the bougainvillea-festooned villa of pop star Mohammed Mounir, on the east bank of the river.
Landing on Sehel you’ll be led by local kids to a Nubian village where Mohammed Hassan offers music and meals in his house (t 012 2415 4902) or to the “ruins” (as locals call them) dominating the island. These two hills of jumbled boulders have over 250 inscriptions from the Middle Kingdom until Ptolemaic times, mostly recording expeditions beyond the First Cataract or prayers of gratitude for their safe return. Atop the eastern hill, a Ptolemaic Famine Stele (#81) backdated to the reign of Zoser relates how he ended a seven-year famine during the III Dynasty by placating Khnum, god of the cataract, with a new temple on Sehel and the return of lands confiscated from his cult centre at Esna, which had provoked Khnum to withhold the inundation.
Out towards the old Aswan Dam, the arid granite hills overlooking the First Cataract have been quarried since antiquity: an apt setting for Aswan’s Sculpture Park (El-Mathaf el-Maftouh) of large abstract works by artists attending the international Sculpture Symposium. The park has a superb view of the First Cataract (especially at sunset), and may host a Sound and Light Show in the future.
Be sure to get a taxi whose driver knows the way from town (about 25min). Take the road for the Aswan Dam but turn off onto an uphill road rather than towards the Shallal docks (for ferries to Philae), continuing until you reach the top; the sculptures are on the right, the still-working Southern Quarries to your left. While out here, you could also visit the Fekra Culture Centre, 2km away (see map, and For more information, see Fekra).
Sehel Island, the Sculpture Park and the Aswan Dam all afford wonderful views of the First Cataract (Shallal al-Awal), a lush, cliff-bound stretch of river divided into channels by granite outcrops. Before the Aswan Dams, the waters foamed and roiled, making the cataract a fearsome obstacle to upriver travel. In ancient times it was credited as being the source of the Nile (which was believed to flow south into Nubia as well as north through Egypt) and the abode of the deity who controlled the inundation (either Hapy or Khnum, or both in tandem). The foaming waters were thought to well up from a subterranean cavern where the Nile-god dwelt. Offerings continued to be made at Sehel even after the cavern’s putative location shifted to Biga Island during the Late Period or Ptolemaic times. The Arabic word for cataract, Shallal, is the name given to the locality behind the Aswan Dam, which can cause confusion.
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