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

Exploring Marsa Matrouh

There's a lot more to Marsa Matrouh than the pristine waters and historic sites, above water and below

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From top: the pristine sea and the white sand are the perfect playground for children and adults; Sobhi El-Masri, a veteran beach photographer in Agiba; guests cooling off at one of Matrouh's beaches; the bustling Rommel beach; one of the Roman cemeteries in Agiba

ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES: In Pharaonic times, Marsa Matrouh was known as the Store of Beans because it was crowded with people and activities. This is the reason why today almost every 15km, visitors will find an archaeological excavation site, according to Mustafa Ibrahim, senior inspector at the Marsa Matrouh Antiquities Authority. In fact, there are some 30 Roman pottery factories -- two of which are in downtown Marsa Matrouh.

One kilometre away from Cleopatra Beach, there are Roman cemeteries; close by, there's another cemetery embedded in the mountain where tear containers were discovered. The containers were used by family members to collect the tears they wept over their beloved dead. Once full, they were placed beside the corpse to demonstrate how much they loved the deceased.

The Graeco-Roman cemeteries excavated in Marsa Matrouh reveal that there were two methods of burying the dead; there were the Pharaonic tombs and the Roman style of digging holes in the walls for burial. A Roman cemetery located in Agiba, 25km west of Marsa Matrouh City, is not open for visitors but is surrounded by thousands of beautiful Akreasha plants, which look like trees but grow no bigger than 15cm tall.

At Umm Al-Rakham, about 23km west of Marsa Matrouh and South of Agiba Hill, lies the Temple of Ramses II which was built more than 4,000 years ago. It was discovered in 1946 and contains several buildings with the name of the king inscribed in hieroglyphics. Near the temple lies the Ramses II Fortress surrounded by a raw brick wall which was used to protect Egypt from attacks by Libyan tribes.

Some 45km west of Marsa Matrouh City are the ruins of Abu Lahw Bath, which dates back to the Graeco-Roman era. There are many engraved tombs in the rocks under the ground in Marsa Matrouh, and many archaeological hills covered with pottery such as at Abu Lahw, Sakran Well, Ras Al-Hekma, Sidi-Heneish and Alam Al-Gazal.

Sakran Well Oven, a chamber for burning pottery, was discovered in 2003 and is built with raw bricks with many holes to allow the fire to escape. Alaa Abdel-Shakour, director of Marsa Matrouh Tourism Authority, revealed that at least 4,200 pieces of antiquities were recovered and are now being stored at the governorate. They will be showcased at the National Museum of Marsa Matrouh which is now being built and due to be opened next year.

WATER SPORTS CLUB: Marsa Matrouh Water Sports Club (MMWSC) boasts the latest diving equipment to take licensed divers on deep water trips to explore the sunken antiquities off the coast of Marsa Matrouh. There are 32 submerged vessels from World War II scattered over 61km between Matrouh City and Salloum. General Manager of MMWSC and Alexandria Water Sports Club Hisham El-Alfi told Al-Ahram Weekly that the club was established recently and would officially open next summer. Nonetheless, it has been operating for several years and has sponsored several national championships for sailing, water skiing, fishing, swimming, fin swimming and rowing. El-Alfi added that the Egyptian National Rowing Team regularly trains at the club, and next September it will host the National Fishing Championship.

The club has a training centre for swimming, diving and sailing, as well as a private beach and harbour for yachts and motorboats. These are supplemented with the more low-key banana and doughnut boats. MMWSC is close to Cleopatra Beach and offers 24 well-furnished rooms with an attractive garden. Foreigners pay a daily rate of $200 which includes accommodation, meals, telephones, Internet and use of all the faculties, and the Egyptians pay LE820 daily.

El-Alfi complained that unlike the club in Alexandria, winter activities at the MMWSC are almost non-existent. This, continued El-Alfi, despite the fact that "we have marketing office in Switzerland, and we participate in most international yacht and motorboat exhibitions around the world."

BEACHES: On my second day, I visited a number of Marsa Matrouh's historical beaches, and they each had a story to tell. Agiba (Wonder) Beach is located 28km from downtown Marsa Matrouh City and has a natural panoramic view of rock formations. It lays in a semi-circle at the bottom of limestone cliffs with numerous caves. The colour of the water against the cliff changes throughout the day, from shining turquoise to dark blue. The entire view is glorious, especially at sunset.

There is a vast parking area at Agiba Beach as well as a coffee shop. A very long walkway was built to enable visitors access to the beach, and the governorate has cordoned off the area closest to the cliffs with an iron fence to discourage tourists from going there. However, some seem to have broken through to enjoy the splendid scene of rocks and sea.

On the walkway I met Amm Sobhi El-Masri, 82, who has been a "beach photographer" for the past 65 years. Amm Sobhi comes to the beach daily at noon and stays until 8pm, carrying his Fuji to take mementos for visitors. He began his career on Stanley Beach in Alexandria, where for 40 years he captured many holidaymakers on film, including famous actors, actresses and prominent Egyptian personalities. But today, he complains, tourists prefer to use their mobile phones to take their own pictures. He charges LE5 per photo which is paid in advance, and the clients go to collect their photos at 11pm from his studio on Alexandria Street in downtown Marsa Matrouh.

Al-Gharam (Romance) Beach is another charming spot about 10km west of Marsa Matrouh, of which famous Egyptian singer and actress Layla Murad sang: "I love two things; the seashore and fresh air..." The lines were delivered as part of a musical interlude in the 1945 film Shatt El-Gharam (Shore of Romance), as Murad sat on a rock on the beach. Today, only the top of that rock can be seen since most of if has been submerged under water.

In fact, the film was instrumental in making Marsa Matrouh popular for a while, but soon it dropped off the must-go-there list. Nonetheless, and to this day, many who visit the beach collect its sand in a bottle to take as a souvenir for their loved ones back home.

Al-Obayedd (White) Beach is 18km west of Marsa Matrouh, and is so named because of the bright whiteness of its sands. Other famous beachfronts in downtown Marsa Matrouh include, Mubarak, Lido, Bassant, Beau Site, Orchid, Telefizion, Fayrouz, Suez Canal, Awam and Rommel. But there are other less known enjoyable beaches, such as Mena Hashish, Remmeala and Alam Al-Rom. Personally, I neither enjoyed Fayrouz Beach or Rommel Beach because their water is not pristine. All the others have fresh, clear and clean seas.

Although there are a few private beaches, most are public and visitors only pay LE10 to rent an umbrella and four chairs for the entire day. At all these beaches, there are vendors peddling their wares from swim gear, to accessories, toys, clothes, footwear and bags. They overprice their goods, so unless you enjoy a good barter, shop on Alexandria Street downtown.

Also in this far flung governorate, there are several superb bays. These include Ras Al-Hekma located 80km from the city, Bagoush at 48km East of Marsa Matrouh, as well as Salloum on the border with Libya, Sidi Abdel-Rahman and Al-Zayyat.

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