Southern Nile Valley
The Nile south of Luxor is increasingly hemmed in by the Eastern Desert, its banks lined with grand, well-preserved Graeco-Roman temples at Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo, and its lush fields punctuated by palm-backed villages – it’s the ideal place to sail through on a Nile boat. The once-great city of Al Kab provides the perfect contrast to the grandeur of the temples, while at Gebel Silsila the river passes through a gorge sacred to the ancients, who used stone from the quarry to built the temples in Luxor. Aswan, the ancient ivory-trading post, has a laid-back atmosphere and plenty of things to see.
South of Aswan, the land is dominated by Lake Nasser, one of the world’s largest artificial lakes. On its shores is one of ancient Egypt’s most awesome structures: the Great Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Southern Nile Valley.
This Ptolemaic temple, built between 237 and 57 BC, is one of the best-preserved ancient monuments in Egypt. Preserved by desert sand, which filled the place after the pagan cult was banned, the temple is dedicated to Horus, the avenging son of Isis and Osiris. With its roof intact, it is also one of the most atmospheric of ancient buildings.
Carved out of the mountain on the west bank of the Nile between 1274 and 1244 BC, this imposing main temple of the Abu Simbel complex was as much dedicated to the deified Ramses II himself as to Ra-Horakhty, Amun and Ptah. The four colossal statues of the pharaoh, which front the temple, are like gigantic sentinels watching over the incoming traffic from the south, undoubtedly designed as a warning of the strength of the pharaoh.
Built to honour the goddess Isis, this was the last temple built in the classical Egyptian style. Construction began around 690 BC, and it was one of the last outposts where the goddess was worshipped. The cult of Isis continued here until at least AD 550. The boat leaves you near the Kiosk of Nectanebo, the oldest part, and the entrance to the temple is marked by the 18m-high first pylon with reliefs of Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos smiting enemies.
Overlooking Lake Nasser, the Great Temple of Ramses II and the Temple of Hathor, which together make up the Temples of Abu Simbel, are among the most famous and spectacular monuments in Egypt. In a modern marvel of engineering, which matches Ramses II's original construction for sheer audacity, the temple complex was saved from being swallowed by rising waters and lost forever after the building of the High Dam, by being moved lock, stock and barrel to the position it sits upon today.
Standing on a promontory at a bend in the Nile, where in ancient times sacred crocodiles basked in the sun on the riverbank, is the Temple of Kom Ombo, one of the Nile Valley's most beautifully sited temples. Unique in Egypt, it is dedicated to two gods; the local crocodile god Sobek, and Haroeris (from har-wer), meaning Horus the Elder.
At Gebel Silsila, the Nile narrows considerably to pass between steep sandstone cliffs, cluttered with ancient rock stelae and graffiti. The good quality sandstone quarries here were systematically worked during the New Kingdom, when huge teams hacked out blocks that were floated down the Nile to Luxor to be used in buildings such as the temple complex of Karnak and the Ramesseum.
The little-visited Nubia Museum, opposite Basma Hotel, is a treat, a showcase of the history, art and culture of Nubia. Established in 1997 in cooperation with Unesco, the museum is a reminder of what was lost beneath Lake Nasser. Exhibits are beautifully displayed in huge halls, where clearly written explanations take you from 4500 BC through to the present day.
Construction of the Temple of Khnum, the ram-headed creator god who fashioned humankind on his potter’s wheel, was begun by Ptolemy VI Philometor (180–45 BC). The Romans added the hypostyle hall, the only part of the temple that is excavated and can be visited today, with well-preserved carvings from as late as the 3rd century AD.
Kitchener’s Island, to the west of Elephantine Island, was given to Lord Horatio Kitchener in the 1890s when he was commander of the Egyptian army. Indulging his passion for beautiful palms and plants, Kitchener turned the entire island into the stunning Aswan Botanical Gardens, importing plants from the Far East, India and parts of Africa.