20 Best Sights in Aswan and Lake Nasser, Egypt

Temple of Isis

Fodor's choice

Dedicated to one of ancient Egypt's most important goddesses, the Temple of Isis rises majestically above the calm Nile waters on small Agilkia Island. Some stone blocks found on-site date from 690 BC, but the main part of the complex standing today is from the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–246 BC) and the Roman emperor Diocletian (284–305 AD). The devoted worshipped Isis here until the 6th century AD, long after Christianity took hold elsewhere. This building was the final temple constructed in this style, and it's where the last hieroglyph was carved.

The striking, 18-meter (59-foot) First Pylon is one of the temple's oldest structures, built by Nectanebo I (379–361 BC) but showing reliefs from Ptolemy XII (80–58 BC). To reach it, pass the Kiosk of Nectanebo—a roofless structure with offering scenes on its walls and about half of its original Hathor-head columns intact—and go through the First Court, lined with the Roman-built West Colonnade and unfinished East Colonnade.

On the left (west) side of the Second Court is the small mammisi (chapel depicting divine birth), showing the birth of Horus, son of Isis and Osiris. The grand Second Pylon, carved with gods and Ptolemaic-era pharaohs, reveals the entrance to the temple itself. Inside, the Hypostyle Hall consists of 10 columns that are mainly the work of Ptolemy VIII. The generous offering scenes continue, showing the pharaoh by himself or accompanied by his wife giving incense, vases, and wine to the gods. Christians repurposed the temple as a church, as evidenced by the defaced figures and Coptic crosses on the walls. Beyond this area lies the sanctuary, with an altar on the right. A side door leads out to the Gateway of Hadrian, and reliefs show the Roman emperor making offerings to the Egyptian gods.

East of the temple, close to the riverbank, the Kiosk of Trajan is a small open temple with supporting columns. Despite it being unfinished, it's one of Philae's most iconic structures and was often the subject of Victorian-era painters.

Like other ancient structures in Lower Nubia, the Temple of Isis was rescued by UNESCO in the 1970s. After the completion of the Aswan Dam in 1902, water partially submerged the temple during the Nile's flood season, and archaeologists feared that the damp would soften the monument's foundations and cause its collapse. It was moved to what was then known as Agilkia Island but was renamed for the island where the Temple of Isis originally stood.

This temple is one of four ancient monuments in Egypt that has nighttime sound-and-light shows ( soundandlight.show/en,  LE310)—the others are Abu Simbel, Karnak in Luxor, and the Pyramids of Giza. Some say that the Philae show is the least cheesy of the bunch. The first part involves walking through the atmospheric, partly illuminated temple, and the second delivers a brief history. Book show tickets online in advance, checking to be sure that the show you select is narrated in English.

Temples of Abu Simbel

Fodor's choice

The Great Temple of Ramses II is fronted by four 65-foot-tall colossi of the sitting pharaoh wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. One of the four heads fell to the ground in antiquity and was kept in that position when the temple was moved. Around the legs of the statues stand smaller figures of Ramses II's mother, his favorite wife Nefertari, and some of his children (he allegedly fathered more than 100). A row of baboons praising the rising sun tops the temple facade. A carved figure of Ra-Horakhty stands over the door to the temple between the two pairs of statues.

Inside, the hypostyle hall is lined with eight columns of Ramses II in the crossed-arms position of Osiris, god of the afterlife. The walls are carved with reliefs showing military conquests and other events from Ramses II's reign, including his self-proclaimed victory at the Battle of Kadesh (1274 BC) in modern-day Syria. It has some fine scenes showing Ramses on a chariot, and it also depicts the besieged city, the attack, and the counting of body parts of the defeated enemies. Protective vultures with outstretched wings decorate the ceiling. Several side chambers are accessible from this hall and were probably used as storerooms for the furniture, vessels, linen, and priestly costumes.

The second hall contains four square columns and is decorated with scenes of Ramses II and Queen Nefertari making offerings to the gods, including the deified Ramses himself. This hall leads into a narrow room where the pharaoh likely made in-person offerings to the gods of the temple. Beyond lie two undecorated side chapels and the main sanctuary, which has four rock-carved statues of temple gods: Ptah, Amun-Ra, deified Ramses II, and Ra-Horakhty. Twice a year, the first rays of the rising sun pierce the dark interior of the temple and shine on three of the four statues—Ptah, connected with the realm of the dead, remains in the dark. When the temple was moved, this solar phenomenon was taken into consideration and still happens, albeit one day later, on February 22 and October 22. Thousands visit on these dates, and ticket prices more than double.

The smaller temple at Abu Simbel is the Temple of Queen Nefertari, dedicated to the goddess Hathor. Six 10-meter (33-foot) standing rock-cut statues of Queen Nefertari and Ramses II front the temple, and note that it's unusual to see the pharaoh's consort shown in the same size. 

The layout of this temple is a simplified version of the Great Temple. The doorway opens into a hypostyle hall that contains six Hathor-headed columns. The ceiling offers a dedicatory inscription from Ramses II to Queen Nefertari. The hall is decorated with scenes of the royal couple making offerings to or worshiping the gods. A narrow vestibule follows the pillared hall, and the main sanctuary leads off this vestibule. The sanctuary contains a niche with a statue of Hathor as a cow, protecting Ramses.

Aswan Botanical Garden

Kitchener's Island

This botanical garden occupies all 17 acres of Kitchener's Island, named after Lord Horatio Kitchener, a 19th-century British commander of the Egyptian army who was fascinated by botany. Some of the nearly 750 species planted here don't exist anywhere else in Egypt, hailing from tropical Africa as well as from as far away as India and Brazil. The grounds make for a mildly pleasant stroll, but unfortunately too much of the space has been taken over by market stalls selling the same sort of stuff that you'll find at every tourist site in the country.

To reach Kitchener's Island, you have two choices. The easiest way is to arrange a full- or half-day felucca tour to all the sights on the West Bank and Nile islands through a company like Aswan Individual or your accommodations. Alternatively, you can hire a boat captain along the Corniche on the East Bank.

Aswan, Aswan, Egypt
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Aswan High Dam

One of the world's largest embankment dams, the Aswan High Dam gave the Egyptians control over the annual Nile floods for the first time in history. With financing from the Soviet Union, construction of the dam, a keystone project of then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser, started in 1960 and was completed in 10 years, thanks to the sweat of 30,000 Egyptians working around the clock.

The Aswan High Dam created Lake Nasser, one of the world's largest artificial lakes, which has a storage capacity of 5.97 trillion cubic feet. The dam's 12 turbines generate 10 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity yearly.

Ironically, damming the Nile has actually made Egypt's land less fertile because the silt gets caught in the lake, and farmers must now apply chemical fertilizers. An incalculable loss is the homeland of the Lower Nubians, one of Africa's oldest civilizations. The dam displaced 100,000 Nubians, who were forced to relocate and only started to receive government compensation for their lost homes and villages in 2019.

Display panels at the dam tell the story of its construction, and a stylized lotus monument commemorates the Soviet–Egyptian partnership.  If you're short on time, this sight is one to skip. Most visitors spend only 15 minutes here en route to elsewhere.

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Aswan Market


Though you'll see some of the standard tourist shop offerings, Aswan's market feels more local than others in Egypt. Stretching for several downtown blocks, some pedestrianized, along Sharia el-Souk (Market Street), it's mildly busy by day but absolutely packed come evening. Traders hawk such wares as spices, carpets, clothing, herbal remedies, and fresh fruits and vegetables, and although they are persistent, they are mercifully less aggressive than elsewhere. Restaurants and cafés can be found along the route and the side streets when you need a break.

Aswan Museum and Temple of Khnum

Elephantine Island

In a more modern side building off the historic museum (itself built in 1898 to house the British engineer of the Aswan Dam, but seemingly indefinitely closed for renovations), a few glass cases display archaeological finds from Elephantine Island, including pottery, jewelry, grave goods, and a marriage contract written on papyrus.

The archaeological area sprawls across most of the southern part of Elephantine Island, but the ruins are minimal and uninspiring compared with sites elsewhere in Egypt. Temples with quite a bit of modern restoration are dedicated to two of the three gods of the Elephantine Triad: Khnum and his consort, Satet. Northwest of the Temple of Khnum is a flight of metal stairs and a platform that offers a panoramic view of the small nearby islands and southern Aswan. Near the boat dock is the Nilometer, used to gauge the annual Nile floods and therefore the taxes due. 

For the site's high ticket price, the museum is disappointingly small, and the ruins are barely labeled.

Aswan, Aswan, Egypt
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Daraw Camel Market

Known for its Sunday camel market, Daraw is otherwise a hot, dusty, and flyblown place. The camels come up from Sudan along the 40 Days Road. Traditionally, they made the trek on foot, but now more and more of them arrive in the backs of Toyota pickup trucks, which the camel drivers rent at Abu Simbel for the final leg of their trip. Merchants from Cairo, mostly, make their way to Daraw to take the camels back to Cairo. The camels sold on Sunday are mostly destined for slaughter; rural Egyptians say camels make the best kofta (meatball) kebabs.

On Tuesday, the Daraw market sells, in addition to camels, livestock: sheep, goats, cows, bulls, and poultry. Full of dust, tumult, and herders with whips, market days are nothing if not colorful and crowded with people and animals. However, while it's an exciting experience to push your way through the crowds, if you have a soft spot for four-legged creatures, you should brace yourself for the occasional upsetting sight. And it can be dangerous: Animals in crowded, unfamiliar surroundings can, and do, bolt. After you inspect the varieties of livestock and exchange views with Sudanese, Egyptians, and Beshari tribesmen about the animals, saunter over to the produce section before moving on to inspect the different sticks, staves, flyswatters, whips, and harness bits on sale here. Trading usually ends by 2 pm. In summer, the market is very hot and very odorous.

Dress Code Alert: This market is not a vacation spot where immodest attire might be ignored. In fact, your guide may refuse to bring you if you are not dressed appropriately. This is rural Egypt, peasant Egypt, a rugged world where travelers of both genders had best wear long pants, long sleeves, and a headscarf—not just to be treated with respect by the fellah (farmers), but to avoid further distractions to the animals.

Daraw Camel Market

Hundreds of camels await their fate in a dusty lot while men dressed in traditional galabeyas (long, flowing tunics) barter and bicker over the animals, which often have their front left leg bound to prevent them from walking far or fast.

Many of the camels are brought up from Sudan on the 40 Days Road, one of North Africa's ancient caravan routes. From the other direction, buyers make the journey all the way from Cairo to take their pick of the lot. Most of these animals are destined for slaughter. Sellers show off their goods by giving the camels' fur a close shave so that their bodies can be better inspected.

The main market days are Saturday and Sunday, but keep in mind that some of the market happenings and the treatment of the camels might upset animal lovers. Trading usually ends by early afternoon. This camel market is not at all a display for tourists, so be respectful of the traders and don't get in the way of their business.

Gharb Soheil

Aswan West Bank

Gharb Soheil is the most touristy of Aswan's Nubian villages, but seeing it is still a good opportunity to get better acquainted with the culture. Vendors on the main market street sell wares that you've probably already seen elsewhere, but photographers, in particular, will delight in wandering past the colorfully painted buildings and huge bowls of brightly colored spices and dyes. Kick back with a shisha (water pipe) on traditional floor seating at one of the many cafés, enjoy a Nubian meal at a restaurant, and, if you don't want to leave, book a charming guesthouse for the night.

Monastery of St. Simeon

Aswan West Bank

This 7th-century sand-colored structure is one of the largest Coptic monasteries in Egypt. The complex is in ruins and feels like an abandoned fortress, full of dark barrel-vaulted passages and crumbling arches, but it was once a lively way station for monks preaching Christianity in Nubia and later for Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca—you can see their graffiti in some of the sleeping quarters. A few poorly preserved Christian frescos remain in the basilica and one of the rooms on the lower level. The vistas over the golden sands of the Western Desert will make you feel a million miles away from the Nile.

To reach the monastery, take a camel through the desert from the Tombs of the Nobles or from the nearby boat dock. From the dock, you can also make the uphill walk yourself, which takes about 15 minutes. It's partially paved, but wear sturdy shoes.

New Kalabsha

The largest freestanding temple in Nubia, the little-visited Temple of Kalabsha was built by Roman emperor Augustus, who reigned from 27 BC to AD 14. It's dedicated to Osiris, Isis, and Mandulis, an ancient Nubian sun god adopted by Ptolemies and Romans. He's often shown with an elaborate headdress of ram's horns topped with sun discs, cobras, and plumed feathers. The building was never finished, and only three inner rooms, as well as portions of the exterior, are completely decorated with reliefs.

Kalabsha's temple complex includes a mammisi (chapel depicting divine birth), a column-surrounded court and a hypostyle hall. Stairs from one of the sanctuaries go up to the roof, where you can soak up spectacular views of the temple, Lake Nasser, and the Aswan High Dam. In the 1960s, a German team moved the temple, saving it from the lake waters, and the Egyptian government thanked Germany with one of the original gates, now in Berlin.

Northwest of the Temple of Kalabsha, a walkway leads to the small rock-cut temple of Beit al-Wali. Ramses II commissioned this diminutive but colorful monument, probably for show instead of worship, and the walls depict scenes of the pharaoh clutching his enemies by the hair. Other reliefs demonstrate the riches of Nubia—including gold, ebony, ivory, leopard skins, monkeys, giraffes, lions, and gazelles—being awarded to Ramses II for his conquest.

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Nubia Museum

Aswan South

An effort to preserve the Nubian history that was on the verge of being lost because of the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the Nubia Museum houses more than 2,000 artifacts that highlight the culture and heritage of these people and the land. Arranged chronologically, the museum walks you through prehistory, the Kingdom of Kush when Nubian kings ruled Egypt, and onward through the Christian and Islamic periods.

Artifacts range from larger-than-life statuary to a small game of backgammon. A diorama presents scenes of rural Nubian life, informative if you don't have time to visit one of the villages yourself. Outside, the museum's grounds include a water feature representing the Nile, a reconstruction of a Nubian house, a cave with rock inscriptions, and part of a Fatimid-era cemetery. Allow about two hours to do it all justice.

Al Fanadek St., Aswan, Aswan, Egypt
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Qasr Ibrim

Once strategically placed on a headland high above the Nile, this ancient fortress is now at water level, trapped on an island by rising lake waters that are the result of the Aswan High Dam. Thanks to its once lofty position, Qasr Ibrim is the area's only ancient monument still in its original location, and archaeological work is ongoing.

Thought to have been constructed during the Middle Kingdom (2130–1649 BC), the structure had religious as well as military significance. Shrines were built to Horus, Hathor, and local gods of the First Cataract, and the worship of traditional Egyptian deities held on here well into the era of Christianity. Eventually, some of the temples were dismantled or converted into churches, and pilgrims recorded their journey by carving footprints into the rock. Note that the site is closed to visitors except for those taking Lake Nasser cruises, which stop here for a 15-minute photo op.

Seheil Island

Seheil is one of the largest islands in the Nile, and the tall hill on its southeastern flank was a quarry for granite. It was also used as a resting spot for those trading with the Nubians and by the pharaoh's army, who etched hundreds of inscriptions and cartouches on the rocks—the oldest dates from the Middle Kingdom (2130–1649 BC). A climb up the slopes reveals the Famine Stela, a hieroglyph-covered slab. Although it was carved during the Ptolemaic Dynasty (305–30 BC), it recounts an episode from the reign of King Djoser 2,500 years prior. The story goes that Egypt had been suffering from drought and famine for seven years when an adviser to the king suggested that he make an offering to Khnum, the god that controls the Nile flood. Khnum appeared to the pharaoh in a dream and brought back the flood, and Djoser honored him by constructing a temple in his honor on Elephantine Island, the ruins of which you can still visit.

You can reach Seheil Island independently by hiring a felucca or motorboat, or as part of a tour organized by a Nubian guesthouse in Gharb Soheil. In addition to climbing the hill to the stela, the tour might also take you into a Nubian house in the nearby village for tea and cakes.

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Temple of Amada

The oldest in Nubia, the Temple of Amada was started under the orders of Thutmose III (1479–1425 BC), and subsequent pharaohs continued its construction. Important inscriptions highlight ancient Egypt's military prowess against rebellious Syrians and a failed Libyan invasion. Between 1964 and 1975, the temple was moved to its current spot, about 2.5 km (1.5 miles) away from its original location. Unlike other temples in Nubia that had to be rescued from Lake Nasser, Amada could not be sawed into blocks for transport because that method would destroy its painted reliefs. Instead, a team of French architects devised a way to move the entire temple in one piece by placing it on rails and using a hydraulic system to haul it to higher ground.

Temple of Dakka

This Ptolemaic Dynasty–era (305–30 BC) temple was dedicated to Thoth, the ibis-headed god of wisdom. When the structure was relocated from some 50 km (31 miles) away in the 1960s, archaeologists found a number of New Kingdom (1550–1077 BC) blocks had been reused in the later building.

Temple of Derr

Constructed by the great builder, Ramses II, the rock-cut Temple of Derr was dedicated to Amun, Ptah, and Ra-Horakhty, as well as, of course the egotistical pharaoh himself. Despite its desecration by early Christians and use as a church, the temple still retains some brightly painted wall reliefs. It was dismantled and moved here along with Amada in 1964 to save it from being drowned by Lake Nasser.

Temple of Kom Ombo

Set on a curve in the Nile, Kom Ombo is a unique "double temple" dedicated equally to two deities: the crocodile-headed god Sobek and the falcon-headed Haroeris, a manifestation of the god Horus. Virtually all the structure visible today dates from the late Ptolemaic Dynasty (ca. 205 BC), but earlier structures and artifacts continue to be unearthed, including the January 2021 discovery of pharaohs' seals from the 5th Dynasty (2495–2345 BC).

A large open courtyard leads to the 10-column outer hypostyle hall with exquisite relief carvings that show gods and pharaoh coronations in fine detail, all the way down to their sculpted knees and clear-cut toenails. The reliefs continue through the inner hypostyle hall, a series of offering halls, and twin sanctuaries. The latter contain a set of crypts and secret passageways from which priests provided advice and the "voice" of god.

As in many other ancient Egyptian temples, much of Kom Ombo's decoration depicts scenes of pharaohs making offerings to the gods and the gods blessing pharaohs. But this temple also has some unusual carvings. On the back (northeast) wall along the outer stone enclosure, surgical and medical instruments such as forceps, scales, a stethoscope, and even a sponge are depicted on a table, possibly indicating that Kom Ombo was a center of healing. The goddess Isis is also shown on a birthing chair. Also, look for a calendar on the southwest wall of the offering hall, the only carving of its kind that shows the date of the Nile's flooding season.

On the north side of the temple, a large well at least 15 meters (50 feet) deep is connected to a series of basins that the cult of Sobek might have used to house newborn crocodiles. Fragments of a mammisi (chapel depicting divine birth) stand at the temple's western corner near the entrance. The way out leads through a dimly lit Crocodile Museum that houses 20 mummified crocs, the largest of which is a whopping 4 meters (14 feet) long. Those who prayed at Kom Ombo would leave behind offerings of mummified crocodiles and stelae, stone slabs decorated with the name of the pilgrim and a prayer to the god.

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Tombs of the Nobles

Aswan West Bank

Aswan's West Bank is the final resting place of the important regional leaders and senior officials of ancient Elephantine. A long, steep staircase climbs up to the rock-carved tombs, or you can take a camel from near the ticket office.

Atop the stairs, a path to the south leads to the Middle Kingdom Tomb of Sirenput II (1971–1928 BC), one of the best preserved in Aswan. Allow your eyes to adjust to the dim interior and watch the brilliantly colored reliefs of the deceased local governor and his family come to life. Six niches hold statues of Sirenput depicted in a mummified form. Farther south on the path are the Tombs of Mekhu and Sabni dating from the Old Kingdom (2345 BC). These impressive rock-pillared chambers contain original frescoes that detail Mekhu's murder while on an expedition in Nubia and his son's quest for revenge and to return the body of his father. More peaceful everyday hunting and fishing scenes decorate Sabni's side of the tomb.

High above the tombs atop the hill is the domed Tomb of the Wind (Qubbet el-Hawa), which has a phenomenal panoramic view of Elephantine Island and greater Aswan.

Only a handful of these tombs are ever open to the public, and it's an active archaeological site, so even some of those are likely to be closed or undergoing excavation on your visit. If you've already seen tombs in Luxor, these might feel a tad disappointing, but they will likely be much more peaceful and less crowded.

Aswan, Aswan, Egypt
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Unfinished Obelisk

Aswan South

High-quality granite from Aswan is used in temples, monuments, and obelisks across Egypt, and this failed extraction was instrumental in figuring out exactly how the ancients cut such huge pieces of stone from the quarry. The stonemasons discovered a flaw in this massive obelisk-to-be, and it was left imprisoned in the bedrock. Had it been raised, it would have stood 42 meters (138 feet) tall—larger than any other obelisk—and weighed 1,168 tons. 

This site is often included on Aswan tour group itineraries, but unless you're particularly interested in ancient stonework, save your precious vacation time for more interesting sites.

Sheyakhah Oula, Aswan, Aswan, Egypt
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