Must see attractions in Southern Nile Valley

  • Top ChoiceSights in Abu Simbel

    Great Temple of Ramses II

    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. Over the centuries both the Nile and the desert sands shifted, and this temple was lost to the world until 1813, when it was rediscovered by chance by the Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burckhardt. Only one of the heads was completely showing above the sand, the next head was broken off and, of the remaining two, only the crowns could be seen. Enough sand was cleared away in 1817 by Giovanni Belzoni for the temple to be entered. From the temple’s forecourt, a short flight of steps leads up to the terrace in front of the massive rock-cut facade, which is about 30m high and 35m wide. Guarding the entrance, three of the four famous colossal statues stare out across the water into eternity – the inner left statue collapsed in antiquity and its upper body still lies on the ground. The statues, more than 20m high, are accompanied by smaller statues of the pharaoh’s mother, Queen Tuya, his wife Nefertari and some of his favourite children. Above the entrance, between the central throned colossi, is the figure of the falcon-headed sun god Ra-Horakhty. The roof of the large hall is decorated with vultures, symbolising the protective goddess Nekhbet, and is supported by eight columns, each fronted by an Osiride statue of Ramses II. Reliefs on the walls depict the pharaoh’s prowess in battle, trampling over his enemies and slaughtering them in front of the gods. On the north wall is a depiction of the famous Battle of Kadesh (c 1274 BC), in what is now Syria, where Ramses inspired his demoralised army so that they won the battle against the Hittites. The scene is dominated by a famous relief of Ramses in his chariot, shooting arrows at his fleeing enemies. Also visible is the Egyptian camp, walled off by its soldiers’ round-topped shields, and the fortified Hittite town, surrounded by the Orontes River. The next hall, the four-columned vestibule where Ramses and Nefertari are shown in front of the gods and the solar barques, leads to the sacred sanctuary, where Ramses and the triad of gods of the Great Temple sit on their thrones. The original temple was aligned in such a way that each 21 February and 21 October, Ramses’ birthday and coronation day, the first rays of the rising sun moved across the hypostyle hall, through the vestibule and into the sanctuary, where they illuminate the figures of Ra-Horakhty, Ramses II and Amun. Ptah, to the left, was never supposed to be illuminated. Since the temples were moved, this phenomenon happens one day later.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Abu Simbel

    Temples of Abu Simbel

    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. A higher price (LE240/120) is charged on 22 February and 22 October.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Aswan

    Nubia Museum

    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. The exhibits start with prehistoric artefacts and objects from the Kingdom of Kush and Meroe. Coptic and Islamic art displays lead to a description of the massive Unesco project to move Nubia’s most important historic monuments away from the rising waters of Lake Nasser, following the building of the Aswan High Dam. Among the museum highlights are 6000-year-old painted pottery bowls and an impressive quartzite statue of a 25th-dynasty priest of Amun in Thebes with distinct Kushite (Upper Nubian) features. The stunning horse armour found in tombs from the Ballana period (5th to 7th centuries BC) shows the sophistication of artisanship during this brief ascendancy. A fascinating display traces the development of irrigation along the Nile, from the earliest attempts to control the flow of the river, right up to the building of the old Aswan Dam. A model of a Nubian house, complete with old furniture and mannequins wearing traditional silver jewellery, attempts to portray the folk culture of modern Nubia.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Aswan

    Aswan Botanical Gardens

    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. Covering 6.8 hectares, the gardens are filled with birds as well as hundreds of species of flora. While it may have lost some of its former glory, its majestic trees are still a stunning sight, particularly just before sunset when the light is softer and the scent of sandalwood floats on the breeze. Avoid Fridays, when the place is invaded by picnicking extended families with stereos. Instead, come late afternoon when there is hardly anyone. The island is most easily seen as part of a felucca tour. Alternatively, take the northernmost ferry to Elephantine Island and walk through the village to the other side of the island, where a few little feluccas wait on the western edge to take visitors across to the gardens. Expect to pay at least LE50 to LE60 for a round trip.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Aswan

    Ruins of Abu

    The evocative ruins of ancient Abu and the Aswan Museum (partially closed for renovation) lie at Elephantine Island's southern tip. Numbered plaques and reconstructed buildings mark the island’s long history from around 3000 BC to the 14th century AD. The largest structure on-site is the partially reconstructed Temple of Khnum (plaque numbers 6, 12 and 13). Built in honour of the god of inundation during the Old Kingdom, it was used for more than 1500 years before being extensively rebuilt in Ptolemaic times. Other highlights include a small 4th-dynasty step pyramid, thought to have been built by Sneferu (2613–2589 BC; father of Khufu of Great Pyramid fame); a tiny Ptolemaic chapel (number 15), reconstructed from the Temple of Kalabsha (which is now just south of the High Dam); a reconstructed 18th-dynasty temple (number 2), built by Hatshepsut (1473–1458 BC) and dedicated to the goddess Satet; a cemetery for sacred rams (number 11), thought to have been the living embodiment of the god Khnum; and the ruins of an Aramaic Jewish colony dating from the 5th century BC. The Nilometer of the Temple of Khnum, number 7, is below the southern balustrade of the Khnum temple. Heavenly portents and priestly prophecies aside, in ancient times only a Nilometer could give a real indication of the likelihood of a bountiful harvest. Built in the 26th dynasty, the Nilometer of Khnum has stone stairs leading down to a small basin for measuring the Nile’s maximum level. When the nilometer here in the southern frontier town recorded a high water level of the river, it meant a good harvest, which in turn meant more taxes. Another stairway, with a scale etched into its wall, leads to the water from the basin’s northern end. Descending to the river’s edge from beneath a sycamore tree near the Aswan Museum is the Nilometer of the Satet Temple, number 10. Built in late Ptolemaic or early Roman times and restored in the 19th century, its staircase is roofed over, and niches in the walls would have had oil lamps to provide light. If you look hard as you descend to the river, you can see the names of Roman prefects carved into the left-hand wall.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Aswan

    Unfinished Obelisk

    Aswan was the source of ancient Egypt’s finest granite, used to make statues and embellish temples, pyramids and obelisks. The large unfinished obelisk in the Northern Quarries has provided valuable insight into how these monuments were created, although the full construction process is still not entirely clear. Three sides of the shaft, nearly 42m long, were completed except for the inscriptions. At 1168 tonnes, the completed obelisk would have been the single heaviest piece of stone the Egyptians ever fashioned. At a late stage in the process, however, a flaw appeared, so it lies where the disappointed stonemasons abandoned it, still partly attached to the parent rock. Upon entering the quarry, steps lead down into the pit of the obelisk, where there are ancient pictographs of dolphins and ostriches or flamingos, thought to have been painted by workers at the quarry. The Northern Quarries are about 1.5km from town, opposite the Fatimid Cemetery. Microbuses will drop you within a few minutes' walk. Private taxis will charge about LE20 to LE25.

  • Sights in Aswan

    Tombs of the Nobles

    The high cliffs opposite Aswan, just north of Kitchener’s Island, are honeycombed with the tombs of the governors, the Keepers of the Gate of the South, and other dignitaries of ancient Elephantine Island. The tombs, known as the Tombs of the Nobles, are still being excavated: significant finds were made in 2014 and 2017. Six decorated tombs are currently open to the public. The tombs date from the Old and Middle Kingdoms and most follow a simple plan, with an entrance hall, a pillared room and a corridor leading to the burial chamber. A set of stairs cutting diagonally across the hill takes you up to the tombs from the ferry landing. The adjoining tombs of father and son Mekhu and Sabni (tomb numbers 25 and 26), both governors, date from the long reign of 6th-dynasty Pharaoh Pepi II (2278–2184 BC). The reliefs in Sabni’s tomb record how he led his army into Nubia to punish the tribe responsible for killing his father during a previous military campaign, and to recover his father’s body. Upon his return, Pepi II sent him his own royal embalmers and professional mourners, to show the importance accorded to the keepers of the southern frontier. Several reliefs in Sabni’s tomb retain their original colours, and there are some lovely hunting and fishing scenes depicting him with his daughters in the pillared hall. Sarenput was the local governor and overseer of the priesthood of Satet and Khnum under 12th-dynasty Pharaoh Amenemhat II (1922–1878 BC). The tomb of Sarenput II (number 31) is one of the most beautiful and best-preserved tombs, its colours still vivid. A six-pillared entrance chamber leads into a corridor with six niches holding statues of Sarenput. The burial chamber has four columns and a niche with wall paintings showing Sarenput with his wife (on the right) and his mother (on the left), as well as hunting and fishing scenes. The tomb of Harkhuf (number 34), governor of the south during the reign of Pepi II, is hardly decorated, except for remarkable hieroglyphic texts about his three trading expeditions into central Africa, right of the entrance. Included here is Pepi II, then only a boy of eight, advising Harkhuf to take extra care of the ‘dancing pygmy’ he had obtained on his travels, as the pharaoh was very keen to see him in Memphis. ‘My majesty desires to see this pygmy more than the gifts of Sinai or of Punt,’ Harkhuf writes. Look carefully to see the tiny hieroglyph figure of the pygmy several times in the text. Hekaib, also known as Pepinakht, was overseer of foreign soldiers during the reign of Pepi II. He was sent to quell rebellions in both Nubia and Palestine, and was even deified after his death, as is revealed by the small shrine of Hekaib built on Elephantine Island during the Middle Kingdom (c 1900 BC). Inside the tomb of Hekaib (number 35), fine reliefs show fighting bulls and hunting scenes. The court of the tomb of Sarenput I (number 36), grandfather of Sarenput II and governor during the 12th-dynasty reign of Sesostris I (1965–1920 BC), has the remains of six pillars, decorated with reliefs. On each side of the entrance Sarenput is shown being followed by his dogs and sandal-bearer, his flower-bearing harem, his wife and his three sons.

  • Sights in Aswan

    Elephantine Island

    Elephantine Island's southern end comprises the site of ancient Abu. Its name meant both 'elephant' and 'ivory' in ancient Egyptian, a reminder of the important role the island once played in the ivory trade. The island's Nubian villages of Siou and Koti make a surprising counterpoint to the bustle of the city across the water. The island lies opposite central Aswan, just north of the First Cataract. A recent building boom has changed its nature, but it remains calm and essentially rural. At the beginning of the 1st dynasty (about 3000 BC) a fortress was built on the island to establish Egypt’s southern frontier. Abu soon became an important customs point and trading centre. It remained strategically significant throughout the Pharaonic period as a departure point for the military and commercial expeditions into Nubia and the south. During the 6th dynasty (2345–2181 BC) Abu gained its strength as a political and economic centre and, despite occasional ups and downs, the island retained its importance until the Graeco-Roman period. As well as being a thriving settlement, Elephantine Island was the main cult centre of the ram-headed god Khnum (at first the god of the inundation, and from the 18th dynasty worshipped as the creator of humankind on his potter’s wheel), Satet (Khnum’s wife, and guardian of the southern frontier) and their daughter Anket. Each year the rushing of the waters of the flood were first heard here on Elephantine Island. Over time religious complexes took over more and more of the island, so residential areas moved either further north on the island or to the east bank. The temple town of Abu received its coup de grâce in the 4th century AD, when Christianity was established as the imperial Roman religion. From then on, worship of the ancient gods was gradually abandoned and defensive fortifications were moved to the east bank, today’s city of Aswan. Siou and Koti villages lie between the ruins in the south and the Mövenpick Resort, which fills the northern end of the island. A north–south path crosses the middle of the island and links the two villages. Close to the wall separating the Mövenpick Resort from Siou village, facing Kitchener’s Island, is Baaba Dool, a gorgeous painted Nubian house, where the owner Mustapha serves tea, sells Nubian handicrafts and can arrange live music and dancing performed by local women. The roof terrace is the perfect place to watch the sunset on the west bank, with a multitude of birds flying around the island opposite. Also in the villages is Animalia, a charming Nubian museum. Western women should be respectful of local tradition and wear modest clothes. More and more visitors prefer to enjoy the traditional set-up of the villages, and rent flats or houses here for a few days.

  • Sights in Aswan

    Seheyl

    Situated just north of the old Aswan Dam, the island of Seheyl was sacred to the goddess Anukis. Before the dam’s construction, the Nile would rush noisily through the granite boulders that emerged from the riverbed just south of here, forming the First Cataract. On the island’s southern tip is a cliff with more than 200 inscriptions, most dating to the 18th and 19th dynasties, of princes, generals and other officials who passed by on their journey to Nubia. The most famous of these inscriptions is the so-called famine stele from the 3rd dynasty that recounts a terrible seven-year famine during the reign of Zoser (2667–2648 BC), which the pharaoh tried to end by making offerings to the Temple of Khnum on Elephantine Island. Next to the inscriptions is a friendly Nubian village with brightly coloured houses. Several houses now welcome visitors, selling tea and good Nubian lunches as well as local crafts. It’s a pleasant place to stroll around. Herodotus reported that an Egyptian official had told him that the First Cataract was the source of the Nile, which flowed north and south from there. Now the waters flow slowly and Seheyl makes an ideal destination for a slightly longer felucca trip.

  • Sights in Abu Simbel

    Temple of Hathor

    Next to the Great Temple of Ramses II sits the smaller of Abu Simbel's temples. The Temple of Hathor has a rock-cut facade fronted by six 10m-high standing statues of Ramses and Nefertari, with some of their many children by their side. Nefertari here wears the costume of the goddess Hathor, and is, unusually, portrayed as the same height as her husband (instead of knee-height, as most consorts were depicted). Inside, the six pillars of the hypostyle hall are crowned with capitals in the bovine shape of Hathor. On the walls the queen appears in front of the gods very much equal to Ramses II, and she is seen honouring her husband. The vestibule and adjoining chambers, which have colourful scenes of the goddess and her sacred barque, lead to the sanctuary, which has a weathered statue of Hathor as a cow emerging from the rock. The art here is softer and more graceful than in the Great Temple.

  • Sights in Aswan

    Aswan Museum

    The modern annexe of the museum has reopened with a delightful collection of objects, from weapons, pottery and utensils to statues, encased mummies and sarcophagi from predynastic to late Roman times. Artefacts are organised in separate glass cases, each explaining a particular facet of life on the island in ancient times. The main part of the Aswan Museum, housed in the villa of Sir William Willcocks (architect of the old Aswan Dam), was closed for restoration at the time of writing. Built in 1898, the villa became a museum in 1912 and houses antiquities discovered in Aswan and Nubia. Although most of the Nubian artefacts rescued from the temples flooded by Lake Nasser were moved to the Nubia Museum, there are some well-displayed objects here, with excellent labels in English and Arabic. At the right of the main entrance, in a room by itself, lies the sarcophagus and mummy of a sacred ram, the animal associated with Khnum.

  • Sights in Aswan

    Sharia As Souq

    Starting from the southern end, Sharia As Souq appears very much like the tourist bazaars all over Egypt, with slightly less persistent traders than elsewhere in the country trying to lure passers-by into their shops to buy scarves, perfume, spice and roughly carved copies of Pharaonic statues. But a closer look reveals more exotic elements. Traders sell Nubian talismans for good luck, colourful Nubian baskets and skullcaps, Sudanese swords, African masks, and enormous stuffed crocodiles and desert creatures. Aswan is also famous for the quality of its fuul sudani (peanuts), henna powder (sold in different qualities) and dried hibiscus flowers (used to make the much-loved local drink karkadai). The pace is slow, particularly in the late afternoon; the air has a slight whiff of sandalwood; and, as in ancient times, you may feel that Aswan is the gateway to Africa.

  • Sights in Aswan

    Animalia

    This is a small but charming museum run by Mohamed Sobhi, a Nubian guide, and his family, who have dedicated part of their large house to the traditions, flora, fauna and history of Nubia. It has a collection of stuffed animals endemic to Nubia, samples of sedimentary rocks and great pictures of Nubia before it was flooded by Lake Nasser. There is a small shop selling Nubian crafts at fixed prices, and a lovely roof terrace where drinks and lunch are served overlooking the gardens. Mohamed Sobhi is passionate and knowledgeable about Nubian culture and the natural world. He also takes people around Elephantine Island, and on early morning bird-watching trips. His daughter Fatma is also an excellent English-speaking guide.

  • Sights in Aswan

    Fekra

    Fekra is a farm located on 40,000 sq m of land on the lake between the old dam and the High Dam, and overlooks Philae Island. The Fekra Cultural Centre – fekra means thought or idea in Arabic – is a fascinating project of artists from around the world, aiming to support Nubian and Upper Egyptian artists, and to promote an international cultural exchange through organising artistic events and workshops. It's a magical place for its energy and wonderful location. A Nubian-style mud-brick house right on the lake, it's perfectly peaceful and a great place for swimming. It has midrange accommodation for 12 people and a few extra Bedouin tents, with shared bathrooms, but they were not welcoming guests at time of writing.

  • Sights in Aswan

    Aga Khan Mausoleum

    The elegant Tomb of Mohammed Shah Aga Khan belongs to the 48th imam (leader) of the Ismaili sect. In his illustrious life he was hugely influential in the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan, and was father-in-law to Rita Hayworth. The Aga Khan liked to winter in Aswan for his health and was buried here after his death in 1957. His fourth wife, Frenchwoman Yvonne Labrousse, known as Begum Om Habibeh, died in 2000 and is also buried here. The family’s white villa is in the garden beneath the tomb. The begum was known for her charitable work: the Om Habibeh Foundation continues to work to improve healthcare in Aswan.

  • Sights in Aswan

    Nilometer of Khnum

    The Nilometer of the Temple of Khnum (plaque number 7) is below the southern balustrade of the temple. Built in the 26th dynasty, the Nilometer's stone stairs lead down to a small basin for measuring the Nile’s maximum level. Another stairway, with a scale etched into its wall, leads to the water from the basin’s northern end. Heavenly portents and priestly prophecies aside, in ancient times only the Nilometer could give a real indication of the likelihood of a bountiful harvest. When the Nilometer here in the southern frontier town recorded a high water level, it meant a good harvest, which in turn meant more taxes.

  • Sights in Lower Nubia

    Temple of Ramses II

    Built during the reign of the energetic pharaoh, the interior of the Temple of Ramses II was hewn from the rock and fronted by a stone pylon and colossal statues. Behind the pylon is a court featuring 10 more statues of the pharaoh, beyond which lie a 12-pillared hall and the sanctuary. The central niche was once carved with relief scenes of Ramses making offerings to Amun-Ra and Ra-Horakhty. In Christian times this part was converted into a church, the pagan reliefs plastered over and painted with saints, so that now, with part of the plaster fallen away, Ramses II appears to be adoring St Peter!

  • Sights in Aswan

    Gharb Seheyl

    Gharb Seheyl, the village opposite Seheyl island, has become popular tourist attraction of late, both with excursions from Aswan and for those looking for a quieter pace of life. The colourful Nubian houses are a treat, there is a nearby beach for safe swimming, camel rides and a small Nubian crafts souq. A selection of laid-back guesthouses make it a popular stop to hang out for a few relaxing days. The best way to get here is by motorboat or felucca from the Corniche in Aswan (LE80 to LE100), or by road from the Aswan Dam.

  • Sights in Aswan

    Corniche

    Walking along the Corniche and watching the sunset over the islands and desert across the Nile is a favourite pastime in Aswan. The view from riverside cafe terraces may be blocked by cruise boats, but plans are under way to relocate them to a dock that is being constructed at the northern end of town; for now, the best place to watch the sunset is from the Old Cataract Hotel terrace or the Sunset restaurant.

  • Sights in Lower Nubia

    Temple of Dakka

    About 1km to the north of the Temple of Ramses II are the remains of the Temple of Dakka, begun by the Nubian pharaoh Arkamani (218–200 BC) using materials from much earlier structures and adapted by the Ptolemies and the Roman emperor Augustus. Originally situated 50km north of here, it is dedicated to the god of wisdom, Thoth, and is notable for its 12m-high pylon, which you can climb for great views of the lake and the surrounding temples.