Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (574)
From Sinai to Palestine
Seventy years ago Al-Ahram took readers for a drive on the Sinai to Palestine road. The paper's description of the topography, supplemented by historical accounts of many of the sites the route passed through brought the tour up close. By Professor Yunan Labib Rizk
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Hebron of old, "the first major city one sees after leaving Suez" on the road to Palestine
The Automotive and Aviation page had been a regular feature in Al-Ahram since 2 February 1934. In spite of the second component of its title, the column was primarily devoted to everything to do with the relatively new and increasingly popular means of land transport, from the latest advances in design to the many road accidents it caused. However, over time, it expanded its interest to other matters directly or indirectly related to the automobile. One theme was road works, which were much needed in Egypt's cities whose ancient quarters were constructed around arteries that at most permitted for the passage of two horse-drawn carts side by side. As roads filled with cars, not to mention pedestrians and carts, streets had to be broadened and re- organised, for which purpose a new government department was established: the Roads and Bridges Authority under the Ministry of Transport.
It appears that the new department was not doing its job as satisfactorily as hoped, judging from the letters to the editor in Al-Ahram complaining of the state of the roads. From Cairo we have the letter of Abdu El-Sayed Murad writing on behalf of "the grieving and grumbling inhabitants of Al-Hotiya". Al- Hotiya was a district located between the island of Zamalek and Ramses, the name of a neighbourhood located to the east. The Road Works Authority had repaired a part of Fouad I Street between Zamalek Bridge and Ramses Street, Murad wrote, but in spite of his fellow residents' complaints, it had yet to complete the rest. "In our last meeting with the director of the authority he told us that his department was ready to repair the rest of the road on the condition that residents pay the expenses." The writer and his fellow residents were shocked that as taxpaying citizens they were being asked to foot the bill for public works. "It often happens that people ask the tax collector sarcastically, 'What do you do with all this money you collect? You haven't done anything for us for more than a quarter of a century.'"
However, to ensure that readers did not take this situation lightly, the writer relates the story of a tragic incident. "One day a man and his son were driving a heavily loaded cart down this street (Fouad I). When the car struck one of the many bumps on the road, the boy was thrown off, fell under the wheels and was crushed to death instantly. The father went nearly insane from the shock of the suddenness of the accident and the death of his son in the blinking of an eye. But as the days passed it was as though nothing had happened!"
If such accidents were not an everyday occurrence, other problems were. The pocked and puddle-filled road took an endless toll on people's vehicles. "Any car that drives down this road rolls and pitches so violently over its innumerable ruts and potholes that passengers feel they are in an earthquake and they nearly faint from nausea. Most taxi drivers refuse to go down this road for fear of the damage it will do to their cars."
Railroad crossings and the traffic jams they caused were another source of complaint. On 4 May 1935, Al-Ahram published a letter from a reader complaining of the chaos around the railway crossing in Manouf. He wrote: "Anyone who sees that spectacle of pedestrians and passengers, cars and animals, wives and children pressing around the crossing barriers would think that it was the Day of Judgement and that they were waiting for God to bless them and open that creaky gate!"
Another letter writer complaining about the same crossing huffed, "it is outrageous that one can drive from Cairo to Manouf in about an hour, only to have to wait at the entrance to the city for another hour until the barrier opens." He goes further to accuse the barrier of standing in the way of urban expansion into what could become "the most beautiful residential quarter in all of Manouf."
A similar letter arrived from Kafr Al-Sheikh whose railroad crossing is strategically located on a major road leading to Tanta, Al-Mehalla Al-Kubra and Dasouq. The crossing "divides the city into two halves and poses a major obstruction to pedestrians and drivers alike," the writer remarks, adding that the Ministry of Transport should construct tunnels "to replace these railroad crossings that are a source of constant complaint".
As for the condition of inter-city roads, we have the following comparison by "a writer and automobile lover from Port Fouad" between the Port Said-Ismailiya road and the Ismailiya-Cairo road. The first was a smoothly paved asphalt road "in the manner of the elegant highways of Europe." It was wide enough to accommodate two large cars with plenty of room to spare and bordered by a slightly raised curb which delineated the road and prevented cars from swerving into the Suez Canal or the fresh water canal that ran parallel to the road on either side. "Nor does one find along the entire course of this road dangerous curves or precipitous dips. In addition, distances along the 80-kilometre road are clearly marked and the caution signs are clearly visible all the way to Ismailiya."
The Ismailiya-Cairo road was another story. "On much of the road, the sand and dust clog one's nose, especially if another car passes you. When they spray it in the summer, automobiles get covered with a thick coating of mud and the road itself gets perilously slippery."
The reason for the vast difference between the two halves of the road -- from Port Said to Cairo -- was that the first half was laid by the Suez Canal Company -- "with its material and technical wealth and which requires automobile owners to obtain a permit in order to drive on this road in order to better ensure its maintenance." The second half was laid by the government's Road and Bridges Authority. This fact alone, it appears, was sufficient to explain why the difference between the two halves of the road was "like the difference between heaven and earth".
Such complaints moved the Automotive and Aviation page editor to add an apology to tourists "who recoil from taking their beautiful and luxurious cars on dirty and dilapidated roads such as those that exist in our poor and unfortunate country". He further expressed his sympathies to foreign and Egyptian owners of private vehicles, taxis and buses, for "in spite of the exorbitant taxes we pay, we are still compelled to subject our vehicles to rapid malfunction, a premature lifespan and considerable rattling and breakage."
Perhaps, too, the flood of complaints is what prompted him to feature a series of articles on desert roads. By way of introduction, the page editor notes that the author of this series, Rifaat El-Gohari, was a noted expert on the ways and byways of the Western and Eastern deserts. "By virtue of his occupation, he has spent more than five years of his life touring most parts of the vast desert. He has been kind enough to present the readers of this page with an account of the first stage of the road between Egypt and Palestine. He chose to describe this particular road to mark the advent of the summer season in the Levant, with the notion that some car owners may be inspired to take this route to that destination."
Undoubtedly, Al-Ahram readers 70 years ago would have found welcome diversion in this article. His vivid descriptions of the topography, supplemented by historical accounts of many of the sites the Cairo-Palestine road passed through would have made enjoyable and edifying reading, as it still does today.
El-Gohari opens by reassuring readers that crossing the Sinai to Palestine road was perfectly safe and easy. The border authorities oversaw the largest stretch of the road and it was no longer necessary to obtain a special permit to travel the road; car owners simply had to register their name at the Kubri precinct station. In addition, road maps and all other necessary information were ready available at the Royal Automobile Club.
The distance from Cairo to Jerusalem was 558 kilometres, which could be covered in 12 to 15 hours, taking into account time for rest and food. Evidently, El-Gohari considered this quite a leisurely pace for he adds that it was possible to make the trip in a shorter time "if one so desires and if circumstances are propitious". Along the road there were several places one could fill up on gas and water: Al-Hasana and Al-Adima in the Sinai and Al-Awja and Bir Saba' in Palestine. "These places have rest houses, policemen and telephones that will put you in contact with the nearest district headquarters."
Stage one of the trip, the 120-kilometre drive from Cairo to Suez, took about two and a half hours. To get to the Cairo-Suez road one drove out to Heliopolis, took Almaza Street up to the junction just before the Tramway Company depot, turned right and crossed the cement bridge over the tramway tracks, which is where the road began.
This portion of the road had a long history. It was where pilgrims converged. "It teemed with merchants and caravans coming from the Levant, bearing oil, soap, figs and almonds, and returning laden with cotton fabrics. An adjacent road veered south to Suez and from there to Aqaba, Al-Wajh and the Hijaz. The Egyptian government used local Bedouin tribes to guard this road and merchants would pay a set fee to the tribal elders." When the era of relying on Bedouin sentinels ended, the government erected 16 observation towers. The first was located in front of the military recruitment centre in Abassiya, the last just outside of Suez and the rest spaced at approximately 10 kilometres apart. At a later stage, the Border Authority enhanced security by stationing mounted camel patrols at various points along the road.
The road itself was in generally good condition. From its starting point in Heliopolis, it was tarmacked for a distance of seven kilometres. Halfway through, it climbed a fairly steep hill. At the end of this portion of the road one reaches a gateway with several wooden kiosks on each side. After passing through the gateway one embarks on what El-Gohari describes as a "desert road" par excellence. "Although it has some ruts caused by heavy lorries... one can drive on this road at a speed of 60 to 80 kilometres per hour without difficulty."
Along the way one should be on the lookout for several landmarks. At kilometre 20 one will see in the distance "dark hills that at first appear like moving clouds and that are known as the Nasouri Mountains". Around here a road splits off that leads to Al-Sukhna Point on the coast of the Gulf of Suez.
Twenty kilometres further on one comes across Al-Dar Al- Beida (the White House). Perched on a tall hill, this was once a palace belonging to Khedive Abbas I. It was particularly noted for its stable of thoroughbred Arabian horses. One could reach it by a two-kilometre-long back road.
Not long afterwards, the road began to climb, taking one up to Oweid Mountain on the left and Patrol Tower 11 just up ahead. At this point the road began its descent towards the Suez Canal and from this height one is treated to a splendid vista. "It is truly uplifting. After seeing only miles of endless sand, suddenly you see camels approaching, the Suez Canal and the smoke calmly and sedately rising from the ships' chimneys. As you approach further and look closely into the distance you can see the famous mountains of the Sinai, and to your right you will see the famous Ataqa Mountain embracing the city and protecting it from the ravages of the raids of desert winds. Suez is Egypt's second summer resort town and as it is closer to Cairo than Alexandria, it is well worth a visit."
If many Cairenes had been familiar with this portion of the road, in his next instalment El-Gohari takes them to the unknown on the other side of the Canal. First one had to take the ferry, which one boarded six kilometres outside of Suez. The author cautions drivers to take care to fill up on gas and water because the closest petrol pump on the other side was 130 kilometres away at Al-Hasima. The ferry itself was an old steam- operated boat that could hold three vehicles but the crossing was free of charge. Once across, one proceeded along a road that ran parallel to the Canal on the eastern bank. The road was smooth and easy to drive, "but be wary of the ground on either side, for it is muddy and the wheels can get stuck in it." Eight kilometres on, you would come to the village of Al-Shatt in which the Maritime Health Authority had set up a quarantine area for passengers from plague-infected ships.
The next stage was a 40-kilometre stretch from the coast to Mitla Mountains. "The road is well paved and along the way you will see the fortifications that were constructed during the Great War in order to defend the Bitter Well against the Turks. The only well that the Bedouins dug in this area, its water was acrid; hence its name."
After Bitter Well, the road, which was "reasonably well paved", began to gradually rise towards the mountain. The sand from the dunes on each side continuously encroached on the road, causing the Sinai Governorate's road maintenance department endless problems in trying to keep the road clear of sand. Travellers should not be surprised if they saw a gazelle leaping across the road in front of them, "but take care not to let its magical grace lure you into following it, for departure from the road means either sinking in the sand or losing one's way." The road continues to climb imperceptibility until one arrives at the highest point, known as Mitla Pass.
From this pass it was 30 kilometres to the next landmark, Sidr Al-Hitan (Whale Chest) Mountain, from which point the road descends steeply to the valley below. "It is best for the driver to put his car in first gear in order to help with the breaking and to force the car to descend slowly... When you reach the valley, the road turns sharply to the left and you will see on either side the vestiges left by the pilgrims who passed along this route for hundreds of years. They used to call this part of the road Satan's Valley and it was thought that it was inhabited by genies and devils... The reason for this is that it is inhabited by black goats that are capable of jumping from a rock to a tree located quite a distance away. Imagine that scene at nightfall."
Looking back, Whale Chest Mountain, itself, was a sight to behold. Ashen coloured, it was striped with vertical layers of white marble that ran parallel to one another with geometric precision. "It is difficult to believe that this is a creation of nature."
From the foot of Whale Chest Mountain, it was a 77-kilometre stretch to Al-Hasana. Here the road passed through the "Land of the Wilderness", a vast barren plain of reddish sand covered by a shell of dried, cracked mud. The plain is cleft by several great wadis or river beds, such as Wadi Al- Aris and Wadi Al-Buruk, the latter of which is known for its well and clusters of Tamarisk trees. In Al-Hasana, one finds welcome relief in the resthouse, "which provides all the necessary facilities for comfort", and one can fill up on gas and water. One should also take time to look around the remnants of the stone buildings and large water storage basins that were constructed by the Turks during the Great War when they attempted to invade the Suez Canal.
After this brief respite, one resumed the drive to Al-Qasima, located 75 kilometres to the east. The road begins just to the west of the resthouse and takes you through a gap between two small mountains, after which you are treated to another spectacular view as the car wends its way down a road, also built by the Turks, along an ancient river valley. Nine kilometres along the way, one passes through waves of sand dunes after which the road turns eastwards towards Gabal Talaa Al-Budun, the approach to Wadi Al-Arish. Soon one comes across a small white conical hill which the Arabs of these parts call the Sugar Cone. After another 20 kilometres, travellers reach Al-Qasima, "a small, populous village located on the juncture of several desert roads and built on a high hill to the north of an abundant water spring, which is why there are so many shade and fruit trees in the area." Al-Qasima had a first-class rest house with a telephone, as well as a primary school, police headquarters and food stores.
From this juncture, one begins the final leg of the journey to Jerusalem. This was the shortest leg of the journey -- most of which now would be in Palestine -- with only 177 out of the total 558 kilometres remaining. Nevertheless, for the convenience of travellers, El-Gohari divided this portion of the journey into several stages, the first of which took one to Al-Awja, "a village on the border, in which there is a police station belonging to the government of Palestine and a customs office where one's passport is checked". The village itself, which was named after the wadi in which it was located and which was noted for its many bends, had a church dating from the Byzantine era and, on a hill nearby the church, a citadel noted for its enormous gate with a 14-foot wide arch. The ancient village merited a leisurely stroll, for among the ruins one could muse among the hundreds of granite stones finely engraved with geometric designs.
From Al-Awja one proceeded to Al-Aslouj, once the site of a large camp for British and Australian soldiers during the Great War, but otherwise not of great note, although there was a telegraph office if needed. Stage three was to Bir Saba', a city that dated to Biblical times. In modern times, the fall of this city to the British in World War I was crucial to bringing the eastern campaign to a close. El-Gohari describes it as "a very important commercial centre in which are located the courts for the Arab clans inhabiting this region, and from which branch out a series of secondary roads, the most important of which is the 44- kilometre-long road leading to the Mediterranean coast in Gaza."
From Bir Saba' it was 50 kilometres to Khalil (Hebron), with its expanses of green fields stretching off to the left and right. "This is the first major city one sees after leaving Suez, although it needs no introduction as it contains the tomb of the Prophet Abraham."
All that remained now was the 27-kilometre stretch to Jerusalem. Here one sailed along a "first class paved road" that passed through Bethlehem. For travellers contemplating going further than Jerusalem, there were many other first-class roads -- "paved with tarmac in the manner of the finest roads in the world" -- and branching out to other destinations such as Haifa, from which one could head northwards towards Beirut, or Tiberius and from there to Damascus, or Tel Aviv and from there back to Gaza.
El-Gohari, however, did not take readers further than Jerusalem. But his lengthy account of the road leading through the Sinai from Cairo to the Holy City was enough to spark readers' interest. Many wrote in to Al-Ahram asking for further information on the type of cars best suited for desert travel, and on costs. El-Gohari advised sturdily-built models, although with the improvements that had been made to the road, virtually any car was safe. As for costs, he said that the train from Cairo to Jerusalem cost LE4 per person, whereas three or four persons could make the car journey for no more than LE2 each. These facts alone must have been of great incentive to potential automotive wayfarers. But little did they know that they did not have much time left to take advantage of the opportunity, for just over a decade later the creation of the state of Israel would put an end to the overland route from Cairo to Jerusalem.