Sailing to Aswan, Egypt’s historic gateaway to the south

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Roots tendril out of the grassy banks, piercing the surface of the water, while giant dragonflies skim the heads of water buffaloes cooling off in the 46C heat. Nearby, African sacred ibises stand regally in the shallows and vocal laughingthrushes nestle between the seven-foot reeds. My eyes are locked on the watery scenes — I’m hoping to spot a crocodile nostril or a slinking scale, at least. 

I’m on board the Sanctuary Sun Boat IV, a luxury 1920s-style vessel, travelling along Egypt’s bloodline, the Nile. A calm reprieve from the chaos of Cairo and its population of 22 million, the river feels like a quiet oasis in the middle of the desert. After days of leisurely drifting down the waterway, watching villagers bathe next to braying donkeys and visiting the many temples that occupy the banks, I’m eventually ushered off the boat at Aswan, an industrial town whose port is lined with fishing boats. Home to many Nubian Egyptians, originally from the Kenzi and Faadicha tribes, Aswan has a population of 500,000 — and its own unique dialect. 

I listen out for this local tongue, which derives from a mixture of Ancient Egyptian and Swahili, as a group thrash past in horse-drawn carts and minivans. Aswan’s port is a hive of activity: men, women and children shout to each other from their boats, while others sing charming ditties.  

At certain times of year, the Nile can reach a depth of up to 30ft and, as it’s home to many endemic species of fish, including Nile tilapia, Nile perch and several types of catfish, it’s little surprise fishing is one of the most lucrative industries for locals. After soaking up the scene before us, we leave the cacophony behind and make our way towards Philae Temple, the next stop on our itinerary. 

As we approach the Aswan Low Dam, on whose reservoir the island-based temple complex is based, we’re bombarded by eager faces selling souvenirs.

“Follow me,” says our guide and Egyptologist Mohamed Rehim, as we weave between the street sellers. “This way,” he shouts again as we continue past stalls laden with treasures and trinkets. Blue-and-white alabaster ornaments glimmer in the midday sun. Men stand with local cotton draped over their stretched-out arms, while teens lean leisurely against crooked trees, beaded necklaces dangling from their wrists. A small child’s hand flies out to help me board a weathered, wooden motorboat, on which we’ll travel to reach the temple complex. The vessel is decorated with sun-bleached bunting that flitters in the gentle breeze. I perch close to the helm and we set off to the gentle whir of the rusty engine. 

As we motor past hundreds of boats anchored on the water, Philae Temple suddenly comes into focus on a tiny island. Luminous from the sun’s reflection on the water, the temple appears like a radiant film star with a powerful soft box at her feet. 

Our boat edges closer to the jetty near the Kiosk of Nectanebo and the oldest part of the temple’s ruins. Here, we’re serenaded by men enthusiatically plucking string instruments made from old tin cans. The island’s vibrant atmosphere seems to pulsate. 

“Dedicated to the goddess Isis, wife of Osiris and mother of Horus, the original construction of Philae Temple began in around 690BC,” Mohamed explains as we walk up to the Gate of Ptolemy II, the elaborate entrance later built by King Ptolemy II who ruled between 284 to 246 BC. 

“But this isn’t where the temple was originally built,” he continues. “When Philae Island, where the temple was first built, started to submerge, the temple buildings were moved here brick by brick in the 1970s. This is actually Agilkia Island, which, in Nubian dialect, means the ‘island of the wolves’.” 

He pauses and looks at me. “Everything changed after the British came to Egypt,” he says.

In 1898, the British began the construction of the Aswan Low Dam, one of the largest such projects of its time. It was designed with the aim of providing a new irrigation system for the area, driven in part by a desire to increase production of cotton crops.

“This caused Philae Island to flood and, subsequently, the temple needed rehoming,” explains Mohamed. And so, in 1970, Egypt launched an appeal to UNESCO to start the incredibly complicated moving of the temple — the complex was dismantled into 150,000 pieces, transported to Agilkia Island and reconstructed over the course of 10 years.

Having explained the temple’s surprising history, Mohamed urges us to move closer to its main entrance, where a 60ft-tall pylon towers over the sun-drenched forecourt. It features larger-than-life reliefs depicting King Ptolemy II with the god Horus and goddesses Isis, Nephthys and Hathor. Two crumbling granite lions, placed here in Roman times, guard the doorway below.  

A family of cats, unafraid of our presence, greet us as we head into the temple — the two larger felines lie outstretched on the shaded stone floor, posing like the Great Sphinx of Giza as they watch over the nearby kittens. I walk past a man dressed in traditional garments who also seems to be using the temple to avoid the unforgiving midday sun. 

As we wander on, a delicious scent wafts into my path. Approaching a bush growing next to the temple, Mohamed picks a yellow blossom from the wiry green plant and offers it to me. 

“The island has an abundance of Nubian jasmine and henna,” he explains. “The henna fragrance is wonderful, and you can smell it at every turn. Locals use it in their homes and the jasmine as perfume.” 

Just like the goddess Isis, who was said to emit perfume herself, the island follows suit. 

“You can even buy vials of perfume inspired by the flowers found around the temple. Secret of the Desert is a popular one, and it’s said to attract admirers,” Mohamed grins. 

Later on, passing the bustling market stalls back on the mainland, I decide to purchase a vial of the fragrance Mohamed had mentioned. As I open the bottle, a strong, floral scent with notes of citrus permeates the air, conjuring up an image of the island and the sparkling waters. Philae Temple has certainly attracted a new admirer.

Published in the Cruise guide, distributed with the Jan/Feb 2024 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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