See a list of chapters.


and nearby islands

La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924

tourism comes to Aswan
Once in Upper Egypt, on the borders of Nubia, there was a little humble town, rarely visited, and wanting, it must be owned, in elegance and even in comfort. Eight years and a line of railway have sufficed to accomplish its metamorphosis.

Not that it was without picturesqueness and historical interest. Quite the contrary. The Nile, charged with the waters of equatorial Africa, flung itself close by from the height of a mass of black granite in a majestic cataract. Then, before the little Arab houses, the river became suddenly calm again, and flowed between islets of fresh verdure where clusters of palm-trees swayed their plumes in the wind.

Squared Temple ay Elephantine.
The Roman Temple, Elephantine
from La Description de lEgypte 1809

Around were a number of temples, of tombs, of Roman ruins, of ruins of churches dating from the first centuries of Christianity. The ground was full of souvenirs of the great primitive civilisations. For this place, abandoned for ages and lulled in the folds of Islam under the guardianship of its white mosque, was once one of the centers of the life of the world.

In the adjoining desert, some three or four thousand years ago, the ancient history of the world had been written by the Pharaohs in immortal hieroglyphics--well-nigh everywhere, on the polished sides of the stones. Strange blocks of blue and red granite lie scattered about the sands like antediluvian monsters.

Yes, but it was necessary that all this should be co-ordinated, focused as it were, and above all rendered accessible to the delicate travelers of the Agencies. And today we have the pleasure of announcing that, from December to March, Assouan (Aswan), for that is the name of the fortunate locality, has a "season" as fashionable as those of Ostend or Spa in Europe.

boats on the Nile and Elephantine Island.
Elephantine Island, just north of Aswan, Egypt
by David Roberts, 1839.

In approaching Aswan the huge hotels erected on all sides charm the eye of the traveler, greeting him with their welcoming signs, which can be seen a league away. True, they have been somewhat hastily constructed, of mud and plaster, but they recall none the less those gracious palaces with which the tourist agencies have dowered the world. How negligible now, how dwarfed by the height of their facades, is the poor little town of olden times, with its little houses, whitened with chalk, and its tiny minaret.

The cataract, on the other hand, has disappeared from Aswan. The British masters wisely considered that it would be better to sacrifice that futile spectacle and, to dam the waters of the Nile by an artificial barrage, in order to increase the yield of the soil. Aswan now boasts a work of solid masonry which (in the words of the Program of Pleasure Trips) "affords an interest of a very different nature and degree" (sic).

Downstream of the first Nile cataract.
The first Nile cataract
by A Lamplough, from the 1909 edition of this book.

Rough water and many rocks at the first Nile cataract.
The first Nile cataract
by Vivant Denon 1808

Cook & Sons--a business concern glossed with poetry, as all the world knows--have endeavoured to perpetuate the memory of the cataract by giving its name to a grand hotel. As a result of their labors 500 rooms have been established opposite to those rocks-- now reduced to silence--over which the old Nile would seethe for so many centuries. "Cataract Hotel!"--that gives the illusion still, does it not? It looks remarkably well at the head of a sheet of notepaper.

The dam, it is true, in suppressing the cataract has raised some thirty feet or so the level of the water upstream, and by so doing has submerged a certain Isle of Philae. Absurdly enough, this little island passed for one of the marvels of the world for its great temple, surrounded by palm-trees.

But between ourselves, one may say that the beautiful goddess was a little old-fashioned for our times. She and her mysteries had had their day. Besides, if there should be any chagrined soul who might regret the disappearance of the island, care has been taken to perpetuate the memory of it, in the same way as that of the cataract. Charming colored postcards, taken before the submerging of the island and the sanctuary, are on sale in all the bookshops along the quay.

Philae Temple curves with the bend in the river.
A well known view of Philae Temple from Bigeh island.
by David Roberts, 1839.

Oh! this quay of Aswan, already so British in its orderliness, its method! Nothing better cared for, nothing more altogether charming could be conceived. First of all there is the railway, which, passing between balustrades painted a grass-green, gives out its fascinating noise and joyous smoke. On one side is a row of hotels and shops, all European in character with accompanying hairdressers and perfumers. There are numerous dark rooms for the use of the many amateur photographers, who make a point of taking endless photographs of their traveling companions grouped tastefully before some celebrated tomb. Cafes, where the whisky is of excellent quality, stay open into the night. It may be indeed that the honest fellahs and Nubians of the neighborhood, so sober a little while ago, are apt to abuse these tonics a little. Surely the path of progress.

Bigeh Temple, near Aswan
by Ernst Weidenbach.

On this quay of Aswan, so carefully levelled, we see the young trees, planted with the utmost nicety and precision, the flower-beds and straight-cut turf. Here everything is ticketed, everything has its number: the shaded stations where the brave donkeys are allowed to stand--"Stand for six donkeys". Some very handsome camels, fitted with riding saddles, wait also in their respective places and a number of Cook ladies, meticulous on the point of local color, readily mount for some moments one or other of these "ships of the desert."

At every fifty yards a policeman, still Egyptian in his countenance but quite English in his bearing and costume, keeps a vigilant eye on everything. He would never suffer that a seventh donkey should dare to take a place in a stand for six. Certain people, inclined to be critical, might consider, perhaps, that these policemen were a little hot-tempered regarding their countrymen, whereas they showed themselves very respectful and obliging whenever they were addressed by a traveler in a cork helmet.

In the evening the really respectable travelers do not quit the brilliant dining saloons of the hotels, and the quay is left quite solitary beneath the stars.

a group of crocodiles relax by the Nile river.
Near Wadi Dabod, by David Roberts, 1839.

Even the old Nile has allowed itself to be fretted and brought up to date in the progress of evolution. The women, draped in black veils, who come daily to draw the precious water, have forsaken the fragile amphorae of baked earth, which had come to them from earlier times and in their stead have taken to tin oil-cans, placed at their disposal by the kindness of the big hotels. But they carry them in the same easy graceful manner as before they carried the discarded pottery, and without losing in the least the gracious outline.

And then there are the great tourist boats of the Agencies, which are here in abundance, for Aswan has the privilege of being the terminus of the line. Their whistlings, their massive revolving motors, their electric dynamos maintain from morning till night a captivating symphony. The Agencies, desirous of restoring to them a certain local color, have given them names so notoriously Egyptian that one is reduced to silence. They are The Sesostris, The Amenophis, The Ramses the Great.

And finally there are the rowing ferry boats, which carry passengers incessantly backwards and forwards between the river-banks. The rowers, moreover, have been instructed to sing all the time the native songs which are accompanied by a derboucca player seated in the prow. Nay, they have even learned to utter that rousing, stimulating cry which Anglo-Saxons use to express their enthusiasm or their joy: "Hip! Hip! Hurrah!" You cannot conceive how well it sounds, coming between the Arab songs, which otherwise might be apt to grow monotonous.

A few stones covered with art stand in the desert.
The Egyptian Temple at Elephantine
by Vivant Denon 1808

But the triumph of Aswan is its desert. It begins at once without transition as soon as you pass the close-cropped turf of the last village square. A desert which, except for the railroad and the telegraph poles, has all the charm of the real thing. It has the sand, the chaos of overthrown stones, the empty horizons--everything, in short, save the immensity and infinite solitude, the horror, in a word which formerly made it so little desirable. It is a little astonishing, it must be owned, to find, on arriving there, that the rocks have been carefully numbered in white paint, and in some cases marked with a large cross "which catches the eye from a greater distance still"(sic). But I agree that the effect of the whole has lost nothing.

A few columns.
The Egyptian Temple at Elephantine
by G. Belzoni 1820

In the morning before the sun gets too hot, between breakfast and luncheon to be precise, all the good ladies in cork helmets and blue spectacles (dark-colored spectacles are recommended on account of the glare) spread themselves over these solitudes, domesticated as it were to their use, with as much security as in Trafalgar Square or Kensington Gardens. Not seldom even you may see one of them making her way alone, book in hand, towards one of the picturesque rocks--No. 363, for example, or No. 364, if you like it better--which seems to be making signs to her with its white ticket.

But what a sense of safety families may feel here, to be sure! In spite of the huge numbers, which at first sight look a little equivocal, nothing in the least degree reprehensible can happen among these granites; which are, moreover, in a single piece, without the least crack or hole into which the ill-intentioned could contrive to crawl.

No. The figures and the crosses denote simple blocks of stones, covered with hieroglyphics, and correspond to a chaste catalog where each Pharaonic inscription may be found translated in the most becoming language.

This ingenious ticketing of the stones of the desert is due to the initiative of an English Egyptologist.
Excerpted from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924

Round columns in an attractive small temple..
Small Roman temple at Elefantine
by Vivian Denon, 1808.

wings of the Sun.

Countless beautiful 19th century images of ancient Egypt
and 75 pages of architecture, art and mystery
are linked from the library page:

The Egyptian Secrets Library

Grand Nile Tour