Less than 400 kilometers to the south of Cairo, the city of Assiut graces the Nile in the middle of Upper Egypt. Well worth a visit, we recommend you explore the city and the surrounding countryside on a two day visit from Cairo, or as part of a trip that includes Minya and Quena.
How to get there
You can take several routes to drive from Cairo to Assiut. We took the desert road recently built by the army. Though the route is definitely faster than the agricultural road, which takes you through endless towns in a scenic but tedious way, the desert road is very lonely. There are no stops, no cafeterias, no gas stations; nothing but desert for five hours. This can mean that the road has some reckless drivers but on the whole, if you plan ahead and bring water, snacks and a full tank, it is the most convenient way to get there.
The road itself feels like virgin territory; the asphalt is fresh and clean, the bus stops properly maintained, but eerily empty, even the sun seemed especially harsh. There are regular signs regular on the road that will ensure you are on the right track and there are several cities you can visit on your way to Assiut.
Be cautious on your way back, as there are several roads that lead out of town and can take you back to the one you took to get there. Although they all work and end up on the same road, it can be confusing and it is something to keep in mind. Be sure to ask the locals but be careful; they are so willing to help, they may end up pointing you in any direction, even a wrong one, just to avoid saying they do not know. Take advantage of their good intentions but apply the rule of three: ask at least three people and go for the answer with the most consistency.
Another option is to take the train. It will set you back about EGP 65 for a first-class ticket and it is obviously the safer option, both in terms of general security and motor accidents, but it will take anywhere from one to a couple of hours extra to get there, depending on the train you take or how fast you drive.
Where to stay
While Assiut offers many interesting places to visit, the city is not as prepared for visitors as other cities in Egypt are when it comes to hotels. There are a several located in the city centre close to or on the Corniche, but even if they boasts of hospitable owners and staff, the quality of the rooms often leave a lot to be desired for the international travelers.
If you value your comfort we recommend you stay on one of the large boats which permanently reside on the bank of the Nile. The rooms are clean and well maintained, and the boats offer often more than one restaurant and a top deck that will give you the chance to watch the sunset over the mountains as you gaze upon the rural vista on the opposite side of the river. This vista does not come cheap though, be prepared to pay between $ 90 and $ 120 per night.
Another good option is the University Hotel. Located on the spacious and clean campus, the hotel offers rooms and suites that are clean and equipped with all the basics. The university is only 10 minutes away from the city centre and connects to the main road that will take you to the monasteries. Staying on campus does not offer you the view the hotels on the boats do, but at easily a third of the price you can always choose to have dinner on one of the boats to get the best of both worlds.
The timeless Nile
Assiut is not a town to spend more than a few days in, but before you move on to the next town, be sure to spend some time on a felucca on the Nile. As the long, hot, dusty days draw to an end, make your way to the Corniche and board one of the many wooden, traditional sailboats.
A bit of bargaining at the onset of the trip is part of the fun and the captain of the boat would be sorely disappointed if you would not engage in this age old tradition. Expect to pay between EGP 30-50 for an hour and feel free to leave a generous tip before you disembark. Tourism has been very slow since the revolution and your captain will most likely be providing for a large family.
As you set off from the bank of the Nile you will feel you are entering a different world; the noise of the traffic on the Corniche will fade away as you gaze at the fertile greenery of the farms at the opposite side of the Nile. Seeing the sun set behind the desert mountains and the shadows slowly envelop the waving date palms on the river banks is an experience you will not soon forget.
The Corniche in Assiut is different from the one you encounter in Cairo. For one thing, there is very little separating you from the water and the Corniche is very well kept with spacious pavements and the nicer shops of the city across from it. There are an unexpected number of people riding bicycles in Assiut and one of the more memorable sights we saw on the Corniche was man sitting on a bench under a tree, reading a book at sunset, with his bicycle next to him.
The Corniche is also adorned with several boats that give a beautiful view over Assiut and they generally serve good food. We tried a strange spin on the traditional hawawshi and loved it. Another landmark is a building that seems to dominate the banks of the Nile and, unsurprisingly, it turned out to be the Ministry of Interior’s headquarters in the region. The traffic on this major throughway of the city is very well-regulated and sports traffic lights, one of the very few places in town which does.
It goes without saying that the Corniche is the nicest area of town, as is the case in almost every Egyptian city, or any other city where there is a body of water present. Although people are surprised by the presence of tourists in Assiut, they are never rude and are almost always very helpful and accommodating, especially if the visitors take the same measures.
The countryside around Assiut is beautiful. The mountains of the desert surround the fertile Nile valley on both sides, creating stark contrasts between shades of ochre, beige and soft browns, and every shade of green you can imagine.
The land is divided in little irregular shaped plots with irrigation canals crisscrossing the crops. Everywhere you look you will see families toiling the land, donkey’s pulling small carts that transport anything and everything, and little huts littering the landscape.
Traditional dress is the norm; the men wear light coloured galabeyas and white pieces of cloth wound around their heads, while the women are dressed in more subdued colours. Most women cover their hair, often with brightly flowered scarves and wear larger, darker scarves loosely draped over their heads and shoulders. The faces of the people that work the land are distinctly Saidi; high cheekbones and strong jaw lines.
The roads are a cacophony of donkey carts, children and tuk tuks, all making their way while having good natured conversations with whomever crosses their path. The pace is a lot slower than you find in the cities and people are not as used to seeing foreign visitors as in other parts of the country. Be prepared to draw some attention as you make your way down the Nile but take it in the spirit it is intended; the interest in your different appearance is often complemented by a friendly and hospitable curiosity in where you are from and how they can help you.
Rows of houses and small shops line the road, varying from the occasional large villa, complete with turrets and high fence, to small one or two story, unplastered brick houses. Many houses sport crosses either on their roof or built into the walls, side by side with those displaying crescents, churches and mosques can be seen everywhere.
The Harraq Monastery
The drive from Assiut to the Harraq Monastery is about 45 minutes long and only requires you to take the Corniche, by then a slow but straightforward road that will take you through the countryside and a few small towns. The monastery is located in a rural area that is nothing like Assiut. Do not let the fields around Assiut fool you, this area is the real deal. The monastery is also one of the few in Egypt that are not located in the middle of the desert.
As you enter the monastery, the surrounding poverty seems to disappear, giving way to a very neat and well-kept complex complete with churches, an old mansion, beautiful trees, a library and a souvenir shop.
As we walked through the fortress-like gate, we noticed architecture that could not be encountered for miles anywhere around the monastery; from a turn of the century building that seemed more fitting in Durell’s Alexandria, to an old mansion, dilapidated but still standing tall and proud. The churches were magnificent and rich in details and displayed ancient artifacts.
The mansion, we learned, was the monastery palace, built in 1910 in the shape of a cross. It has two stories which contain two sections each, which in turn containing four rooms each. The palace is used as a guest house to accommodate the Pope, bishops and VIP visitors. The palace also contains a large conference room and a library of manuscripts.
The oldest church in the complex, the Ancient Church of the Holy Virgin Mary, dates back to the first century A.D and is older than the monastery itself, which dates back to the 4th century when Anba Pachomius chose to build the monastery around the ancient church.
A priest we encountered in the church was helpful in answering our questions after we had answered a few of our own. When he found out two of our party were Egyptian and our local guide Mary was Christian, he admonished her with a small smile to pray first before asking all these questions. He was only half joking and the sense of humour the priest displayed perfectly describes the atmosphere of the monastery.
In the courtyard children were playing a friendly game of football, both boys and girls under the enthusiastic leadership of a teacher, and people were enjoying the nice breeze and the shade the trees provided. It was clear that the monastery is more than a place of worship, it is a focal point of the people’s social and cultural life. People came to play football, have food, sit, talk and have leisurely strolls in a world vastly different from that outside the gates of the monastery.
The women visiting the monastery grounds, especially the older ones, seemed to cover their hair in a similar way to most Muslim women of the same background and had it not been for the location, it would have been impossible, to determine to which faith they belonged.
The more recently-built church of St. George was much more elaborate than the first one, with sophisticated murals, detailed pictures of different saints, a grand chair befitting a pope and gold-painted columns. It was built in the 19th century, replacing an older church built in the 18th century, and has two beautiful high steeples. The church was a stark difference from the older one, which was more conservative in nature, not to mention that the people in the former seemed to come to pray more seriously while in the corners of the new church families sat together and chatted animatedly.
Other buildings on the grounds include the theological seminary, built in 1936, with the aim of serving the entire region of Upper Egypt, a second church of Michael, the Archangel and cells where the monks live.
The monastery has a well-equipped souvenir shop with nicely priced books, information guides and memorabilia of monastery. It was clear that the monastery is well regarded among the Copts in the area, as witnessed by the numerous buses transporting people to and from the place. The police presence securing the complex spurred numerous questions of non-Egyptian visitors but the police assured us it was for their own safety.
The Convent of Virgin Mary
On the western mountain of Assiut, 10 km south of the city, the Convent of Virgin Mary stretches along the steep wall of the mountain. Church towers and tall buildings seem to be plastered against the mountain and as you leave the road next to the Nile at the small town of Dronka towards the village of Deir Dronka, you pass several other churches, including a large, pink Catholic church, and walled-in farmlands that belong to the convent.
In the historic telling of the visit of the Holy Family to Egypt, Assiut was the last place they visited before returning to Palestine by boat. High up in the mountain a cave that dates back to 2500 BC was the last place they made their temporary home and it is this very cave that is the heart of the convent. As you zigzag up the road you realise the sheer size of the convent and the amount of churches the complex encompasses.
The convent was founded next to the cave, and the cave was transformed into a church in the first century and religious celebrations have been held here ever since. Paintings of the Virgin and Child are scattered around the church and a several altars are erected around the sides. During our visit a group of girls and nuns were singing Coptic hymns at one of the dedicated altars and the acoustics reinforced the stillness the beautifully performed ritual spread over the surroundings.
The convent is said to incorporate 17 different churches, besides the living quarters of the nuns and monks, reception rooms, halls for religious activities and rooms to accommodate pilgrims. Not all churches are open for visitors, as one of the nuns who declined to share her name told us. “We are here to serve God, it is not about me.” When we asked how many people lived in the convent she smiled slowly and said, “as many as God wills.”
The convent is well worth a visit, as some of the churches date back hundreds of years and sport beautiful artwork. The nuns are friendly and welcoming and a small tour will take you to the most interesting parts of the vast complex. Several miracles are reported to have taken place at the convent and apparitions of the Virgin have been reported to have been seen by many of the faithful over the years.
Every August the convent celebrates the fast of the Virgin Mary, attracting pilgrims from all over the world. During these celebrations, from 7 to 21 August, the convent closes its doors at 9 pm instead of 6 pm and visitors should be prepared for the large amount of people who will be participating in the mass during these weeks.
There were many groups of visitors on the convent grounds during our visit, in prayer, in song and just chatting in the open spaces between the buildings. It gave the impression the convent is very much a part of its surroundings and a visit is as much a social as it is a religious occasion.
Small shops offering simple snacks and drinks line the road that leads to the convent gates and inside the grounds you will find a small souvenir shop that carries everything from information about the convent and the churches to made in China religious souvenirs. The surrounding lands belonging to the convent are not lying idle and a small area of the square inside the convent is set aside to sell plants raised in the convents nursery.