From the Egypt-Sudan boundary to the town of Aswan, a distance of nearly 195 miles (314 km.), the Nile flows in a gorge cut into, and in places through, the Nubian sandstone plateau. The river is narrow here, and there is little or no flood plain between it and the scarps of the bordering cliffs. Granite and other ancient rocks appear in two places in its course. At Kalabsha, 35 miles south of Aswan, during its high-water period it is a rushing torrent in a gorge of precipitous rocky cliffs, and for 21 miles upstream from Aswan its bed is cut in igneous and metamorphic rocks. Outcroppings of these form a six-mile stretch of rocky islands, beginning just south of Aswan, through which the river flows in a series of rapids called the First Cataract. It is on this rock, five miles south of Aswan, that the Aswan Dam was built.
There has never been more than a very small population in this section of the valley. While the river was in its natural state there was little arable land anywhere along it, and the small, scattered patches of cultivation in the stretch of nearly 100 miles now flooded by the Aswan Reservoir had to be abandoned before its first filling. The few families that have remained in the vicinity have reestablished themselves above the reservoir's edge and irrigate their crops by lifting water from it. Along the river south of the reservoir clusters of date palms several miles apart mark a few bleak settlements, most of them near wadi mouths, where there are small tracts of alluvium.
This section of the valley has neither railroad nor motorable roads. There is regular steamer connection for passengers and cargo between the terminus of the valley railroad at the village of Shallal (Arabic for cataract), on the east bank of the river opposite the south end of the First Cataract, and the terminus of the Sudan railroad at the border town of Wadi Halfa. The valley people, however, principally use sailing craft.
The town of Aswan capital of Egypt's southernmost province of the same name, marks the transition from the barren Nubian country to the green of the cultivated valley, although the green appears there mostly on some of the islands near the town and in narrow ribbons along the river. Since predynastic times a settlement on the present site of Aswan has marked the gateway to Egypt from the south, and for thousands of years this site was the chief southern outpost of the Pharaohs and their successors. On Elephantine ( Aswan) Island, in front of the town, is to be seen the nilometer by which the Pharaohs noted the arrival of the annual Nile flood and observed its height from year to year. On measurements made here the Irrigation Service still bases its estimates of the acreage of summer crops that can be irrigated each year.
On the islands of Elephantine and Philae (Anas el Wogud), opposite Shallal, are the remains of fortifications and some of the most beautiful of Egypt's ancient temples. The nearby granite quarries on the east side of the valley provided the stone for these, for certain of the pyramids and also for such well-known monuments as "Cleopatra's Needle", now on the Thames Embankment, and the Obelisk now in New York's Central Park.
Gleaming rocky islets, islands lush green with crops, the colorful granites of the east bank of the Nile, and the bright sandstone and sand of the west bank give Aswan a setting unsurpassed for beauty anywhere else in the valley. This setting and its superior winter climate make it a favorite resort for both Egyptians and foreign residents, for whom accommodations are provided in a number of fine modern hotels.