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Introducing Esna

Most visitors come to Esna, 64km south of Luxor on the west bank of the Nile, for the Temple of Khnum, but the busy little farming town itself is quite charming. Beyond the small bazaar selling mainly tourist souvenirs are several examples of 19th-century provincial architecture with elaborate mashrabiyya (wooden lattice screens). Immediately north of the temple is a beautiful but run-down Ottoman caravanserai, the Wekalat al-Gedawi, once the commercial centre of Esna. Merchants from Sudan, Somalia and central Africa stayed on the 2nd floor here, and a market was held regularly in the courtyard, with Berber baskets, Arab glue, ostrich feathers and elephant tusks all for sale. Opposite the temple is the Emari minaret from the Fatimid period, one of the oldest in Egypt, which escaped the mosque’s demolition in 1960. An old oil mill, in the covered souq south of the temple, presses lettuce-seed into oil, a powerful aphrodisiac since ancient times.

Esna was until the early 20th century an important stop on the camel-caravan route between Sudan and Cairo, and between the Western Desert oases and the Nile Valley. It is now also known for the two Esna locks on the Nile, where cruise boats have to queue up to pass. The town makes for a pleasant morning excursion from Luxor, or a stop en route from Luxor to Aswan.

The tourist police office is in the tourist souq near the temple, and there is a busy souq, particularly Monday, beside the canal.