If you and your family want to spend time in a warm, fun, friendly place full of ancient history and exotic culture, pack your bags for a fun holiday in Aswan, Upper Egypt.It is an area steeped in history from thousands of years ago, but it’s also a place where anyone today can enjoy friendly colorful Nubian culture.
Not surprisingly, Aswan is also where the Aswan Dam was built across the narrower part of the Nile River gorge that leads south to Sudan. Building the dam created some modern day monumental accomplishments for you to explore. Read on to find out more about Aswan and Upper Egypt.
Take a Cruise around Aswan on the Nile
Aswan is the southern most city in Egypt, designated Upper Egypt because of the upper reaches of the Egyptian Nile, as opposed to the northern delta region. Aswan is often the embarkation point for holiday makers taking a Nile cruise. They live aboard a floating hotel to take them down river to Luxor. These are luxury boats,with fully catered restaurants and bars, and even swimming pools on deck.
The Egyptian flag flutters at the front of a small motor ferry taking a cruise around islands in the Nile at Aswan
If something smaller and more private is your ideal, there are dahabeya sail boats with open decks and easy living. They have attendant tug boats to haul them along if the Nile breezes are not adequately doing the job. One advantage of the Nile is that it flows south to north at a very constant rate, while the breezes usually blow north to south. So float down the Nile, and sail up it.
Aswan is a great place to step onto a felucca for some gentle sailing around the rocky islands that dot the Nile. Feluccas are very simple and traditional wooden boats that have been sailing up and down the Nile for thousands of years, easily maneuverable and able to pull up to shallow river banks whenever necessary. Slipping over the calm waters, listening to the creaking sails, and passing by Egyptians going about their daily lives is interesting at any time of day. There is usually only a captain for crew, and just maybe he will let you have a turn at the tiller. If you prearrange it, he will even serve you a simple meal on board– fresh water melon with salty cheese is one of my scrumptious favorites.
Traditional Nubian houses with colorful decoration and motif on the West Bank of the Nile in Aswan
Meet Friendly Locals Wherever You Go
One of the largest islands is called Elephantine, which has a large hotel on one end and a small village on the southern end. If you wander around the lanes and unpaved roads between the houses, you may be invited to share a tea with a local. They’ll serve you sweet black tea or karakade, a delicious hot or cold drink made from rich red hibiscus flowers. Either make a donation for the tea, or buy some of their craftwares to help the local economy.
Most Egyptians are so happy to see tourists that they will usually say, “Welcome, welcome!” wherever you are. They may even come and ask to have photographs taken with you. You can pretend your holiday is the price of fame! They may also want to practice their English speaking skills and want to know – “Where you are from?”, “Are you married?”, or “How is your family?” Family life is the number one priority for any Egyptian.
You can make a visit to the West Bank of the Nile by felucca or small river ferry. For the ferry, it won’t matter which way the breeze is blowing, and they have top shades to protect you from the strong Egyptian sun that shines bright 365 days a year. The local Nubian people will graciously invite you into their homes with open arms and show you how the design of their houses helps to keep them cool through searing heat of summer.
Showing a henna “tattoo” in front of interior paintings of a local house
They may also offer you apeekat a real Nile crocodile – in a holding tank. These reptiles, with fearsome reputations, used to live along the banks of the Nile, but since the building of the Aswan Dam they only live south of the dam. Some are reputedly enormous at up to 20 feet long. Not a prudent place to go swimming!
Local Nubian women might offer to painta henna “tattoo” on women’s hands, arms, or feet for a small fee. Henna is a traditional decoration for special occasions such as weddings or hafla (parties), and it is not permanent. It looks like dark green licorice paste when first applied, then dries and flakes off to leave a reddish brown pattern that gradually fades over some days or weeks,depending on where it is applied..
Explore Ancient Egyptian Temples
Aswan was a place revered in ancient times, and there are some special temples for you to explore. One of my favorites is called Philae on an island in the Nile. It’s not a large temple, but it has some very interesting columns and temples built at different times. To get to Philae, you have to negotiate with the ferry drivers, so a good tip is to join with another group to negotiate a better price.
An early visit to Abu Simbel when there are so few tourists you can feel like you have a private tour of the fabulous Ramses II monument
Abu Simbel is another place to visit from Aswan, some hours’ drive south along the west side of Lake Nasser. The drive is quite long, with mainly wide desert landscape, but two very special temples wait to be explored. The largest is dedicated to the great ancient Egyptian warrior King Ramses II, and as you enter you see the stories of his great victories depicted from floor to ceiling. The other temple is dedicated to the goddess Hathor, who is often depicted with a cow’s head giving life and sustenance to all.
These great temples were carved into rock beside the lapping waters of the Nile over three thousand years ago. However, in their original position, these wonderful temples would have been flooded by Lake Nasser when the Aswan Dam was built. People decided they were too special to lose underwater, so UNESCO workers spent nearly twenty years carefully carving up the entire temples from inside the rock and moving them to a site over 200 feet higher, where they were carefully reassembled and covered with a protective manmade hill.
A felucca (small river ferry) sails by in the evening light across the Nile at Aswan
Aswan has more temples and tombs to explore, depending on how much time you have, and the Nubian museum has many useful explanations if you wish to study more. There is certainly enough around Aswan to keep you exploring for a few days or relaxing for over a week. It is not necessary to join a particular tour company to enjoy your time in Aswan; however, a good guide will give you lots of good information, save you time, and know the easiest way to get around. Hotels often have their own contacts too, so you can seek information at the reception desk.
Venture into Local Markets for Shopping
Egyptian people are friendly and easygoing. Take a wander through the local souq (market)shopping for inexpensive clothes, scarves, and local wares. Egypt is famous for quality cotton, but beware of imported wares if you want authentic Egyptian goods. Shopping can take a long time, as shop owners will often want you to share a cup of hot sweet black tea with them. Which is fine – you are on holiday! Bargaining is normal in tourist souqs, so decide what the maximum price is you want to pay and offer half. Then bargain your way towards that maximum. If you get it for less, lucky you – if the shopkeeper does not want to sell at your maximum, no great loss. Bargaining is like a game, so keep it lighthearted and polite.
It is wise to take some precautions whenever you are travelling, but I personally have never had difficult problems when travelling in Egypt. Carry bags that you can keep close and closed;however, pickpockets and theft are not very common. You don’t need to carry a lot of cash, as there are plentiful money machines that accept major credit or debit cards and give reasonable exchange rates. Some machines will even exchange major foreign currencies, so no need to go line up at a bank. Credit card use for purchases is limited, though, unless paying for large purchases or in major hotels.
Tips are appreciated but not imposed, so carry small change to offer to anyone who helps you or does small tasks for you. Be generous, as Egyptians are hard working and have few opportunities in the current downturn in tourist numbers. You, on the other hand, will be privileged to see wonderful monuments without the massive crowds of previous years.
I hope you have become intrigued enough to consider a holiday in beautiful sunny Egypt. Upper Egypt is a great place to start exploring and as you head north, you can visit verdant and intriguing Luxor, then go on to the chaos of Cairo and the world famous Pyramids. When you want a change from life on the Nile, head for the Sahara, Sinai, or the Red Sea. Egypt will welcome you wherever you go.