Aswan’s main attractions might not be able to compete with those of Luxor or Cairo. But that’s not to say the city has little to see. While many use Aswan as a base from which to visit Abu Simbel, the friendly and laidback city is worth an extended stay. In addition to scenic boat rides, Aswan is also the place to learn more about Nubian culture, both past and present.
The following Aswan guide is catered more toward history and culture buffs. But check the end of the article for additional suggestions on how to spend your time in the city. Aswan is relatively small and easy to navigate, and most of the locations below can be reached by public ferry or on foot.
The Nubian Museum
Even if you’ve already visited the museums of Cairo and Luxor, the Nubian Museum is worth the visit. You’ll not only find explanations on Nubian culture, but also on the interconnected histories of Nubia and ancient Egypt over the course of millennia.
While the artifacts on display are no match for those in Cairo, the modern museum at least contains decent lighting and comprehensive English signage.
But just who are the Nubians? The Nubians are an ethnic group native to southern Egypt and much of Sudan. And they still make up a large part of southern Egypt’s population today.
Ancient Egyptian history can’t be fully understood without a basic understanding of Nubia, and vice versa. Interestingly, in prehistoric times, there were striking similarities between early Nubian culture and the Naqada culture of Upper Egypt (c. 4400–3000 BC).
On display at the museum are some early clay pots from this early era. Fascinatingly, the mysterious stone vessels found in numerous Predynastic Egyptian tombs were uncovered in Nubia as well.
Egyptian pharaohs started making incursions into Nubia from as early as the Old Kingdom. And on display at the museum are various artifacts from the 4th – 6th Dynasties that were uncovered in the region.
Anyone who’s visited the pyramids or temples of Luxor will know that granite was a very important stone to the ancient Egyptians. But the closest granite quarry was Aswan. As such, the pharaohs set up numerous quarries throughout the area, many of which remained in use thousands of years. And of course, Nubia was also rich in gold.
There’s little evidence of cultural development in Nubia during Egypt’s Old Kingdom (27th-22nd centuries BC), and it’s possible that the pharaohs drove inhabitants out of the Nile Valley.
But by the time of the Egyptian 6th Dynasty, Nubia grew prosperous once again.
Later, during the Middle Kingdom, Egypt formally occupied Nubia, establishing many military forts throughout the region.
During the Second Intermediate Period, when Egypt was occupied by the Asiatic Hyksos, the Nubians took advantage of Egypt’s weakness.
The prominent Nubian Kingdom of Kush allied themselves with the Hyksos and made encroachments from the south. But this incursion ended after Egypt finally drove all foreign invaders out.
The pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty made it a priority to reoccupy Nubia, refurbishing many of the forts that had been built there. And they also established numerous Egyptian temples throughout the land, many of which survive to this day.
During the New Kingdom era, Nubia, or specifically the Kingdom of Kush, was a vassal of Egypt controlled by an Egyptian viceroy. During this time, the Egyptians controlled Nubia up to the 4th cataract of the Nile, or what is now central Sudan.
But as Egypt weakened toward the end of the New Kingdom era, the Kushites grew stronger. And they even managed to completely overtake Egypt, establishing what we now call the 25th Dynasty (744–656 BC). Among the most prominent kings of this dynasty were Shabaqa and Taharqa.
For the first time, the Nubians, who’d long been subject to Egyptian rule, took over Egypt’s cultural and political centers. And they stayed in control for around 100 years.
What’s remarkable about the 25th Dynasty is that the Nubians didn’t try imposing Kushite culture upon the Egyptians. On the contrary, they presented themselves as more Egyptian than the native Egyptians! They revived Old Kingdom art and architectural styles while maintaining the worship of Amun-Re.
Nubian rule was eventually put to an end by the invading Assyrians. Afterward, the Nubians retreated back south to Nubia, but remained very prosperous in their homeland. They even started building pyramid-shaped tombs in Napata, within present-day northern Sudan.
The Unfinished Obelisk
Another top highlight of central Aswan is the Unfinished Obelisk. Obelisks were a staple of ancient Egyptian temples. They were solar symbols which also represented the primordial mound at the beginning of creation.
While obelisks were produced in some form or another since the Old Kingdom days, the practice of sculpting them from a single granite monolith became common from the Middle Kingdom. And since granite could only be quarried from the Aswan region, they all got their start here.
This particular site was likely in use for thousands of years. Even before arriving at the obelisk, you’ll encounter all sorts of evidence of ancient quarrying activity.
After walking up a series of steps, the massive Unfinished Obelisk will come into view. Out of all the obelisks ever produced in Egypt, this would’ve been the largest.
It’s around 43 meters long and 4.3 m thick. But we know nothing about which pharaoh commissioned it or its intended destination. All we know is that it was abandoned due to the large fissure in the middle of the rock.
When it came to extracting large granite monoliths, workers first created slots about six inches deep into the stone. Wooden wedges were then tightly inserted and moistened. The wet wood then expanded, thus cracking the stone. From there, most scholars believe that workers used dolerite balls to shape the huge obelisks.
Walking around to the side, you’ll see the large crack that led to the project’s abandonment. But why didn’t the workers try to use the stone for other projects?
The smaller holes near the cracks seem to indicate that this was indeed the plan. But before much progress could be made, the whole site was abandoned, the reason for which remains a mystery.
Surrounding the obelisk is a trench that’s just around 66 cm wide. One wonders how a group of workers would’ve had the room the carry out such intensive labor.
Not only does the trench inhibit movement, but waste removal would’ve been an issue as well. And once the obelisk was finished, would there have been enough space to get it out?
Egyptologists such as Mark Lehner have tried pounding the granite with dolerite balls, and noted that only a couple millimeters of rock could be removed after hours of work. And that’s just in one small area.
Furthermore, those who’ve put the pounders to the test have all mentioned tremendous pain in their hands after a short time. And you can even try this out for yourself with the set of dolerite balls near the foot of the obelisk.
I enjoyed trying it out during my visit. But after just a few minutes I ended up with sore hands and nothing to show for it!
Did the ancient Egyptians really use these dolerite balls to shape the obelisks? Or are their presence a red herring? Perhaps they were instead used for some other purpose.
Notably, an inscription at the base of Hatshepsut’s obelisk at Karnak states that its quarrying, carving, transport and erecting were all accomplished within seven months!
The precise carving of hieroglyphs is another unsolved mystery, as the Egyptians supposedly had nothing stronger than copper.
Of course, no advanced tools used by the Egyptians have ever been found. But until we can create and erect a high quality obelisk using only ropes, wooden sledges, stone and copper, we should remain open to the idea that maybe the Egyptians had something extra in their toolkits.
Tombs of the Nobles (Qubbet el-Hawa)
The site of Qubbet El-Hawa, situated on Aswan’s west bank, was used as a necropolis for thousands of years. Many of its inhabitants were nomarchs (local territorial rulers) and governors of Elephantine.
The site was used for burials since the Old Kingdom up until the Roman era. Today, only four tombs are open for tourists, with two from the Old Kingdom and two from the Middle Kingdom.
While the tombs here can’t compete with all the spectacular tombs of Saqqara or Luxor, a visit to Aswan’s west bank is absolutely worth it. After a trip around the tombs, you can climb up to the little mausoleum at the top for some fantastic views of the city.
And as we’ll go over below, the west bank is also where you’ll find the Monastery of St. Simeon.
The Tomb of Herkhuf
The Tomb of Herkhuf is the most famous tomb in Aswan due to the inscriptions at its entrance. They’re a copy of a letter of gratitude from Pharaoh Pepi II of the 6th Dynasty.
Pepi II was possibly Egypt’s longest-ever reigning pharaoh, with Manetho according him a reign of 94 years! But at the time of his letter to Herkhuf, the local Aswan nomarch, he was only five years old.
In the letter, Pepi II expresses his delight at the gift Herkhuf had brought him – a dancing dwarf from Nubia! But despite the tomb’s significance, there isn’t a whole lot to see inside.
The Tombs of Mekhu & Sabni I
Mekhu and Sabni I were a father and son duo who also ruled as nomarchs during the reign of Pepi II. (Given the pharaoh’s incredibly long life, Pepi outlived many of his officials and even his own children.)
This joint tomb is arguably the most impressive of the four. Not only does it feature over a dozen columns, the color of its reliefs remains well-preserved.
Don’t miss the relief of Mekhu and Sabni hunting in the marshes, a common tomb scene which symbolized conquering one’s wild thoughts and emotions.
The Tomb of Sarenput I
Sarenput I was the nomarch of Aswan in the 12th Dynasty during the reign of Senusret I. As mentioned above, the Middle Kingdom period is when the Egyptians started formally occupying Nubia, and Sarenput seems to have helped facilitate this.
Notably, he also renovated the tomb of Heqaib at Elephantine Island.
Aside from sites like Beni Hassan in the center of Egypt, Middle Kingdom tombs are quite rare to come by. Therefore, the tombs of Aswan are essential for those with a special interest in this period.
This interesting tomb was once entirely painted in reliefs, but it’s clearly suffered a lot of damage since.
The Tomb of Sarenput II
Sarenput II was Sarenput I’s nephew and successor. His tomb is one of the largest at Qubbet el-Hawa, and it retains much more of its color.
Especially noteworthy is the vivid depiction of the deceased within the main niche. The statue that once sat there is currently housed in the British Museum.
Up the Hill
At the very top of the hill is a little domed mausoleum dedicated to an Islamic sheik named El-Hawa, after whom the whole area was named. While there’s nothing inside, the excellent views of the Nile, the desert and Aswan’s east bank make the climb worth it.
While at the top, don’t be surprised to be approached by locals with camels offering to take you to the Monastery of St. Simeon. This is how most people get there, as there are no official roads or paths. Expect to haggle for a decent price.
However, despite what locals may tell you, the monastery is indeed walkable – provided you don’t mind a long trek across the desert!
The Monastery of St. Simeon
Relatively few tourists bother to venture out to the Monastery of St. Simeon. And I hadn’t been planning to visit it either until I found myself with an extra free day in Aswan.
Now having done it, a visit to the monastery, including the long trek there, was among my most memorable experiences in southern Egypt.
As mentioned above, you can get there by camel from the tombs. You can also get much closer to the monastery by hiring a private boat from Elephantine.
But as someone who likes to do things the hard way, I decided to get there on foot from the tomb area. There are a few ways you can go about it, but I recommend going around the right side of the tombs and then walking southwest through the desert. The journey takes about an hour each way, so be sure to bring adequate water.
There are no official trails, but you should see numerous footprints (and camel prints) in the sand. Be sure to download the Maps.me app which contains some accurate trail markers that you can view offline.
Eventually, after a long walk through the quiet and desolate desert, you’ll spot the majestic monastery up ahead in the distance. But you’ll notice that it’s situated on a hill surrounded by a valley.
Rather than walking straight, the best way up is to head left all the way toward the river. Then turn right again, walking up a long sloped hill. Approaching the monastery, the entrance is over on the right side, and it costs 40 EGP to enter.
The Monastery of St. Simeon was established in the 7th century. It was originally consecrated to Hatre, a monk who encountered a funeral procession on his wedding day. On the spot, he decided to become a renunciate and forego married life.
The monastery was later rebuilt in the 10th century in honor of the Syriac saint Simeon. At its peak, it once housed up to 1,000 monks. But it was ultimately destroyed by Saladin in 1173.
Before its destruction and abandonment, it was used as a base from which to convert the residents of Nubia, one of Egypt’s last pagan holdouts. While most Nubians eventually converted to Christianity and later Islam, they retain many of their ancient pagan customs to this day.
The monastery remains in surprisingly good condition. It consists of two stories, and there are plenty of abandoned rooms to explore. In addition to the main church, you can also find the monks’ living quarters, stables, a refectory, an oil press and more.
Some of the rooms maintain their colorful reliefs. Additionally, you can also spot some Arabic graffiti left by later pilgrims who took shelter here on their way to Mecca.
At some point during your stay in Aswan, you’ll surely notice an impressive mausoleum up on the hill on the west side of the river. And you’ll likely be wondering how to get there.
Sadly, the Mausoleum of Aga Khan is completely closed off to the public. However, you can at least get a good view from the outside on your way to and from the monastery.
Aga Khan III (1877-1957) was the hereditary leader of the Shia Isma’ili Muslims. This was also the sect of the Fatimid Caliphate which controlled Egypt hundreds of years prior from the 10th-12th centuries.
Though born in Karachi, Aga Khan often spent time at a villa in Aswan. As such, Aswan was ultimately chosen as the site for his burial.
The last item on this list is more of a general one. But no visit to Aswan is complete without a visit to one of its numerous islands.
The most well-known island in Aswan is Elephantine. It features a large archaeological site in addition to an authentic Nubian Village. And Egyptian history lovers shouldn’t miss Seheil Island, home to the famous Famine Stele.
While Elephantine and Seheil are both accessible by public ferry, there are plenty of additional places you can go by hiring a private felucca.
One of them is the Botanical Gardens on Kitchener’s Island, just west of Elephantine. Simply relaxing on a felucca during sunset is another popular activity.
Further outside the city center, meanwhile, is the island temple of Philae. It’s one of Egypt’s finest, and its setting makes it especially unique. Also within the area is New Kalabsha, home to a set of temples that were moved following the construction of the Aswan High Dam.
Given Aswan’s relaxed pace, many visitors choose to extend their stay and take it easy for awhile. But don’t worry about getting bored, as there are still more things to do that we haven’t covered yet.
To the west of Seheil Island is Aswan’s largest Nubian Village. As touristy as it may be, it nonetheless makes for an interesting visit. It’s full of colorful Nubian-style houses and is home to Aswan’s best public murals.
Speaking of street art, there are a lot of colorful murals to see all around the city and even on its islands. Stay tuned for our upcoming guide.
Fans of Agatha Christie may also want to check out the Old Cataract Hotel. It’s where she stayed while writing Death on the Nile, and the story also takes place there.
Admittedly, I’ve never read Agatha Christie but I tried visiting the hotel anyway. Unfortunately, non-guests need to pay 300 EGP to enter the premises, but at least the price includes pool access.
As mentioned here, a new Roman-era temple has recently been discovered in Aswan and should be opening up to tourists soon.
When researching accommodation online, I was surprised to discover that hotels in Aswan are considerably more expensive than in other Egyptian cities.
While I cam across some reasonably priced and centrally located hotels, many of them seemed to have poor reviews. I went ahead and booked a midrange hotel on Elephantine Island, but the hosts never responded to any of my questions, leading me to cancel.
Eventually, I decided on a place called David Hostel located in the south of the city. While I’m not much of a hostel person, this turned out to be a good choice. Not only did I meet some nice people, but David the owner was incredibly helpful in regards to advice on sightseeing and transport. He was upfront and honest about all the different options and helps his guests get the local prices when possible.
While I thought it would be a bit out of the way, I found the location to be completely reasonable. It was close to places like Seheil Island, and most of the locations in central Aswan were still walkable. There were also plenty of decent and affordable restaurants nearby.
For those with more money to spend, there are lots more luxurious options around Aswan. The most famous of them is the Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie famously stayed when she wrote Death on the Nile.
Aswan isn’t that big. Aside from staying in the city center around the train station, Elephantine Island would be a good choice as well. It features plenty of hotels and guest houses while it’s just an easy ferry ride to the city center. It’s also home to a luxury resort called Movenpick.
Aswan can be accessed by plane, rail or car.
I got there from Luxor with a private driver. On the way I stopped at four locations (Esna, El Kab, Edfu and Kom Ombo). After Aswan I needed to return to Cairo, so I just hopped on an early morning train.
Strangely, when it comes to train travel in Egypt, it’s often impossible for a foreigner to buy the cheapest tickets in person at the station. However, it’s still perfectly legal for foreigners to ride any train. The trick is to just buy them online from the official Egyptian National Railways site and print them out before departure.
Here is an excellent resource for all train timetables in Egypt. It’s worth going for the nicest AC1 trains, which are still quite cheap. Snacks and coffee are sold onboard. But expect the entire cabin to reek of smoke, as people constantly use the space in between the train carriages as a smoking lounge.
If you’re not able to book online for some reason, here’s another solution: simply show up at the station, hop on the train and sit down. When the ticket inspector comes by, pay him. Strangely, while you can’t buy tickets from the ticket booth, this method is completely acceptable.