It is only 30 million years old, still it comes twisting and turning, ebbing and flowing, wiggling and waggling across mountains and valleys, hills and dales, in order to reach its first cataract — Aswan. It is the mighty River Nile’s favourite spot.
When Herodotus, the Father of History, first visited the great civilisation he had heard so much about, he wrote: “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.” In the midst of a vast desert, without the silt, or mud that is caused by the melting of the snow on the Eastern mountains, there would be no Egypt.
In return, the ancient Egyptians considered the Nile flood a god, Hapi. In appreciation they rewarded him with the greatest civilisation the world has ever known.
From its source at Lake Victoria, it slithers its way through 13 countries to give life to Egypt; rest for a spell to reveal its most beautiful image at the first city in ancient Egypt, before the final step of its journey at the Mediterranean.
Nature has displayed its splendour in numerous spots around the world. Aswan is considered one of the 10 most beautiful vistas, endowed with breathtaking richness and beauty unknown elsewhere.
In ancient times it was known as Swenett, later as Syene, which in antiquity was the frontier town of ancient Egypt, facing the south, believed to be the first city in Egypt — an important trade hub that sat at the southern mouth of the life-giving Nile. It was southern Egypt’s strategic and commercial gateway since antiquity.
Once you set foot in Aswan, you sense the magic and mystery of the place. The view of the Nile at its widest casts a spell and you instantly drown in its alluring, mystical vision. Somehow, you feel you have travelled back thousands of years basking in its ancient glory.
If Luxor is the destination for viewing the treasures of Egypt’s ancient monuments, Aswan is only 51 kilometres south, and here you come to rest, to dream to feast your eyes with beauty and your soul with wonderment.
Its Botanical Garden houses hundreds of exotic plants, trees, birds, flowers, greeneries in the midst of the desert, and a leisurely stroll in a picturesque setting at Ferial gardens, of wide green spaces, is rejuvenating and invigorating.
If you yearn for historic monuments Aswan is rich with the most unique archeological sites, found on islands in the midst of the great river.
Philae Temple, originally built in honour of the goddess Isis, adopted by so many other religions, is extremely well preserved with the Isis columns still standing intact, dating back to the fourth century BC.
An astounding site is the Elephantine Island, right in the middle of the Nile waters, is the Temple of Khnum of the Third Dynasty. It was the Nilometer measuring the clarity and levels during the flood.
Far from assuming the role of a tourist guide, whose knowledge is vast, our intention is to share the breathtaking beauty of this most fascinating spot.
There are museums galore highlighting the history of the ancient city as well as the Nubian Culture to which it is closely related.
Aswan’s West Bank region is home to the rock tombs of the nobles, Qubbet Al-Hawa, ancient Egyptian hieroglyph tombs, Coptic churches and the seventh century San Simeon monastery. You can even view all the historic destinations atop a camel’s back. A camel ride helps you explore the region and takes a load off your feet.
There is one feature that you shall find most striking. The city can be so quiet at twilight time, you can almost hear your heart beat. So serene and tranquil is the beauty of the river as the sun starts to set, no one wishes to utter a sound lest they disturb the silence and harmony of a moment of infinite peace.
This may well be the reason why Aga Khan III, son of Sultan Mohamed Shah chose to build his mausoleum here. One of the richest men in the world, he chose to be buried in this heavenly spot. There on a lonely monument at the centre of the desert on top of a majestic sand hill, he rests in peace.
A misleading impression is unintended. Aswan is a busy, bustling metropolis with industrial projects, mining aluminum, iron and now home to what is projected to be the largest solar plant in the world.
The Benban Solar Park, named after a nearby village has already seen its first out of 32 solar stations, named the Infinity Station. It opened on 13 March 2018. The system continues to follow the sun collecting the most amount of solar energy aiming not only to cover Egypt’s electricity needs, but will cover the whole region.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi selected Aswan as the city of Egyptian and Arab Youth, holding its first conference in March. The Afro-Chinese Arts and Folklore Festival was also held there in October and Aswan’s governor announced that other major and presidential events are heading for Aswan in the near future.
If ever the Nile had a bride, it would have been Aswan.
There is an old Italian saying, “See Naples and die”, meaning, nothing else can compare to such beauty. May we take the liberty of borrowing the saying, with a slight alteration.
“See Aswan and die,” for likewise, nothing else can compare to its beauty, magic and mystique.
“Underneath the stone doth lie/ As much beauty as could die.”
Ben Johnson (c 1573-1637)
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.