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.

Abu Simbel

The great Sun Temple of ABU SIMBEL (“Father of the Ear of Corn”) epitomizes the monumentalism of the New Kingdom during its imperial heyday, when Ramses II (c.1279–13 BC) waged colonial wars from the Beka’a Valley in Lebanon to the Fourth Cataract. To impress his power and majesty on the Nubians, Ramses had four gigantic statues of himself hewn from the mountainside, whence his unblinking stare confronted travellers as they entered Egypt from Africa.

The temple was precisely oriented so that the sun’s rays reached deep into the mountain to illuminate its sanctuary on his birthday and the anniversary of his coronation. The deified pharaoh physically overshadows the sun-god Re-Herakhte, to whom the temple is nominally dedicated, just as his queen, Nefertari, sidelines Hathor in a neighbouring edifice, also hewn into the mountain.

The first European to see Abu Simbel since antiquity was the Swiss explorer Burckhardt, who found the temples almost completely buried by sand drifts in 1813. Although Belzoni later managed to clear an entrance, lack of treasure discouraged further efforts and the site was soon reburied in sand – a process repeated throughout the nineteenth century. Finally cleared, the temple became the scenic highlight of Thomas Cook’s Nile cruises.

It was the prospect of losing Abu Simbel to Lake Nasser that impelled UNESCO to organize the salvage of Nubian monuments in the 1960s. Behind the temporary protection of a coffer dam, Abu Simbel’s brittle sandstone was stabilized by injections of synthetic resin and then hand-sawn into 1041 blocks weighing up to thirty tons apiece. Two years after the first block was cut, Abu Simbel was reassembled 210m behind (and 61m above) its original site, a false mountain being constructed to match the former setting. The whole operation (1964–68) cost $40 million.

The modern town of Abu Simbel looks desolate as you roll in past the airport, but once beyond the main intersection it becomes quite picturesque, straggling around rocky headlands replete with beehive-domed houses and crimson oleander bushes. The temples are at the far end of Sharia Ramses, 1km from the town centre.

The Sun Temple

Visitors walk around a man-made mountain to be confronted by the great Sun Temple, seemingly hewn from the cliffs overlooking Lake Nasser. Its impact is perhaps a little diminished by familiarity (the temple has been depicted on everything from T-shirts to banknotes) and the technicolour contrast between red rockscape and aquamarine water is more startling than the clean-swept facade, which looks less dramatic than the sand-choked Abu Simbel of nineteenth-century engravings. For all the meticulous reconstruction and landscaping, too, it’s hard not to sense its artificiality, but gradually the temple’s presence asserts itself, and your mind boggles at its audacious conception, the logistics of constructing and moving it, and the unabashed megalomania of its founder.

The colossi and facade

Although Re-Herakhte, Amun-Re and Ptah are also carved on the facade as patron deities, they’re clearly secondary to Ramses II, who ruled for 67 years, dying at the age of 96, having sired scores of sons, most of whom predeceased him. The temple facade is dominated by four enthroned Colossi of Ramses II, whose twenty-metre height surpasses the Colossi of Memnon at Thebes (though one lost its upper half following an earthquake in 27 BC). Their feet and legs are crudely executed but the torsos and heads are finely carved, and the face of the left-hand figure quite beautiful. Between them stand figures of the royal family, dwarfed by Ramses’ knees. To the left of the headless colossus is the pharaoh’s mother, Muttuy; Queen Nefertari stands on the right of the colossus, Prince Amunhirkhepshef between its legs. On its right calf, an inscription records that Greek mercenaries participated in the Nubian campaign of the Saïte king Psammetichus II (c.590 BC).

The facade is otherwise embellished with a niche-bound statue of Re-Herakhte, holding a sceptre and a figure of Maat. This composition is a pictorial play of words on Ramses’ prenomen, User-Maat-Re, so the flanking sunk-reliefs of the king presenting the god with images of Maat actually signify Ramses honouring his deified self. Crowning the facade is a corvetto cornice surmounted by baboons worshipping the rising sun. On the sides of the colossal thrones flanking the temple entrance, twin Nile-gods entwine the heraldic papyrus and sedge around the hieroglyph “to unite”, with the rows of captives beneath them divided between north and south, Asiatics on the right-hand throne and Nubians on its left-hand counterpart.

The Hypostyle Hall

This schematic division reappears in the lofty rock-cut Hypostyle Hall, flanked on either side by four pillars fronted by ten-metre-high statues of Ramses in the Osiris position, carrying the crook and flail (the best is the end figure on the right). Beneath a ceiling painted with flying vultures, the walls crawl with scenes from his campaigns, from Syria to Nubia. On the entrance walls, Ramses slaughters Hittite and Nubian captives before Amun-Re and Re-Herakhte, accompanied by eight of his many sons or nine daughters, and his ka. But the most dramatic reliefs are found on the side walls.

The right-hand wall (all directions assume you’re facing the back of the temple) depicts the Battle of Qadesh on the River Orontes (1300 BC), starting from the back of the hall. Here you see Ramses’ army marching on Qadesh, followed by their encampment, ringed by shields. Acting on disinformation tortured out of enemy spies, Ramses prepares to attack the city and summons his reserve divisions down from the heights. The waiting Hittites ford the river, charge one division and scatter another to surround the king, who single-handedly cuts his way out of the trap. The final scene claims an unqualified Egyptian triumph, even though Ramses failed to take the city. Notwithstanding this, the opposite wall portrays him storming a Syrian fortress in his chariot (note the double arm, which some regard as an attempt at animation), lancing a Libyan and returning with fettered Nubians. Along the rear wall, he presents them to Amun, Mut and himself, and the captured Hittites to Re-Herakhte, lion-headed Wert-Hekew and his own deified personage.

The eight lateral chambers off the hall were probably used to store cult objects and tribute from Nubia, and are decorated with offering scenes. Reliefs in the smaller pillared hall show Ramses and Nefertari offering incense before the shrine and barque of Amun-Re and Re-Herakhte.

The Sanctuary

Walk through one of the doors at the back, cross the transverse vestibule and head for the central Sanctuary. Originally encased in gold, its four (now mutilated) cult statues wait to be touched by the sun’s rays at dawn on February 22 and October 22. February 21 was Ramses’ birthday and October 21 his coronation date, but the relocation of Abu Simbel has changed the timing of these solar events by one day. Perhaps significantly, the figure of Ptah “the Hidden One” (on the far left) is situated so that it alone remains in darkness when the sun illuminates Amun-Re, Re-Herakhte and Ramses the god. Before them is a stone block where the sacred barque once rested.

The Hathor Temple of Queen Nefertari

A little further north of the Sun Temple stands the smaller rock-hewn Temple of Queen Nefertari, identified here with the goddess Hathor, who was wife to the sun-god during his day’s passage and mother to his rebirth at dawn. As with Ramses’ temple, the rock-hewn facade imitates a receding pylon (whose corvetto cornice has fallen), its plane accentuated by a series of rising buttresses separating six colossal statues of Ramses and Nefertari (over 9m tall), which seem to emerge from the rock. Each is accompanied by two smaller figures of their children, who stand knee-high in the shadows. A frieze of cobras protects the door into the temple, which is simpler in plan than Ramses’, having but one columned hall and vestibule, and only two lateral chambers; it runs 24m into the hillside.

The best reliefs are in the hall with square, Hathor-headed pillars whose sides show the royal couple mingling with deities. On the entrance wall Nefertari watches Ramses slay Egypt’s enemies; on the side walls she participates in rituals as his equal, appearing before Anuket and Hathor. In the transverse vestibule beyond, the portal of the sanctuary is flanked by scenes of the royal couple offering wine and flowers to Amun-Re and Horus, Re-Herakhte, Khnum, Satet and Anuket.

The Sanctuary niche contains a ruined cow-statue of Hathor, above which vultures guard Nefertari’s cartouches. On the side walls, she offers incense to Mut and Hathor, while Ramses worships his own image and that of Nefertari.

Birdwatching at Abu Simbel

Due to its location on a large body of water surrounded by desert, near the Tropic of Cancer, Abu Simbel sustains both indigenous African and migrant species of birds. Among the rarer species are pink-backed pelicans, yellow-billed storks, long-tailed cormorants, African skimmers and pied wagtails and pink-headed doves. While serious twitchers will haunt the coves with binoculars, casual bird-spotters can see quite a few dazzling birds in the grounds of the visitors’ centre or the Eskaleh and Seti Abu Simbel hotels. The best time for birdwatching is during the breeding season in late January/early February.

The Toshka and East Oweinat irrigation projects

Inaugurated by President Mubarak in 1997, the Toshka Project had the ambitious goals of cultivating 5700 square kilometres of desert northwest of Abu Simbel, and settling six million people there. To irrigate the land, $1 billion was spent on creating the world’s largest pumping station to extract five billion cubic metres of water from Lake Nasser annually, and digging the Sheikh Zayed Canal, named after the president of the United Arab Emirates (a big investor). The main canal (completed in 2002) is 50km long, 30m wide and 6m deep, with four branch canals totaling 159km in length, and a network of roads linking Toshka to another irrigation project at East Oweinat in the Western Desert, using aquifer water. However, settlers have been disillusioned by the lack of work opportunities and infrastructure, and foreign investors have pulled out since the 2011 Revolution, vindicating critics of both projects, who claimed from the start that they would prove to be white elephants.

Abydos

As Muslims endeavour to visit Mecca once in their lifetime and Hindus aspire to die at Varanasi, the Ancient Egyptians devoutly wished to make a pilgrimage to ABYDOS (pronounced “Abi-dos”), cult centre of the god Osiris. Those who failed to make it hoped to do so posthumously; relatives brought bodies for burial, or embellished distant tombs with scenes of the journey to Abydos (represented by a boat under sail, travelling upriver). Egyptians averred that the dead “went west”, for the entrance to the underworld was believed to lie amid the desert hills beyond Abydos. By bringing other deities into the Osirian fold, Abydos acquired a near monopoly on death cults, which persisted into Ptolemaic times. Its superbly carved Temple of Seti I has been a tourist attraction since the 1830s, and many rate its artwork as the finest in Egypt. Its survival owes to the temple being covered by sand for centuries, as suggested by the name of the village where it is located, Al-Araba el-Madfuna (Araba the Buried).

The Temple of Seti I

While the temples of Karnak and Deir el-Bahri at Luxor are breathtaking conceptions executed on a colossal scale, it is the exquisite quality of its bas-reliefs that distinguishes Abydos’ Temple of Seti I. The reliefs are among the finest works of the New Kingdom, harking back to Old Kingdom forms in an artistic revival that mirrored Seti’s political efforts to consolidate the XIX Dynasty and recover territories lost under Akhenaten. The official designation of Seti’s reign (c.1294–79 BC) was “the era of repeating births” – literally a renaissance.

It was in fact Seti’s son, Ramses II (c.1279–13 BC), who completed the reconquest of former colonies and the construction of his father’s temple at Abydos. Strictly speaking, the building was neither a cult nor a funerary temple in the ordinary sense, for its chapels contained shrines to a variety of deities concerned with death, resurrection and the netherworld, and one dedicated to Seti himself. Its purpose was essentially political: to identify the king with these cults and with his putative “ancestors”, the previous rulers of Egypt, thus conferring legitimacy on the Ramessid Dynasty, whose ancestors had been mere Delta warriors a few generations earlier.

The temple’s spell has endured through the ages, as New Age pilgrims follow in the footsteps of Dorothy Eady – known as Um Seti (Mother of Seti) – who lived at Abydos for 35 years until she died in 1981, believing herself to be the reincarnation of a temple priestess and lover of Seti I. Her trances and prophetic gifts are related in Jonathan Cott’s biography, The Search for Omm Sety – available at souvenir stalls here. She is buried in the local cemetery, out near Shunt el-Zibib.

The forecourt

The temple’s original pylon and forecourt have almost been levelled but you can still discern the lower portion of a scene depicting Ramses II’s dubious victory at Qadesh, women with finely plaited tresses and Seti making offerings to Osiris (in a niche, nearby). From the damaged statues currently stored in the upper, second court, your eyes are drawn to the square-columned facade, the wall behind pillars covered with scenes of Ramses greeting Osiris, Isis and Horus.

The outer Hypostyle Hall

The ponderous sunk-reliefs in the outer Hypostyle Hall, completed by Ramses after Seti’s death, suggest that he used second-rate artists, having redeployed Seti’s top craftsmen on his own edifice. The entrance wall portrays Ramses measuring the temple with the goddess Selket and presenting it to Horus on Seti’s behalf, while on the wall to your right Ramses offers a falcon-headed box of papyrus to Isis, Horus and Osiris, and is led to the temple by Horus and Wepwawet (the jackal-headed god of Assyut) to be doused with holy water (represented by the interlinked signs for life and purity). Guards can point out the “Abydos helicopter”, a cartouche on a lintel that supposedly shows a helicopter and a submarine. An image first published (1996) in Alien Encounters magazine has been proved to have been manipulated, and archeologists dismiss any resemblance to a helicopter as a fluke of erosion (as demonstrated on w members.tripod.com/a_u_r_a/abydos.html).

The inner Hypostyle Hall

The deeper inner Hypostyle Hall was the last part of the temple decorated before Seti’s death: some sections were never finished, but others are exceptional. On the right-hand wall Seti stands before Osiris and Horus – who pour holy water from garlanded vases – and makes offerings before the shrine of Osiris, who is attended by Maat and Ronpet (the goddess of the year) in front, with Isis, Amentet (goddess of the west) and Nephthys behind. Seti’s profile is a stylized but close likeness to his mummy (in the Cairo Antiquities Museum). The east and west walls are of sandstone, the north and south of limestone. Two projecting piers near the back of the hall depict Seti worshipping the Djed pillar while wearing the crown of Upper or Lower Egypt. The reliefs along the rear wall – showing him being anointed and crowned by the gods – are still brightly coloured. Best of all is a scene of Seti kneeling before Osiris and Horus, with the sacred persea tree in the background, which appears above head height on the wall between the sanctuaries of Ptah and Re-Herakhte.

The sanctuaries

The finest bas-reliefs at Abydos are inside the sanctuaries dedicated to Seti and six deities. Though retaining much of their original colouring (showing how most temple reliefs once looked), their graceful lines and subtle moulding are best appreciated on the unpainted reliefs. Seti’s classical revival eschewed both Amarna expressionism and the bombastic XVIII Dynasty imperial style. The seven sanctuaries are roofed with false vaults carved from rectangular slabs, and culminate in false doors (except for Osiris’s chamber, which leads into his inner sanctuaries). To Ancient Egyptians, these chambers constituted the abode of the gods, whom the king (or his priests) propitiated with daily rituals, shown on the walls.

An exception to this rule is the Sanctuary of Seti, which emphasizes his recognition by the gods, who lead him into the temple and ceremonially unite the Two Lands along the northern wall. Below the barque near the back of the right-hand wall, Seti receives a list of offerings from Thoth and the High Priest Iunmutef, wearing the leopardskin and braided sidelock of his office. Finally, Seti leaves the temple, his palanquin borne by the souls of jackal-headed deities from the Upper Egyptian town of Nekhen and hawk-headed gods from the Delta capital of Pi-Ramses.

The fine unpainted reliefs of Seti and seated deities in Re-Herakhte’s chamber make interesting comparison with similar painted scenes in the sanctuaries of Ptah, Amun, Osiris and Isis. On the side wall just outside the Sanctuary of Horus, the pharaoh presents Maat to Osiris, Isis and Horus, a XIX Dynasty motif symbolizing righteous order and the restoration of royal legitimacy.

The inner sanctuaries of Osiris boast three side chapels whose colours are still remarkably fresh.

Hall of Sokar and Nefertum

From the inner Hypostyle Hall you can enter the southern wing of Seti’s temple. The portal nearest his sanctuary leads into the columned Hall of Sokar and Nefertum, two deities of the north representing the life-giving forces of the earth and the cycle of death and rebirth. Reliefs on the right-hand wall depict Seti receiving a hawk-headed Sokar; Nefertum is shown on the opposite wall in both his human and leonine forms. In the Chapel of Sokar, Osiris appears in his bier and returns to life grasping his penis (near the back of the right-hand wall), while Isis hovers over him in the form of a hawk on the opposite wall. The Chapel of Nefertum is next door.

The Gallery of Kings

The other portal leads through into the Gallery of Kings, so called after the list of Seti’s predecessors carved on the right-hand wall – the earliest (Zoser) on the far left of the top row, with Seti at the far end of the bottom register. For political reasons, the Hyksos pharaohs, Hatshepsut, Akhenaten and his heirs have all been omitted, yet the list has proved immensely useful to Egyptologists, naming 34 kings (chiefly from the VI, VII, XII, XVIII and XIX dynasties) in roughly chronological order.

Running off from the gallery are the Sanctuary of the Boats, where the deities’ barques were kept on platforms; the Hall of Sacrifices (closed); and a corridor with vivid sunk-reliefs of Seti and Ramses harnessing a bull to present to Wepwawet, and hauling birds in a net. This will bring you out through a rear door to the Osireion, behind the temple.

The rest of the site

The site of Abydos covers a huge area, with ruins and mounds scattered across the edge of the desert. Egyptologists from the Penn Museum (w penn.museum) and the German Archeological Institute (w dainst.org) are excavating several sites, officially off-limits. You can, however, visit two structures near Seti’s temple, and Amir Elkarim might be able to arrange trips to others if you’re staying at Abydos. The longer you stay, the more likely you are to wrangle access to the off-limits areas.

The Osireion

When Flinders Petrie excavated here in the 1900s, he uncovered numerous mastabas which he believed to be royal tombs, but which later Egyptologists held to be cenotaphs or Osirian burial places – dummy tombs, built to promote a closer association between the pharaoh’s ka and Osiris, while his mummy reposed elsewhere. Seti’s Cenotaph, known as the Osireion, is the only one now visible, albeit half-buried and rendered partly inaccessible by stagnant water. Built of massive blocks, it once enclosed a room containing a mound surrounded by a moat (symbolizing the first land arising from the waters of Chaos at the dawn of Creation), where a pseudo-sarcophagus awaited resurrection. Nearby is a long underground passage that once led to the cenotaph.

Temple of Ramses II

Some 300m northwest of the Osireion is a ruined Temple of Ramses II, Seti’s father, where scenes of the Battle of Qadesh are rendered in exceptional detail on the enclosure walls and pillared courtyard. Ground-penetrating radar has detected a massive structure underneath the sand between Ramses’ and Seti’s temples that some suspect is another Osireion. Its existence has yet to be announced officially by the Supreme Council of Antiquities, but is an open secret in Egyptological circles.

Shunt el-Zibib

Elsewhere, the Germans have been excavating the Early Dynastic royal cemetery at Um el-Qa’ab (“Mother of Pots”), and extensive funerary enclosures at Shunt el-Zibib (“Storehouse of Grapes”). Neither site is as spectacular as Seti’s temple, but there’s an air of impending discovery at Shunt el-Zibib – the Arabic name for the funeral complex of Khasekhemwy, last king of the II Dynasty. It’s thought that the pyramids at Saqqara evolved from the enclosure of sunken brick-lined tombs at Abydos, where hieroglyphic writing predating Saqqara’s has been found, suggesting the existence of a Pre-dynastic king Hor or Horus who conquered the Delta and united the Two Lands a century before Narmer. Six Solar Boats found within Khasekhemwy’s enclosure in 1991 may date from the reign of the I Dynasty ruler Aha.

All this raises the possibility that the Early Dynastic burials attributed to Saqqara may have occurred at Abydos instead, and that an intact royal tomb may exist. Since 2004 the Penn Museum team has found evidence that the XII Dynasty Osirieon of Senusret III may have really been a royal tomb, looted long ago. A thirty-metre-long shaft was discovered there in 2009.

The cult of Osiris

Originally the corn-god of Busiris in the Delta, Osiris attained national significance early in the Old Kingdom when he was coopted into the Heliopolitan Ennead. According to legend, Re (or Geb) divided the world between Osiris and his brother Seth, who resented being given all the deserts and murdered Osiris to usurp his domain. Although the god’s body was recovered by Isis, the sister-wife of Osiris, Seth recaptured and dismembered it, burying the pieces at different locations and feeding the penis to a crocodile. Aided by her sister Nephthys, Isis collected the bits and bandaged them together to create the first mummy, which they briefly resurrected with the help of Thoth and Anubis. By transforming herself into a hawk, Isis managed to conceive a child with Osiris before he returned to the netherworld to rule as lord and judge of the dead. Secretly raised to manhood in the Delta, their child Horus later avenged his father and cast Seth back into the wilderness (see Court of Offerings).

As the “place of the head” of Osiris (the meaning of its ancient name, Abdjw), Abydos was the setting for two annual festivals. The “Great Going Forth” celebrated the search for and discovery of his remains, while the Osiris Festival re-enacted his myth in a series of Mystery Plays. In one scene, the god’s barque was “attacked” by minions of Seth and “protected” by Wepwawet, the jackal-headed god of Assyut. The total identification of Abydos with death cults was completed by its association with Anubis, the jackal-headed god of embalming, always present in funerary scenes.

Aswan

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.

Brief history

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.

The bazaar

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.

The Corniche

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.

Nubia Museum

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.

The collection

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.

The grounds

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.

Fatimid Cemetery

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.

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.

Elephantine Island

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.

Aswan Musuem

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.

The Nilometers

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.

Island of Plants (Kitchener’s 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.

Tombs of the Nobles

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.

Monastery of St Simeon

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.

Agha Khan Mausoleum

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.

Western Quarry

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.

Sehel Island

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.

Sculpture Park

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).

First Cataract

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.

Fekra

In Arabic, fekra means thought or idea – and the lakeside Fekra Culture Centre (w fekraculture.com) near Shallal is brimming with both. Founded by film-maker Ahmed Abdel Mohsen, it’s affiliated to Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery and Makan club, Zad al-Mostafer in the Fayoum and other art networks abroad, collaborating on projects to share and enrich Nubian culture. Their mud-brick compound of Bedouin tents, chic little rooms and Gaudi-esque toilets open to the sky comes with recording equipment, views of the First Cataract and Philae Temple, birdlife and river bathing. Film-makers, dancers, painters and performers are welcome to apply, but their work must suit the project’s theme. The cost of staying (with meals) ranges from €100 a night down to nothing, depending on your affluence or poverty. Over summer, rooms or houses might be rented out to tourists if no workshops are scheduled. The back-road that leads here begins near the Sculpture Park.

Festivals in Aswan

Unlike Luxor, Aswan doesn’t have any moulids, and the main tourist event is an international Sculpture Symposium (mid-Jan to mid-March), when you can see sculptors at work on the terrace of the Basma Hotel before their creations are sent to the Sculpture Park. On Aswan Day (Jan 15), the Corniche has traditionally hosted a good-natured parade of civic and military hardware, with fire engines and ambulances following jeep-loads of frogmen and rubber-suited decontamination troops. Now falling only days before the emotive anniversary of the 2011 Revolution, the parade may be cancelled in the future, or at least no longer revolve around Police Headquarters on the Corniche as it formerly did.

Henna tattooing

Henna has been grown in southern Egypt and Nubia since ancient times and used to dye hair and adorn bodies. Today only a minority of men (usually Salafists) dye their beards red, but many women decorate their hands and feet with intricate designs for weddings. The “tattoos” last for a fortnight or so before fading. Women visitors may be offered tattooing at the Nubian villages on Elephantine, or in Aswan’s bazaar. This is women’s work – and a great way to spend time with Nubian women – but some local guys see it as an opportunity for lechery, so check who’s doing the tattooing. Also beware of black (as opposed to traditional reddish-brown) designs, as these involve the use of a toxic hair dye, PPD, which can cause severe skin damage and allergic reactions.

Nubian music

Nubian music ranges from traditional village songs backed by drums and handclapping to urban sounds reflecting the influence of jazz, funk, trance or even classical music. The one thing that all these forms have in common is that they’re sung in Nubian. While famous abroad thanks to the late masters Ali Hassan Kuban and Hamza al-Din, in Egypt Nubian music isn’t widely popular outside the far south. Nubian CDs and cassettes are sold in Aswan, but contemporary Nubian stars seldom hold public concerts here. As with the jobbing musicians who sometimes play in the Ferial Gardens or the Corniche-side parks at the northern end of town, their main income comes from performing at weddings and other private functions.

Nubia and the Nubians

Nubia and Egypt have been neighbours since time immemorial. The Egyptians called Nubia Ta-Seti (Land of the Bow), after the weapons for which the Nubians were renowned, while its modern name is thought to derive from nbw, the ancient word for gold, which was mined there until Greco-Roman times.

A Nilotic people living between the First and Sixth Cataracts of the Nile (roughly from Aswan to Khartoum) may have been the forerunners of Egypt’s civilization. Archeologists have found exquisite figurines predating prehistoric finds in Egypt by three thousand years, and the world’s oldest solar calendar of standing stones, dating from around 6000 BC, at Nabta Playa, 100km from Abu Simbel. Pharaonic and ancient Nubian civilization evolved in similar ways until 3500 BC, when Egypt’s unification raised the Old Kingdom to a level from which it could exploit Nubia as a source of mineral wealth, exotic goods and slaves. The onset of the Middle Kingdom saw the annexation of Lower Nubia – the land between the First and Second Cataracts – while under the New Kingdom, Nubia was ruled by a viceroy entitled the King’s Son of Kush. It was only at the end of the Third Intermediate Period that Nubia got its own back, as the local rulers of Napata took advantage of Egypt’s disunity to invade and establish their own Kushite Dynasty of pharaohs (747–656 BC), who reigned until the Assyrian invasion of Egypt in 671 BC.

Reconsolidating itself beyond the Fourth Cataract, the Kushite Kingdom of Meröe marked the apogee of Nubian civilization, building remarkable pyramids and maintaining relations with the Ptolemies, but angering the Romans, who occupied Lower Nubia from 23–272 AD. Before withdrawing, they invited warriors called the Nobatae (perhaps Nubia from the Red Sea Hills of Sudan) to fill the vacuum, hastening the decline of Meröe. In the seventh century the Nobatae were converted to Christianity by monks from Aswan’s Monastery of St Simeon, and later became the main bulwark against attacks by the Islamic rulers of Egypt during the Fatimid era, until in 1315 the last Christian king was replaced by a Muslim one and most of the population accepted Islam.

Egypt’s rulers made little attempt to control Nubia so long as it supplied the ivory and exotica they prized until Mohammed Ali visited devastation on Nubia when he sent his son to enslave its male population as cannon fodder for his new army. Resentment smouldered through the reigns of the khedives, drawing in the British, who began by supporting khedival forces and ended up underwriting an Anglo-Egyptian government in 1899, when the border between Egypt and Sudan was drawn 40km north of Wadi Halfa and Nubia was divided, yet again.

Nubian culture and contemporary society

Meanwhile, the Nubians remained true to their ancestral homeland and traditional life centred round villages of extended families (each with its own compound of domed houses), living by farming the verges of the river, fishing and transporting trade goods. Socially and spiritually, the Nile formed the basis of their existence; villages celebrated births, weddings and circumcision ceremonies with Nile rituals.

This way of life – which had existed pretty much unchanged for five millennia – was shattered by the Aswan Dams. The first dam, built in 1902, forced the Nubians to move onto higher, unfertile ground; many menfolk left for Cairo, sending back remittances to keep the villages going. With construction of the High Dam, the Nubians’ traditional homeland was entirely submerged, displacing the entire eight hundred thousand-strong community, around half of whom moved north, settling around Aswan and Kom Ombo. Meanwhile the ancient monuments of Nubia were moved to higher ground or foreign museums, under a huge project coordinated by UNESCO.

In Egypt, many Nubians took advantage of higher education and business opportunities to make their mark. Others resettled as farmers in villages named after their ancestral homes, maintaining Nubian traditions. Since the 2011 Revolution the desolate shores of Lake Nasser have been reclaimed by settlers (both Nubians from Egypt and other ethnic groups from Sudan), as the state’s grip has loosened.

The Nubian language is still spoken, but not written; its linguistic ancestor Old Nubian was recorded in a modified Greek alphabet which some scholars maintain has 26 letters, others 30. Among websites devoted to Nubian history and culture are w homestead.com/wysinger/nubians.html (for prehistory and the Meröe pyramids), w thenubian.net (for cultural commentaries) and w napata.org (with recordings of spoken Nubian, contemporary and traditional music).

Dendara

The Temple of Hathor at Dendara lacks the sublime quality of Seti’s edifice at Abydos, but its fabulous astronomical ceiling and nearly intact rooftop sanctuaries offer a unique insight into the solar rituals at other cult sites where they have not survived. Dendara also shows how Egypt’s Greek and Roman rulers identified themselves with the pharaohs and deities of Ancient Egypt by copying their temples, rituals and iconography down to the last hieroglyph – though they did tinker with a few details of reliefs and murals. Goddesses and queens became bustier, and the feet of royalty were shown with all their toes (instead of only the big toe, as the Ancient Egyptians did).

The temple is also pleasing for the completeness of its mud-brick enclosure walls and its rural setting, with rooftop views of lush countryside and the arid hills of the Western Desert. Approaching it by road from Qena, across the Nile, you’ll pass fields of onions and clover, donkey carts and camels – an enjoyable ride by calèche if you’ve got time to spare or decide to stay in Qena. Most tourists visit Dendara together with the temple at Abydos.

The Temple of Hathor

Although there have been shrines to Hathor, the goddess of joy, at Dendara since Pre-dynastic times, the existing Temple of Hathor is a Greco-Roman creation, built between 125 BC and 60 AD. Since the object of the exercise was to confer legitimacy on Egypt’s foreign rulers, it emulates the pharaonic pattern of hypostyle halls and vestibules preceding a darkened sanctuary, with vast mud-brick enclosure walls surrounding the complex.

The facade

The temple facade is shaped like a pylon, with six Hathor-headed columns rising from a screen, their headdresses still blue, red and white. Here and inside, Hathor appears in human form rather than her bovine aspect (see The Hypostyle Hall). Because this section was built during the reign of Tiberius, its sunk-reliefs depict Roman emperors making offerings to the gods, namely Tiberius and Claudius before Horus, Hathor and their son Ihy, and Tiberius as a sphinx before Hathor and Horus (hard to see). Nineteenth-century engravings show the temple buried in sand almost to the lintel of its portal, which explains why its upper sections bore the brunt of Coptic iconoclasm.

The Hypostyle Hall

Entering the Hypostyle Hall with its eighteen Hathor-headed columns you’ll be transfixed by its astronomical ceiling, now largely restored to its vibrant original colours (mostly blue and white). This is not a sky chart in the modern sense, but a symbolic representation of the heavenly bodies, the hours of the day and night, and the realms of the sun and moon.

Above the central aisle, a row of flying vultures and winged discs separates the left-hand bays representing the southern heavens from those to the right, dedicated to the northern sky. Here, the first row begins with the Eye of Re in its barque, above which appear the fourteen days of the waning moon. Beyond the full moon in the centre come the fourteen stages of the waxing moon (each with its own deity), culminating in the full disc worshipped by Thoth, and lastly the moon as Osiris, protected by Isis and Nephthys. Souls in the form of jackals and birds adorn Re’s barque as it journeys across the sun’s register.

Following these are two bands showing the planets, the stars of the twelve hours of the night, and the signs of the zodiac (adopted from Babylonia). The end rows are dominated by Nut, who gives birth to the sun at dawn and swallows it at dusk. On one side, the rising sun Khepri (the scarab beetle) is born; on the other, the sun shines down on Hathor.

The Hall of Appearances

The Ptolemaic section of the temple begins with the six-columned Hall of Appearances, where Hathor consorted with fellow deities before her voyage to Edfu. With a torch, you can examine reliefs on the entrance wall depicting offerings, and the foundation of the temple and its presentation to the gods. Notice the “blank” cartouches, which attest to the high turnover of rulers in late Ptolemaic times, when stonemasons were loath to inscribe the names of Ptolemies who might not last for long. Nonetheless, rituals continued at Dendara, where the priests kept holy objects of precious metal in the Treasury and drew water for purification ceremonies from a well reached by the so-called Nile Room.

Corresponding chambers across the hall include the laboratory, where perfumes and unguents were mixed and stored (notice the reliefs showing recipes, and bearers bringing exotic materials from afar); and another room for storing valuables. A liturgical calendar listing festivals celebrated at the temple appears on the sides of its doorway.

The Hall of Offerings and the Hall of Ennead

Beyond lies the Hall of Offerings, the entrance to the temple proper, with twin stairways to the roof up which sacrificial animals were led. A list of offerings appears on the rear wall, across the way from a relief showing the king offering Hathor her favourite tipple.

Next comes the Hall of the Ennead, where statues of the gods and kings involved in ceremonies dedicated to Hathor once stood. Her wardrobe was stored in a room to the left, where reliefs show the priests carrying the chests that held the sacred garments. The Sanctuary housed Hathor’s statue and ceremonial barque, which priests carried to the riverside and placed upon a boat that worshippers towed upriver to Edfu for a conjugal reunion with Horus. Reliefs depict the daily rituals, and the king presenting Maat to Hathor, Horus and Harsomtus (rear wall).

Side chapels

Two corridors with side chapels run alongside (and meet behind) the sanctuary. Above the doorway into the Corridor of Mysteries, Hathor appears as a cow within a wooden kiosk mounted on a barque. Past the chapels of Isis, Sokar and the Sacred Serpent, you’ll find the “Castle of the Sistrum” (Hathor’s musical instrument), where niches depict her standing on the sky, and the coronation of Ihy as god of music. This is entered via the darkened Per-Nu chapel, whence Hathor embarked on her conjugal voyage to Edfu during the New Year festival (which fell on July 19 in ancient times).

The New Year procession began from the Per-Ur chapel, where a shaky ladder ascends to a small cache chamber containing reliefs of Hathor, Maat and Isis. In the Per-Neser chapel, one of the custodians will lift a hatch and guide you down into a low-ceilinged crypt carved with cobras and lotuses. The chapel itself shows Hathor in her terrible aspect as a lioness, for by Ptolemaic times she had assimilated the leonine goddess Sekhmet and the feline goddess Bastet. The temple’s most valuable treasures were stored underneath the Chapel of Re.

The New Year Chapel

If you haven’t already stumbled upon it, return to the Hall of the Ennead, bear left through an antechamber and then right, to find the “Pure Place” or New Year Chapel, whose ceiling is covered by a relief of Nut giving birth to the sun, which shines on Hathor’s head. It was here that rituals were performed prior to Hathor’s communion with the sun on the temple’s roof. Check out the rooftop shrines before leaving the temple and walking round to the rear wall, where two defaced sunk-reliefs of Cleopatra and her son Caesarion feature in a procession of deities. The chubby face is so unlike the beautiful queen of legend that most people prefer to regard this as a stylized image rather than a lifelike portrait of Cleopatra. The lion-headed waterspouts below the cornice were a Roman innovation.

One last bit of iconography worth noting is the array of royal crowns – 22 different kinds appear on the seated kings carved on the third, fourth and fifth registers of the east wall.

Rooftop sanctuaries

From either side of the Hall of Offerings, a stairway ascends to the roof of the temple; the scenes on the walls depict the New Year procession, when Hathor’s statue was carried up to an open kiosk on the rooftop to await the dawn; touched by the rays of the sun, Hathor’s ba (soul) was revitalized for the coming year. Besides the sun kiosk there are two suites of rooms dedicated to the death and resurrection of Osiris, behind the facade of the Hypostyle Hall. Although such rooftop sanctuaries were a feature of most temples, those at Dendara are uniquely intact.

The one on the left (as you face towards the pylon) is notable for the reliefs in its inner chamber, which show Osiris being mourned by Isis and Nephthys, passing through the gates of the netherworld, and finally bringing himself to erection to impregnate Isis, who appears as a hovering kite.

The other suite contains a plaster cast of the famous Dendara Zodiac ceiling filched by Lelorrain in 1820 and now in the Louvre. Upheld by four goddesses, the circular carving features a zodiac which only differs from our own by the substitution of a scarab for the scorpion and the inclusion of the hippo goddess Tweri. The zodiac was introduced to Egypt (and other lands) by the Romans, who copied it from Babylonia. Mind your head on the low doorway.

Best of all is the magnificent view of the temple and the countryside from the rooftop. Also notice the graffiti left by French troops in 1799, including the names of their commander Desaix and the artist Denon, who sketched frenziedly at Dendara as the Mamlukes drew nearer, melting down bullets for lead when he ran out of pencils.

Outlying buildings

Surrounding the temple are various other structures, now largely ruined. Ptolemaic temples were distinguished by the addition of mamissi or Birth Houses, which associated the pharaoh with Horus, the deified king. When the Romans surrounded the temple with an enclosure wall, it split in two the Birth House of Nectanebo (XXX Dynasty), compelling them to build a replacement. The Roman Birth House has some fine carvings of Hathor suckling Horus on its south wall, and tiny figures of Bes and Tweri on the column capitals and architraves. Between the two mamissi lies a ruined, fifth-century Coptic Basilica, built with masonry from the adjacent structures; notice the incised Coptic crosses.

As a compassionate goddess, Hathor had a reputation for healing and her temple attracted pilgrimages from the sick. In the Sanatorium here patients were prescribed cures during dreams, induced by narcotics. Water for ritual ablutions was drawn from a Sacred Lake now drained of liquid and full of palm trees and birds.

Nearby stands a ruined Iseum used for the worship of Isis and Osiris, built by Cleopatra’s mortal enemy, Octavian, after he became Emperor Augustus.

On your way out of the temple, don’t miss the scowling Bes – god of dancing girls and licentiousness – carved on a chunk of masonry displayed near the Pro-Pylon.

The cult of Hathor

Worshipped from the earliest times as a cow goddess, Hathor acquired manifold attributes – body of the sky, living soul of trees, goddess of gold and turquoise, music and revelry – but remained essentially nurturing. Her greatest role was that of wet nurse and bedmate for Horus, and giver of milk to the living pharaoh. In her human aspect (with bovine ears and horns), the goddess paid an annual visit to Horus at his temple in Edfu. Her barque, escorted by priests and cheered by commoners, proceeded upriver, where Horus sailed out to meet her on his own boat. After much pomp and ritual, the idols were left alone to reconsummate their union while the populace enjoyed a Festival of Drunkenness, which led the Greeks to identify Hathor with their own goddess of love and joy, Aphrodite.

The Gnostic Gospels

Driving between Abydos and Dendara you’ll pass Nag Hammadi, a town that has given its name to the Nag Hammadi Codices found nearby in 1945. Commonly called the Gnostic Gospels, they are fourth-century Coptic translations of second-century Greek originals, although the Gospel of Thomas might date from 50–100 AD, and therefore be as early as – or even older than – the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Gnostics (from gnosis, Greek for “knowledge”) were early mystics who believed that God could only be known through self-understanding and that the world was illusory. Regarding self and the divine as one, they saw Jesus as a spiritual guide rather than the crucified son of God, pointing to his words in the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.” But the official church thought otherwise and condemned Gnosticism as a heresy; hence the burial of these codices (some of which can be seen today in Cairo’s Coptic Museum).

Edfu

Roughly midway between Luxor and Aswan, the provincial town of EDFU boasts the best-preserved cult temple in Egypt, dedicated to the falcon-headed god Horus. Though built in the Ptolemaic era, this mammoth edifice respects all the canons of pharaonic architecture, conveying how most temples once looked. In terms of sheer monumental grandeur, it ranks alongside Karnak and Deir el-Bahri as one of the finest sites in the Nile Valley.

The approach to the temple is designed to distance it from the surrounding town: a sunken high-walled road overlooked by gun-towers, reflecting the paranoia of Mubarak’s regime in its final years, which culminates in a car park, tourist bazaar and Visitors’ centre (no more than an adjunct to the site’s toilets). If tourism picks up, there may be a Sound and Light Show at the temple in the future (t 097 470 5472 for information). Otherwise you may enjoy Edfu’s bazaar on Sharia el-Gumhorriya, one block east of the temple, where fruit, vegetable and lingerie stalls mingle in joyous profusion.

Temple of Horus

The Temple of Horus lay buried to its lintels until the 1860s, when Auguste Mariette cleared the main building. A splendid drawing by David Roberts shows the courtyard full of sand and peasant houses built atop the Hypostyle Hall. The mammoth task of excavation was nothing compared to the temple’s construction, which outlasted six Ptolemies, the final touches being added by the twelfth ruler of that dynasty.

The reliefs and inscriptions on the walls include the myth of the struggle between Horus and Seth and an account of the temple’s foundation-rituals, known to Egyptologists as the Edfu texts. You can read them in situ using Dieter Kurth’s annotated text, Edfu Temple: A Guide by an Ancient Egyptian Priest.

Birth House and Pylon

Visitors approach the temple as the ancients did, passing through high mud-brick enclosure walls and a Pro-Pylon (now ruined). Pilgrims seeking a few grains of blessed dust from the temple have left gouge-marks in the stones at head-level.

Off to the left, the colonnaded Birth House was a focus for the annual Coronation Festival re-enacting the divine birth of Horus and the reigning pharaoh. Don’t miss the reliefs of Horus being suckled by Isis, both as a baby (low down on the rear wall) and as a young man (on the facing columns).

The temple pylon was erected by Ptolemy IX before he was ousted from power by his brother Alexander, who was later usurped by another ruler, Neos Dionysos, depicted smiting foes before Horus the Elder. Its gateway is fronted by two giant black-granite falcons.

Court of Offerings

Entering the Court of Offerings, you can study the festival reliefs on the inner walls of the pylon, which continue around the court along the bottom of the wall. In the Feast of the Beautiful Meeting, Horus’s barque tows Hathor’s to the temple (bottom row), where the deities retire to the sanctuary after suitable rituals. Later they emerge from the temple, embark and drift downstream to the edge of the Edfu nome, where Horus takes his leave. Beneath the western colonnade, Ptolemy IX makes offerings to Horus, Hathor and Ihy; his successor appears before the Edfu Triad across the way.

However, most visitors are content to photograph the pair of granite Horus statues outside the Hypostyle Hall. One falcon stands higher than a man; the other is missing its lower half.

Hypostyle Hall

The Hypostyle Hall of papyrus columns dates from the reign of Ptolemy VII (145–116 BC), known to his contemporaries as “Fatty”. With a torch, you can examine two small rooms in the entrance wall: the Chamber of Consecrations, where the king or his priestly stand-in dressed for rituals; and a library of sacred texts adorned with a relief of Sheshat, the goddess of writing. The reliefs showing the foundation of the temple and the deification of Horus have been mutilated by iconoclasts. From here on you encounter the oldest section of the temple, begun by Ptolemy III in 237 BC and completed 25 years later by his son, who styled himself Philopator (Father Lover).

Festival Hall

Temple texts rhapsodize about the annual festivals once held here, during which the Festival Hall was decorated with faïence, strewn with flowers and herbs and perfumed by myrrh. Incense and unguents were blended according to recipes inscribed on the walls of the Laboratory. Nonperishable offerings were stored in the room next door, while libations, fruit and sacrificial animals were brought in through a passageway connected to the outside world.

Hall of Offerings

The sacred barques of Horus and Hathor appear in glorious detail on either side of the doorway into the Hall of Offerings. During the New Year Festival, Horus was carried up the ascending stairway to the rooftop; after being revitalized by the sun-disc, his statue was returned to the sanctuary via the descending stairway. The ritual is depicted on the walls of both stairways, but you’ll need a torch, and locked gates may prevent you from going far.

Sanctuary and side chambers

Beyond the Hall of Offerings, the Sanctuary of Horus contains a shrine of polished black granite and a replica of his bronze barque shrine, where his effigy was kept.

There are several chambers worth noting off the corridor surrounding the sanctuary. The Linen Room is flanked by chapels to Min and the Throne of the Gods, while a suite nominally dedicated to Osiris contains colourful scenes of Horus receiving offerings and reliefs of his avatars. Don’t miss the New Year Chapel, with a dark-blue-coloured relief of the sky-goddess Nut stretched across its ceiling. South of here is another stairway to the rooftop, used for solar rituals.

Other sights

Returning to the Festival Hall, you can gain access to an external corridor running between the inner and outer walls, where the priesthood tallied tithes assessed on the basis of readings from the temple’s own Nilometer (accessible by a passage in the temple’s pylon). On the far side of the temple are tableaux from the Triumph of Horus over Seth, depicting Mystery Plays in which Seth was cast as a hippopotamus, lurking beneath his brother’s boat in the middle register. At the end of the play, the priests cut up and ate a hippo-shaped cake, to destroy Seth completely.

The cult of Horus

Originally the sky-god of the Nile Valley, whose eyes were the sun and moon, the falcon deity Horus was soon assimilated into the Osirian myth as the child of Isis and Osiris. Raised in the swamps of the Delta by Isis and Hathor, Horus set out to avenge his father’s murder by his uncle Seth. During their titanic struggle at Edfu, Horus lost an eye and Seth his testicles. Despite this, Seth almost prevailed until Isis intervened on her son’s behalf and Osiris pronounced judgement upon them from the netherworld, exiling Seth back to the wilderness and awarding the throne to Horus. Thus good triumphed over evil and Osiris “lived” through his son.

All pharaohs claimed to be the incarnation of Horus the “living king” and reaffirmed their divine oneness in an annual Festival of Coronation. A live falcon was taken from the sacred aviary, crowned in the central court and then placed in an inner chamber where it “reigned” in the dark for a year as the symbol of the living king. Another event, sometimes called the Festival of Triumph, commemorated the Contendings of Seth and Horus in a series of Mystery Plays. At the equally lavish Feast of the Beautiful Meeting, his wet nurse and wife Hathor sailed from Dendara aboard the Lady of the Lake to be met near Edfu by his own barque, The First Horus.

To complicate the cult of Horus still further, he was also associated with the Divine Ennead of Heliopolis and another variant of the Creation myth. The Egyptians, having distinguished the Osirian Horus from the Heliopolitan deity by terming the latter Horus the Elder, split him into archetypes such as Herakhte (often conjoined with Re), Hariesis (stressing his kinship to Isis) and Haroeris. His priesthood asserted a place for Horus in the Creation myth by crediting him with building the first house amid swamps at the dawn of the world, or even laying the Cosmic Egg whence the sun-god hatched. In rituals associated with the Myth of the Great Cackler, they launched a goose onto the sacred lake near Edfu temple, whose egg contained air and the potential for life – crucial elements in the world’s creation.

Hierakonopolis

On the west bank of the Nile, opposite El-Kab, is another site, although off-limits to visitors. Called Kom al-Ahmar (Red Mound) in Arabic, it is better known to Egyptologists by the name bestowed upon it by the Ancient Greeks: Hierakonopolis (City of the Falcon) – itself derived from its Ancient Egyptian name, Nekhen, and its association with a local falcon-god, Nekheny, later amalgamated with Horus.

The city flourished during the late Pre-dynastic and Early dynastic eras (c.4000–2686 BC) and may have been the first administrative capital of the Two Lands, judging by two famous artefacts found here that are now in the Egyptian Museum. The Palette of Narmer and the Scorpion Macehead are the oldest-known symbols of Egyptian kingship, prefiguring the iconography of the dynastic era.

Over a century of research, continuing with the present Hierakonopolis Expedition, has confirmed the site’s role in the transition from prehistory to early Egyptian civilization. Among recent discoveries are Egypt’s oldest mummies (c.3600 BC); an industrial-scale brewery; the first mention of hair-extensions and the use of henna to colour hair; and Egypt’s one and only elephant burial. For news of ongoing excavations, visit w hierakonopolis-online.org.

Kom Ombo

In ancient times the town of KOM OMBO stood at the crossroads of the caravan route from Nubia and trails from the gold mines of the Eastern Desert; under Ptolemy VI (180–145 BC), it became the capital of the Ombos nome and a training depot for African war elephants, which the Ptolemies required to fight the pachyderms of the Seleucid Empire. More recently, many of the Nubians displaced by the creation of Lake Nasser in the 1960s settled around the town.

In 2007 Belgian archeologists discovered what may be Egypt’s oldest rock art, on boulders in the village of Qurta, outside Kom Ombo. Provisionally dated to fifteen thousand years ago (like the famous Lascaux Caves in France), the painted carvings of cattle, gazelles, hippos, fish, and humans with exaggerated buttocks are sure to be off-limits for the foreseeable future, and Kom Ombo remains far better known for its Ptolemaic Temple of Haroeris and Sobek. Unlike other temples in the valley, this still stands beside the Nile, making the approach by river one of the highlights of a cruise.

Temple of Haroeris and Sobek

The Temple of Haroeris and Sobek stands on a low promontory near a bend in the river whose sandbanks were a basking place for crocodiles in ancient times. This proximity to the Nile has both preserved and damaged the site, covering the temple with sand which protected it from Coptic iconoclasts, but also washing away its pylon and forecourt. What remains was aptly described by Amelia Edwards as a “magnificent torso”; truncated and roofless yet still imposing.

Its defining characteristic is bisymmetry, with twin entrances, sanctuaries and halls nominally divided down the middle. The left side is dedicated to the falcon-headed Haroeris, the “Good Doctor” (a form of Horus the Elder) and his consort Ta-Sent-Nefer, the “Good Sister” (an aspect of Hathor). The crocodile-god Sobek (here identified with the sun as Sobek-Re), his wife (another form of Hathor) and their son Khonsu-Hor are honoured on the right side of the temple.

Approaching the temple, you first sight the Gate of Neos Dionysos. Its provenance is obscure, as scholars disagree over the number, order and dates of the various Ptolemies, each of whom adopted a title such as Soter (Saviour), Euergetes (Benefactor) or Philometor (Mother Lover). Some identify Neos Dionysos as Ptolemy XII, others as Ptolemy XIII, but all agree that he fathered the great Cleopatra and was nicknamed “The Bastard”.

The facade

With the forecourt (added by Emperor Trajan in 14 AD) reduced to low walls and stumps of pillars, your eyes are drawn to the facade of the Hypostyle Hall, whose surviving columns burst in floral capitals beneath a chunk of cavetto cornice bearing a winged sun-disc and twin uraei above each portal, their colours still vivid. Bas-reliefs on the outer wall show Neos Dionysos being purified by Thoth and Horus, and yet again in the presence of Sobek, whose face has been chiselled away.

The Outer Hypostyle Hall

Wandering amid the thicket of columns inside the Outer Hypostyle Hall, notice the heraldic lily of Upper Egypt or the papyrus symbol of the Delta carved on their bases. On the inner wall of the facade are splendid carvings of Neos Dionysos’s coronation before Haroeris, Sobek, Wadjet and Nekhbet (the goddesses of the north and south), and his appearance before Isis, Horus the Elder and a lion-headed deity. Neos Dionysos makes offerings to the same deities at the back of the hall, whose right side retains part of its roof, decorated with flying vultures.

The Inner Hypostyle Hall

Entering the older, Inner Hypostyle Hall, you’ll find a relief of Sobek in his reptilian form between the portals. Ptolemy II receives the hps (sword of victory) from Haroeris (accompanied by his sister Cleopatra III and his wife Cleopatra IV) in the southwest corner of the hall and makes offerings to gods on the shafts of the pillars, while his elder brother does likewise to Haroeris at the back of the hall, where a list of temple deities and festivals appears all along the wall on the bottom register.

Vestibules and sanctuaries

Beyond the Inner Hypostyle Hall lies the first of three, now roofless, vestibules (each set slightly higher than the preceding one) decorated by Ptolemy VI. Scenes at the back depict the foundation of the temple, with Sheshat, goddess of writing, measuring its dimensions; and offerings and libations to Sobek. To maintain the temple in a state of purity, these rituals were periodically repeated in the Hall of Offerings. The ruined chamber to the right once held vestments and sacred texts, as at Edfu and Dendara. Offerings to Haroeris, a description of the temple and an address to Sobek appear on the southern wall, which also features a tiny relief of a woman giving birth, at roughly chest height. Notice the painted vultures on the ceiling, too.

A fine relief between the doors of the sanctuaries shows Ptolemy and his sister-wife being presented with a palm stalk from which hangs a Heb-Sed sign representing the years of his reign. Khonsu does the honours, followed by Haroeris and Sobek (representing air and water, respectively); Ptolemy himself sports a Macedonian cloak. Because so little remains of the sanctuaries, you can glimpse a secret corridor between them, whence the priests would “speak” for the gods; it’s accessible via an underground crypt in one of the shrines behind the inner corridor.

The outer corridor and precincts

In the outer corridor between the Ptolemaic temple and its Roman enclosure wall, pilgrims scratched graffiti on the pavements to pass time before their appointment with the Good Doctor, who was represented by a statue behind the central chapel. Ears carved on the walls heard their pleas and the eyes symbolized the health they sought. Though these have been gouged away by supplicant fingers, you can still see reliefs depicting scalpels, suction cups, dental tools and bone saws, and Marcus Aurelius offering a pectoral cross to Ta-Sent-Nefer, the Good Sister. Ancient Egyptian medicine is known to have at least eight hundred prescriptions, including one for eye-cataracts, consisting of mashed tortoise brains with honey.

Other rituals centred on a Sacred Well with two stairways descending to its depths, which drew water from the Nile to feed a pool used for raising sacred crocodiles, accessible by an underground corridor.

The Crocodile Museum

South of the Sacred Well, the intriguing Crocodile Museum exhibits over twenty mummified crocodiles, votive tablets and effigies, found in a cemetery at the nearby village of El-Shabta in the 1970s. The Ancient Egyptians feared and revered crocodiles – associating their stealthy killing skills with the might of the pharaoh – and used crocodile-hide as military body armour. Crocodiles were worshipped at many cult-sites, from Qasr Qaroun in the Fayoum to Kom Ombo, and buried in cemeteries in the vicinity.

Further south stands the ruined Birth House of Ptolemy VII – or what’s left of it since half the ruins fell into the Nile in the nineteenth century. A customary relief of the king hunting birds appears on its southern wall.

Lake Nasser

As Lake Nasser rose behind the High Dam, flooding ancient Nubia, an international effort ensured that mud-brick fortresses and burial grounds were excavated and photographed, before being abandoned to the rising waters. Half a dozen temples and tombs were salvaged to be reassembled on higher ground or in foreign museums. Since then, however, many temples in Upper Egypt have been affected by damp and salt encrustation, blamed on the rising water table and greater humidity.

Although the human, cultural and environmental costs are still being evaluated, the dam has delivered most of its promised benefits. Egypt has been able to convert 3000 square kilometres of cultivated land from the ancient basin system of irrigation to perennial irrigation – doubling or tripling the number of harvests – and to reclaim more than 4200 square kilometres of desert. The dam’s turbines have powered a thirty percent expansion of industrial capacity; fishing and tourism on Lake Nasser have developed into profitable industries. Only the Toshka Project has turned out to be a failure.

While the main losers have been the Nubians, whose homeland was submerged by the lake, other consequences are still being assessed. Evaporation from the lake has caused clouds and even rainfall over previously arid regions and the water table has risen. Because the dam traps the silt that once renewed Egypt’s fields, farmers now rely on chemical fertilizers, and the soil salinity caused by perennial irrigation can only be prevented by extensive drainage projects, which create breeding grounds for mosquitoes and bilharzia-carrying snails. And with no silty deposits to replenish it, the Delta coastline is being eroded by the Mediterranean.

Some fear future water wars. When Ethiopia commissioned a study on damming the Abbai River (the source of the Blue Nile), Cairo warned that any reduction of Egypt’s quota of Nile water, fixed by treaty at 59 billion cubic metres annually, would be seen as a threat to national security, and that Egypt would, in fact, need a larger share in the future. Egypt and Sudan are boycotting the Nile Basin Initiative by the “upstream” states (Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo) to renegotiate the treaty.

Fishing safaris on Lake Nasser

Besides antiquities, Lake Nasser is renowned for its fishing – for Nile perch (the largest caught weighed 176kg, just short of the world record), huge tilapia, piranha-like tigerfish and eighteen kinds of giant catfish. After tilapia (at the bottom of the food chain) spawns in mid-March, perch and catfish thrive in depths of up to 6m till late September, after which big fish are caught in deeper water until February by trolling over submerged promontories or islands, and by shore- or fly-fishing from March to July. The best fishing grounds are in the north of the lake – beyond Amada the fish get eaten by crocodiles. Anglers base themselves on mother ships and fish in twos or threes off smaller boats. Fishing packages include meals, soft drinks and transfers from Aswan in the price; specialist rods can be hired if needed.

Nile trips

Some people love Nile cruise boats, others hate them. On the plus side they offer the chance to travel the river with all the comforts of a four- or five-star hotel. The downside is that you’ll visit temples with hundreds of other tourists according to a rigid timetable, amid much noise and air pollution wherever dozens of boats are moored alongside each other – which is hardly surprising when there are over 330 cruisers plying the river between Luxor and Aswan.

For those with money to burn, a dahabiya cruise is everything a journey on the Nile should be, recalling a leisurely age of tourism before steamer tours, and as more dahabiyas take to the Nile, prices are dropping. At the other end of the scale, felucca journeys between Aswan and Luxor are a uniquely Egyptian experience which many travellers rate as the highlight of their visit – though tales of misery aren’t uncommon either.

Nile cruise boats

The indubitable advantage of Nile cruises is that they’re cheap. Package tours from Europe with a return flight and a cruise often cost far less than flights and hotels booked independently. Peak times are Christmas, New Year and Easter, when most (but not all) tour operators raise their prices. In Britain, you can search for deals on w nilecruisesdirect.com. Independent travellers can find bargains in Luxor or Aswan (Cairo is risky unless you deal directly with the company owning the boat). Budget hotels like Luxor’s Oasis or Aswan’s Nubian Oasis can book a double cabin in a five-star boat for $60 a night, or $40 a night for a single cabin (except in Dec, when berths may be unavailable), while agencies like Travco and Eastmar offer deals on some of the ritzy ships listed below. Alternatively, you can put on smart clothes and go hunting along the Corniche, where boats are moored. The boat manager is likely to quote a lower rate than travel agencies, especially if the boat is near its sailing time and only half full, or you have a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label to throw into negotiations.

There are two basic itineraries: seven nights to Aswan and back starting from Luxor (or vice versa), or a briefer trip commencing at either end, which means two nights’ sailing if you start from Luxor or a one-night cruise from Aswan. All these journeys include stopovers at the temples of Edfu and Kom Ombo, and an indeterminate wait to pass through the locks at Esna, which makes it unwise to rely on getting back to Luxor or Cairo just in time for a flight home. When the locks are closed for a fortnight’s maintenance in June and the first half of December, passengers are bussed from Esna to sites up to three hours’ distant.

In 2012, Bales (w balesworldwide.com) and Belle Époque Travel (w dahabiya.com) revived “full Nile” cruises between Cairo and Aswan (lasting fifteen days), which had been halted by the Islamist insugency in Middle Egypt during the mid-1990s. At the time of writing, it’s too early to say whether these will become a regular fixture or not.

Choosing a boat

You’ll be told that all the boats rate four or five stars, which the Ministry of Tourism has indeed awarded them, but standards vary from bog-average three-star up to the palatial. Even an average vessel will have a/c en-suite cabins, a restaurant, bar, sun deck and swimming pool; superior boats have double beds, large bathrooms, patio doors and balconies. Try to avoid getting a cabin on the lowest deck, where your view of the passing scenery may be restricted by riverbanks.

Though some tourists expect (and pay for) ultraviolet water sterilization, it is basic hygiene controls that will determine your health on a Nile cruise. Rather than tip your cabin cleaner at the end of the voyage, do so at the beginning as an incentive; cleaners are paid less than £E50 a day.

Other things to consider are the quality of meals (included in the price, but ranging from mediocre to sumptuous), the inflated cost of alcohol (many people smuggle booze aboard despite prohibition), seating arrangements (independent travellers are obliged to eat at the same table) and moorings. Boats in Luxor and Aswan are gradually being moved to new berths far outside town, but those belonging to chains like Sonesta, Sofitel and Mövenpick may continue to dock by their respective hotels.

Boats grossly overcharge for onshore excursions in Luxor or Aswan. The management won’t mind if you find a cheaper way unless you tell other passengers about it.

Dahabiyas

Egypt’s pharaohs loved their pleasure-barges: Cleopatra and Julius Caesar spent nine months sailing round Egypt escorted by four hundred ships. Some of this luxury rubbed off on the houseboats that conveyed Ottoman officials up and downriver, dubbed dahabiya (from the Arabic for “gold”) after their gilded railings. Despite the advent of Cook’s tours in the 1860s, some Europeans still preferred to choose one of the two hundred dahabiyas for hire at the Cairo port of Bulaq, but by the 1900s steamers and railways had relegated them to Cairo love nests, which later went to the scrap-yard or were left to rot in the 1960s.

Thirty years later, a few entrepreneurs began refurbishing dahabiyas to run exclusive cruises, which proved so successful that replicas are now being built at Esna, Rosetta and Cairo. Though sometimes rented to tour groups, they are often chartered for a private cruise by newlyweds, families or friends. Passengers are less constrained by schedules and moorings than on cruise boats, making it feasible to visit sites at quiet times or where larger ships can’t moor, so besides the temples at Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo, you get to explore El-Kab and Silsilah, which are otherwise difficult to reach.

A typical dahabiya has a spacious salon; wood-panelled cabins ventilated by sliding louvres, with brass fittings and tiled bathrooms; and an upper deck where meals are eaten, whose awning can be rolled back for sunbathing. Besides sightseeing and stopovers there is backgammon, a library of books and CDs, and maybe live music or dancing after supper for entertainment. Meals are lavish, washed down with fruit juices, beer or cocktails. Filtered water and rigorous hygiene mean that sickness is seldom a problem. Unless carefully designed, boats over 38m long can’t travel by sails alone and have to use engines (thus technically disqualifying them from being called dahabiyas) or be towed by a tug.

Three- to five-day itineraries start or end in Esna or Aswan; longer voyages from Luxor to Aswan and back (or vice versa) are also available. If finishing or starting at Esna, transport to or from Luxor is provided. The price usually includes transfers, meals and soft drinks, excursions and tickets to the temples en route (but not necessarily in and around Aswan and Luxor) – read the small print carefully.

Feluccas

These single-masted boats have been sailing the Nile since ancient times and offer a unique experience of the river. Sailing so low in the water, the Nile’s horizon recedes like an infinity pool, its stillness broken only by passing cruise boats. Evenings often end round a campfire, enlivened by singing and drumming. Most people sleep on mattresses aboard the felucca, but some prefer camping ashore. Each day will be different from the last: stow your phone and take things as they come.

Whether your felucca trip is blissful, tragicomic or unpleasant depends on a host of factors. Nights are chilly in winter and otherwise cool except in summer, when days are scorching. Nile breezes may be cooling, but winds from the desert can suck you dry and the effect of ultraviolet rays is magnified by water.

Itineraries

As the wind nearly always blows south, travelling downstream (towards Luxor) involves constant tacking, unless you simply drift with the sluggish current, but there’s no chance of being becalmed, unlike sailing upriver, where the cliffs between Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo block the wind – which is why almost all journeys start from Aswan. Since feluccas are forbidden to sail on the Nile after dark, the distance covered by itineraries is reduced and tourists’ expectations often exceed reality. Short daylight hours in winter and the low water level between October and May may also cause delays.

Unless the wind is especially strong, a one-day one-night trip usually only gets you to Kubbaniya – a few miles beyond the Aswan Bridge – where many boatmen have their family homes, to which you’ll be invited for dinner. A two-day two-night trip should take you at least as far as Darow if not all the way to Kom Ombo (visiting the temple next day), while three days and three nights should include a visit to Silsilah and end up somewhere short of Edfu. Whatever your final landfall, onwards travel by minibus to Luxor – with stopovers at Kom Ombo and/or Edfu temples – is usually included in the deal (if not, drivers charge about £E40/person).

Note that it’s also possible to hire a felucca for a half-day outing or day-trip, as detailed in the accounts of Luxor and Aswan.

Arranging a felucca trip

Typically, each vessel has an English-speaking Nubian captain and carries six to eight passengers (the largest boats take twelve). Arranging a trip through a hotel is easier than doing it yourself, but some places use unreliable captains, or take such large commissions that the disgruntled crew pester passengers for baksheesh. Alternatively, you can find a captain yourself after gathering some would-be fellow passengers together. Beware of people claiming to be from this or that family or felucca, who approach you in waterfront restaurants or are recommended by Aswan’s tourist office - it’s better to contact respected outfits directly

The cost should also cover three meals a day: usually simple vegetarian food. It’s up to passengers to buy their own bottled water, snacks and sweets; crews will purchase beer for you if asked. Smoking dope is tolerated or encouraged on many, but not all, boats – the Jamaica family has a “no bango” rule on its trips. If you’re not sure about a crew, women will benefit from teaming up with some men for the duration: an all-female group might have problems.

Establish the number of passengers before you go and don’t be talked into accepting others later on, or food supplies and space will be more limited than you’d expected. It helps if everyone knows what has been negotiated to ensure solidarity in the event of a dispute with the crew. Before departing, you might be asked for a photocopy of your passport for registration with the River Police, but many captains don’t bother, knowing that the rule is rarely enforced.

Blankets are provided but seldom enough to keep you warm at night during winter, when a sleeping bag is advisable (bring one with you). Ensure that the boat has a canvas awning to protect you from the sun and double as a tent at night; adequate mattresses, a kerosene stove and lamp and a padlocked luggage hold. For those wanting more comfort, a few captains have custom-made “deluxe” vessels featuring canvas “cabins” and a fridge, or a shower and a toilet.

Less reputable captains can be careless of hygiene, resulting in passengers getting sick. Buy plenty of bottled water, or the crew may dip into the Nile for drinking or cooking purposes. Bring sterilizing tablets to purify the jerry can of Nile water used for washing up, and carbolic soap for handwashing. Also essential are a hat, sunscreen and bug repellent (especially during summer).

Philae

The island of PHILAE and its Temple of Isis have bewitched visitors since Ptolemaic times, when most of the complex was constructed. The devout and curious were drawn here by a cult that flourished throughout the Roman Empire well into the Christian era. Although the first Europeans to “rediscover” Philae in the eighteenth century could only marvel at it from a distance after their attempts to land were “met with howls, threats and eventually the spears of the natives living in the ruins”, subsequent visitors revelled in this mirage from antiquity.

After the building of the first Aswan Dam, rising waters lapped and surged about the temple, submerging it for half the year, when tourists would admire its shadowy presence beneath the translucent water. However, once it became apparent that the new High Dam would submerge Philae forever, UNESCO and the Egyptian authorities organized a massive operation (1972–80) to relocate its temples on nearby Aglika Island, which was landscaped to match the original site. The new Philae is magnificently set amid volcanic outcrops, like a jewel in the royal blue lake, but no longer faces Biga Island, sacred to Osiris. The Osirian myth and the cult of Isis are the subject of Philae’s Sound and Light Show.

The Temple of Isis

Philae’s cult status dates back to the New Kingdom, when Biga Island was identified as one of the burial places of Osiris – and the first piece of land to emerge from the primordial waters of Chaos. Since Biga was forbidden to all but the priesthood, however, public festivities centred upon neighbouring Philae, which was known originally as the “Island from the Time of Re”.

Excluding a few remains from the Late Period, the existing Temple of Isis was constructed over some eight hundred years by Ptolemaic and Roman rulers who sought to identify themselves with the Osirian myth and the cult of Isis. An exquisite fusion of Ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman architecture, the temple complex harmonizes perfectly with its setting, sculpted pillars and pylons gleaming white or mellow gold against Mediterranean-blue water and black Nilotic rock.

Vestibule of Nectanebo

Motorboats land near the southern end of the island. In ancient times, on the original Philae, visitors ascended a double stairway to the Vestibule of Nectanebo at the entrance to the temple precincts. Erected by a XXX Dynasty pharaoh in honour of his “Mother Isis”, this was the prototype for the graceful kiosks of the Ptolemaic and Roman era. Notice the double capitals on the remaining columns, traditional flower shapes topped with sistrum-Hathor squares that supported the architrave. The screens that once formed the walls are crowned with cavetto cornices and rows of uraeus serpents, a motif dating back to Zoser’s complex at Saqqara, nearly three thousand years earlier.

The colonnades

Beyond the vestibule stretches an elongated trapezoidal courtyard flanked by colonnades. The West Colonnade is the better preserved, with finely carved capitals, each slightly different. The windows in the wall behind once faced Biga, the island of Osiris; the one opposite the first two columns is topped by a relief of Nero offering two eyes to Horus and Isis.

The plainer, unfinished East Colonnade abuts a succession of ruined structures. Past the foundations of the Temple of Arensnupis (worshipped as the “Good Companion of Isis” in the Late Period) lies a ruined Chapel of Mandulis, the Nubian god of Kalabsha. Near the First Pylon, an unfinished Temple of Imhotep honours the philosopher-physician who designed Zoser’s Step Pyramid and was later deified as a god of healing. Its forecourt walls show Khnum, Satis, Anukis, Isis and Osiris, and Ptolemy IV before Imhotep.

The First Pylon

The lofty First Pylon was built by Neos Dionysos (Ptolemy XII), who smites enemies in the approved fashion at either corner, watched by Isis, Horus and Hathor. Set at right angles to the pylon, the Gate of Ptolemy II is probably a remnant of an earlier temple. The pylon’s main portal is still older (dating from the reign of Nectanebo II) and was formerly flanked by two granite obelisks; now only two stone lions remain. Inside the portal are inscriptions by Napoleon’s troops, commemorating their victory over the Mamlukes in 1799. The smaller door in the western section of the pylon leads through to the Birth House and was used for rituals; the entrance depicts the personified deities of Nubia and the usual Egyptian pantheon. On the back of the pylon are scenes of priests carrying Isis’ barque.

The Forecourt

Emerging into the Forecourt, most visitors make a beeline for the Birth House or the Second Pylon, overlooking the colonnade to the east. Here, reliefs behind the stylish plant columns show the king performing rituals such as dragging the barque of Sokar. A series of doors lead into six rooms which probably had a service function; one of them, dubbed the Library, features Thoth in his ibis and baboon forms, Maat, lion-headed Tefnut and Sheshat, the goddess of writing. At the northern end stands a ruined chapel, which the Romans erected in front of a granite outcrop that was smoothed into a stele under Ptolemy IV and related his gift of lands to the temple.

The Second Pylon

Set at an angle to its forerunner, the Second Pylon changes the axis of the temple. A large relief on the right tower shows Neos Dionysos placing sacrifices before Horus and Hathor; in a smaller scene above he presents a wreath to Horus and Nephthys, offers incense and anoints an altar before Osiris, Isis and Horus. Similar scenes on the other tower have been defaced by early Christians, who executed the paintings in the upper right-hand corner of the pylon passageway, leading into the temple proper.

The Birth House

The western side of the forecourt is dominated by the colonnaded Birth House of Ptolemy IV, which linked his ancestry to Horus and Osiris. Most of the exterior reliefs were added in Roman times, which is why Emperor Augustus shadows Buto, goddess of the north, as she plays a harp before the young, naked Horus and his mother at one end of the central register, behind the Hathor-headed colonnade. Further south and higher up, the Roman reliefs overlie inscriptions in hieroglyphs and demotic characters that partly duplicate those on the Rosetta Stone. Inside, a columned forecourt and two vestibules precede the sanctuary, which contains the finest scenes. Although iconoclasts have defaced the goddess suckling the child-pharaoh on the left-hand wall, you can see Isis giving birth to Horus in the marshes at the bottom of the rear wall. Around the back of the sanctuary behind the northern colonnade is a corresponding scene of Isis nursing Horus in the swamp.

The Hypostyle Hall

Immediately behind the Second Pylon lies a small open court that was originally separated from the Hypostyle Hall by a screen wall, now destroyed. A lovely drawing by David Roberts shows this “Grand Portico” in its rich original colours: the flowering capitals are in shades of green with yellow flowers and blue buds; crimson and golden winged sun-discs are seen flying down the central aisle of the ceiling, which elsewhere bears astronomical reliefs. The unpainted walls and column shafts show the hall’s builder, Ptolemy VII Euergetes II, sacrificing to various deities. After the emperor Justinian forbade the celebration of Isis rituals at Philae in 550 AD, Copts used the hall for services and chiselled crosses into the walls. On the left-hand jamb of the portal into the vestibule beyond, a piece of Roman graffiti asserts B Mure stultus est (“B Mure is stupid”).

The vestibules

As at other temples, the vestibules get lower and darker as you approach the sanctuary. By a doorway to the right of the first vestibule, a Greek inscription records the “cleansing” of this pagan structure under Bishop Theodorus, during the reign of Justinian. On the other side of the vestibule is a room giving access to the stairs to the roof. The next vestibule has an interesting scene flanking the portal at the back, where the king offers a sistrum and wine to Isis and Harpocrates (Child Horus). On the left-hand door jamb, he leaves offerings to Min, a basket to Sekhmet and wine to Osiris, with the sacred bull and seven cows in the background. In the partially ruined transverse vestibule, the king offers necklaces, wine and eye paint to Osiris, Isis, Hathor and Nephthys, outside the sanctuary.

The sanctuary

Dimly lit by two apertures in the roof, the sanctuary contains a stone pedestal dedicated by Ptolemy III and his wife Berenice, which once supported the goddess’s barque. On the left wall, the pharaoh faces Isis, whose wings protectively enfold Osiris. Across the room, an enthroned Isis suckles the infant Horus and stands to suckle a young pharaoh (below, now defaced). The other rooms, used for rites or storage, contain reliefs of goddesses with Nubian features.

Hadrian’s Gate

Leaving the temple through the western door of the first vestibule you’ll emerge near Hadrian’s Gate, set into the girdle wall that once encircled Philae Island. Flanking your approach are two walls from a bygone vestibule, decorated with notable reliefs. The right-hand wall depicts the origin of the Nile, whose twin streams are poured forth by Hapy the Nile-god from his cave beneath Biga Island, atop which perches a falcon. To the right of this, Isis, Nephthys and others adore the young falcon as he rises from a marsh.

Above the door in the opposite wall, Isis and Nephthys present the dual crowns to Horus, whose name is inscribed on a palm stalk by Sheshat and Thoth. Below, Isis watches a crocodile drag the corpse of Osiris to a rocky promontory (presumably Biga). Around the gate itself, Hadrian appears before the gods (above the lintel) and the door jambs bear the fetishes of Abydos and Osiris. At the top of the wall, Marcus Aurelius stands before Isis and Osiris; below he offers Isis grapes and flowers.

North of the gateway lie the foundations of the Temple of Harendotes (an aspect of Horus), built by the emperor Claudius.

Elsewhere on the island

To complete the cast of deities involved in the Osirian myth, a small Temple of Hathor was erected to the east of the main complex – really only notable for a relief of musicians, among whom the god Bes plays a harp. More eye-catching and virtually the symbol of Philae is the graceful open-topped Kiosk of Trajan, nicknamed the “Pharaoh’s Bedstead”. Removed from its watery grave by a team of British navy divers, the reconstructed kiosk juxtaposes variegated floral columns with a severely classical superstructure; only two of the screen wall panels bear reliefs.

The cult of Isis

Of all the cults of Ancient Egypt, none endured longer or spread further than the worship of the goddess Isis. As the consort of Osiris, she civilized the world by instituting marriage and teaching women the domestic arts. As an enchantress, she collected the dismembered fragments of Osiris’s body and briefly revived him to conceive a son, Horus, using her magic to help him defeat the evil Seth and restore the divine order. As pharaohs identified themselves with Horus, the living king, so Isis was their divine mother – a role which inevitably associated her with Hathor, the two goddesses being conflated in the Late Period. By this time Isis was the Great Mother of All Gods and Nature, Goddess of Ten Thousand Names, of women, purity and sexuality.

By a process of identification with other goddesses around the Mediterranean, Isis-worship eventually spread throughout the Roman empire (the westernmost Iseum or cult temple extant is in Hungary). The nurturing, forgiving, loving Isis was Christianity’s chief rival between the third and fifth centuries. Many scholars believe that the cult of the Virgin Mary was Christianity’s attempt to wean converts away from Isis; early Coptic art identifies one with the other, Horus with Jesus, and the Christian cross with the pharaonic ankh.

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Rough Guides Editors
9/8/2020
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