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Egypt Story
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by Habeeb Salloum

I often wondered why the Agha Khan with his wealth and influence would choose to spend his winters in Aswan - 900 km (559 mi) south of Cairo. Now, as I strolled down its wide Corniche admiring the city's setting - the most charming on the Nile - I began to understand the allurement of this southern Egyptian winter resort. Here, the Nile is at its epitome of charm. Flowing through amber desert between granite rocks and shimmering-green volcanic islands, covered with palm groves and tropical plants, the river scene is truly beguiling. Embellishing this panorama of colour are the feluccas with their tall masts and white sails covering the skyline. It is a breath-taking vista which, many times, must have thrilled the Agha Khan.

Of course, the Agha Khan also came for the city's salubrious and delightful warm climate which helped ease his asthma. He once described Aswan as the most beautiful spot on earth. Today, his mausoleum, modelled on the Fatimid tombs in Cairo, sits atop a hill on the west bank, overlooks the Nile.

During our first day in this, one of the best known of the world's resorts, we enjoyed the river's view from the terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel, a delightful relic of British colonialism, where Agatha Christie wrote 'Death on the Nile'. Sipping our tea, we admired the feluccas gliding on the water around the foliage-clad rocky islets. It was a captivating scene, breath-taking in its beauty in the aura of sunset.

The next day we drove to the High Dam - an engineering miracle when it was built during the 1960s. Today, this second largest dam in the world, along with the old Aswan dam 6 km (3.6 mi) downstream, provide irrigation and electricity for the whole of Egypt. Building it was a tremendous feat of human effort - a structure of which the pharaohs would have been proud. From its 3 km (2 mi) long top, we admired its creation, Lake Nasser - the huge man-made reservoir, stretching deep into the Sudan.

From this mighty structure of modern man, we left to view, the unfinished obelisk - a monument left by the ancients. Past the Fatimid cemetery, with its hundreds of mud-brick tombs dating back to the 9th century A.D., we stopped at a granite quarry. From such sites around Aswan, much of the granite used in Ancient Egypt's colossi, obelisks and temples, were quarried.

We had come to see a massive obelisk that was never finished due to a crack found when it was being hewn from the rock. It is cut and smoothed on three sides - the fourth is still attached to the quarry bed. The fascinating feature of this obelisk is that it is a concrete example of how the Egyptians of antiquity fashioned their monuments.

Possibly intended for the Karnak Temple in Luxor, it would have measured 36.5 m (120 ft) high and weighed 1150 tons, as a free-standing structure. It is almost impossible to visualise how in ancient times these huge stone obelisks were dragged to the river, then floated down the Nile on huge barges.

In the afternoon, we rented a felucca for a mere five dollars to explore Aswan's rocky isles. Our first stop was Agilika Island, home of the reconstructed Philae Temple. In the wake of the High Dam, the whole temple was moved by an Italian company from the submerged Philae Island - 500 m (1,650 ft) away. Its setting on the island was landscaped to match the original site.

Dedicated to the goddess Isis, its various shrines and sanctuaries, which include a Temple of Hathor, a Birth House and two pylons, celebrate all the deities involved in the Isis and Osiris myth. It is a delightful monument to visit and its outline is a spectacular sight from the river as the sun begins to disappear over the horizon.

After sailing around Elephantine Island containing the remains of many temples and two tourist infested Nubian villages, we landed on Kitchener Island. A showplace of rare and exotic species of trees and flowers imported from all over the world, it was an ideal place to spend an hour in the late afternoon.

As darkness fell, we along with dozens of other tourist-filled feluccas, criss-crossed the Nile, enjoying the cool-relaxing breezes. On the northern hills on the west bank, we could clearly see the rock-hewn tombs of princes from the Old Egyptian Kingdom to the Roman period, illuminated by hidden spotlights.

Nearby, we could make out the outline of the Coptic St. Simeon Monastery, now in ruins. Founded in the 7th century, it was a base for missionary monks who converted the Nubians to Christianity.

The Nubians, some 3 million, have had a connection with Egypt since Pharaonic times. They are duplicated in many tomb paintings and reliefs - usually as mercenaries or traders. The Nubians make up half of the population of Aswan, but are distinct from other Egyptians, having different architecture, language and traditions. When the High Dam was built, its waters swamped most of their land and villages, and the people were moved to north of Aswan.

At the same time, due to the dam's rising waters, a number of the 24 temples found in Nubia were moved - the most notable being the world renowned Abu Simbel, a landmark in architectural concept. Today one can take a luxury cruise around Lake Nasser and view these temples which, because of their inaccessibility, were rarely visited in the past.

During our last day in Aswan, we explored the souks, full of oriental colour, then strolled the Corniche along the Nile. The edging mighty river was very appealing. However, under our feet and on the edges of the sidewalks, like in most towns and villages in Egypt, garbage seemed to be everywhere. Seeing my disgust at the strewn litter, Yvonne, one of our group who had lived in the country for a few years remarked, "To enjoy Egypt, you must look above the refuse and enjoy the abundant scenes and monuments."

Indeed she had a point. Aswan, like most tourist sites in Egypt, has much to offer. It has been a favourite winter resort since the beginning of the 19th century. For Europeans and North Americans, it is a perfect place to get away from it all, especially during the winter months.

How to Get There:

The best way to see Egypt is to take an organized tour from North America or Europe. There a good number of companies offering these excursions. No matter what one pays to take these tours, it will be much less troublesome and cheaper to join a group before travelling to that country.

If one does not join a tour group, Misr Travel in Egypt, 1 Talaat Harb St., P.O. Box 1000, Cairo, Tel: 20-2-392-3177, Fax: 20-2-392-4440, e-mail Misrtrav@link.com.eg will make arrangements for tours to any part of the country. Also, there are excellent river, air, bus and rail connections between Cairo and Luxor.

Facts to Know About Egypt:

1) Visas are needed to enter Egypt. Tour companies can easily obtain them, but they are available at the airports in Egypt - cost $15.

2) The best place to exchange foreign currency is in banks. Branches are found in all major hotels. The U.S. dollar hovers around 3.80 LE (Egyptian pounds).

3) Despite reports of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, Egyptians are very friendly and hospitable to tourists. The country is very safe - safer than most countries in the West. Also, in spite of poverty, crime is rare.

4) To get around the cities, taxis are the best bet, but you must bargain - make sure of the price before you enter the cab. Small autos rent for around $40. per day, but renting a car is not recommended. Traffic does not seem to have any rules.

A Good Places to Stay in Aswan:

Hotel Sofitel Old Cataract, an excellent luxury hotel which is reasonably priced. Abtal El Tahrir St., Aswan, Egypt. Tel:(+20)97/3l6000. Fax:(+20)97/316011. Daily cost for a room from a $130. to $160., depending on location. Also, hotels in Egypt charge an extra 26% for taxes and services charges.

Note: All prices quoted are in U.S. dollars

For Further Information Contact:

Egyptian Tourist Authority, 1253 McGill College Ave., Suite 250, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3B 2Y5. Tel: (514)861-4606. Fax: (514)861-8071.


Egyptian Tourist Authority, 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 1706, New York, NY 10111, U.S.A.

Web site: http://www.egypttourism.org

Tel: (212)332-2570 Fax: (212) 956-6439

Habeeb Salloum
58 Langbourne Place
, Don Mills, Ontario
Canada M3B 1A9
, Fax:416/510-2143

Muguette Goufrani, Africa Travel Magazine's Francophone Editor covers West African destinations and events in detail. Her native language is French and she has lived in five West African countries, working for Air Afrique, Royal Air Maroc and Citroen. As a Travel Agent, she worked in North Africa, where her family operates an inbound tour company, and later in Tahiti and Cambodia. Muguette has been a partner in the magazine since it was founded in 1995. E-mail Muguette with your travel experiences in Cote d'Ivoire and other West African destinations. We welcome your input.

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