The town of Aswan lies on the east bank of the Nile river. It is a small town with most things within easy walking distance of each other. Most of the best budget accommodation in Aswan is found on Elephantine Island. This quiet, laid-back island lies directly opposite central Aswan. The public ferry to the island leaves from beside the KFC and costs 5LE each way. In the town center on the mainland there are plenty of local shops and markets selling cheap food.
The train station is located towards the north of the town about 200m from the river. It is about a 2 km walk from the train station to the Elephantine Island ferry. Trains run north from Aswan to Cairo. The journey takes around 15 hours and costs 235LE (15USD in 2020) for a 1st class seat. Trains to Luxor cost 51LE (3USD in 2020) and take 3 and a half hours.
Seheyl Island Aswan
Sehel island was known in ancient times as Setet. It was described as the Sacred Island due to its connection with the goddess Anuket, considered to be a personification of the Nile and goddess of the Nile's cataracts. It was a place of refuge for many pilgrims and traders travelling along the river and many of the 200 inscriptions carved into the island's granite boulders were left by travellers marking either the start or end of their journey to Nubia.
There are several famous inscriptions that record ancient historical events. One is the Famine Stela which tells of a seven-year period of drought and famine during the reign of pharaoh Djoser of the Third Dynasty. At the time of the first translation of the stela it was thought that the story of the seven-year-famine was connected to the biblical story of Joseph in Genesis, where a famine of seven years also occurs. More recent investigations have shown that a seven-year famine was a motif common to nearly all cultures of the Near East, including a Mesopotamian legend that speaks of a seven-year-famine.
However, an even more interesting feature of the stela is the section of text that deals with the building of monuments. In the instructions by the God Khnum on building his temple, Djoser is given a list of minerals and ores that "since former times nobody ever worked with (them) to build the temples of the gods..". Interestingly, no mention is made in this list of any contructional stone such as limestone, sandstone or granite blocks. Although many of the hieroglyphic names have not been translated, a new interpretation of the Stele suggests that Pharaoh Djoser, who built the earliest known pyramid in Egypt(2750 BC), was instructed to make "man-made stone" (concrete).
Sehel Island is about a 45 minute walk south from Aswan center following the main road past the Fatimid cemetery. After passing the stadium take the first road to the right and bear left as you walk through the village to reach the tiny ferry dock (5LE one way).
The Stela is located on the southernmost tip of the island.
Entrance 40LE (2020)
Elephantine Island Aswan
Elephantine island lies in the center of the Nile opposite central Aswan. Although only a few hundred meters away from the noisy city center it is an oasis of calm with no traffic and no touts. The peaceful Nubian villages that cover most of the island are a delight to stroll through with their tiny winding alleys and colourful wall paintings.
At the southern end of the island is the archaeological site of the ruins of Aswan's earliest settlement, Abu (the name meaning both elephant and ivory). The small museum houses an interesting selection of artifacts including some strange looking statues from the old kingdom and some ancient boomerangs. The ruins themselves also have some interesting features including an immense stone box, carved out of single piece of red granite. Also look out for the pair of carved feet with the second toe longer than the first, unusual in Egyptian statues although common in ancient Greek sculpture. Down by the river bank is a Nilometer, an ancient tool for measuring the level of the river and predicting the important annual flooding of the Nile. This is an older example than the Nilometer in Cairo and of a simpler design.
The museum, ruins and Nilometer are all part of the same site.
Entrance 100LE (2020)
The public ferry to the island leaves from next to the KFC in Aswan and costs 5LE each way.
West bank Aswan
The west bank of the river at Aswan has several attractions. You can probably visit most of them in a single day.
Turning left after getting off the ferry will bring you to the remains of another "unfinished obelisk". Until around 2010 the obelisk lay in the western quarry out in the desert where it had originally been partially carved out of the rock before being abandoned.
The hills above the river contain the Tombs of the Nobles, some of Egypt’s most ancient tombs dating back to the Old Kingdom. Several of these tombs can be visited.
To the south of the tombs on top of the hill and past the Aga Khan mausoleum is the Monastery of St Simon. It was built in the 7th century and rebuilt during the 10th century, by which time it was one of the largest Coptic Monasteries in Egypt, providing accommodation for around 300 monks. The monks that lived at the monastery would travel into Nubia with the aim of converting Nubians to Christianity. The Monastery was mostly destroyed by Saladin and his forces in 1173 and never rebuilt. In the lower level there are some remains of early Coptic paintings on the walls. Entrance 40LE (2020)
If you walk directly north from the monastery into the desert it is a beautiful hike through the rocks and dunes. You can keep within sight of the Nile and the city on your right hand side almost the whole time. After a couple of kilometers you will come to the remains of a quarry, a strange landscape scattered with granite boulders.
There is a ferry running between the east and west bank just north of Elephantine Island (5LE each way).
Nubian Museum Aswan
The Nubian culture, as old as that of Ancient Egypt, existed along the banks of the Nile in the areas that we now call southern Egypt and northern Sudan. The name Nubia is said to be derived from "nbu", the ancient Egyptian word for gold, referring to the mines of gold that Nubia was famous for. The museum is well laid-out and well labelled with an interesting collection of artifacts showing the development of civilization in the southern Nile Valley from prehistory all the way through the pharaonic ages, the arrival of Christianity and Islam, and the construction of the dam in the 1960’s, when over 100,000 Nubian people had to be relocated from their land.
The exhibits continue outside in the museum garden including a replica of the interersting Nabta Playa stone circle. The original is located in the desert about 100 km west of Abu Simbel and could be evidence of the first Egyptian civilization to use astronomy, over 7000 years ago. The circle is made up of four gateways, two aligned North-South, and two pointing East-West. These alignments were likely used to track the summer and winter solstices, as well as spring and autumnal equinoxes. This would have been of extreme importance to the inhabitants of Nabta Playa at the time as the agricultural year would be based on when the wet season was approaching.
More intererstingly though, Nabta Playa also shows knowledge of the precession of the equinox, a much larger cycle of the star constellations. In the middle of the circle are six stones that do not align to any of the four cardinal points. Just before the sun rose on the summer solstice around 5000BC, three of these stones would have lined up perfectly with the belt stars of the constellation of Orion. This time marks when the precession cycle is at one extreme. The opposite extreme would have occured 12,000 years earlier, and the other three stones line up precisely with the shoulder stars of Orion. In other words the stone circle is an accurate astronomical map tracking time back to around 16,500BC.
The museum is located at the southern end of the main road that runs along the east bank of the Nile.
Entrance 140LE (2020)
(Plus 50LE for photo camera)
Much of the red granite used for building in ancient Egypt came from quarries in the Aswan area. In one of these quarries lies The Unfinished Obelisk. It is 42m in length and has been carved out on three sides with the bottom side still attached to the bedrock.It is thought to have been abandoned during its construction when some cracks appeared in the rock. Had the obelisk been completed it would have been the heaviest obelisk ever cut in Ancient Egypt, weighing over 1000 tons.
The obelisk is located a short walk from the Nubia Museum on the opposite side of the Fatimid Cemetary.
Entrance 80LE (2020)