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

Battleground zero

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ALAMEIN is the second largest district of Marsa Matrouh Governorate, located 184km east of Marsa Matrouh city. It is known as the White Sand City, but during World War II it was called the Devil's Garden because of the millions of mines planted by Britain, Germany and Italy ahead of the 1942 Battle of Alamein. It is estimated that 19.5 million landmines were buried underground during World War II, and today it is the most mine-infested site in the world. Over the decades, more than 9,000 civilians and soldiers have been killed or maimed by landmines in Alamein.

Unfortunately, the landmines devastated the prospects of investment and development in this large, fertile area covering 24,500 sq km, which was the food basket of the Roman Empire. Today, it is most famous for World War II cemeteries, where the fallen are remembered at an annual event held in October and attended by the families of the soldiers.

There are three main cemeteries. The German Cemetery was built in 1959 about three kilometres to the west on a hill overlooking the sea, and contains 4,280 bodies. The Italian Cemetery is located 5km to the west of the German Cemetery and houses 4,800 bodies. Its architecture is unique and includes a chapel, mosque and small museum, as well as the Hall of Memories where a sign notes that the desert and sea have swallowed 38,000 bodies.

The Commonwealth Cemetery to the south of the main road in front of the Alamein rest house is home to 7,367 graves of soldiers from Britain, New Zealand, South Africa, France, India, Malaysia, Australia and Greece. The entrance wall to the cemetery contains the names of 11,945 soldiers whose bodies were never recovered.

The Greek Memorial was constructed in 1971 borrowing from ancient Greek architecture and commemorates 320 Greek soldiers, some of whom are buried in the Commonwealth Cemetery and the rest at Mar Girgis Church in Cairo. The Alamein Military Museum was established in 1965 and renovated in 1992 -- on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Alamein. The museum's five large rooms and central hall depict the phases and progress of the decisive battle, together with a number of weapons, tanks and maps of the battle. Meanwhile, the open-air exhibition showcases some of the heavy arms used by Axis and Allies troops during World War II.

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