Aswan

Aswan, Egypt's southern frontier town, in its delightful river setting, is a highlight of any Nile cruise. It is stunningly beautiful, charmingly romantic, and the sunniest city in Egypt, hence its popularity. However, the city's undoubted attractions are helping to send it the same way as Luxor and the ever-growing tourist scene has all the accompanying downsides of increased hassle, clean-ups of the
souk
,
felucca
-captains waiting on every corner and hideous buildings springing up. But though the sense of ancient enchantment that used to pervade the very air of Aswan is hard to find now, it is still here - you just might have to look on the west bank or in one of the villages to find it. The city itself is not too large to walk around in the cooler part of the day and pace of life is slow and relaxing. From the cool and inviting Corniche you can watch tall-masted
feluccas
handled masterfully by a tiny crew and listen to Nubian musicians. Across the river, dramatic desert cliffs merge with palm-lined Nile waters, and huge apricot-coloured sand banks appear startling against the cloudless blue sky. In the late evening you can watch the flocks of egrets skimming the surface of the Nile as they go to roost before you feast on freshly caught Nile fish. In the early morning you can watch the sun rise behind the city and hear the call of the
muezzin
. With the outstanding Nubian museum, colourful west bank villages and islands to explore, as well as proximity to several notable temples and the nearby High Dam, the city is much more than a stopover en route to Abu Simbel.

Ins and outs

Getting there and around

The railway station is at the north end of the town, about two minutes walk from the Corniche, or five minutes walk from the heart of the
souk
heading south. Most mid-range and higher-end hotels are by the Nile. Budget hotels are scattered around the railway station and in the
souk
. The inter-city bus station and service taxi station are about 4 km out of town. To get to town from the bus station, take a microbus or a private taxi.
Feluccas
and cruise boats moor along the Corniche. Aswan's desert airport is 24 km south of town. There is no bus service connecting the airport and town. Bicycles are becoming very popular for covering short distances. There are several hire shops around the
souk
and Corniche and an especially reliable one behind the train station. Cross the railway station via the bridge, walk ahead and you'll find the bike shop on the first corner to the right, near the mosque.

Note
If arriving at the station on one of the official tourist trains, you will be met by hotel touts, taxi drivers and
felucca
men keen to push tours and misinformation upon you. It's best to politely ignore them, and either head straight to the tourist information centre next door for help and advice, or get a taxi to the hotel of your choice from a car that isn't loitering in the immediate vicinity of the station. Don't be tempted to agree to a tour with any middleman or taxi driver who is touting at the station. For
felucca
trips, wait to speak to some of the captains down by the Corniche when you've settled in a bit. Use your hotel (or a tour operator) to arrange trips to Abu Simbel only, and not for
felucca
voyages. As well as cutting out any middlemen, this allows you to establish exactly what you want and what you are paying for, and means the crew are directly responsible for providing what was agreed in the first place.

Information

There are two tourist offices in Aswan, quite close to one another. The primary one
 is next to the train station in a little domed building. It's worth stopping off here immediately on arrival at the station, as manager Hakeem Hussein offers possibly the best and most informative tourist office in the country. He will happily assist you in navigating the area, giving you the most recent of the ever-changing schedules and prices of transport, tours and entertainment. They can also help in booking trustworthy and suitable accommodation and advising on
felucca
trips and tours.

Background

Aswan's indigenous inhabitants are the ethnically, linguistically and culturally distinct
Nubians
who are more African than Arab. A robust civilization had flourished on the southern banks of the Nile since the time of the first pharaohs, and despite being frequently invaded and conquered by their northern neighbours who were dependent on their gold mines, the Nubian kings actually controlled all Egypt during the 25th Dynasty (747-656 BC). Many favoured Nubians became noblemen and administrators throughout ancient times, and Cleopatra was from the modern-day Sudanese town of Wadi Halfa. Indeed, the term 'Nubian' today is equally applicable to the Sudanese who live along the Nile as far south as Khartoum. The later Nubian kingdom of Kush, whose capital was the Sudanese town of Merowe and which included Aswan, remained largely independent from Egypt. Having been the last region to adopt the Christian faith, Nubia became a stronghold of the faith and a sanctuary for Coptic Christians fleeing the advance of Islam.

For many centuries a sleepy backwater, Aswan assumed national importance when it became the headquarters for the successful 1898 Anglo-Egyptian re-conquest of Sudan. With the 1902 construction of the first
Aswan Dam
the town became a fashionable winter resort for rich Europeans who relished its dry heat, luxury hotels and stunning views, particularly from the
feluccas
sailing on the Nile at sunset. But the dam also caused many Nubian villages to the south of Aswan to be submerged by the rising waters. With no decent agricultural land left to farm, menfolk headed to the cities leaving the women in charge, and Cairo's population of
bawabs
(doorkeepers) is still predominantly Nubian today. With the building of the Aswan High Dam in 1970, the swamping of Nubia was complete and many of those who were displaced joined in swelling the populations of Aswan and Kom Ombo. Despite the subsequent construction of a number of heavy industries in Aswan, to take advantage of the cheap hydroelectric power generated at the dam, the town has retained its attractive charm and relaxed atmosphere.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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