Al-Ahram Weekly Online
28 June - 4 July 2001
Issue No.540
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Secrets and spies

The city of Rosetta is woefully undersold as a tourist destination and deserves far better. Ahmed Sami visits the old city

Rosetta gave Egyptologists their most useful relic. It was through the Rosetta Stone that Champollion discovered how to read hieroglyphics and decipher the written text of a lost culture. But Rosetta, or Rashid, is also so rich in Islamic monuments that it was chosen in 1997 as one of the treasures of the international "museum without frontiers."

With its abundant heirlooms from the past, the city is well worth a visit. But be ready for adventure: Rosetta is still some way off the traditional tourist map. The city is perched on the west bank of the Rosetta branch of the Nile, 60 km east of Alexandria. But while Alexandria has lately enjoyed a renaissance, Rosetta still paddles in the shallows of history.

Rosetta began its decline in modern times when Mohamed Ali built the Mahmoudiya Canal to carry Nile water to Alexandria. As the great port at Alexandria flourished, Rosetta's shipping industry withered. The unkindest cut came when the High Dam at Aswan was built, diverting the Nile and its rich silt deposits away from Rosetta. The city's freshwater fishing industry ebbed and the shoreline decayed.

So marginal did the city become that, until recently, the traveler could reach Rosetta from Cairo only by way of Damanhur. For 55 kilometres, the route ran over unpaved roads. Some improvements have now been made, and the road from Alexandria to Rosetta is nearly complete. The occasional intrepid Alexandrian is already finding Rosetta a suitable destination for a day out -- but a day trip only: the city lacks all but basic overnight accommodation.

Yet when I visited Rosetta, it was immediately plain that it was a tremendous place to see. Elegant Ottoman buildings still line the streets. Baths, mosques, houses, old mills and monuments whisper seductively to the visitor. Over them all looms the formidable Mameluke citadel of Qayt Bey, built in 1472, with its Abul-Rish gate, the only one remaining in the ancient city walls. Several buildings are restored in red and black brick, their facades decorated with finely carved woodwork (mashrabiyya). The historic buildings are concentrated along two main streets, Al-Sheikh Kandil and Dahliz Al-Mulk. Organised tours to the city, if ever they were arranged, would be straightforward.

There is still far to go, however. Although the buildings have been improved, the five-metre-wide streets are still packed with fish markets and vegetable stalls, making visiting difficult. The streets are sluiced with drain water.

Braving this obstacle course, I visited Sharia Al-Sheikh Kandil. The street is known for its mosque of the same name, as well as houses that bear the Kandil name and the famous Al- Amasyali house. After seeing the houses I walked along Sharia Dahliz Al-Mulk to explore the Orabi mosque and other houses, including a four-storey house which once belonged to an 18th century judge named Ramadan. Inside the walls runs a secret passage, which starts inside a cupboard on the second floor and leads through a narrow passage between the first and second floors, branching off to other rooms and baths. These were secret living quarters to be used when enemies threatened. I was intrigued to find a small prison at one end.

Rosetta's most famous building is the ruined Zaghlul mosque, with its 244 columns of granite and marble and 200 small domes. This was built in 1545 by Zaghlul Haroun, and was once a centre of Islamic studies, second only to Al-Azhar. In 1807, when a reconnaissance force mounted by General Frazier -- an attempt by the British to stir up trouble within the Ottoman Empire -- was repulsed by Mohammed Ali's troops at Rosetta, the mosque was used as a staging post for attacks on the British troops. Today it is in ruins, the broken minaret allegedly damaged by British fire. But ruins have their own special charm, and although the structure is now in critical condition, one can still imagine the magnificent building it used to be.

"We are carrying out restoration of the city in two phases," Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, director of Rosetta's antiquities, told Al- Ahram Weekly. "The first, a two-year plan, started in November 2000, and aims to restore eight houses with a budget of LE1,700,000. When this is done, the infrastructure of the city will be tackled and the drainage controlled."

Restoring Islamic antiquities is far harder than improving Pharaonic ones, says Abdel-Aziz. "The latter are usually located at the edge of the desert, on dry land. Islamic monuments like those in Rosetta are in urban areas. So we face sewerage problems, and haphazard use of the historic houses as residences."

Early restoration efforts started by the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) in 1985 resulted in some progress. "We established an institute for antiquities, provided identification and information plaques for each historical monument, and introduced a craft centre," recalled Abdel-Aziz. "We also encouraged visitors by issuing cheap tickets for foreigners, only LE12 to enter all the historical monuments in the city."

But Mohamed Al-Azazi, director of public relations in the local council of Rosetta, is pessimistic about Rosetta's chances of becoming a tourist destination. "We need more help from the ministries, not only those of Beheira governorate," he said, before ruing that official investments tended to go to the north coast beach resorts and the Red Sea. "Even Rosetta's rich citizens invest their money outside the city," he lamented. He was quick to point out the city's faults: "Before Rosetta can be promoted as a tourist destination, there must be better and more frequent transport. Now there is only one daily bus between here and Cairo, no trains, and the mini-buses are unreliable.

"Accommodation is also poor. We have three small hotels and these hardly warrant the award one star. As for eating places, real restaurants simply don't exist."

Al-Azazi hopes, though, that once the infrastructure is complete, and the international road from Alexandria to Rosetta built, things will change. "The four-lane highway linking Africa and Asia will make a difference," he said.

Doaa Youssef is a tour guide for Memnon Travel, which runs tours from Cairo to Alexandria that pass through Rosetta. "Rosetta deserves more attention," she says. "It's embarrassing to have to apologise to guests when they ask for toilet facilities after four hours in a bus to tell them there are none. Nor are there any coffee shops or rest houses."

"I also wonder why tourists are forbidden to take their cameras with them when they go to the shallows where the Nile meets the sea," Youssef said. "They are frustrated because they want to photograph the fishing boats and they don't believe the excuse - that the restriction is for security reasons."

Not surprisingly, tourism is slight. A handful of French or British tourists come from Alexandria or Cairo as well as the odd Egyptian like myself, who knows about Rosetta and its famous history. But the numbers are unimpressive. "In 1999, Rosetta received 1,574 tourists, and 2,010 in 2000. That is five a day," Al-Azazi said. When I returned to the central city, I visited the ancient Azouz bathhouse, the only one remaining in town. It was restored at the beginning of the 1990s, but needs attention because it is below ground level and suffers damp. As I passed through, the elegant architecture, the bathing area, the plunge baths (maghtas), and the ruins of an oven for heating water reminded me of an older way of life. Outside stand two mills, still in operation.

My trip ended with a short journey up the Nile to visit the mosque of Abu Mandour, built by an Islamic sect which made its home here. The mosque stands on a hill overlooking the river. It was a lovely end to a rewarding day.

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