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Adventures in Aswan

Aswan is overflowing with history, a place that has fascinated visitors from Florence Nightingale to Flaubert. So why is it so often overlooked by today’s tourists?

They know about alchemy in Aswan, for it is a place that has always shifted from one thing into another. To ancient Egyptians it was a line in the sand, a buffer against the barbarians of the south and a place of exile for troublemakers from the north. According to their myth-makers, it was also where the Nile had its source, gushing from a cave beneath rapids immediately south of town. For Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, travelling in Egypt in the winter of 1849-50, it was an obstacle that had to be overcome: their boats were manhandled over the rapids so that they could sail further south to Abu Simbel.

To Hisham, the young man who followed me halfway along Aswan’s corniche, it was the doorway to a land that has since disappeared beneath the waters of Lake Nasser: “Nubia, my home.” Given such rich suggestions, it is a shame that to most visitors today Aswan is no more than somewhere to start or end a Nile cruise.

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