Belles on Location

Aswan, Egypt: A River Runs Through It

After a night of fractured dreams in an aging sleeper car rolling across miles of desert sand, our train pulls into the station. Through the grime of the window I can see date palms, their leaves fluttering in the near still wind.

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Aswan. This sleepy town at the southernmost point of Egypt sounds like the wind that whispers across the desert sands. Hugging the edge of the Sahara Desert, Aswan is most famously known for its proximity to the cataracts rupturing the sluggish Nile River that meanders like a giant snake through these reddish sands.

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As we step onto the platform, we can see sunlight reflecting off the surface of the water in the distance. Our guide, Ahmed, picks us up at the station and drives us to a small wharf on the river. Across a gangplank lie a series of Nile cruise boats lashed together that serve as floating hotels. We pass through four carpeted lobbies, each decorated in its own ornate fashion, until we arrive at our vessel. Ahmed waits patiently for us to deposit our luggage in our rooms, then leads us back to the van to drive us to our first stop on his tour.

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Everywhere we drive, the river is never far from view. One moment its water is aquamarine, around the next bend it becomes slate gray, then emerald, reflecting the dun colored buildings along the shore.

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Ahmed pulls up to a nondescript outcropping of pinkish granite, and as we wander through the curious jigsaw slicing of rock, I realize we are walking across the birthplace of many of the world’s greatest sculptures. Along the banks of the glittering Nile lies an outdoor museum producing the most beautiful obelisks in the world – but one obelisk is not upright, it lies prone on the earth, still trapped. Ahmed gestures to the enormous, unfinished monument, with a large crack down the middle that sculptors had worked for a long time to free from the quarry.

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“This one,” he says, his eyes glinting in the sunlight, “was to be the largest obelisk ever made when it shattered. Do you know how they moved these so far away?” he asks. We look at each other, shaking our heads. Obelisks from Aswan were installed in palaces at Edfu and Luxor, located hundreds of miles to the north.

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“Thousands of years ago, the Nile river was much closer to the quarry,” Ahmed explains. “During the annual flood, the water came up to the edge of where we are standing through a canal.”

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“The workers rolled the obelisk onto a waiting raft made of wood,” he continues, “then they could float the giant stone works all the way up the river.” Looking at the sheer size of these sculptures, it remains yet another of ancient Egypt’s engineering marvels that boggles the mind.

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Later in the afternoon we board a small boat to sail across the Nile to the temple of Philae. After remaining intact for two thousand years, the erection of the High Dam threatened to completely inundate the structure. In the 1970s, UNESCO undertook the monumental project of dismantling the temple and reconstructing it piece by piece some 550 meters away from its original location.

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The sun reflects off the monumental pillars and we marvel at the fact that this magnificent structure came close to not surviving into the modern era.

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As the sun melts into the endless sands, igniting the stone and mudbrick with orange light, Ahmed drops us at the wharf. We may have arrived by train, but we leave this magical city by boat. As we sail away, the lights of the city retreating in the distance, I realize the river that has been lapping on the shores of this city for millennia is eternally interwoven with the monumental structures that surround it. Over the centuries, these waters have both helped to build the ancient structures along this legendary river and to destroy them. The Nile is the unifying factor in this magical city at the botton of the Egyptian desert, a powerful presence, with a personality of its own. To appreciate Aswan is to appreciate the power and the history of the river that runs through it.

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Amanda Summer is a writer and archaeologist who excavates in Greece. She has written for the New York Times, Islands, Archaeology and The Best Travel Writing. When not digging, she lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her family and Airedale terrier. For more stories, visit her website, Travels with Persephone.

This article has 2 comments

  1. judith works

    Aswan is indeed a marvelous place. We spent a couple of days there exploring and it was one of my life-time travel highlights. So sad, it and other places nearby are pretty-much off limits now.

  2. Animation training in Chennai

    I like your post very much i had nice time while reading your post

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