Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 October 2011
Issue No. 1067
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Air, sea and lots of heritage

Sahar El-Bahr explores the many layers of the city of legends

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Clockwise from top: A model of Hussein's proposed museum of heritage; Pigeon Island in Um Al-Rakham, nearly 25 kilometres from Marsa Matrouh and 100 metres from the shoreline, is home to a variety of birds; As well as Matrouh's pristine turqoise water and silky white beaches, there is still much more to be explored about the area's history and the secrets of its enigmatic desert; Ageeba beach

It has always been a pleasure to visit Marsa Matrouh; the place I love most. Every time I go, I discover more things that capture my imagination and keep me coming back. As well as Matrouh's pristine turquoise water and silky white crystal beaches, there is still much more to be explored about the area's history and the secrets of the Matrouh desert.

AL-OMAYED PROTECTORATE: A charming spot in the desert is Al-Omayed Protectorate covering an area of 705 square kilometres; it was declared a protectorate by the Ministry of Environment in 1986. It is a rich dry desert habitat that is home to 863 species divided among six natural habitats. The marine habitat on the shores of the Mediterranean is especially unique because of the shallow clear water 8-10m deep that is home to numerous varieties of sea plants. Other habitats are the sand dunes, salt depressions, unsalted depressions, agricultural land and mountains.

One of the most important geological surfaces is the superb coastal depression among the sand dunes and interior rocky hills. There are four hills parallel to the sea. The first contains dunes that are 400-600m wide and 20-30m high; the second and third are more solid at a height of 70-100m, a large 30m depression between the two, as well as olive and fig trees at the bottom.

Some 251 types of plants have been recorded at Al-Omayed, 70 of them used for medicinal purposes, 40 have environmental significance, 60 of economic importance and can be used in small industries, 40 are needed for shepherding, while 170 are on their way to extinction.

Furthermore, Al-Omayed has many wild animals and large numbers of reptiles, such as Egyptian turtles that are almost extinct, as well as hundreds of types of rare snakes invertebrates, mammals and arthropods whose numbers are also declining. At the same time, there are migrant and resident birds.

Mohamed El-Eissawi, director of protectorates in Egypt's northern regions, said that visitors can watch the flora during the winter season while the fauna can be seen at night with car headlights. The protectorate is also home to the remains of the only city existing on the shores of the Mediterranean dating back to Roman and Greek times. It includes the ruins of palaces, houses, theatres, ports, underground engraved tombs, temples, as well as pottery and coins. There are also several Roman water storage aquifers used by locals to collect water on rainy days in winter to use in shepherding.

El-Eissawi explained that the main purpose of research at Al-Omayed is to preserve the rich plant and animal habitat. "We conduct extensive research on plants, animals, insects, birds and the climate," he told Al-

Ahram Weekly. "We also have breeding compounds for animals threatened with extinction, such as the Egyptian turtle, and once their numbers grow we set them free into the desert and attach tracking tags so we can monitor them."

Al-Omayed protectorate offers a free of charge tours in 4x4 vehicles for visitors that include historical sites in Al-Alamein; a tour of Al-Omayed takes almost three hours.

Travelling to Al-Omayed by road is the easiest way to get there since it is located some 190km from downtown Marsa Matrouh City, on the coastal road between Alexandria and Marsa Matrouh; it is almost 80km outside Alexandria and nearly 350km from Cairo. For those who prefer to travel by air, there are three nearby airports: Alexandria International Airport 90km away, Al-Dabaa International Airport at a distance of 100km, and Borg Al-Arab International Airport 60km from the protectorate. The sole marine port at Al-Dekheila is located 80km outside Al-Omayed.

AL-MOUGHRA: Some 120km beyond the southwestern part of Al-Omayed is another attraction, Al-Moughra Protectorate. Only 50km are paved road and the rest is off-road desert, which takes six hours to travel between the two sites. Al-Moughra's main feature is a large salted natural lake with pure spring water in the centre. This annually attracts numerous types of migrating birds, especially between September and December.

Al-Moughra Lake is lined with petrified trees dating back nearly 40 million years, and immense sand dunes suitable for sliding, safari and sand immersion health treatments. Rare kinds of plants and animals are also found at Al-Moughra, including Al-Fank fox and sand fox, as well as wild moose.

HERITAGE MUSEUM: Marsa Matrouh is rich with Bedouin heritage, but unfortunately there is no museum telling this story. Khaled Nassar, a historian and amateur collector of genuine handmade pieces, complains that he is working alone to preserve this history. "I believe that there are even attempts to destroy the cultural and heritage identity of Matrouh," Nassar revealed to the Weekly.

Perhaps that is why Mohamed Hussein, a Matrouh native and artist who makes handmade pieces with wood, cement, copper and rope, submitted a pioneer proposal to Marsa Matrouh governorate to build a museum and panorama to preserve the heritage of Matrouh and educate visitors about destinations and attractions in Egypt's second largest governorate.

Hussein's plans include exhibits and photographs depicting marine and desert life in Matrouh. The panorama consists of two sections; the first is for marine life where visitors could view a variety of fish and other sea creatures in Matrouh waters in a large pool. The other section is for the desert habitat to include models of sites of extraordinary natural beauty in the desert, and valleys in Matrouh that are mostly unknown. It would also include models depicting and explaining Bedouin life, ancient traditions, customs and habits of Bedouins, including hospitality, marriage and hunting.

The project would also include shops selling authentic handmade items, especially those that are disappearing. The museum would also include carved red garnet masterpieces or what is called the "Art of Symposium" made by famous Egyptian plastic artists at Andalusia, a tourist village in Marsa Matrouh. He complains that these precious pieces are neglected and unknown.

Hussein said he travels all around the Matrouh desert to collect data from tribal elders and old women, and by chance discovering beautiful natural sties in the middle of the desert.

The main goal of his proposal is to preserve a heritage that is vanishing. "It would also be a place where visitors could find out almost everything about Matrouh, the palaces, the people," he explains enthusiastically. "Then they could decide what they want to visit."

SAHARA ART EXPO: The Sahara Art Expo is a small shop owned by Nassar located at the Beau Site Hotel, perhaps the only shop selling unique genuine handmade objects. This summer, Nassar had a new collection of rare pieces which he gathers from the homes of Bedouins in the desert; every now and then he sells some items and brings in new ones.

It is titillating to listen to Nassar telling the history of each item in his shop. "Not only am I fond of owning these pieces, but I also enjoy their smell because with that I can almost feel the people who used them," he explained.

Among the rare pieces Nassar owns are handmade rugs used by Bedouins in their homes. Traditionally, the furniture of a Bedouin bride was only one big wooden box to store her clothes and two rugs. These rugs are literally vanishing because they are dyed using primitive natural dyes that fade away if exposed or washed with water.

Nassar further explains that the harsh environment of the desert is reflected in Bedouin furniture. "Since water is scarce, the risk that their rugs would be ruined is low," he said. "The colours of these rugs are dazzling and highly contrasting to add cheer to their life and break the dull yellow of the desert and expansive blue sky -- the two colours that dominate their lives."

There are three main patterns of rugs. Al-Hawaya is two rows of geometric shapes on a white background; Al-Husseiny is endless shapes separated with white rows; and Al-Noweiry rugs are mostly red.

Among Nassar's silver collection are horseshoe shaped bracelets and necklaces, since Bedouins believe that the horseshoe shape brings luck and deters envy. A married woman wears a horseshoe necklace with several sharp edges, and with the birth of every child she breaks off one of the edges to indicate how many children she has.

There are also gem necklaces with hijab khiyar in the centre or cucumber amulet, which is a small empty metal container resembling a cucumber, where Bedouins would place either verses of Quran or charm talisman.

Also among Nassar's collection is a splendid white Bedouin bridal dress with numerous embroidered rows, each symbolising an era of Egypt's history and tells the story of each civilisation: Pharaonic, Roman, Greek, Coptic and Islamic. He also has a variety of stones and gems including small rocks, agate, ruby, turquoise and garnet; hundreds of years ago, Bedouins believed that each gem or stone has the power to heal various diseases. "But today they are selling these gems because the Salafis [puritan Islamists] tell them that it is sinful or against Islamic beliefs to believe in the healing power of stones," Nassar revealed.

His shop also houses a row of shining kohl, a black powder used by Bedouins women to line the inside of their eyelids to protect them from the sun because it reflects the rays. His newest collectible item, however, is a pot dating back 500 years that was used to carry well water.

WATER SPORTS: The Marsa Matrouh Water Sports Club (MMWSC) is more than a venue to practise water sports; it is also a unique place to stay. It has eight magnificent brown-domed bungalows overlooking the sea and surrounded with greenery. "The bungalows are made of special foam to keep the weather moderate inside, around 23 C, and insulate against outdoor weather conditions," explained Hisham El-Alfi, general manager of MMWSC and Alexandria Water Sports Club. "The price of each bungalow is almost LE15,000 to build. Guests compete to book these bungalows year round because they say it's cosier and more relaxing."

El-Alfi complained that unlike the club in Alexandria, activities at MMWSC are almost non-existent for Matrouh residents although the club has a port and all the necessary facilities. "Now, we are going to invest in building chalets and rooms," he said. The Beau Site hotel provides catering and services.

The MMWSC has one swimming pool, and a kids' corner, and only one main restaurant. Foreigners pay a daily rate of $250 (around LE1,400) that includes accommodation, meals, telephones, Internet and use of all the facilities, while the daily rate for Egyptians is LE1,000.

A TASTE OF AFRICAN JUNGLE: The 40,000 square-metre Carols Beau Rivage Matrouh Resort is located on the edge of a small island surrounded by 170 metres of beach, pristine and breathtaking beauty, and the turquoise clear waters of Marsa Matrouh. The hotel is in the Obayed region, famous for its white crystal sand beaches, located a short 20km from the airport. The hotel's fa³żade and lobby are distinguished with a huge dark blue dome on top of a hill.

Last year, the resort won an award from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and the International Tourism Authority for best resort of the year. The nearest five-star accommodations, the resort is less than 20km from Marsa Matrouh. It is also close to many popular destinations and attractions such as Ageeba, Cleopatra Beach, Water Sports Club, Shatt Al-Gharam (Beach of Love), emphasised the hotel's manager Safwat Girgis.

Girgis said the hotel is fully booked in advance every year from mid-March until the end of October by Italian and Swiss tourism companies, sharing 70 per cent and 20 per cent of the rooms, respectively, while the other 10 per cent is open to Egyptian guests. He proudly stated that foreign companies insisted on signing contracts this year despite political turmoil and the Arab Spring.

The reasons why Italians choose to come to Matrouh, according to Front Office Manager Ehab El-Mohamedi, are many. The weather, white sandy beaches, pristine waters that are better than Italy's, as an alternative to Sharm El-Sheikh or Hurghada, and finally because it is closer to Italy with cheaper packages.

The prevailing interior design of the lobby is safari style. The 289 rooms and suites, overlooking either the sea pool or garden, are also inspired by this theme. The blankets, beds, pillowcases and furniture are covered in tiger print, the floor is made of dark brown wooden blanks, while paintings on the walls are mostly of safari animals such as giraffes, lions, tigers and elephants. The prevailing colour of the furniture and walls is either dark green, beige and light brown, and tree trunks are often used to accessorise the space.

A prevalent motif at Carols Beau Rivage Matrouh Resort, especially in the lobby, is a circle that symbolises the sun. The logo of the name replaces the 'O' in Carols with an orange disc amid the blue letters. Next to the lobby, there is a large glass domed structure that houses a heated indoor swimming pool, adjacent to the Cleopatra Spa and Wellness Centre that offers four massage rooms, three Jacuzzi pools, two steam rooms, two saunas, as well as a gym and exercise room. In front of the spa is the main 1,300 square-metre outdoor swimming pool surrounded by plush gardens.

Carols Beau Rivage Matrouh Resort has many restaurants and bars, but perhaps the most outstanding is Yanni Lobby Bar with its Coptic interior design displaying many icons imitating those in old churches; also, the floor of the bar is made of authentic wood used in railway stations.

On the ground floor is La Veranda Main Restaurant that serves a wide variety of international cuisine and buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner. El-Mohamedi noted that they employ a famous Italian chef only to cook pasta and pizza for guests. Siwa Pool Bar is located by the main pool and overlooks the sea, serving snacks and drinks.

On the other side of Siwa Bar is Octopus Seafood, an open-air restaurant located directly on the beach. A new beach bar is under construction at one end of the island where the view of the sea is magnificent. For those who prefer more local ethnic flavours and style, there is Arabesque Oriental Restaurant overlooking the splendid garden, offering a wide selection of Middle East and Egyptian food.

Perhaps the perfect place to meet at night is Cha Cha Discoth³”que, but for recreational activities during the day there are Italian and Egyptian animation teams. Girgis explained that once a week there is a belly dancing competition, party and fire show; an Egyptian belly dancer gives guests dance classes to prepare for the fun competition. At the same time, the hotel hosts celebrations for Muslim, Coptic and Italian holidays. There is also an open-air Roman theatre that resembles the Colosseum in Italy.

PROFILE OF A FISHERMAN: Mohamed Hussein, 28, is a Marsa Matrouh native and an avid fan of fishing since he was five. "The first time I caught a big fish, I was 15 years old," recalled Hussein. "It was a day to remember. The fishing line was too heavy to reel in and at first I thought it was stuck on rocks. When I realised that there is a huge fish on the hook I became frightened and ran away, leaving behind my fishing rod and my catch. I was on Shatt Al-Gharam. After that experience, I went back for many months in the hope of finding another big one, but without any luck."

Hussein, also an eager bird hunter who travels the many valleys located outside Marsa Matrouh to look for birds, prefers to fish with a rod. In the past, he states, the quantity and types of fish in Marsa Matrouh were greater because fishermen used primitive and safer tools. Today, illegal ways are widely being practised, including fishing with dynamite and poison; fishermen use either dynamite or poisoned food to kill the fish, cut the top parts off and sell the bottom. Fishermen also use fine fishing nets to catch smaller fish.

Hussein added that fishing also kills time quickly. "I can stand still for up to six hours without realising time is flying by," he said. "Fishing also improves my mental and psychological wellbeing; my happiest time is spending many hours gazing at the blue sea even if I don't catch a single fish. At other times, I decide to go on the spur of the moment and manage to catch big fish."

The best time to go fishing is at daybreak and sunset, when the fish are hungry, advised Hussein. He organises fishing trips on the beach at night, "where we catch and grill fresh fish on site. It tastes so much better than anything you could buy on the market. We also brew the famous Bedouin Zarda tea with mint and have a great time."

Different areas in Marsa Matrouh are home to varieties of fish. "I'm very excited when I catch al-arousa [bride], a big beautiful colourful fish with shimmering colours, but it doesn't taste very good so I throw it back in the water," stated Hussein.

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