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For thousands of years Aswan was the "Southern Gate," the last outpost of the Egyptian empire. Its name comes from the ancient Egyptian swenet ("making business"), and its reputation as a frontier emporium dates from the colonial era of the ivory trade and commerce in ebony, gold, slaves, spices, gum arabic, ostrich feathers, and, at least until 1929, panther skins. Today's souk
may be tame by comparison but is no less interesting. Among the restaurants, juice stands, vegetable stalls—and yes, souvenir shops—people go about the business of Aswan knowing that this is a gateway to Africa, and that the Tropic of Cancer lies just a few miles to the south.As seen in the climate-adapted architecture and gaily painted houses of the Nubian areas, Aswan town and its gracious inhabitants have an aesthetic sense rarely found in modern Egypt. This is a desert city, austerely clean, full of trees and gardens, the scents of baking sand and the Nile, oleander and frangipani.
All of Lake Nasser's interior monuments—those located apart from Aswan and Abu Simbel—can only be visited on a multiday lake cruise. They are...