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South Egypt: Aswan, Philae Temples and Abu Simbel, the most stunning temple complex!

by Flitter Fever
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The southern part of Egypt has a number of stunning sights that make it worth traveling all night on a sleeping train from Cairo to Aswan. From there you can visit for instance the Philae Temples, a Nubian village across the river Nile and the stunning Abu Simbel. I hope this description will inspire you to visit this beautiful part of Egypt too.

In front of Queen Nefertari's temple at Abu Simbel
In front of Queen Nefertari’s temple at Abu Simbel

In this article I will share the places that we visited in Aswan and surroundings in about 2.5 days’ time. From the moment we stepped on the night train in Cairo to Aswan on the 3rd day of our trip. Up to the 6th day of our 9-days Egypt trip, when we left Aswan again and headed back north towards Luxor.

Temples full of hieroglyphs that were saved from the rising water, a controversial dam, a lively local market, Nubians…. lots to see and learn in South Egypt!

Ancient hieroglyphs on the walls of Philae Temples Aswan
Ancient hieroglyphs on the walls of Philae Temples Aswan
Hieroglyphs tell a story about Ramses II at Abu Simbel
Hieroglyphs tell a story about Ramses II at Abu Simbel

Cairo & Pyramids

Before heading south to Aswan, we visited Cairo and the nearby pyramids. For more information I would like to refer you to to the following earlier articles:

Woman in dress standing in front of the Giza pyramids in Egypt
Giza pyramids
The fruit man in Historic Cairo
The fruit man in Historic Cairo

Sleeping train Cairo – Aswan

In the evening of the 3rd day we leave the capital and get onboard of the overnight sleeping train from Cairo to Aswan. We step into the train with the green stripe, which is the train wagon with reasonable spacious sleeping compartments. We share one compartment with just the two of us. The train ride from Cairo to Aswan in the south of Egypt takes 10-14 hours.

Tip: Going from Cairo to Aswan by train? Check if you can book a sleeping compartment where the beds are on your left hand-side (seen from the door). In this way you’ll roll towards the wall instead of roll out of the bed when the train breaks.

After departure we get a warm meal and in the morning we get breakfast served. Buy snacks and drinks at your departure train station for the time in between. The movements and sounds of the train keep me awake all night, but hey, it’s all about the experience right?! And it saved us a hotel night.

As soon as it gets light in the morning from the window you mainly see palm trees, mostly poorly maintained houses and many sandy plains outside passing by. By the way, it is also possible to make the train trip from Cairo to Aswan (or the other way around) during day light instead of as night train. Alternatively, by car (11 hours) or by airplane (3.5 hours).

Aswan

We arrived at Aswan train station in the morning. Aswan is a city with app. 420.000 inhabitants and its very own International Airport (ASW). Soccer team Aswan SC plays in the Egyptian Premier League. Aswan is located right at the river Nile. You can watch the felucca boats pass by or get on one for a peaceful boat ride. At sunset the sky turns purple, orange and pink.

There is also some nice colorful street art at the Palace of Culture. For those interested in religious buildings, Masjed Altabyah mosque in the center of Aswan is a must-see. In addition, you might find the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral of the Archangel Michael and the Saint Mary Church worth a visit. See map below for locations.

Felucca boat on the river Nile at sunset
Felucca boat on the river Nile at sunset in Aswan
Colorful street art at the Palace of Culture in Aswan
Colorful street art at the Palace of Culture in Aswan

High Dam

We head down to the Aswan High Dam, about 16 km south of the city. With the construction of the dam between 1960 and 1970, control over the river Nile was established and the world’s largest water reservoir was created. Lake Nasser is 550 km long, 10-25 km wide and up to 180 meters deep. The High Dam itself is more than 3.8 km long and 111m high. There are more than 10.000 crocodiles in this lake! But you don’t get to see them from the dam.

To be honest the world’s largest embankment dam is not really a spectacular sight. Perhaps a sad one even. Yes, the dam controls the water, provides water storage for irrigation and generates hydro-energy. That sounds great, but the dam had and still has a huge impact on its environment. Not only several ancient temples had to be moved to avoid future flooding when the dam was build, but whole villages were forced to leave their houses and move elsewhere.

The Soviet communistic style monument at the military guarded High Dam was a gift to remember Egypt that Russia helped them during the massive undertaking to build this dam. Fortunately some gorgeous pink bougainvillea flowers cheered things up a bit. No television, video or zoom camera allowed.

  • Opening hours daily 09:00-17:00h
  • Admission EGP 100
Aswan High Dam river Nile side
Aswan High Dam – River Nile side
Woman makes selfie at gorgeous pink bougainvillea flowers at Aswan High Dam
Pink bougainvillea flowers at Aswan High Dam

Corniche

That afternoon I walk up and down the boulevard of Aswan, Corniche. No traffic jams, lots of horses and carriages, also donkeys who carry trailers loaded with heavy gas bottles for example. Local boys hold on to the back of a half-open public transportation vehicle that reminds me of the songthaews in Thailand (EGP 5 per ride). There are tuk-tuks here too.

I notice that almost all women that walk around here are veiled. If you walk around as a western looking woman alone at Corniche, local men constantly approach you. This is remarkably less when you are wearing a headscarf and/or walking in the company of a man. Go prepared and buy a headscarf at home already if you can, it will save you a lot of annoying attention.

Donkey carrying a heavy trailer in Aswan South Egypt
Donkey pulling a heavy trailer in Aswan
Young boys hanging on local transport in Aswan - street view
Young boys hanging on local transportation

Did you know that the Nile flows through or along the borders of 11 countries in Africa? Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, North Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and finally Egypt. With 6,600 kilometers (4,100 miles) the river Nile is one of the longest rivers in the world.

Aswan Market

Parallel to Corniche we visit Aswan Market, also known as souk. You can buy leather, souvenirs, fruit, spices, bread, perfume, jewelry and other small stuff here. The dates here are definitely worth trying; Egypt produces 35 million dates per year!

Big chunks of meat hang at the door of the butcher. There are live animals too, like pigeons, rabbits and chicken. After about 1.5 hours or so of shopping we return back to our hotel. Looking back, I found the market salesmen in Aswan to be less pushy than in Luxor for example.

One of the butchers at Aswan Market
One of the butchers at Aswan Market
Rabbits, pigeons and veggies for sale at Aswan Market souk
Rabbits, pigeons and veggies for sale

Kitchener’s Island & Elephantine Island

There are numerous islands in the river Nile, also several right in between the western and eastern side of Aswan. The center of the city is on the east side of the river. The two main nearby islands of interest are:

  • Elephantine Island with the Museum of Aswan, the Temple of Khnum and the Temple of Satet as main sights
  • El Nabatat Island, previously known as Kitchener’s Island, named after the man who used to own the island and created its gorgeous Aswan Botanical Gardens that is worth visiting

You could consider for example a guided tour by boat to Kitchener’s Island in the afternoon (13:00-16:00h). You will see Elephantine Island and Aga Khan Mausoleum as well.

Aga Khan Mausoleum in Aswan
Aga Khan Mausoleum
Local Nubian looking man working on a tourist boat In Aswan
Local Nubian looking man working on a tourist boat In Aswan

On the west side of the river Nile at Aswan, there are several interesting hidden gems that you can visit (on your own or as part of a tour):

On the nearby Pyramisa Island there is a nice hotel with outdoor pool, but that is currently closed down. At Hessa Island you can have dinner with Al Dokka (boat service from Corniche, call for reservations).

Man weaving at Aswan souk
Man weaving at Aswan souk
Elephantine Island seen from the river Nile
Elephantine Island seen from the river Nile

Where to stay in Aswan

Aswan has several good hotels. It’s great to spend the night somewhere with Nile view. You can also decide to have a more basic yet cozy homestay in a guest house of a Nubian family. Here are my recommendations for accommodation in Aswan:

Mövenpick Elephantine Resort
Sofitel Legend Old Cataract

Philae Temples

One afternoon we visit the magnificent Philae Temples, about 9 km south of Aswan on Agilika Island in the river Nile. Its ancient name was Pilak. Originally Philae is an ancient Nubian temple complex dedicated to the cult of fertility goddess Isis. Unfortunately her statue was stolen.

What remains to be seen are for example: a sphinx, main court, vestibule with eight columns, altar, hieroglyphs, Trajan’s Kiosk, birth house, etc. Stunning and worth-seeing, especially the huge priest chamber. Most activity here took place between the 4th Century BC and the 4th Century AC. In total 560 years were built and renoved, but it was never really finished. At some point even Romans ruled over Philae.

Main court pillars of Philae Temples
Main court pillars of Philae
Three men sitting at a column in the vestibule of Philae
Three happy men at the vestibule of Philae

Philae is located right between the Old Aswan Dam and the High Dam. There was a period of time, when the Old Aswan Dam was ready in 1902, the temple island was only visible a few months per year, the rest of the time it was underwater! With the rescue of UNESCO, Philae was moved block by block (40.000!) to higher ground starting in 1972. Consequently saving Philae from further water erosion, which got reopened in 1980.

There are plenty of good tours from Aswan to the Philae Temples for individual travelers, also possible as Nile Cruise. If you are staying in Marsa Alam and want to visit the Philae Temples, then you may want to consider this private day tour.

Informative historical sound and light shows at Philae Temples in English are on Monday 18:30h, Wednesday 19:45h, Friday 18:30h, Saturday 19:45h and Sunday 18:30h. Other times are in Arabic, French, German, Spanish or Mandarin.

  • Opening hours daily 07:00-16:00h
  • Admission EGP 180 foreign adult, EGP 20 boat

Nubian Village

For dinner we decided to visit a Nubian village across the river. We enjoyed a great home-cooked traditional dinner at a Nubian family’s house. A lovely experience. You could also get a henna tattoo done by the lady of the house. And they have a terrarium with baby crocodiles! By the time we headed back to our hotel later that evening, it was quite cold outside. But what a gorgeous sky full of stars you can see from here!

The Nubians are a minority in Egypt with settlements dating back 7000 BC. These indigenous people living across southern Egypt and northern Sudan have their own language and culture. Estimations of how many Nubians nowadays live in Egypt, vary widely between 300.000 up to 4 million. To learn more about the Nubian people please visit the Nubian Museum in the center of Aswan.

Visiting a Nubian village near Aswan South Egypt
Visiting a Nubian village near Aswan
Nubian house Aswan
Nubian house

Abu Simbel

For our 5th day in Egypt we decided to visit Abu Simbel, sometimes written as Abu Sinbil, one of Egypt’s main landmarks and my favorite! The rock temples of Ramses II and his Queen Nefertari are located almost 300 km (190 mi) south of Aswan. The 75 road takes about 3.5 hours one way by car, or go by airplane (ABS). Not much to see along the way, just endless desert plain. Somewhere halfway there is a small cafe, where we made short pit-stop.

Abu Simbel made a huge impression on me. This is Egypt! Those four big stone figures that sit in front of the biggest temple, wow! It made me feel tiny.

The temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel South Egypt
The temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel
Ramses II temple Abu Simbel left side close-up
Ramses II temple left side close-up
Ramses II temple Abu Simbel right side close-up
Ramses II temple right side close-up

There are seven Nubian temples in Egypt, Abu Simbel is the most important one. Together with the earlier mentioned Philae Temple, Abu Simbel forms an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thanks to UNESCO funding, Abu Simbel was saved from drowning. Abu Simbel is one of the temple complexes that had to be moved (36 meters up in case of Abu Simbel) because of the rising water when the construction of the new High Dam was almost finished in the late 1960s.

A striking annual event that takes place at Abu Simbel is when the first sunrays reach the gods figures inside the temple. This unforgettable spectacle always takes place on Feb 22 and Oct 22. If only we were three days late… oops! But I was so glad that we went anyway, very beautiful. The hieroglyphs are more than a thousand years old!

Fascinating hieroglyphs on the walls of Ramses II temple Abu Simbel
Fascinating hieroglyphs on the walls
Statues inside the temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel
Statues inside the temple of Ramses II

The temple of Ramses II is bigger and more spectacular than the temple of Queen Nefertari, however both are definitely worth visiting on the inside!

The temple of Ramses II has four large figures in front, the temple of Queen Nefertari six. Abu Simbel was built 1264 till 1244 BC to intimidate the enemies of Ramses II and to put himself in a divine position. Don’t expect to visit Abu Simbel alone, on an average day 4,000-5,000 people visit this temple complex. And yet I did not feel it was crowded, the area is big and February is usually a less busy month for tourism in Egypt.

  • Opening hours daily summer 07:00h-18:00h, winter 07:00h-17:00h
  • Admission EGP 255 foreign adult, EGP 300 camera

You can also decide to spend the night in the Nubian village Abu Simbel. This enables you to visit the sight early, before it gets hot and crowded.

Map South Egypt: Aswan & Abu Simbel

This map includes places and spots mentioned in this article (and more). This one is ‘smartphone friendly’; you can easily use it via the Google Maps app. Click the icon at the top left to open the menu and see the categories. To adapt the map to your own preferences and interests, (de)select a category. Via Google Drive you can copy the map to your own My Google Maps account.

Traveling around South Egypt

To be honest, I was glad we did not drive ourselves in Egypt and joined a group trip with Djoser instead. It is less tyring, cost efficient and we still had enough freedom. In this way we did not have to deal with the tourist police yourselves for example.

Are you Dutch? Lees het artikel Groepsreis met Djoser: samen veel moois zien en beleven voor meer informatie.

Some parts of Egypt are marked red by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meaning not safe for travellers. Always check the travel advice yourself before going, especially when traveling individually.

Crossing the river Nile by car on a cloudy morning in Aswan
Crossing the river Nile on a cloudy morning in Aswan
The 75 road between Aswan and Abu Simbel
The 75 road between Aswan and Abu Simbel

Edfu, Kom Ombo and Luxor

After visiting Aswan and Abu Simbel, we headed back in northern direction towards Luxor. We made two stops: at Edfu and at Kom Ombo. Alternatively, you could visit Kom Ombo and Edfu as a 2 night Nile felucca cruise from Aswan.

From Luxor we made a trip to the impressive Valley of the Kings, which is beautiful. I will write about those places in a future article. Please subscribe to my newsletter and follow me on social media if you do not to miss anything.

Edfu between Kom Ombo and Luxor
Edfu is located between Kom Ombo and Luxor
Kom Ombo between Aswan and Edfu Egypt
Kom Ombo (between Aswan and Edfu)

Have you ever been to Egypt or dreaming about it? Would you like to visit Aswan? Got a question or any additional tips to share? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Interested to read more articles about Egypt? Check out the Egypt Blog Archives:

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Last Updated on 09/29/2021 by Flitter Fever

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2 comments

Postcard Stories 03/20/2021 - 13:50

What a great article and photos. I feel like I was walking in your shoes 🙂

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Flitter Fever 03/20/2021 - 22:36

Thank you, glad to hear you enjoyed this article. Regards, Elisa

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