LIFE IN CAIRO provides many reasons for wanting to get away from it all, but Egypt offers to get away from it all, but Egypt offers remarkably few places to do that.
Despite the excellent climate of hundreds of miles of coastline, there is hardly any place in the country suitable for a holiday of more than three days. The beaches of Alexandria are dirty and crowded; years of war, poverty and neglect have left most of the others undeveloped, isolated or off-limits because of military restrictions. Resorts that offer the standard amenities such as swimming pools, tennis or golf, and worthwhile food are almost nonexistent, though some are being developed now that the country is at peace. Distances are vast, roads are dangerous, the desert is forbidding and the hygiene is questionable.
For tourists, Egypt is an exhilarating country to visit, but as residents looking for a place to take a break from Cairo's noise, dirt and traffic we were not interested in running off to see the Sphinx or making the long boring drive to El Alamein. Under the circumstances, the two best choices were Luxor and Aswan. Luxor (subject of countless travel articles) is the site of the most spectacular pharaonic monuments, including the Valley of the Kings where the tomb of King Tutankhamen was discovered. In Aswan, there is less to do and less to see, which made it the best place for a restful long weekend.
Aswan is the principal city of "upper" or Southern Egypt, 500 miles up the Nile from Cairo. On paper its attractions are modest -- clean air, the Nile, peace and quiet and, of course, the great dam -- but it has gentle allure that is a compound of atmosphere, history and geography.
Africa begins in Aswan. The people, mostly Nubians, are darker-skinned than in the rest of Egypt. Their music has the rhythms of the Sudan and Ethiopia. Aswan was supply point and administrative center for the British campaigns against the Mahdist rebellion in the Sudan, and Lord Kitchener, the hero of those campaigns, planted an elegant garden in Aswan that is still notable for its tall palms and lush vegetation.
Aswan has about 500,000 people but it is really little more than two streets parallel to the river. It is possible to walk from one end of town to the other, but there are also horse-drawn carriages and rickety taxis. Along the inner street, a block from the river, Aswan has all the depressing problems of urban Egypt; inadequate housing, ragged dirty children, shabby shops selling dirty children, shabby shops selling inferior goods, vegetable stands and butcher shops aswarm with flies. But it is quieter and more languid than Cairo, somehow gentler in its poverty, and thus a good place for a visitor to see at leisure a face of Egypt that will not be on his tour itinerary in Cairo.
The river is narrow at Aswan, less than 100 yards across at some points. On the far bank, the brown rocky desert runs all the way down to the edge of the water and there is little to see, but the stream itself is dotted with the sails of little boats available for leisurely tours of the numerous small islands.
The best thing to do in Aswan is sit by the river and do nothing, but there are sights for those who need to move around. The great dam and Lake Nasser behind it, a few miles south of town, are worth a look. So are the Philae temples, great pharaonic relics saved from permanent inundation beneath the dam's waters by an international campaign that financed their relocation. The mausoleum of the Aga Khan is in Aswan; so is St. Simeon's monastery, the largest in the Coptic Christian church, dating back to the sixth century.
Aswan can be reached by road from Cairo, but I don't recommend it. The road is dangerous and there is little of interest along the route. There is also train service -- it takes 16 hours. The best way is to take the early-morning Egyptair flight. The plane stops briefly at Aswan to unload luggage, then goes to Abu Simbel.
The best place to stay is the Oberoi Hotel, which is on Elephantine Island and reachable only by ferry. It has a swimming pool and the best food in town. The Oberoi is where the shah of Iran stayed when he began his exile in January, 1979. If renovations have been completed, the close second choice will be the Old Cataract Hotel; it has landscaped terraces on the riverbank and a high-ceilinged, old-world style that induce a pleasant torpor. Also acceptable are the New Cataract, the Kalabsha and the Amun.
The approaches to the city are unprepessing, consisting of military camps and monochromatic desert. But the city itself offers a haven of flowering trees, perpetual sunshine, and a tranquil atmosphere where the call to prayer at the mosque, instead of jangling the nerves as it does in Cairo, rises exotically in the silence. Aswan is most popular in midwinter. From June through September, temperatures routinely exceed 110 degrees.