The Old Cataract
Set overlooking the Nile, the islands and cataracts is the magnificent Old Cataract Hotel. A famous hotel opened in 1899 and precipitated by the arrival of the railway and tourists! Remarkably, thanks to Thomas Cooke it was really one of the worlds first package tour destinations.
Wonderfully maintained inside, with it’s 1902 Restaurant and a broad terrace over looking the activity on the Nile below it is a place to visit, even if time and budget only permits Afternoon Tea.
In past ages you would have met Princess Diana, Omar Shariff, President Mitterand amongst others. Of course though the most famous visitor was Agatha Christie who visited a few times and the Old Cataract has been revelling in the history of the Death on the Nile books and films for many years.
The Nile & Museum
The Nile is Egypt and Egypt is the Nile. What better place to learn about this river which begins in Lake Victoria (although when in Rwanda some claimed it really starts there) and is the life blood of Egypt ever since the time of the Pharoahs. There is a fairly new Nile Museum on the way to the High Dam which explains it all. If you go to or form the airport you will also pass the dam and see it but do investigate its controversial building involving Russia, the UK and President Nasser.
Today the Nile and the use of the water is once again foremost in regional politics. Upstream Ethiopia is daming the river for power and tensions are high and agreements difficult to reach as both countries plus The Sudan depend on the Nile – but none more so than Egypt’s 100 million who nearly all live within a few miles of the river or its delta tribuatries.
Aswan is my favourite place in Egypt. It is set on the banks of the Nile (pretty much every town and village in Egypt is!) of course and very much has the feel of being at the ‘end of the line’, or on the edge.
To the south is desert on the way to the Sudan. Nowadays Sudan is an independent country but once upon a time it was a part of Egypt and Aswan was a staging post en route. Today in this world of boundaries, those venturing south are mostly going to Abu Simbel or Lake Nasser and not many to Khartoun.
Go west and there is nothing but The Sahara for miles and miles. The Sahara begins right on the edge of the Nile and if you venture to the west side, to the Tombs of Nobles you are stepping into that magnificent desert.
Behind the town, set mostly on the eastern bank is more desert. The primary road and rail routes parallel the Nile coming from the north with Luxor being a 3-4 hour drive.
Sometimes the sheer beauty of Aswans location overwhelms the importance of its place in Ancient Egypt.
Starting with the Unfinished Obilisk at what is essentially a quarry, so important in the building of Egypts antiquities. Just outside the town, and a short boat ride away too is Philae Temple set on an island. It is one of the 3 or 4 places in Egypt where Sound & Light Shows are done and in my opinion the best, as you explore and follow the story as you are guided around at night with creative lighting. Very atmosheric, especially when you stop to recall that you are pretty much in the Sahara too!
On the west side ( you will see but cannot visit the Aga Khans Tomb) but you can make your way to the Tombs high up on the dunes. You will have to enquire as to how to get there as it is often not on the ‘regular tour’. Similarily take a felucca to Kitchener Island where the Botanical Gardens are – in the middle of the Nile.
A further Museum worth making time for is the Nubian Museum telling the story of the people who still live in the area and come from what is now The Sudan, but yet retain an important identity with specific skills. You can also still visit and even dine at a Nubian village on another island in the Nile.
In the town there is a lively Souk and along the lovely Corniche are cafes to venture into. Seems to me that most spend little time in Aswan as to most it is just the beginning or end of a 3 -4 day cruise so it has been peaceful on the 3 or 4 occasions I have been. Try and plan an extra day or two in Aswan!