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Falling for Aswan, Egypt's Original Frontier

Aswan has been called 'the most beautiful place on earth' by enough people that anyone should approach it with some skepticism. But after a brief visit, you'll probably also call it an Egyptian version of paradise.

Aswan has been called "the most beautiful place on earth" by enough people I've met that I approached it with some skepticism, figuring that any nice oasis must look like heaven if you have plodded through enough dusty miles of desert. The late Aga Khan, the one whose weight used to be matched by a pile of diamonds on certain of his birthdays, thought so, for example, and chose to winter here and to be buried here. Famous for its salubrious climate and lush vegetation, it's located at the First Cataract (rapids), coming upstream (or south) from the Cairo area, and marked the southern border of Egypt for centuries. I came around after a brief visit, however, and can call it an Egyptian version of paradise.

A Felucca at Sunset

Though you could, in theory, charter a felucca (small sailboat) anywhere along the mighty Nile, you may find Aswan the right place to do so. I did, and enjoyed one of the few very magical moments in all my travels, joining a cruise at sundown with about 20 other passengers. In addition to the pleasant scenery and cool temperatures of the evening, the sunset's glow against the city was emphasized by the winking on of lights from riverboats and in the town. Then came the call to prayer from at least a dozen minarets of mosques strung from north to south, and you had to marvel at its subtle rhythm and melancholy mode, sweet even to the ears of a nonbeliever.

Another melody surprised us, seeming to come from nowhere. It was "Gentille Alouette," sung in fairly good French by two small boys, out in their father's rowboat and temporarily attached to our felucca. Hearing our Yankee voices, they switched to "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," and passengers began handing down dollars and Egyptian pounds while snapping photos of the enterprising kids. "One of them will grow up to be president of Egypt," said an American. "Or just a damn good businessman," replied another.

Aswan Highlights

After a felucca tour, easily arranged through your hotel or just down on the corniche (river's edge), check out the town's other tourist targets. If you want a glimpse of how difficult it might be to chisel an obelisk out of solid stone, visit the site of the Unfinished Obelisk, outside town. You tramp up some steps and gaze down at the piece, carved along two sides and still stuck to its native stone, an obelisk some 138 feet long and 20 feet wide. Try to imagine the day when the boss came around and said to the workers, "Drop your tools. We aren't going to finish this sucker." It was abandoned when a crack appeared in the granite, making it unfit to be an obelisk.

Near the town, on Agilka Island, is the Temple of Philae, dedicated to the goddess Isis, moved to its present site to avoid flooding after construction of the Aswan High Dam in the late 1970s. On another island, Bustan (also known as Kitchener's Island), is a nice little Botanical Garden, started by Lord Kitchener, the victor of Khartoum, after he was given the island in recognition of his services in the Sudan. You can get a good view of the largest of several islands here, Elephantine Island, from the tower of the incredibly ugly Mövenpick Hotel there. The island is traditionally considered as the boundary between Egypt and ancient Nubia (there are still Nubians living here), and is also the site of the Nilometer, a column that measures the depth of the river. At this site, also, Eratosthenes was able to make the first measurement of the circumference of the Earth, about 240 BCE, perhaps in part because this place is close to the Tropic of Cancer.

If you have time, go for afternoon tea on the terrace of the venerable Old Cataract Hotel (1899), the famous establishment where Agatha Christie is said to have written much of her Death on the Nile. Thomas Cook had the hotel built to accommodate his travelers way back then, and it has served tourists ever since. It is highly regarded as one of the two most famous hotels in Egypt, the other being Mena House at the Pyramids. Other famous residents in the past include Czar Nicholas II, Winston Churchill, King Farouk, Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Carter, and Princess Diana. If you can afford it and are planning on a stay in Aswan, this has got to be your first choice. Note 1: the hotel will be under renovations for the next 18 months or so, so phone ahead to determine if its terrace and/or restaurant will remain open. Note 2: if you aren't a resident, you may have to pay an entrance fee of 100 Egyptian pounds (about $18) to get in. Note 3: be sure not to confuse this place with the ugly New Cataract Hotel next door, of fairly recent (c.1963) construction. Note 4: This is no longer a Sofitel, according to their reservation services as of November 2008. Double rooms from about $280. Tel. 011/20-9731-6000, no website found since Sofitel retreated.

Some visitors may wish to see the new High Dam of Aswan, completed in 1970, which has been a great help to Egypt in creating more electrical power and controlling floods, but which has also caused some problems, including the forced relocation of most of the Nubians living near here. The new dam created the huge Lake Nasser, named for Egypt's first president and leader of the 1952 revolution against King Farouk and implicit foreign (i.e. British) control.

A visit here used to include a drop-in at the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan (d. 1957), but foreign vandals put up some graffiti a few years back and his family, including Harvard-educated Karim Aga Khan IV (class of '59) said "no more." Nevertheless, you can see it from the river as you sail by in your felucca. Near his tomb is the Coptic Monastery of St. Simeon, built in the sixth century in honor of a local saint.


An excellent travel organizer in Egypt is Wings Tours, one of the most efficient such organizations there, with excellent guides and meticulous service. Their American office is in Maryland. Contact them at tel. 410/771-0925;; email

You can get more information on Egypt from the official site of the Egyptian Tourist Authority at

You can find more information about Aswan at Tour Egypt's website,

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