The city of Aswan, one of the main cities of the no longer existing country of Nubia, is by far the best place in Egypt to discover this millenary civilisation.
During my free day in Aswan, I took a felucca ride on the Nile River to contemplate the Elephantine and Kitchener Islands. In the afternoon, I visited the Nubian Museum of Aswan, the cultural centre of this unknown but fascinating civilisation, followed by a visit to the Unfinished Obelisk, the largest known ancient obelisk ever built and that never left its quarry as it cracked before it could be completed.
How to visit the Elephantine islands, the Nubian Museum and the Unfinished Obelisk
Halfway through my Essential Egypt tour with Travel Talk Tours, which lasted for a total of 9 days and covered the main highlights of Egypt from north to south, I had a full free day to explore the Nubian city of Aswan. You can find the entire itinerary in my post Essential Egypt in 9 days - Part I: Arrival and first impressions of Cairo.
If you have a free day in Aswan, I’d say that a felucca ride, visiting the Nubian Museum and the Unfinished Obelisk are a must.
For the felucca ride, it’s always recommended to book in advance or get some help from your concierge. If you’re into haggling, you can always get a taxi to the city centre and try to arrange a good price with someone next to the Nile. The ride shouldn't cost you more than €3-€5 per hour, or around €12 if you book a tour with a reputable operator.
If you get off the felucca near the city centre, you can hire a taxi to bring you to the Nubian Museum and the Unfinished Obelisk. Drivers will literally jump at you as soon as they see you’re a tourist, so you’ll have no issues finding one. I paid around €10 to a taxi driver that brought me from town to the Nubian Museum, picked me up there later after I explored Aswan, and brought me back to the hotel. My hotel was slightly far, which is why the price was a bit higher.
In terms of entry fees, the Nubian Museum costs 100 Egyptian pounds (approx. €5), while the Unfinished Obelisks has an entrance fee of 80 Egyptian pounds (approx. €4)
After 4 days with non-stop sightseeing and travelling, I finally had a day to rest in the city of Aswan. Our hotel was the Helnan, a luxury 5 star hotel not too far from the city centre, perfect not only to explore the city but also to enjoy its fantastic pool.
After having breakfast, my day started with a felucca ride on the Nile river, the only part of the day that was included with my Essential Egypt tour. The Nile crosses Aswan from side to side, so there’s no better way to start exploring the city than from such an iconic river.
We were picked up by our felucca right at our hotel, as it had direct access to the river.
One of the most prominent monuments that can be seen from the river was the Tombs of the Nobles, also known as Qubbet el-Hawa.
These tombs, located on top of a hill, date from the Old and Middle Kingdom. During this period, people in Aswan used to live around the Elephantine Island, which was also the place of residence of the rulers and king of Nubia. This is why the tombs of the royal family of those times were located very near this island, on top of a hill on the west bank of the river.
Most of the area is still being excavated, but some of the tombs can be visited. I planned to visit them at the end of the day, however, the heat was so unbearable (over 50º Celsius), that I just couldn’t make it.
The main place of interest when doing a Nile cruise in Aswan is the Elephantine island. It used to stand at the border between Egypt and Nubia and served as a defensive city.
The island is rich in archaeological sites, some of them dating back to prehistoric Egypt. Many of these temples were destroyed in 1822 when Muhammad Ali took power in Egypt.
Nowadays, most of the ruins belong to the Temple of Khnum, composed by a step pyramid and a small temple. There is also a very prominent nilometer, a structure that was used to measure the level of the water in the Nile during the annual flood season.
A more recent addition was the Aswan Museum, featuring some artefacts from Nubia that were discovered on the island.
Instead of heading back to the hotel at the end of the felucca ride, as all other members of my tour did, I decided to get off in Aswan’s city centre to do some additional sightseeing on my own.
After hiring a taxi, which agreed to pick me up at the end of the day and bring me back to the hotel, I first headed to the Nubian Museum.
Nubia is an ancient region that extended from the Nile River valley, near the first cataract in Upper Egypt, all the way east to the Red Sea and south to Khartoum in current day Sudan.
Although most of the territory is now located in Sudan, about one quarter belongs to Egypt. Nubia used to be an independent kingdom that flourished from 3300 to 1300 BC, and it was later unified with the rest of Egypt. Its civilisation was one of the richest of its time, although nowadays it has been somewhat overshadowed by the better-known civilisation of Lower Egypt (the north part of the country).
The Nubian Museum opened its doors for visitors in November 1997. It was created after a project to save the Nubian monuments that was carried out by the Egyptian government and the UNESCO. The purpose of the museum was to house more than 2000 objects found in the former land of Nubia, representing the different stages of the Nubian history, civilisation and heritage.
Nubia has always been a land rich in history. Forgotten for thousands of years, archaeological missions have increased in the last 50 years to bring back the impressive heritage and monuments of this fascinating culture.
When the High Dam of Aswan was constructed, multiple buildings were swallowed by the waters, putting at risk millenniums of history. This is when in 1961 one of the most important international operations took shape: the Nubia Salvage Project.
This project to salve Nubia brought scientists from all fields and corners of the world with the purpose of documenting the archaeological sites of Nubia, many of which were lost forever.
Thankfully, some other monuments could be dismantled and moved to a new location far from the thread of the waters. These include the temples of Abu Simbel and Philae, that I had the chance to visit the previous day.
I particularly enjoyed my visit to the Nubian museum. Even though I know quite a lot about what is known as ‘Egyptian civilisation’, I had never heard of Nubia before my trip to Egypt.
The museum gives a very good overview of the history, culture and civilisation of this no longer existing country, which really helps to fully appreciate a visit to Upper Egypt.
The Unfinished Obelisk
After spending a couple of hours in the Nubian Museum, I started walking towards the next big highlight of the city of Aswan, the Unfinished Obelisk.
On the way, I stopped by the Archangel Michael's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, with its white stone and domes standing out in the otherwise sandstone city of Aswan.
What should’ve been a short, easy walk ended up being a bit of a nightmare after Google Maps decided to bring me through the dodgiest, dirtiest and most unsafe looking streets of Aswan. Having only visited the impressive monuments of Egypt, seeing what their regular streets really looked like was quite shocking.
Unpaved streets with piles of rubbish, donkeys and horses roaming around, ponds of water on the ground and, based on the smell, what most likely was residual water all over the streets. The almost 50º celsius also didn’t help.
Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos as I really did not feel safe walking around on my own, but I’ve never felt cultural sock so much, not even during my trip to India. I had to ask around a few times, but I finally managed to reach the Unfinished Obelisk, just to realise that I was the only tourist.
The Unfinished Obelisk is famous for being the biggest ancient obelisk ever built. It was ordered by Hatshepsut, whose temple I had previously visited in Luxor. It is considered to be one-third larger than any other Egyptian obelisk.
The obelisk started to be carved directly out of bedrock in Aswan. However, the poor quality of the granite made it crack before it could be finished and the project had to be abandoned.
The Unfinished Obelisk remained in its bedrock, allowing us to understand the stone-working techniques of ancient Egypt and serving as an everlasting sample of how obelisks were created out of a single piece of stone.
It was the middle of the afternoon already and the heat was so unbearable, that I didn’t have more strength to continue sightseeing in Aswan. The only place of interest left was the Tombs of the Nobles, however, they were so far that I had to resign myself to seeing them from the felucca in the morning.
I arranged with my taxi driver to be picked up back in the Nubian Museum, but thankfully he saw me on the way back from the Unfinished Obelisk and picked me up beforehand. I headed back to the Helnan Hotel, where I could enjoy the rest of the day resting by the pool. Much needed after so much travelling!
The hotel is located right next to the Nile River, and the views from my room at the sunset were just breathtaking. No better way to say goodbye to Aswan before heading back to Luxor the next day!
The next day we had to wake up early again to drive back to Luxor. On the way, we would meet the rest of the group that had gone in the Felucca Odyssey tour two days before, stopping on the way by the temples of Kom Ombo and Edfu. After arriving in Luxor, I decided to explore Luxor Temple on my own, before coming back with the rest of the group for a night visit.
Travel Talk Tours were kind enough to sponsor part of my trip, but as usual, all opinions are my own.
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