Explore Luxor, Aswan, Nubia, Marsa Alam
Aswan and Nubia
To the southern most part of Egypt is the laid back town of Aswan where you’ll find colourful streets, temples important to the gods of both the Egyptians and Nubians, and the world’s largest collection of Nubian artifacts.
The key places to visit in Aswan are:
Overlooking Lake Nasser and located in the village of Abu Simbel, near the Sudanese border, the Abu Simbel temples consist of two magnificent and iconic temples built by the great Pharaoh King Ramses II. These temples were located at the southern most frontier of pharaonic Egypt, facing Nubia. The temples are part of a UNESCO World Heritage site known as the Nubian Monuments, which runs from Abu Simbel downriver to Philae. The twin temples were carved out of the sandstone mountainside and are engineering marvels. The larger of the two temples consists of four 20 metre seated Ramses figures on either side of the entrance, with little figurines of Ramses’ children, wife (Queen Nefertari) and mother at his feet. The temple itself is dedicated to the sun gods, Amon-Re and Re-Horkathe. The temple consists of three consecutive halls extending 185 metres into the cliff and on two days of the year, 22 February and 22 October, the first rays of sun illuminate the entire inner sanctuary of the temple. The second, and smaller of the two temples, is dedicated to Queen Nefertari and to Hathor, goddess of love, fertility, and femininity. In a five year project involving a workforce and funds from over 50 countries, the entire temples were dismantled and moved to higher ground as a result of the flooding risk posed by the newly formed, Lake Nasser.
Aswan High Dam
Not so much because it is a dam with one of the world’s largest artificial lakes, but more so because it is historically one of the most controversial dams, making a visit to this site a necessary stop.
To the north of the Aswan Dam this island is fascinating for what’s in it as much as what’s around it. One of the few places where the journey is as equally breathtaking as the destination, Sehyl is home centuries old inscriptions and a Nubian village brimming with hospitality. The views along the Nile are Insta- worthy.
Aswan Botanical Gardens
Imagine this—an entire island that is a botanical garden! Kitchener’s Island, on which the Botanical Garden sits, was given to Horatio Kitchener in 1890 who used it to indulge in his passion for plants, trees and flowers and produce this magnificent garden. The garden is a delight, but we suggest avoiding Fridays when families from surrounding areas spend their day off here.
Traveller’s tip: for the islands around Aswan, we highly suggest taking a felucca to each destination. One of the things Egypt is famous for is the Nile scenery along this stretch of water.
Running along the Nile River and enclosing the area between Aswan and Khartoum (Sudan), the Nubia region is home to one of the oldest ancient African civilizations, with its history being traced as far back as 2500BC. Today, while most Nubians were forced from their homes and lands to make way for the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, small communities can still be found primarily in Aswan.
To get a feel for both Nubian history and Nubian culture, today, start with a visit to Elephantine Island, the largest of the Aswan area islands. The Island was a strategically significant point of power for centuries as it was a key political and economic centre for the Pharaohs and all other colonizing empires that wanted to access trade south of Egypt or control Nubian territory.
Take a felucca out to the island from the mainland. Here you’ll find the Temple of Khnum, built to honour the Nile God for the yearly flooding.
Beyond the Movenpick resort lay the Nubian villages, Siou and Koti. There you’ll find traditional Nubian hospitality among the colourful mud brick houses. Continue to the island’s southern tip where you’ll find the Ruins of Abu, ancient Aswan’s centre, the last of the nilometres which used to record the Nile’s water level to assess the conditions for harvest, and the relatively new Aswan Museum is where you’ll find the majority of artifacts excavated from this island.
The nearby island of Philae, located in the reservoir of the Aswan low dam, was revered by both the Egyptians and the Nubians because it is believed to be one of the burying places of Osiris, god of fertility. Monuments of various eras, from the Pharaohs to the Caesars occupy the island. The most compelling, and oldest, of the Island’s artifacts Temple of Isis, a goddess worshiped by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.
If you only had a few things to do in Aswan, visiting the Nubian Village, Gharb Soheil would top our list. Located by the Nile, not far from Sehyl Island, lies the well persevered Nubian Village, as it is locally known, with the colored houses and stairways, and murals on the sides of homes. Spend a few hours walking around and talking to the locals, as they tell you about their histories and maybe even show one of their crocodile pets. In the nearby market, you’ll find everything from trinkets and spices, to Nubian clothes and souvenirs.
South of this village is the Nubian Museum where you’ll find the majority of Nubia’s history that was salvaged before the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. Established as part of a UNESCO international campaign to save the Nubian heritage, the Museum serves a key site for Nubian history and culture. It is both a place of history and a community space, and has won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2001 for its unique approach to evoking traditional Nubian village architecture.
Most famously known as the final resting place of the two greats, the boy king, Tutankhamun, and Ramses II, the most powerful of the Pharaohs, Luxor is a city filled with temples and treasures.
The ancient city of Thebes, the former capital of the ancient Egyptian empire, was a gleaming site of monuments and temples embellished with the spoils from Asia. Today, Luxor sits on part of this former majestic city and is filled with attractions on both sides of its Nile. While you’ll find the colourful chaos of the souks on the East Bank, the West Bank is where you’ll find the temples and tombs that make for the largest open-air museum in the world.
We suggest the following must-see places in Luxor:
Valley of the Kings
In the heart of the Theban necropolis on the West Bank of the Nile stands the Valley of the Kings, a series of elaborate tombs that formed the burial ground for Egypt’s strongest and most powerful Pharaoh’s, including Tutankhamun, Seti I, Ramses II, and other high priests and queens. The tombs also held treasures and all the things that the Pharaohs would need in their afterlife. This UNESCO World Heritage site consists of 63 tombs, 18 of which are open to the public.
Temple of Hatshepsut
Near the Valley of the Kings, you will discover one of the most striking architectural marvels, the Temple of Hatshepsut. Hateshepsut was the long reigning female pharaoh and was known for her many achievements, including erecting obelisks, building roads, her many architectural achievements and, most of all, building her temple right to the Temple of Mentuhotep II to reinforce her position among kings. As it is within the same complex as Valley of the Kings, make sure to start your journey very early to avoid the sweltering heat.
As the largest religious building ever constructed, the Karnak Temple was constructed over 2,000 years ago. Covering an area of over 2sq.km and consisting sanctuaties, kiosks, pylons and obelisks, the Temple was built in dedication to the Theban Triad, the most important group of gods consisting of Amun, his consort Mut, and their son Khonsu. The largest room in the complex is the Hypostle Hall which is approximately 16,459metres and consists of 134 columns. Karnak is the embodiment of the glory of the pharaohs. Approximately 30 different pharaohs contributed to the building of the site, helping it reach a size of mammoth proportions. At the heart of the complex is the great Temple of Amun-Ra, the god of the gods.
Just a short distance from the Karnak Temple lies the Luxor Temple at the end a 3km paved avenue of human-headed sphinxes that once linked the two temples. Unlike other temples dedicated to gods or tombs for pharaohs, the Luxor Temple, it is said, is dedicated to the rejuvenation and celebration of kingship. It is believed that many of the pharaohs were crowned here. As with Karnak, many phaoroahs, including Tutankhamun, Hatshepsut, Ramses II, and Amenhotep III contributed to the building of this magnificent structure.
Traveller’s tip: we suggest going to Karnak in the late afternoon so you can enjoy the magnificent sunset and be close enough to the Luxor Temple to take in its beauty as it lights up in the evening.
Only rivalled by the Cairo museum, the Luxor museum houses an amazing collection of antiquities and artifacts from the time of the pharaohs through to the Mamluk period.
Valley of the Queens
Originally known as Ta-Set-Neferu (or place of beauty), the Valley of the Queens is the wives of the Pharaoh’s were buried. The main wadi, or valley, holds about 90 tombs, and another 19 tombs can be found in the subsidiary valleys. One of the most famous Queens to have been buried here was Queen Nefertari, the powerful wife of Ramses II, and Hatshepsut, the longest reigning and most powerful of the female Pharaohs.
For a much-needed break from the desert and tombs of Luxor and Aswan, head over to the beautiful seaside town of Marsa Alam. A short 4 hour car ride from Luxor, Marsa Alam is famous for sandy beaches, coral reefs, sea turtles and the Wadi El Gemal National Park. We suggest the following sights:
Wadi El Gemal National Park
Covering an area of over 7,000 km2, this rich area of land and coastal water is home to diverse ecological habitats, and a variety of birds and animals. Among the mangrove and Acacia trees you’ll find mammals, such as the Nubian Ibex, Dorcas Gazelle and African Wild Ass, and a long list of bird species that includes the Striated Heron, the Western Reef Heron, the Spoonbill, the Osprey, the Caspian Tern and several protected falcons such as the Sooty Falcon. Within the crystal clear waters take note of the large marine diversity that includes sea turtles, dolphins, dugongs, sharks, snappers, emperors, goatfish, wrasses, parrotfish, sturgeonfish, and rabbitfish. Wadi El Gemal is also home to the indigenous Ababda tribe, a nomadic Bedouin tribe that traces its roots in the area to as far back as the Romans, who they were at constant war with. Enjoy the abundance of history, stories, culture, and food they provide to visitors.
Visit the Wadi Qulaan protectorate inside the Wadi El Gemal National Park. In addition to being an escape from touristic beaches, Wadi Qulaan boasts an unspoiled nature where you can enjoy swimming, hiking and bird watching. Gabal Hemata is a specific place where you’ll spot the Nubian Ibex and Dorcas Gazelle.
Diving at Elphinstone Reef
While diving is a must do in Marsa Alam, as a result of its rich marine diversity, Elphinstone is a particular experience. Located 30km off the coast of Marsa Alam, is a standalone reef that sits atop a summit of a subterranean mountain and is rich with colourful corals, a variety of fish species, dolphins and sharks.
Red Sea and Sinai
The Western side of Egypt, beyond Alexandria and heading towards the Libyan border, is where you’ll find most of Egypt’s undiscovered gems—undiscovered beyond the locals of the region, that is.
Sitting between the Qattara Depression and the Great Sand Sea in Egypt’s Western Desert, lies the urban oasis of Siwa. A largely recluse region, this area is home to Egypt’s Amazigh population, an indigenous group that spreads throughout North Africa and as far as western Africa. This oasis in the barren Western Desert is a sight to behold with its over 200 mineral springs, salt lakes and endless olive and palm groves. There is much to do in Siwa. Start by visiting the Shaili Fortress, uniquely built with clay and salt, from where you can get a bird’s eye view of the salt lake, palm trees, and houses of Siwa. Go swimming or watch the sunset while trying palm drink with milk among the palm trees and secluded fresh water pool at Fatnis Island. Visit the Temple Of Oracle which was originally dedicated to the god Amun, before it’s name was changed after Alexander the Great’s visit—or so the story goes. Take a trip to Taghaghien Island in the middle of Lake Siwa. Surrounded by turquoise waters, limestone rock formations, golden desert, and green fields against a mountain backdrop, this island features African style bungalows and a big natural spring. In general, Siwa’s lakes are known for their healing affects, particularly on skin, eyes, and sinuses due to their high levels of salt and minerals. There are many lakes in the area, including Zeitoun Lake. Another must visit body of water is Cleaopatra’s Pool, Siwa’s most famous spring. Not far from the Temple of Oracle, this pool of warm, natural sulphuric ground water is known to calm the soul and relax the body. Finally, visit the Siwa House Museum, is a traditional Siwan house featuring artifacts from Siwan history, including music instruments, jewellery, and costumes. Don’t forget to check out the Siwan arts and crafts during your visit, where you’ll find great gifts or home décor. The local olive oil is a delicacy to bring back home.
This 300km2 national park is famous for its surreal white chalk rock formations, which appear like oddly shaped glaciers in the gold desert from afar. The area is best seen with sunrise or sunset. For those wanting a slightly more intimate adventure, you can camp out in the desert among the rocks and the sea of stars. But, make sure to book with a local tour operator as individuals will not be allowed to camp on their own.
Not far from Siwa and at the edge of the Great Sand Sea, is the Shiatta salt lake. This spot is surrounded by palm trees and is a popular stopover for migratory birds, including flamingos, and animals, like gazelles.
Traveller’s tips: Siwa is known for its eco tourism and here you’ll find many eco lodges, including the The Adrère Amellal and Taziry Eco Villages.
Not far from Siwa, to the north and on the Mediterennean is the exotic seaside town of Marsa Matruh. Bright, white sand beaches and the turquoise blue, warm waters of ocean surround you as you relax and enjoy a different kind of water adventure.