We wrapped up the Cairo portion of our guided tour with a visit to two mosques in the city, then hopped on a plane to Aswan, home to the high dam that created Lake Nasser in 1971.
The first stop before leaving Cairo was a visit to the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan, built in the 14th Century. It’s one of the largest in the world. Our second visit was to the nearby Al Rifa’i Mosque, which was completed in 1912. It was built to show the modernization of Cairo at the time. Several Egyptian royal family members are buried in the mosque. It’s also where the former Shah of Iran, Reza Palavi, is interned. People of my generation certainly remember him.
The imams of each mosque sang a prayer, which was interesting. As I’ve said, I’m not religious but it seemed soulful. The imam of the Mosque Madrassa had a particularly impressive voice.
We then jetted off to Aswan, a city of roughly 1 million in southern Egypt. The flight was short and uneventful, and the best part is we were ensconced for two nights at the famous Old Cataract Hotel, built in 1899 by Thomas Cook for European travelers. Agatha Christie wrote parts of her novel “Death on the Nile” while staying at the hotel. Winston Churchill would stay in a suite overlooking the Nile whenever he visited that can be rented for a mere $6,000 a night. Our more modest lodgings in a newer wing were still pretty sweet. (Watch the 1978 movie version for more location shots, skip the 2022 remake.)
The change in scenery and vibe is stark. Aswan is the beginning of a region known as Nubia that stretches south to Khartoum in Sudan. Nubians have a culture and language all their own that feels more African than Arabic. The scenery is also much better, not to mention the air quality. (The pollution in Cairo was quite heavy.)
On our first night in Aswan we again traveled to private homes for dinner, a feature of our tour operator, Overseas Adventure Travel. We split into two groups and visited families that lived near one another on the outskirts of Aswan.
The host families were uniformly sweet and welcoming people, similar to our experience in Jordan. We visited the home of a retired operations engineer at the Aswan hydroelectric facility and his wife, who is still working as a chemistry teacher. Their daughter Caty helped host us along with here sister-in-law, Myrna, and their young children. Caty is a pharmacist who works for the Egyptian government. She’s at the foreground of the selfie photo she took of our group. One of the things we learned is that they have being hosting groups of OAT travelers for three seasons. One of the benefits for them is it helps them to practice their English, and meet new people.
The next day we visited our first of two Egyptian temples, each relocated block by block to different locations to avoid losing them underwater after the building of the Aswan High Dam. The first was a visit to the Philae temple, which can only be reached by boat. It’s primarily a temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis. The next day we will drive further south to see Abu Simbel, which from some of our pre-trip reading might be one of the more interesting sites on this trip. (Which is saying a lot when you’ve seen the pyramids.)
We were able to enjoy some downtime by the hotel pool in the afternoon while other travelers shopped for jewelry. The weather is great here this time of year with highs in the mid 70s and bright blue skies. In the evening we took a trip to the city’s Spice Market. It’s the one thing on this trip I wish I could have skipped. The spice shops are fine as they are selling products you might actually want and need. Unfortunately the market is also chock-a-block with very aggressive vendors largely selling cheap items of poor quality.
If getting chased down the street by someone badgering you to buy a crappy scarf you don’t really want is your cup of tea, have at it. But I know our feedback to the tour operator will be to make this strictly an optional activity. But it’s a minor complaint, overall this trip has been great so far, and it’s nice to have someone handling the logistics.