On the Nile Near Aswan, Egypt

One thing I always try to make time for when I visit Egypt is a boat ride on the Nile at Aswan.  Many Nile cruise itineraries either begin or end at Aswan, so I’d recommend arriving either a day early or staying a day late to allow time for this opportunity to enjoy a scenic, peaceful, beautiful experience.

My favorite boat captain for purposes of enjoying the Nile River at Aswan is Captain Karim. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

My favorite boat captain to use for cruising the Nile River at Aswan is Captain Karim.  He expertly guides the boat along the Nile, offering close-up views to the many sights along the way, and he speaks enough English to answer questions. If you ask, he’ll play a radio station with Nubian music.

A boat ride on the Nile at Aswan offers beautiful scenery such as this. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

There are many scenic views along the Nile River, and this is exactly why I have done this many times.  After spending time in the urban, high-energy environment of Cairo, I look forward to coming closer to nature when I get to Aswan.

A boat ride on the Nile at Aswan offers beautiful scenery such as this. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

There are two different types of boating experiences you can use to experience the Nile scenery at Aswan.  One is a ferry boat, which is what I was riding at the time I took these photos.  The ferry has an engine which is silent enough that it doesn’t detract from the peaceful beauty of the ride.  The other is a felucca, which is an Egyptian style of sailboat.

A boat ride on the Nile at Aswan offers beautiful scenery such as this. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Sometimes young boys on a small raft will paddle out to meet your boat.  These young buskers sing to you, hoping you will tip them for the entertainment they provide.

I personally enjoy the boys, so when I see them approach, I’m inclined to give them an Egyptian five-pound note.  I used to give them just one pound, but Egypt’s economy has experienced significant inflation since 2011’s revolution, so I tip in higher amounts now than I did in 2010.  You may be wondering what songs they use to serenade you.  The ones I’ve heard the most are “Row Row Row Your Boat” and “Frère Jacques”.

Sometimes young boys will paddle out to the boats on the Nile and sing to the passengers, in hopes of receiving tips. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

One of the landmarks you’ll see on the western bank of the Nile River at Aswan is the steep hill containing Aswan’s Valley of the Nobles.  High on the top of that hill is a structure known as Qubbet el-Hawa, the Dome of the Wind, which marks the tomb of a long-ago Islamic sheikh named Aly Abu el-Hawa.  I have also heard people refer to this structure as the watchtower because of the expansive view it offers of the Nile valley. The entire mountain is also sometimes referred to as Qubbet al-Hawa, encompassing the Pharaonic tombs in addition to el-Hawa’s tomb.

I have personally never climbed this mountain to explore its sights.  There is no road that a taxi or tour bus could use to take you there.  The only way to approach it is from docking the boat on the bank of the Nile River at the bottom of the hill.   From there, you can either ride a camel up the hill, or you can hike up.  If you want to use a camel, it’s best to prearrange for that, because there often are not any camels waiting at the bottom.

Aswan Valley of the Nobles and Qubbet el Hawa
High on a hillside above the Nile River near Aswan lies Qubbet el-Hawa, the Dome of the Wind. On the hillside below it lies Aswan’s Valley of the Nobles. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Another hillside on the west bank of the Nile at Aswan features the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan III,  Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah, the 48th Imam of Nizari Ismailis.  He was born in the city of Karachi, which lies in modern-day Pakistan, and he assumed his title of Aga Khan at age eight, after his father died. His tomb was built in the style of the historic Fatimid tombs that can be seen in Cairo today.

Although the Aga Khan was from Pakistan, Egypt held a special place in his heart because it was there that he met his French wife, Yvette Blanche Labrousse. She took on the name Begum Oum Habiba after they were married.  Below the Mausoleum, behind the trees in this photo, is the villa where the Aga Khan and his family spent their time when they came to Egypt for visits.

Locals report that after he died, the Aga Khan’s fourth and final wife used to visit his tomb in the Mausoleum every day and lay a red rose on his grave. When she died in 2000, she was laid to rest next to him.

The Mausoleum of Aga Khan III looks down at the Nile River at Aswan. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

On another hillside, a historic monastery looks down on the Nile.  This monastery, which dates back to the 7th century, was originally dedicated to a local saint named Anba Hedra who renounced the world on his wedding day. It has also been known as Deir Anba Sim’an. In the 10th century, it was dedicated to Saint Simeon.  In the past, it housed about 300 monks. The troops of Salah ed-Din (Saladin) partially destroyed this facility in 1173.

There are no roads for vehicles leading to this monastery.  If you want to visit it, you’ll need to ride a boat across the Nile. Once across, you can either walk up the hill yourself or hire a camel to carry you. If you plan to use a camel, I’d recommend prearranging it.  This area does not always have camels sitting around waiting for something to do.

The Monastery of St. Simeon sits on a hillside above the Nile River at Aswan, Egypt. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Before the Aswan High Dam was built, the west bank of the Nile River at Aswan was mostly uninhabited because of the annual inundation by the river.  As a result of the dam being built, the inundations ended, while south of the dam Lake Nasser arose, flooding the homeland where thousands of Nubian people had lived since ancient times.  Reports vary on how many Nubian people were displaced by the rising lake, with estimates ranging from 40,000 to 100,000.  With the inundations ending north of the dam, some of the Nubian people whose ancestral homes now lie under the waters of Lake Nasser have started to develop a community on the west bank of the Nile at Aswan.

A village named Gharb Sahel has arisen, with homes, hotels, shops, and more.  The Nubians who live there have preserved their traditional architectural style, which is highly effective at encouraging ventilation and insulating against the heat.

It is possible to book a tour of one of the Nubian homes in the village.  There are several who are willing to show visitors their architecture and talk about their lifestyles.

The village of Gharb Sahel on the West Bank of the Nile River at Aswan serves as an excellent example of Nubian architecture. Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

I have found these tours of Nubian homes to be a highlight of my time in Aswan because of the opportunity to learn more about the culture.  The photo below shows the ornaments that dangle from the ceiling and the table with items for sale.  The cool cat modeling the sunglasses is the ferry boat captain who transported us there, Captain Karim.

Captain Karim poses with my sunglasses. Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

After visiting Gharb Sahel, the return trip on the boat offers additional scenic views along the Nile.

A boat ride on the Nile at Aswan offers beautiful scenery such as this. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

El Nabatat Island, also known as Kitchener’s Island, is a popular tourist destination because it hosts the Aswan Botanical Garden. Today, the island is owned by the Egyptian government and is used as a botanical research station.  It is possible to arrange a boat ride to the island and walk through the garden.  I have not personally done this, but it’s on my wish list for a future trip to Egypt.

The Aswan Botanical Garden on El Nabatat Island (also known as Kitchener Island) near Aswan, Egypt is popular with tourists. Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Elephantine Island’s history dates back to Pharaonic times, when it was the southern outpost of Upper Egypt, on the border of Kush (Nubia).  The book River God by Wilbur Smith sets some of its action on this island.  One of the items on my wish list for a future visit to Aswan is to visit what’s left of this archaeology site today.   A boat can take you close to its Nilometer for a closeup view, as shown in my photo below.  See my article about Nilometers for more information about this and others.

Today, a hideous, soulless Movenpick Hotel crouches on Elephantine Island, a blight on the scenic landscape of the Nile.  I hate the sight of this eyesore so much that I’m not including a photo in this blog post.

Elephantine Island in the Nile River near Aswan, Egypt is home to a Nilometer which can be seen when riding past in a ferry boat or felucca (sailboat). Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

In ancient times, Aswan’s population included a large number of ethnic Nubians, and still does today.  With the Kush empire (also Nubians) immediately to the south, it was important to the Egyptian Pharaohs who were based in Luxor to ensure that Aswan was governed by someone who was capable of maintaining the respect and loyalty of the Nubian locals.  For that reason, many of the governors in Aswan over the centuries were ethnic Nubian.  Queen Nefertari, who was honored by the temple at Abu Simbel and the spectacular tomb in Valley of the Queens at Luxor was a Nubian princess whose father governed Aswan.

Because of Aswan’s position on the southern border of Egypt’s Pharaonic empire, some boulders along the river feature cartouches that declare Egypt’s claim on this location, as shown in the photo below.

These boulders along the Nile River near Aswan were carved with cartouches during ancient times to mark the southern end of the territory claimed by the Egyptian Pharoah.  Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

A popular Egyptian pop singer and actor named Mohamed Mounir has built a mansion on the banks of the Nile near Aswan, and it is possible to see it from a ferry boat or felucca.  The mansion is the domed building in the foreground of the photo below.  Many of Mounir’s fans refer to him as “The King”.

In Aswan, the home of Mohamed Mounir perches above the Nile River. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Closing Thoughts

When we travel, it can be very tempting to cram our schedules full of every imaginable activity, every day.  This can lead to burnout by the end of a vacation.  I find that the ferry ride on the Nile helps me replenish my energy.  It allows me to spend time in nature, on the river, and it allows me to forget for a while about the frantic schedule that tours often provide.  There’s something fulfilling about being out on the water, simply enjoying the beautiful scenery.

Other Blog Posts About Aswan, Egypt

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy these others posts I’ve made about Aswan, Egypt:

    1. Honoring Motherhood in Ancient Egypt’s Temples and Tombs. This one includes Philae as one of the temples it talks about.
    2. Aswan, Egypt: The Mystery of the Ostrich Egg.  An interesting item displayed in the Nubian Museum at Aswan.
    3. What It’s Like to be in a Sandstorm in Egypt.  Includes a photo of a sandstorm I experienced in Aswan.
    4. Exploring Nilometers in Egypt.  Includes the one on Elephantine Island, which I included a photo of above.
    5. Fellaha: The Peasant Woman in Egyptian Art. Includes a statue of a fellaha at the Basma Hotel in Aswan.

 

Exploring Nilometers in Egypt

A Nilometer (Nile-o-meter) is a structure in Egypt for measuring how high the annual flood of the river Nile rises each year. Before the 20th century, each year the Nile River would flood in the spring, spreading silt across the land it covered.  This inundation brought life to the region, because the silt it deposited enhanced the fertility of the soil.

The government used the Nilometer readings to determine the taxes for that year.  If the flood level was measured as low, then taxes that year would be low, due to reduced rich silt deposits and possible drought. If the flood level was medium, taxes that year would be high, because medium was the ideal level. If flood level was high, there would be no taxes because the flood was destructive and people needed to recover.

In my travels to Egypt, I’ve seen 3 different Nilometers.  There are others that I have not (yet) had the opportunity to see, but perhaps I’ll get to see them on a future trip! I’ve seen reports that as of today there are fewer than 24 known Nilometers which have been found by archaeologists.

Cairo

The Nilometer in Cairo is on Rhoda Island, a short walk from the Oum Kalthoum Museum. If you visit Cairo, it’s worth a trip to the island to visit both.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

This Nilometer is one of the oldest structures in Egypt built after the Arab conquest. The original building at this site was erected in 751 CE, though archaeologists believe there was probably an older Nilometer at this site in Pharaonic times.   This initial structure was destroyed by a heavy flood in 861 CE, so the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil commissioned the current building to replace it.

Although the subterranean portion of the ancient building still stands, its dome was destroyed in 1825 by a nearby explosion.  A restoration was created, using a painting by Fredrik Ludvig Nordenas to provide guidance on what the original looked like.

This is the interior of the dome of the Nilometer in Cairo on Rhoda Island, next to the Oum Kalthoum museum. This section was destroyed in 1825 and reconstructed.  Photo was taken from surface level looking up into the cupola on February 9, 2017.

The instrument for measuring the water’s height is an octagonal column divided into cubits located in the middle of the square stone-lined shaft. This photo shows the central shaft, as you look down from the street-level entrance:

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Today, the tunnels leading from the Nilometer to the Nile are blocked off, and therefore water no longer comes in.

It is possible to descend a flight of stairs into the shaft. There are no handrails along the stairs, so it requires an adventurous spirit to do it! The interior is beautiful.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Kom Ombo

This Nilometer is located at the temple in Kom Ombo, Egypt, a town that lies between Luxor and Aswan. This is one of the temples that Nile cruises stop at, and it’s a very interesting one to tour because it’s dedicated to TWO gods, Horus the Elder and Sobek.

The Nilometer at Kom Ombo is a deep, cylindrical opening into the ground. At ground level, it doesn’t look like much, just a small circular wall.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

It has a tunnel at the bottom that reaches outside the temple walls to allow the flood water to come in.

PHoto copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Aswan

I have seen this Nilometer near Aswan from a boat on the river, as we floated past Elephantine Island where it resides. I haven’t yet set foot on the island to see its entrance from above. Archaeologists believe it is the oldest Nilometer in Egypt.

For most of ancient Egyptian history, Elephantine Island was the southern border of the Pharaonic kingdom. For that reason, the flood waters would reach this Nilometer first, before flowing downstream to the rest of the kingdom. It provided early insight into what growing conditions the country as a whole could expect.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

This Nilometer at Elephantine Island was mentioned in the novel River God, by Wilbur Smith.

Ones I Haven’t Seen

Someday, I hope to see other Nilometers in Egypt. There’s one in the Nile delta at the ancient city Thmuis, which is near the modern city of El Mansoura. Archaeologists estimate it was build in the 3rd century BCE. I learned about this one from a National Geographic article about it.

The beautiful temple of Isis that resided on Philae Island had two Nilometers.  However, in the 1960’s, because of Aswan Dam constructions, about 1/3 of the temple’s buildings became flooded year round. The Philae temple was dismantled and moved to Agilkia Island as part of the UNESCO effort to save temples threatened by the completion of the Aswan High Dam. I don’t know yet whether Philae’s surface-level Nilometer structures were moved and reconstructed when the temple was moved. I have toured Philae about 5 times on my various trips to Egypt, and the guides didn’t point out any Nilometer remnants.  Even if they did, it would be only surface level, without the deep hole down into the ground.  I’ll ask about it the next time I go.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank Wael Mohamed Ali for assisting me with my questions about the Nilometers in the Aswan area.  I’ve appreciated Wael’s services on some of my visits to Upper Egypt as a tour guide and a translator.  He’s very knowledgeable, and a pleasure to do business with!