The Aswan Dam is not the only dam on the Nile in Egypt, though it is the most commonly known. Completed in the 1970s, it is the second dam in this part of the river. The first is known as the First Cataract and was a dam built in the early 1900s. At that time, it was the largest dam ever built and is the reason that certain sites, like Philae were considered for relocation even before the Aswan Dam was started.
The building of the Aswan Dam led to the creation of Lake Nasser, an enormous body of water measuring around 300 miles long and more than six miles wide. A financial resource for fishing, it did end up flooding many important Nubian and some Egyptian monuments and historic sites.
The dam is also, according to experts, “one of the most important achievements of Egypt during the last century. For many years it was a symbol of the New Era of the Revolution of 1952 and provided Egypt with water and electricity and safeguarded the country from flooding.” Done with the support of the Soviet government, which offered financial and technological support, it is a stunning achievement.
Many visitors make a point of taking a tour of the dam and wandering the site. What is so unexpected by many is that there is a triumphal arch atop the dam, marking the completion of the project as well as a pretty and appealing garden area nearby. The tour does require an admission fee, and many visitors (in fact, a majority) visit the Aswan Dam as part of an organized tour or in the company of a local guide. This is because it is often part of a broader tour of the region, taking in some of the most significant and interesting sites in the Aswan area.
Is it at all interesting to visit a dam when such amazing historical sites are available? Actually, most are impressed by the technology that went into making the dam and the amazing scenery and views that can be enjoyed from the top. Looking out at one of the world’s largest artificial lakes and the surrounding desert is quite unforgettable!
FACTS ABOUT ASWAN DAM
It can be helpful to know a bit about the Aswan Dam, technically, before you pay a visit as this can help you better appreciate what a master work of engineering and effort it represents. Firstly, it is an embankment dam meant first and foremost to prevent the catastrophic annual floods of the enormous and powerful Nile. When finished, it actually increased the amount of cultivable land in Egypt by 30%!
Additionally, technical specifications on the Aswan Dam include that it is over 360 feet tall, more than two miles in length and over half of a mile wide. It houses a hydro-electric plant that can produce up to 2.1 million kilowatts using its six turbines and powering twelve 175 megawatt generators. It releases more than 55 cubic kilometers of water per year, with around 46 of them sent into irrigation channels.
There are emergency spillways that can accommodate up to 5000 cubic meters per second, and these are directed into the Toshka Canal where the Toshka Depression then connects to Lake Nasser. The materials used to build the dam are equal to the materials needed to build more than 16 copies of the largest pyramid at the Giza Plateau.
It cost approximately one billion dollars to complete, and this did not take into account the costs of relocating many of the monumental sites. Because of the rising waters of Lake Nasser during construction of the Aswan Dam, the Egyptian Government worked with UNESCO to relocate some of the most important monuments of Nubia. At the top of the list is Abu Simbel, which was divided into smaller sections and moved out of harm’s way above the water.
Yet, what many do not realize is that the dam was also built to protect many of Egypt’s finest temples. In fact, roughly 20 of them were being threatened by the annual floods in addition to the destruction of homes, loss of lives and more. This is why a visit to the Aswan Dam tends to coincide with a visit to some of those preserved or relocated temples and sites.
A short list of the places you may want to add to your itinerary or ask your guide about when arranging your visit to the Aswan Dam include:
- Philae – With the truly stunning Temple of Isis, this entire property was relocated to an island just below the First Cataract and was actually suffering from regular flooding for years before it was spared and re-established nearby.
- Kalabsha – This temple was one of the UNESCO projects also relocated to be saved. It was built to honor the Nubian gods of fertility and the sun during the rule of Augustus. This is also where the Temple of Beit al-Wali (built by Ramesses II) is found as well as the charming Kiosk of Qirtasi
- Abu Simbel – Almost synonymous with Aswan, though far south of it, it is often part of a daytrip that includes a stop at the dam. You may want to book a guide in the area and stay overnight at Abu Simbel to get the fullest experience of the stunning site.
Other delights to enjoy during a visit to the Aswan Dam include a felucca ride on the Nile, the unfinished obelisk site, the Nubian museum, a walk along the Corniche, a visit to Ferial Garden, a picnic at the stunning Aswan Botanical Garden on Kitchener’s Island, a trip to Elephantine Island on the Nile and adjacent to Aswan (where you can witness authentic Nubian daily life) and a few hours at the Aswan night market.
In fact, if you do have a guide, a visit to the night market might be one of the most exciting experiences as you get the authentic feel of the classic souk and encounter everyday people. The Aswan area is noted for its low-key slower way of life, and this wonderful market is reflective of that.
Remember, though, that Aswan (and the dam) experience tremendous heat at most times of the year. Be sure to keep a good supply of water, wear comfortable and protective clothing, sun block and sun glasses, and always sport comfortable shoes. This area is a great place to begin or end a visit to Egypt and will quickly become a favorite part of the experience.