Aswan (Arabic: أسوان àswân) is a city in the south of Egypt, some 870 km south of Cairo, just below the Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser, with a population of 275,000. Aswan is far more relaxed and smaller than Cairo and Luxor.
In the Neolithic era the tribes along the Nile began to combine, so that around 3500 BC there was a Kingdom of Upper Egypt from Aswan almost down to what is now Cairo, and a Kingdom of Lower Egypt which was the Delta. In 3100 BC King Narmer of Upper Egypt conquered the Delta and unified the kingdoms. Upstream of Aswan was inhabited but less important because the Nile was not navigable above the "First Cataract," first of a series of six rapids and shallows across the Nubian Plateau.
Egypt has always needed to harvest as much water as possible from the river, while controlling floods. A dam was therefore built across the First Cataract in 1902. In modern times still more water was needed, so the Aswan High Dam was built further upstream, completed in 1971 and penning Lake Nasser behind it, all the way into Sudan. Whole communities had to be moved, along with priceless antiquities, the most famous example being at Abu Simbel. Construction had political repercussions: the need to finance the dam caused Nasser to court the Soviet Union and China when western support wasn't forthcoming, and in 1956 he nationalised the Suez Canal and closed it (along with the Gulf of Aqaba) to Israeli shipping. This sparked the Suez conflict.
Aswan is today a well-developed tourist city, but hasn't grown to the extent of Luxor, so it feels more relaxed. The climate is hot desert: almost no rain falls here, and all the waters of the lake and Nile have come from over 1000 miles south. It's very hot in summer but pleasantly warm in winter.
|Climate chart (explanation)|
- 1 Aswan International Airport (ASW IATA) (25 km SSW of the city, on the west bank and just south of the high dam). Public buses don't go to the airport and security on the approach road to the terminal is tight, so it's probably reasonable taking a taxi, for which you must agree a price in advance. The fare from the airport to the train station (stated inside the airport) is LE92 (Nov 2018). The following airlines operate services to Aswan International Airport: Astraeus (from London Gatwick), EgyptAir (from Abu Simbel, Cairo, Luxor), and LotusAir (from Cairo).
- 2 Aswan Railway Station (north end of the city centre, a few hundred metres inland from the river). Leave plenty of time if you need to buy tickets, as the service at the counters is slow. It also has a tourist information inside. Microbuses depart from outside the station (turn right as you exit the terminal), and there are a number of cafés and basic hotels on the blocks between the station and the river.
Aswan is the southern terminus of the Egyptian railway network. The line follows the Nile north to Luxor (3-4 hr), Cairo (another 10 hr) and Alexandria (another 2 hr). Train is an excellent way to travel between Aswan and Luxor as it is too short to fly, and buses are bumpy and not altogether safe; fares are LE50-100 in AC1, half that in AC2. The train ride from Cairo is obviously much slower than a flight, but comfortable and safe, and amazingly inexpensive.
For practical details see Egypt#Get around by train. From Cairo there are four types of train:
- Daytime expresses have 1st and 2nd class air-conditioned coaches called AC1 and AC2 with comfortable aircraft-style seats. They're a relaxing way to sit back and view the lush landscape of the Nile valley. Fares vary with the train, with a single ticket Cairo-Aswan costing LE140 to LE250 in AC1 (Feb 2018), and about 30-40% less in AC2. Soft drinks and snacks are served, and there may be a dining car, but best buy food and drinks beforehand.
- Overnight expresses, departing 9PM to 11PM, are identical to the daytime trains and have the same fares; they're not sleepers.
- Deluxe sleepers are run by a private company, Watania. These have modern air-conditioned sleeping-cars, with a choice of 1- and 2-berth cabins and a club/lounge car. An evening meal and breakfast are included in the fare. Prices one way between Cairo and Aswan are US$110 for a single berth, or US$80 sharing a 2-berth cabin (Feb 2018). One sleeper runs nightly year-round, southbound from Cairo Ramses around 8PM, and northbound from Aswan around 7PM. Extra sleepers run at busy times but these trains may commence from Giza rather than from Cairo Ramses station.
- Local trains - Non-a/c trains lumber between Cairo, Luxor and Aswan, daytime and overnight, stopping at most stations. These are not much slower, but they are incredibly cheap.
The expresses are run by Egyptian National Railways (ENR) - check timetables and prices, and make bookings, with them direct (but be sure to do so 24 hr in advance or the system might not accept!). ENR also runs the ordinary trains but these are not bookable and not shown on timetables, buy your ticket at the station. The deluxe sleepers should be booked online with Watania.
Express tickets can also be bought at the station but in 2017/18, Cairo Ramses station has often refused to sell daytime tickets to tourists, claiming they're only allowed on the overnight train. This is bunkum and there are no similar problems buying such tickets at Giza, or northbound Aswan to Cairo - or even in simply boarding the daytime train without a ticket.
From Hurghada buses cost LE100-150 for 8-12 hr ride (513 km), buses leave Aswan at 3:30PM and 5:30PM, route operated by Upper Egypt Bus Co. Tickets are sold on the bus, but be sure to ask the price at the ticket office, because the ticket seller on the bus will often raise the price LE5 or so and pocket the excess if you are a foreigner.
Cruise ships ply between Aswan and Luxor most days. These are luxury cruise tours taking 5 or more days for a splurgy price, they're not ferries. Various operators, shop around online for dates and prices.
A passenger ferry operated by Nile River Valley Transport Corporation sails across Lake Nasser to Wadi Halfa in Sudan once a week. Southbound it leaves Aswan noon on Sundays to arrive midday Monday; northbound it leaves Wadi Halfa 5PM Mondays to reach Aswan midday Tuesday. First class tickets, which get you a berth in a shared cabin, cost from LE385; 2nd class gets you a seat on the deck for LE230. You'll need to have your Sudan visa sorted in advance. From Wadi Halfa, buses and a very occasional train run south to Khartoum.
Aswan is compact enough to negotiate primarily on foot.
For the sights on the river islands or on the West Bank, you must cross the river by motor boat or felluca. Be sure to pay attention to the price as operators try to overcharge tourists. The public ferry to Elephantine Island is LE5 for foreigners (LE1 for Egyptians, Nov 2018). The ferry to the West Bank is also LE5 for foreigners and LE1 for locals. Felluca trips will cost LE50-80 depending on your haggling (Nov 2018).
For Philae, the High Dam, and the unfinished obelisks, you can take a taxi, tuk-tuk or a horse-drawn carriage. It is also possible to get close to the Philae docks with a public pick-up truck, going in the direction of the university. From the terminus it is only 1.2 km by foot, but there are also tuk-tuks willing to bring you further. You might need some knowledge of Arabic to figure this all out.
Aswan Town and the East Bank
- 1 Nubian Museum (opposite Basma Hotel and south of Old Cataract Hotel, at the southern edge of Aswan town on Sharia Abtal al-Tahrir, approximately half-hour walk from the city centre). Daily 9AM-9PM. Spacious museum opened in 1997 as a joint project of the Egyptian government and UNESCO, it traces the history of the Nubian region from pre-historic time up to the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s and the consequent flooding of Nubia. Adults LE140, students LE70, photo permit LE50.
- 2 Unfinished Obelisk (South of Aswan). The largest known ancient obelisk, carved directly out of bedrock. If finished it would have measured around 42 m (120 feet) and would have weighed nearly 1,200 tons. There is also a short video about obelisks shown by a man who demands tips. This site would be of interest to the most dedicated Egyptophiles, but maybe not to others. LE80, students LE40.
- 3 Archangel Michael’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral (At the south end of the Corniche, just north of the Nubian museum.). Modern Coptic cathedral dominating the skyline of southern Aswan.
- 4 Fatimid Cemetery (Southern end of Aswan). The faded former glory of the Fatimid empire can be seen on the crumbling graveyard.
- 5 Ferial Gardens (Southern end of Corniche). 10AM–6:55PM. When you're in Aswan you'll have to walk along the Kornish Al Nile (Corniche) at least once. It is a pleasant stroll, made even more pleasant by the fact that you can walk right into the Ferial Gardens at its southern end. They are a park that is as relaxing as it is beautiful. LE10.
The river and islands
- 6 Elephantine Island: Nubian Villages & Aswan Museum. Nubian villages of Siou and Koti occupy this island. Also home to the famous Nilometers and the Temples of Sati, Khnum (ancient rams-head god) and Pepinakht-Heqaib. Movenpick resort is on the island. The Aswan Museum (adult: LE70, student LE35, Jan 2019) at the southern end of the island houses items found during excavations on Elephantine Island, and includes access to the neighbouring archaeological site. Also, be careful of unsolicited tours from locals, which will result in a request for baksheesh. There is regular boat taxi to Elephantine Island run by the locals for LE5 for one return crossing for tourists (you usually pay LE5 to go and don't pay to come back).
- 7 Aswan Botanical Gardens (El Nabatat Island) (on the entirety of Kitchener's Island to the west of Elephantine Island). Ticket office closes at 6PM during summer and 5PM during winter times.. Lord Kitchener, who owned the 6.8-hectare island in the 1890s converted it to a botanical garden. Filled with birds and hundreds of plant species and palm trees. Accessible by motor boat (LE200 for two people, which can be haggled down to LE100), via a felucca tour, or via a rowboat from Elephantine island (ask a local near where boats are lying on the western shore). LE20.
- 8 Seheyl Island (just north of the old Aswan Dam). 7AM to 4PM. Friendly Nubian villages. Well known for its excellent beaded jewelry. Also the location of the Famine Stela. Cliff with more than 200 inscriptions from the 18th dynasty. LE40, students LE20.
- Tombs of the Nobles. 8AM-5PM. The northern hills of the west bank are filled with the rock-hewn tombs of princes from the Old Kingdom to the Roman period. The 6th Dynasty tombs, some of which form linked family complexes, contain important biographical texts. Inside, the tombs are decorated with vivid wall paintings showing scenes of everyday life, hieroglyphic biographies and inscriptions telling of the noblemen's journeys into Africa. The ticket gives you access to the Tombs of Mekhu & Sabni and the Tomb of Sarenput II on the left side coming up the hill, as well as the Tomb of Sarenput I on the right side, for all of which you will need the key holder waiting for you when you come up. Generally, you should get into the tombs without problem, but when buying the ticket ask for it to get confidence and refer to this knowledge when you get hassled by the key holder. Try to go with several other people, so you can take some pictures when the key holder is busy, especially in the Tomb of Sarenput II. Otherwise, you will probably have to pay him a fee for taking pictures. On the right side there is also a tomb (no. 35 l) with a spectacular bat colony at the far end, if you bring a torch (or you mobile's camera). LE60.
- Tombs of Mekhu & Sabni – Reliefs show invasion of Nubia
- Tomb of Sarenput II – One of the most beautiful and preserved tombs
- Tomb of Sarenput I (No. 36) – Six pillars decorated with reliefs
- Tomb of Harkhuf – Hieroglyphics
- Tomb of Hekaib – Reliefs show fighting and hunting scenes
- 9 Kubbet el-Hawa (on top of the hill above the Tombs of the Nobles). Small shrine/tomb of a local sheikh and holy man. The climb is rewarded with amazing views of Aswan, the Nile river and the surrounding landscape, richly evoked in the translation from the Arabic of the place name, "the dome of the wind'. LE60, students LE30.
- 10 Mausoleum of Mohammed Shah Aga Khan (High up in the west bank). Tomb of the 48th iman of the Islami sect and his wife. Visible from the outside, although closed to the public.
- 11 Monastery of St Simeon (There are camel holders waiting at the bottom and top of the Tombs of the Nobles. They can also be used for a ride to the Monastery of St. Simeon, which is 3 km away). October-May 8AM-4PM; June-September 7AM-5PM. The history of the monastery of St. Simeon dates back to the 7th century, and survived long as a Christian stronghold of southern Egypt until destroyed by Saladin in 1173. While still in use it housed 300 monks, and could in addition receive up to 100 pilgrims at a time. The monastery was surrounded by a 10 metre high wall, and doubled as a fortress. Apparently, the monastery did not return to its original use after Saladin's destruction. To get here, ride a camel or walk from the Tombs of the Nobles. LE40, students LE20.
The dams and lakes
- 12 The Low Dam. This was built 1899-1902 across the First Cataract, upriver from town. It was a wonder in its time, the largest masonry dam in the world, but its water capacity soon became insufficient and led to the construction of the High Dam 6 km upstream. The Nile forms a lake behind the Low Dam with small islands; the main sight is the Philae Temple. This was initially left in place, but flooding became more common as the Low Dam was progressively raised; the site was seldom accessible and the flooding damaged the temple decorations. It was relocated to Agilkia Island in the 1960s. The nearby Bigeh island also had shrines. Lake Nasser itself is behind the High Dam.
- 13 Philae Temple, Agilkia Island. Built to honor Isis, this was the last ancient temple built in the classical Egyptian architectural style. Construction began in approx 690 BC. It was moved from Philae Island, to its new location on Agilkia Island, after the flooding of Lake Nasser. A multinational UNESCO team relocated Philae, and other temples that now dot the shores of Lake Nasser. You can see the submerged island a short distance away, punctuated by the steel columns used in the moving process. Don't miss the Sound and Light show at night, see picture to the right, the least cheesy of the Sound and Light "extravaganzas". Note also the re-use of the temple as a Christian church, with crosses carved into the older hieroglyph reliefs, and images of the Egyptian gods carefully defaced. There are graffiti dating from the 1800s. At the ticket office there is a sign stating that a daytime motorboat to the site costs LE150 roundtrip for 1-8 people including a one-hour wait, which is generally enough time (Nov 2018). Take a picture of this sign to use when haggling with the boatmen who will demand LE150 each way, although don't be surprised if you are still pressed for an additional baksheesh. LE140, students LE70.
- 14 Trajan's Kiosk. A hypaethral temple on Agilkia Island in Old Aswan dam reservoir. One of the largest Ancient Egyptian monuments standing today, it is conventionally attributed to the Roman emperor Trajan, who gave it its current decorations, though some experts think the structure may be older, possibly dating to the time of Augustus.
- Aswan International Sculpture Park. Sculptors from around the world exhibit their pieces here every spring for the International Sculpture Symposium. The works are all created in Aswan (on the terrace of the Basma Hotel) and when finished brought to this site and exhibited next to each other within view of the ancient quarry.
- 15 The High Dam. Despite being a very important piece of infrastructure, the Aswan High Dam is (to put it delicately) a bit of a letdown even for dam lovers. LE20.
New Kalabsha is a promontory housing several important temples, structures, and other remains that have been relocated there from the site of Old Kalabsha and other sites in Lower Nubia, to avoid the rising waters of Lake Nasser caused by the construction of the Aswan High Dam.
- 16 Kalabsha Temple. Like Philae, this temple and its surrounding ruins were moved by UNESCO to save them from the floodwaters of Lake Nasser. The main temple was built to the Nubian fertility and sun god Marul during the rule of Emperor Augustus. LE60, students LE30.
- 17 Gerf Hussein (originally known as Per Ptah, the "House of Ptah"). The temple of Gerf Hussein is dedicated to Ramesses II and was built by the Viceroy of Nubia Setau. Originally, it was partially free-standing and partially rock-cut. During the flooding of Lake Nasser, the free-standing section was dismantled and then rebuilt at New Kalabsha. Most of 18 the original rock-cut Gerf Hussein temple was left in place and is now submerged beneath the waters.
- 19 Beit el-Wali. The rock-cut temple of Beit el-Wali was moved from its original location by a Polish archaeological team. It is dedicated to Ramesses II, and the gods of Amun and Anukis (among others). It was originally decorated in bright colors, but these were mostly removed by a "squeeze" taken in the 19th Century (the results of this squeeze are now on display in the British Museum).
- 20 Kiosk of Qertassi. A tiny Roman kiosk with four slender papyrus columns inside and two Hathor columns at the entrance. It is a small but elegant structure that "is unfinished and not inscribed with the name of the architect, but is probably contemporary with Trajan's Kiosk at Philae."
- Dedwen. It was built within the outer wall of the temple of Kalabsha, and is dedicated to the Nubian serpent goddess, Dedwen. It was moved along with the Kalabsha temple to New Kalabsha.
- Rent a bike. Bikes available at many hotels. Cross the modern bridge to the east bank and bring back your bicycle afterwards by ferry boat.
- Camel rides. Grab a felucca captain and they will shuttle you across to the camel marshalling area. Ride the camel to the Monastery of St Simeon.
- Tea with the local shopkeepers. You will get a fascinating insight into their daily lives, and they love to practise their English on you. Nevertheless, they will certainly try to sell you something in exchange for the free tea.
- Book a cruise ship for 2-3 nights between Luxor and Aswan by tracking down one or several of them along the pier before noon. Most cruise ships have a reception at their entrance and you can just walk in. Do not mind the guards or barriers, they are just there for protection. According to some travellers, prices can start at US$40 per night. Either way, it will be cheaper than when going through an agent or booking online.
The souqs (markets) in Aswan are refreshingly exotic without the same level of high-pressure selling found in some tourist towns like Luxor. You will generally find that Nubian handicrafts are of higher quality and better value in Aswan. All other goods will be more expensive than in Cairo due to shipping costs to Aswan and the lower tourist demand.
- Sharia as-Souq (it starts right from railway station going south). The most charming souq in Egypt, spreading through almost half of the city. There is far less pressure to buy than in other cities, and it is more beautiful and exciting as well. Buy Nubian talisman, baskets, Sudanese swords, African masks, live produce, food, fruit, vegetables, henna powder, t-shirts, perfume, spices, robes, statues.
- 1 Al-Masry Restaurant, Sharia Al Matar. Popular with locals. Great kafta and kebabs, pigeon, and chicken, all served with bread, salad and tahini. Dishes: LE8-30.
- 2 Aswan Moon, Corniche an Nil (on pontoons along the Corniche), ☏ . Decent food with cheery service. The local fish joints near the city market can be excellent -- their fish is fresh, and you can watch it cook. Don't miss the crab soup! Mezze LE4-9; pizza LE19-25; kebob LE25; Daoud Basha (meatballs and tomato sauce) LE13.
- 3 Biti Pizza, Midan al Mahatta (near the train station). Serves fiteer, a flaky Egyptian pizza, and western varieties. Pizza LE20.
- Chef Khalil, Sharia al Souq (near the train station). Fresh fish restaurant, priced by weight. Small place but worth the wait. LE25-60.
- Emy, Corniche an Nil (on a double deckered boat moored in the Nile, next to Aswan Moon), ☏ . Popular amound Nubian felucca captains. Beer available. Beer LE9; salads LE3; Egyptian and international dishes LE13-18; fresh juices LE5.
- Madena Restaurant, Sharia al souq (close to Cleopatra Hotel). Small place. Kofta meal LE22; vegetarian meal LE15.
- 4 Nubian House (off Sharia al Tahrir, 1 km past Nubian Museum), ☏ . Spectacular sunset views over the first cataract. Sheesha and tea. LE15-22.
- 5 Panorama, Corniche an Nil, ☏ . Serves simple Egyptian stews served in clay pots, with salad, mezze, rice. All day breakfast. Dishes LE8-20.
Aswan is much less strict on drinking alcohol than Cairo or Luxor, and many of the restaurants sell Stella (Egyptian brand not the Belgian brand) and Saqqara, both of which are lagers and comparable to European beers.
Locals take pride in their fresh sugar cane juice.
- 1 Tiba Hotel (Teba Hotel), ☏ . Great budget option with basic breakfast, as well as close to the railway station and the Tombs of Nobles ferry. BYO toilet paper. Single from LE199 (incl. breakfast).
- Happi Hotel (Sharia Abtal al Tahrir), ☏ . Gloomy hotel but clean rooms.
- Hathor Hotel (Corniche an Nil), ☏ . 36 rooms. Swimming pool.
- Keylany Hotel, 25 Sharia Keylany, ☏ . One of the best budget hotels in Aswan. Clean and comfortable rooms. Spotless bathrooms. Internet access available for LE10 per hr, but very slow. Water sold at front desk at market price- wow.
- Memnon Hotel (Corniche an Nil, south of Aswan Moon restaurant). Great Nile views.
- Queen Noorhan Hotel (Off Sharia Abtal at-Tahrir), ☏ . Clean and pleasant with functioning (common) hot shower. Staff is aggressive about trying to sell you a tour.
- Nuba Nile Hotel (Sharia Abtal al Tahrir). The second best value for your money, after the Keylany Hotel. Clean comfortable rooms, near train station. Next to internet cafe and ahwa.
- Nubian Oasis Hotel, 234 Sharia as Souq, ☏ . Staff is aggressive about trying to sell you a tour. Beer available in roof garden. Clean rooms
- Orchida St George (Sharia Muhammed Kahlid). Friendly 3-star hotel with tacky decor.
- Philae Hotel (Corniche an Nil), ☏ . Friendly staff, and some of the best views in Egypt (make sure you get a Nile View room). On the downside somewhat rundown rooms, gives you that camping inside feeling, not always plenty of hot water!
- Yassin Hotel (Off Sharia Abtal at-Tahrir, next to Noorhan Hotel), ☏ . Rooms are basic but clean. Staff is aggressive about trying to sell you a tour.
- Baba Dool Guesthouse (Elephantine Island). Beautiful Nubian guesthouse with plenty of character, and a great view over the Nile and Kitchener's Island. Rooms are clean, facilities are good and breakfast is plentiful.
- 2 Basma hotel, El fanadek St, ☏ .
- 3 Bet el Kerem (near the Tombs of the Nobles, close to the ferry boat to Aswan centre). Only hotel accommodation on the west bank. Quiet atmosphere, hospitable staff, clean rooms, small (8 double rooms), restaurant for guests on the roof terrace. Marvellous view over the Nile, the desert and the Nubian villages. Perfect place if you are looking for something different! Bike rental available. Double: €30; house rental: €45.
- Pyramisa Isis El Corniche, on the Corniche, facing the Mövenpick resort, ☏ . Nice garden and pool, clean, simple rooms. Free WiFi in the lobby only. Double US$50 including breakfast.
- 4 Movenpick Resort (Northern end of Elephantine Island), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Resort hotel. Rates from US$160 per room per night. 7 night package with meals and massage: US$1,064 (summer) to US$1,414 (winter).
- 5 Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan, Abtal El Tahrir Street, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Live it up like the aristocrats of old! Part of the Sofitel Legend chain of hotels, the Old Cataract Hotel overlooks the Nile River opposite the island of Elephantine.
Aswan is generally a very safe city. However, do watch out for quite blatant attempts at pickpocketing in the souq. These thieves will approach you carrying scarves, shirts or even papyrus in one hand to sell to you, while attempting to go into your pockets with the other hand. The locals know this goes on, but do not count on them to intervene. Also, women should avoid travelling alone if they are not comfortable with leering men, although they are all bluster. Most horse carriage drivers will not commit on the price when you arrive at your destination and you are expected to give more.
There is so much to do around the Aswan area that time can be an issue. The local people are generally very cooperative, and for a price, doors might remain opened regardless of the hour.
- Abu Simbel – most people use Aswan as a base to see this fantastic temple. Many hotels and tour agencies can offer a mini-bus service, often departing at 4AM and going as part of a larger convoy, often with police together. You might take part in that convoy with your own vehicle. Depending on your negotiation skills the hotel-organised mini-bus costs between LE150–LE350 (also try other hotels apart from the one you are staying in). There is also a public bus leaving from the bus station north of town, scheduled to depart at 8AM. If all goes well this should get you in Abu Simbel at 11:30AM, return is at 1PM (although you might be able to delay this a little with a nice 'baksheesh' - use at your own discretion) (May 2019).
- Kom Ombo – Not far north from Aswan, with the double temple of Ptolemaic. Taxi trips or organized tours are LE150, or you take a (local) train and taxi/tuk-tuk from the railway station (LE10).
- Cruises to Luxor – The 2-night cruise should cost from US$75 per night, including meals, depending on the boat.
- Felucca trips to Luxor – see the Felucca guide for a complete itinerary and for information.