Our guide, Walhid, has a soft spot in his heart for Aswan. He has been talking it up since we arrived, saying how beautiful it was and how he wants to move there and how it’s so much better than Cairo. After 2 days in the chaos of Cairo, we were ready to leave and had our expectations heightened due to his descriptions. From Cairo, we took a 13 hour sleeper train to Aswan, which is in the far south of Egypt along the Nile River. When I originally read the itinerary, I was nervous about the sleeper train. I remember the ones from India & China, and they were anything but comfortable. And with the Egyptian heat and sun, a day on only a couple of hours of sleep can be killer.
But thankfully the train was extremely comfortable! The AC was blasting, almost to the point of being chilled, and the beds were more pliush than some of the hotels we stayed at. I have a new roommate now, Julie, also an Australian. We tuckered down for a dinner of roast chicken and rice in the room. She was feeling a little tired, so I headed to the bar car to play Farkle with the other people in my group. The night flew by, full of laughs and fun. I woke up the next morning, nearly 10 hours later when the conductor woke us up for breakfast!
Walhid was not lying when he said Aswan is very beautiful. It is MUCH cleaner than Cairo and sits right on the banks of the Nile. Across the river, you see the beginning of the Sahara desert with towering sand dunes and ancient ruins. There are also islands in the middle of Nile, with lush green forests of palm and papyrus. I don’t think I saw a plant the whole time in Cairo, so this was a pleasant surprise.
We started off our day with a visit to the Philae Temple. In the 1960s, the Egyptian government endeavored on a series of major infrustructure projects, including building some large dams for hydroelectric power on the Nile. This project treatened many of the ancient ruins and relics, so the government commisioned companies and archeologists to move the sites to save them. Philae Temple is one of those. It was dissembled into 75,000 pieces, each labelled, and then moved and re-assembled on a different island that would be safe from the dam overflow. You take a small motor boat out to it, since it’s in the middle of the Nile. Looking at it, you would have no idea it was moved! The temple is dedicated to the gods Osaris and Isis, both protector gods in the Egyptian mythology. This temple was converted into a church during the 6th century AD, and many of the heiroglyphics were defaced by the Christians. But some survived and are in excellent condition. You can see some beautiful scenes explaining the story of Osaris and Isis, and Osaris and Seth. Once inside, you see just how extensive the carvings are. There are on every nook and cranny, pillar, wall and ceiling of the temple. It is pretty amazing. Also inside the temple is the holy room, which has an offering table only used by the pharaoh. A couple of times a year, the king would come to this temple to make specific offerings (which you see depicted on the wall) to the god of this temple. And then the room was sealed off until the next ceremony, never opened to the public.
After exploring the site for a couple of hours, we headed back to Aswan for rest. The afternoons here are brutal, reaching 100+ temperatures daily. So most Egyptians take rests during the afternoon, and come back out after the sun has descended a bit. I took full advantage of this, and napped! Hehe. Around 5pm, the group came together and went back out for a nighttime Nile cruise and dinner with a local Nubian family. THe Nubians are a specific ethnic group (or tribe, you could say) indigenous to Egypt. There are about 2 million of them throughout the country, and they speak an entirely different language and have unique customs and traditions. We had a lovely family dinner in a Nubian home on one of the islands in the Nile. I actually preferred this meal to the one in Jordan, because a) the food was a little better and b) the host spoke English and was much more interactive and lively. We learned all about the wedding and engagement rituals of the Nubian culture, and he even showed us his wedding photos! We toured his home, which is again, shared with siblings and other family members, as well as meeting his kids and relatives. The Nubian towns don’t have cars, so the homes are close together and you walk around the sand streets. Kids are everywhere, as the average Nubian woman has 6 kids. It was such a lovely experiencing seeing this way of life and enjoying a social and informative dinner.