The Greek word Syene (from which the Coptic Suan is derived) stems from the ancient Egyptian Smenet, meaning 'making business or trade. And herein lies the character of Aswan. It has been a flourishing borderline market for thousands of years._the link between two cultures: Egyptian and Nubian.
The surrounding land was rich in building materials: the Aswan quarries were the source of tine and coarse quality granite from whence builders and sculptors throughout ancient Egyptian history drew their supplies. Quartz, which was used for polishing stone, was mined from the so-called alabaster quarry north of Aswan and also from the western desert. In the eastern desert there were iron mines where red ochre was extracted for paint. And the largest sandstone quarry in Egypt was situated at Silsilla, further northwards.
In antiquity the island of Elephantine was known as Abu or Elephant Land. It commanded the Nile cataracts that formed a natural boundary to the south. These great granite-toothed boulders had been tugged and torn from the mother rock by countless floods and lay like huge obstacles on the river-bed. At low Nile a sluggish river would wind a sinuous six-kilometre descent from the island of Hesseh to Aswan. When the water began to swell with the annual flood, however, the river's mood would become restless. Confined by mountain ranges on each side of the valley, the river would dance or whip around the granite obstructions. Fed by the monsoons on the Ethiopian tableland, the Nile would continue to rise until, reeling and rushing, churning and roaring in agony to find an outlet, it would hurl into the channels of Aswan. Classical writers described the sound as so great as to cause deafness.
To the ancient Egyptians a tradition survived from their remote past, that the cataract region was the edge of the world. It was said that here the life-giving waters (the annual inundation) rose from the primaeval ocean Nun to render the land fertile. Welcoming the chocolate-brown flood was Hapi the Nile-god. He was believed to live in a grotto at Bigeh Island, and his role was a dual one: receiving the waters with oustretched arms and directing its flow into the eternal ocean (the Mediterranean) in the north. Hapi was depicted as a simple fisherman or oarsman with a narrow belt and the bulbous breasts of plenty. On his head were aquatic plants: the papyrus symbolised his role as giver of water to Lower Egypt and the lotus to Upper Egypt. Hapi came to represent the provinces of Egypt in temple reliefs, offering the fruits of the land to the great god to whom a temple was dedicated.
Having received the 'first water', Hapi left it to two guardian goddesses of the cataracts to control and direct the flood. Anukis, on the island of Sehel and portrayed with a lofty head-dress of feathers, clasped the river banks and compressed the swirling waters, directing it towards Aswan. Satis, on the island of Elephantine, let fly the current with the force of an arrow; she is usually depicted carrying a bow and arrows. Khnum, the ram-headed god, was the great god of the whole of the cataract region, and hence of the inundation. In the company of his wife Satis and daughter Anukis, Khnum received manifold offerings at his sanctuary on Elephantine. Famines due to low flood were attributed to his anger at insufficient offerings. In fact, Khnum later became the focus of an elaborate tradition in which he was not only a god of the inundation but also a god of creation, having fashioned man on a potter's wheel from the clay of the river. -
Elephantine was inhabited from very early times. A tribe bearing an elephant emblem settled there in Pre-history and erected the first shrine to Khnum. On their heavily fortified island home, where they commanded a good view of the surrounding landscape, they were safe from surprise raids. Opposite the northern end of the island lay Aswan, the trading centre on the mainland. Thus, while peace had not yet been made with the Nubian tribes on the border and a state of uncertainty prevailed, products were exchanged.
Though Aswan was situated at the farthest limit of Egypt, it was spiritually closer to the capital of Memphis than any other city. This was because, during the Old Kingdom, the noblemen of Elephantine were the 'Keepers of the Southern Gate'; Aswan was the starting point for the caravan routes along which the earliest commercial and later military expeditions were carried out.
The noblemen held extremely responsible positions. They were entrusted with supervising the quarrying of granite for the great monuments of the Giza plateau. They watched over the exchange of Egyptian grain and oil for minerals, ebony, gum, stone beads, incense, and animal skins from the south. They supervised the shipments to the royal capital. The noblemen of Elephantine were a proud and independent breed who lived at a time when the pharaoh encouraged initiative and responsible action; a time when many Lower Egyptians travelled to Lpper Egypt to find work, just as, today, Upper Egyptians travel to the Delta Aswan attained its greatest political prestige in the 6th Dynasty (2345-2181 BC). The tombs of the noblemen at Kubbet el Hawa (page 41) have autobiographical texts that show them to have been administrators, warriors and explorers as well as politicians.
One nobleman called Hekaib ("Brave of Heart') appears to have had all these qualities and more. In fact, he was so widely respected that, after his death, he was revered by noblemen and high priests for no less than eight generations. Over two centuries after his death, a prince of Elephantine in the reign of the pharaoh Senusert I, finally constructed a sanctuary in Hekaib's name on Elephantine. This sanctuary was discovered in 1946 by Labib Habachi, who noted that never before had such honour been paid to an ordinary man. Habachi was able to identify the deified Hekaib with PepiNakht, from whose tomb (page 43) we learn that he was respected for a distinguished career and an aggressive spirit as well as for bravery. For example, at that time ships were built on the eastern end of the caravan route from Coptos, and a naval officer on duty there was slaughtered by nomads. The pharaoh chose one of his most competent officials to rescue the body and punish the offenders. It was Hekaib, and he so fearlessly chastised the troublemakers that he was later described as 'one who controlled his heart when others stayed at home'.
It is not surprising that the noblemen of Elephantine were among the first to try and shake off the restraint of the central government and establish independence towards the end of the Old Kingdom. Unfortunately, it was a short-lived achievement, soon to be followed by chaos and civil war.
Aswan's time of glory was over. It was never again to have such prestige. An effort was made in the Middle Kingdom to resuscitate the spirit by reviving Old Kingdom titles such as 'Governor of the South'. But, in fact, Aswan had lost its role as Gateway to the South when Egyptian influence spread into Nubia (2133 BC). The high priests of Elephantine watched over the Temple of Khnum and continued to promote the cult of Hekaib, but Aswan was, in fact, no more than a military base and an emporium for Nubian and African exotica.
Some pharaohs of later periods constructed temples on Elephantine, as can be seen from numerous reused blocks, but it was not until the Graeco-Roman period that Aswan regained its importance, and then for very different reasons.
During the reign of Ptolemy II (285-246 BC) the popular cults of Osiris, Isis and Horus were transferred from Abydos to the area around Aswan, and particularly the cataract region immediately to the south of Elephantine. The regional gods of the cataracts, Khnum the ram-headed god with his wife Satis and daughter Anukis, were supplanted by the triad from Abydos. The chief centre for the worship of Isis became the Island of Philae which gained a mystical aura. The temple of Isis soon came to be regarded as the holiest in the land, especially famed for the mysterious healing properties of the goddess.
Greeks, Macedonians, Carians Romans, and Egyptians travelled to Aswan. All fell under the spell of its beauty. Strabo the Roman geographer, Ibn Khaldun the historian-diplomat of mediaeval times, Shelley and Keates the nineteenth-century romantics and countless others succumbed to the legendary river, its fabled ruins, and the healthy climate and breathtaking sunsets of Aswan.
Among the people who left their mark at Aswan were Sir F. Grenfell who, before starting his campaign in the Sudan, took time to clear many of the rock tombs at Kubbet el Hawa (1885-86). Lady Cecil, the wife of a diplomat, who also cleared a tomb, and Lord Kitchener, who imported and planted a large variety of African and Indien plants on one of the islands.
Lady Duff Gordon set a fashion when she travelled to Upper Egypt to seek a cure for tuberculosis. After her, came many of Europe's notables who sought a retreat from Europe's cruel winter. They journeyed slowly up the Nile in plush-fitted river vessels that were not much different from those used by the ancient pharaohs and successive Roman, Arab and Ottoman visitors before them. The pink and purple hills in the distance, pierced by a honeycomb of tombs, were yet unexplored. The temples of the pharaohs, their colonnades lying broken or askew, where half-buried in the sand. Luxor had yielded but a small part of its great treasure. Aswan languished in its depot-like tradition. The island of Philae had not yet been engulfed by the waters behind the Aswan Dam. Elephantine and Kitchener Island' were so fertile that, according to tradition, grapes grew on them all the year round.
Elephantine Island This island, which was once of such strategic importance and great renown, is of little touristic interest. The ruins near the quay are all that remain of two New Kingdom Temples that were destroyed by a ruler in 1821 who disliked tourists coming to see them!
The Museum, which contains antiquities excavated from Aswan and its environs and from Nubia, was first built as a resting place for those engaged on building the original Aswan Dam. The exhibits include miscellaneous pre-dynastic objects recovered from Nubia before it was inundated, some Old and Middle Kingdom objects, especially from the Hekaib Sanctuary, various objects of the New Kingdom, and discoveries of the Graeco-Roman period; the latter include mummies of a priest and priestess of Philae found on the Island of Hesseh, and a mummy of the sacred ram. Plans are under way to build a new museum at Aswan to house these and other selected pieces from Nubia that are now in Cairo Museum. Meanwhile, many of the most important pieces are stored.
Situated in the eastern desert, directly to the south of Aswan, are the ancient quarries of granite in hues of red, yellow, brown and dark grey. Sculptors and builders for thousands of years drew their supplies from here.
The earliest pharaoh to exploit the quarry was Den of the ist Dynasty, who used blocks for the floor of his cenotaph at Abydos. The 2nd Dynasty pharaoh Khasekhemui used it for his fine temple at Nekhen (Hierakonopolis). Then, in the Old Kingdom the quarry was fully exploited, especially by the 4th Dynasty pharaohs who raised their monuments at Giza: nine great slabs of fifty-four tons each were extracted from the quarries for the ceiling of the so-called King's Chamber of the Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops). Red granite was chosen for the Valley, or Granite, Temple of Khafre (Chephren). Black granite was quarried and despatched for the lower reaches of the outer casing of the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus). Thenceforth, right through to Graeco-Roman times, the quarry was in use.
Many blocks were abandoned in various stages of completion, which enables us to see the process by which the stone was extracted. Holes were bored along a prescribed straight line. It was once thought that wooden wedges were driven into these, watered and left to expand until it split the stone. Recent excavations, however, have changed our understanding of the quarrying industry. Balls of dolerite, the hardest of stone, weighing up to five-and-ahalf kilogrammes, have been found in their hundreds in the area of the quarry, and it is now believed that these were attached to rammers and simultaneously struck with great force by the quarry workers. They were also used to pound and dress the surface of the stone.
The system must have been reasonably sure because blocks were very often decorated on three sides before being detached from the natural rock.
The huge Unfinished Obelisk, lying in the northern quarry, is still attached to the bedrock. The reason for its abandonment is that flaws were found in the stone. An attempt was then made to extract smaller obelisks from it, but these projects, too, were abandoned. There is no indication for whom it was intended. The only marks on the surface are those of the workmen. Had it ever been completed, it! would have weighed some 1, 162 tons and have soared to a height of forty-two metres. In the southern quarry, rough-hewn blocks show that statues and sarcophagi were roughly shaped before transportation in order to cut down the weight. In the case of the former, the sculptor would begin to hew out the feet at a point several inches above the base of the rock, leaving the lower segment as firm support for the figure. In this quarry there are two rough-shaped sarcophagi that date to the Graeco-Roman period, a rock bearing an inscription of Amenhotep III, and an unfinished colossus of a king (or Osiris) grasping a crook and flail.
The late Aga Khan III, leader of the Ismaili community, a sect of Islam, found such peace and beauty in Aswan that before he died in 1957 he chose a site on the western bank of the Nile, on a peak overlooking his favourite part of the river, for his tomb. His Mausoleum, built in the Fatimid style with a single dome, is a landmark of Aswan today. It stands cool and isolated on an area of 450 square metres. It is constructed of rose granite, and the inner walls are of marble embellished with verses from the Koran. The Aga Khan claimed direct descent from Fatimah, the daughter of the prophet Mohammad. The tombs of the Fatimids are on the eastern bank of the Nile.
For thousands of years, leadership in Egypt has been associated with that great source of life -- the Nile. From the first pharaoh, Narmer (3100 BC), who traditionally diverted the river at Memphis, to Nektanebos (360 BC), the last Egyptian pharaoh, canals were cleared and irrigation projects were carried out. When the Persians conquered Egypt they repaired waterways. The Greeks reclaimed land. The Romans built aqueducts. The Mamluks constructed aqueducts and storage systems.
In 1842 the Mohamed Aly Barrage was built at the apex of the Delta north of Cairo. This first barrage was followed by others: at Aswan, Esna, and Assiut. The first Aswan Dam was constructed between 1899-1902. It was raised in 1907-1912, and again in 1929-1934, at which time 5,000 million cubic metres of water was stored in a reservoir that backed upstream to Wadi Halfa.
The High Dam, situated six-and-a-half kilometres south of the Aswan Dam, was the cornerstone of the country's economic development envisioned by Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was built during the years 1960-71 and was largely financed and supervised by the Soviet Union after the withdrawal of US and British financial aid for the project. Thirty thousand Egyptians worked on shifts day and night for ten years, under the supervision of two thousand technicians. A total of 17,000,000 cubic metres of rock was excavated, and 42,700,000 cubic metres of construction material was used.
The High Dam is a rock-filled dam - an artificial mountain of earth and rock over a cement and clay core. It is 3,600 metres long, 114 metres high, and the width at the base is 980 metres. The diversion tunnels on the western bank of the river (each with a diameter of sixteen-and-a-half metres), were hewn out of granite to a length of 1,950 metres. On the eastern bank are the High Dam's twelve turbines, each with 120,000 HP. The annual hydro-electric capacity is ten billion KW hours.
High Dam lake was formed when the thwarted Nile swelled back upon itself for hundreds of kilometres where Nubia once stood. It is the world's largest artificial lake. It extends for over 500 kilometres, 150 of which are in Sudanese territory. The average width is ten kilometres, and there are areas where it spreads across thirty kilometres. The storage capacity is 157 billion cubic metres.
Advantages The primary purpose of the High Dam is to expand Egypt's arable land, provide hydro-electric power for the benefit of industrial development, and ensure a substantial rise in the standard of living. Due to this long-term storage of water, regular irrigation is possible, and Egypt's productivity has been increased by over twenty per cent: from 800,000 hectares of reclaimed desert land, and from the increased yield resulting from the change-over from a onecrop to a three-crop cycle. The latter was made possible by the stabilisation of the river, which overcomes the danger of high and low floods and also enables permanent navigability.
The loss of silt has been compensated for by fertilizer, one of the many industries provided with hydro-electric power from the dam. Another industry is a shale brick factory that will replace the age-old brick made of Nile silt.
Disadvantages An increase in the arable land has led to a corresponding increase in the incidence of bilharzia which can now, fortunately, be controlled. Predatory fish from the Red Sea, no longer hindered by the fresh water flow that acted as a barrier, have been seen in the Mediterranean for the first time; the resulting loss to fisheries is partly compensated by a large fishing industry on the Lake. The loss of the annual flood, and the constant higher average water level, has resulted in increased salinity of the soil. This has affected crops and ancient monuments; the agricultural land, especially in the Delta, now requires constant irrigation and drainage, and the ancient monuments of Upper Egypt are suffering some damage from seepage and salt erosion.
The most tragic loss has, of course, been Nubia. No less than 100.000 persons had to be uprooted and relocated in Upper Egypt and the Sudan when plans for the High Dam went ahead and it was clear that their homes were destined to disappear forever. Ironically, it is due to the disappearance of Nubia that we know more about its history than we do of many sites in Egypt, including Luxor! For, during the years 1960-69, the doomed land was subject to the most concentrated archaeological operations ever mounted. Scholars, engineers, architects, and photographers from over thirty countries fought against time, and some great monuments were saved (page 146) or documented for future study. Countless objects were excavated and removed to safety. However, much of Nubia's heritage in the form of towns, tombs, temples, churches, graffiti and inscriptions, has been engulfed by the waters.
The age-old tradition of prosperity or adversity being dependent on the Nile flood and the fervour with which the Nile festivals were celebrated, has finally run its course. It was started thousands of years ago by the earliest settlers of the Nile valley who thought that rites, spells, and offerings of thanks would control, appease, or please the power behind natural phenomena. In earliest times a bull or goose, and later a roll of papyrus, written with sacred words, would be cast on the waters.
The eruption of the river and the subsequent blossoming of the land was regarded as the result of a marriage. Even after the Arab conquest, public criers walking the streets announced the progress of the flood, so that the gadi could prepare a 'contract of marriage'.
The Bride of the Nile Ceremony took place, during which a symbolic maiden would be given to the river. Witnesses confirmed the 'consummation' and, with elaborate oriental ceremonial, the dykes were broken. Until the 1970s, the arrival of the flood was the occasion for a public holiday, and a procession of garlanded boats filled with rejoicing people cast flowers upon the waters.
Today it is no longer necessary to please Hapi, the Nile-god. The water is released by sluices operated at man's will, and the thirsty land quenches itself to man's timetable. The Nile no longer revitalises the soil with its rich alluvium. The Black Land, Kmt, which was the name for Egypt, is deprived of its natural source of fertility.
But continuity survives change, and in Upper Egypt one can best see the apparent paradox of Egypt undergoing repeated change, vet remaining changeless. Though new hotels, factories, and highways reflect the modern era, we can still see the simple village with dust roads and rectangular mud-brick houses. There are transport vehicles on the one hand, and the faithful donkeys as the beast of burden, on the other. Tractors and modern equipment are used alongside the time-honoured plough and the shadul, the most ancient of pumping devices for lifting water from the river to the canals.
Temple of Kalabsha and rock inscriptions
Temple of Beit el Wali
Kiosk of Kertassi
The Island of Philae
Monastery of St Simeon
Aswan tours give you an unique chance to explore magnificent Nile Valley nature and authentic Nubian culture at the same time. While in Aswan, you definitely must visit famous Abu Simbel Temple and Philae Temple, Sail between Aswan and Luxor on a Nile Cruise, make felucca ride to one of the blooming islands and discover ancient historical treasures of museums and temples around. Explore worldwide known sightseeings of Luxor - Hatshepsut temple, Valley of Kings, Karnak and Luxor temples, make a trip to St. Simeon Monastery or Nubian village and be sure, Aswan will stay forever in your heart!