The Nile Valley between Luxor and Aswan was the domain of the vulture and crocodile gods, a place of harsh nature and grand landscapes. Its cult places – centres such as Al Kab and Kom Al Ahmar – date back to the earliest periods of Egyptian history. The Narmer Palette, the object around which the origins of the 1st dynasty have been constructed, was found here, as was one of the earliest-known Egyptian temples, made of wood not stone. The area's Lascaux-type rock carvings and human remains have opened a window onto Egypt’s remotest, pre-dynastic past.

Yet most of what one can see between Luxor and Aswan dates from the last period of ancient Egyptian history, when the country was ruled by the descendants of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian general, Ptolemy I (323–283 BC). They ruled for some 300 years. Although they were based in Alexandria and looked out to the Mediterranean, the Ptolemies respected the country’s ancient traditions and religion, setting an example to the Romans who succeeded them. They ensured peaceful rule in Upper Egypt by erecting temples in honour of the local gods, building in grand Pharaonic style to appease the priesthood and earn the trust of the people. The riverside temples at Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Philae are as notable for their strategic locations, on ancient trade routes or at key commercial centres, as for their artistic or architectural merit.

Aswan’s history was always going to be different. However much Theban, Macedonian or Roman rulers in the north may have wanted to ignore the south, they dared not neglect their southern border. Settlement on Elephantine Island, located in the middle of the Nile at Aswan, dates back to at least 3000 BC. Named Abu (Ivory) after the trade that flourished here, it was a natural fortress positioned just below the First Nile Cataract, one of six sets of rapids that blocked the river between Aswan and Khartoum. At the beginning of Egypt’s dynastic history, in the Old Kingdom (2686–2125 BC), Abu became capital of the first Upper Egyptian nome (province) and developed into a thriving economic and religious centre, its strategic importance underlined by the title accorded to its rulers, Keepers of the Gate of the South. By the end of ancient history, with Egypt part of a larger Roman Empire, the southern frontier town was seen as a place of exile for anyone from the north who stepped out of line.