Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 August 2010
Issue No. 1010
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The land of love and war

From the days of Alexander the Great to the Battle of Alamein, history has played out on the shores of Marsa Matrouh. Today, the North Coast city on the Mediterranean is an ideal escape for anyone who wants to travel. This Mediterranean diamond in the rough has been serenaded in songs and served as the backdrop of legendary love. Sahar El-Bahr remincised, while photographer Sherif Sonbol captured all the eye can behold

Click to view caption
Holidaymakers walking in the footsteps of the legendary Queen Cleopatra

Marsa Matrouh is the perfect destination for those who love romance. Serenity and tranquility prevail by the turquoise transparent water, which is naturally protected from high sea waves. It is a place where you can experience the silky touch of white crystallised sand and smell the freshest sea breeze.

I fell in love with Marsa Matrouh at first sight when I visited for the first time in July 2009. I revelled in the smell, sound, breeze and view of its virgin sea, as well as the climate and sands of this heavenly place.

It is always a delight to watch the subtle changes in the colour of the water there throughout the day from dawn to dusk. Swimming in the waters of Marsa Matrouh is a blissful and very special experience; it is truly a divine place, and being there moves and inspires my spirituality, emotions and passion.

Throughout the journey from downtown Cairo until I reached Marsa Matrouh, the voice of Laila Murad played in my head as she crooned about Marsa Matrouh. In the famous song Ya Sakeny Matrouh (People of Matrouh), she sang: "Oh the people of Matrouh, my desires are in your sea... People come and go, and I am in love with your land."

The journey to Marsa Matrouh is becoming shorter, and this summer season the new highway road of Wadi Al-Natrun opened to holidaymakers heading to the North Coast, mostly to Marina resort. The highway cuts short the 490km trip from downtown Cairo by almost 80km, although the new road is deserted and lacks services, except for a handful of police cars on the lookout for drivers exceeding the speed limit.

At the end of the longest stretch of the highway, I finally see the colourful buildings of the expansive summer resorts of the North Coast. But the real sign that I am getting closer to Marsa Matrouh is the fig trees on both sides of the road. Upon arrival, the exhaustion of the five-hour trip by bus is quickly swept away the second I smell the fresh and clean air of this Northern Coast city close to the border with Libya.

Although located near the exclusive luxurious resorts of the North Coast, Marsa Matrouh is a more relaxed and low-key destination. Most of the visitors and residents there are lower and middle class Alexandrians.

According to some historians, Matrouh was called Paraetonium during the time of Alexander the Great, but the bold conqueror renamed it Amounia after passing through in 331BC on his way to the Temple of Amun in Siwa. During the Fourth Century BC, Marsa Matrouh was an ancient Greek harbour and witnessed the budding love between Cleopatra and Mark Antony.

After the Islamic conquest in Africa, it became a passage point for the Muslim armies travelling from Arab countries in the East to those in the West, then onto Spain and southern Europe. Located in the northwest of Egypt, Matrouh today is the second largest governorate after Al-Wadi Al-Gadid. It is also home to the famous trio of oases, Kharga, Dakhla and Farafra.

With Marsa Matrouh City as its capital, the governorate constitutes 16 per cent of Egypt's total land mass, and stretches 450km on the coastal shores of the Mediterranean.

Its population is about 322,000 and originally began as a Bedouin community with strong cultural links to Libya. Today, the original Bedouin inhabitants do not like to mingle with other peoples; they would rather migrate to remote deserted areas where they can herd their sheep. They are the richest people in Marsa Matrouh due to owning and trading in land.

There is a misconception that the tribes of Marsa Matrouh only belong to the famous Awlad Ali tribe. There are three other tribal sects, the Gameiyat, Sanana and Koutaan, who are all connected through marriage.

Marsa Matrouh governorate is divided into eight districts. Al-Hammam is famous for Al-Omayed Reservation which was declared a protectorate by UNESCO in 1981. It is home to rare plants, trees and flowers with many resorts along the sea. Al-Dabaa district is famous for its fertile land and pastures; Salloum is renowned for its magnificent view of virgin waters and rock formations. Some 130km outside Marsa Matrouh lies Alamein, the site of one of the decisive battles of World War II.

Meanwhile, the Siwa Oasis is legendary for its natural warm springs used in therapeutic treatment of rheumatic pains, rheumatoid and joint inflammations. The oasis is plush with thousands of palm and olive trees, as well as grape and apricot plantations.

Siwa is considered the safari centre of Matrouh. The safari in Marsa Matrouh is costly because no tour companies specialise in safari trips there. Almost 60km outside the city of Marsa Matrouh lies a beautiful region where gazelles and wild rabbits run freely and is mostly visited by Arab princes who set up camp there for a few days and bring along their falcons to hunt. In fact, Matrouh's logo is a white gazelle and an olive branch, depicting the natural attractions of the region.

Siwa is also the site of the Revelation Temple where Alexander the Great was crowned, which was built during the 26th Dynasty. The Mountain of the Dead is another attraction in Siwa, containing thousands of engraved tombs dating back to the Ptolemic era and late Roman period. The tombs contain decorations and names of the old kings and dignitaries. The area is also famous for Bedouin handicrafts such as rugs, pottery, silver and embroidered clothes.

In the city, the Marsa Matrouh Corniche is similar to the one in Alexandria, its more lively neighbour 290km away. Former governor Mohamed El-Shehat (2001-2007) was instrumental in overhauling this historic city, and was praised by everyone I spoke to.

"Marsa Matrouh owes a lot to him," asserted Ahmed, a taxi driver, "El-Shehat renovated the infrastructure of the city, cleaned and expanded the Corniche, and repainted all the houses along the Corniche."

Ahmed recalls that almost a decade ago, the only decent hotel in town was the Beau Site, and the only pastime for children at night was to ride bicycles. There were very few hotels in Marsa Matrouh and camping was the main means of accommodation. Today, there are coffee shops, changing rooms on the beach and emergency services.

Although it is home to many tourist and historic attractions, Marsa Matrouh does not make the list of top foreign or local tourist destinations. Perhaps the emergence of international food chains indicates that it has finally attracted the attention of investors, and the future is brighter. Marsa Matrouh remains a tourist treasure that is still buried under the sand.

According to Alaa Abdel-Shakour, director of Marsa Matrouh Tourism Authority, the number of visitors is on the rise. In 2009, 75,000 foreigners visited Marsa Matrouh, spending 350,000 tourist nights. Abdel-Shakour expects the number of foreign visitors to reach 150,000 by the end of 2010, with almost one million tourist nights. Already, charter flights reached 18 weekly flights during this summer season, and hundreds of trips were cancelled due to shortages in accommodations, he added.

But the city is preparing to make its mark on the tourist map. Several tourist development projects are underway, at a cost of LE24 billion due to finish in 2024. Room capacity will add 67,000 rooms in terms of accommodations at 228 hotels, plus 30,000 rooms at neighbouring Sidi Abdel-Rahman. Abdel-Shakour noted that this is in addition to the existing 9,000 rooms at 111 hotels.

There are also plans for a free trade area between Marsa Matrouh and Libya, as well as a yacht harbour at the border town of Salloum. A 2004 decree dictated that all housing investments on the shores of Matrouh governorate should cease in favour of new tourist developments. A more recent ministerial decree ordered that the 200km seaside stretch between Agiba (28km from Marsa Matrouh City) and Salloum should not be utilised in any way, and left unspoiled for the coming generation. Hopefully, the current plans to develop the area will also be as protective of the environment.

"The season of foreign tourism -- mainly Italians, Britons and Swiss -- begins in winter [September-May season] when the weather in Matrouh is still sunny and warm," explains Abdel-Shakour. "Tourists travelling to Siwa stop by Marsa Matrouh for accommodation and a dip in the sea."

The prices of houses and land in Marsa Matrouh have multiplied more than 10-fold over the past 10 years due to great improvements in infrastructure, and more development plans are in the pipeline.

One of the main infrastructure problems facing the city is water shortage, and the problem is finally being addressed. In Alamein a new water purifying station began operations this summer at half capacity of 360 cubic metres of water daily. Abdel-Shakour believes the water problem could be resolved altogether by next year when the station begins working at full capacity.

On my way home, I felt I was leaving heaven on Earth and braced myself for the polluted humid air which awaits me in Cairo. But I took comfort in the thought that I carry with me many relaxing and peaceful memories from my six-day trip to keep me anchored until my next visit to Marsa Matrouh.

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