The Area of Al-Alamein
by Jimmy Dunn
At one time, Al-Alamein was typically only visited by people with a special interest in the events that took place there during World War II. Mostly, they were decedents, and sometimes survivors of those battles. But now, the north coast of Egypt is becoming more and more of a tourist destination, and the area of al-Alamein is becoming more popular, with several major resorts nearby. Al-Alamein takes its name from the twin peaked hill known as Tell al-Alamein, upon which it stands. Prior to the battles that took place there and near there during World War II, al-Alamein was simply a sleepy stop along the modern north coast railway. But it does actually have some ancient history associated with it. Al-Alamein is the site of the Gaucum of Ptolemy and the Leucasis, Leucaspis, or Locabsis of the Romans.
One of Egypt's most prestigious beach resorts, particularly for Egyptians themselves, is the Marina Tourist Village, which runs east-west for about two kilometers along he shore very near the modern village of al-Alamein. When the site was under construction, work crews unearthed a major Greek and Roman seaport. The site, located about six kilometers east of town, covers a three kilometer (1.8 mile) stretch of beach and contains a town with Roman villas, two churches and a large cemetery with with Hellenistic tombs and catacombs. Several archaeological missions have been working this site. A mummy portrait similar to those found in the Fayoum, but predating those, was found here, and one can visit a Hellenistic cemetery and a house with seven rooms.
One cannot walk the battle field at al-Alamein, for armament, including live mines and shells remain. One can only peer into the desert where the battle took place. However, along with the museum, there are a number of other monuments here. All the Allied monuments are centered around the al-Alamein War Cemetery erected by the British. This is Tell al-Alamein and not the actual town, which lies in a valley south of this area.
The Greek Memorial, in the form of a classic temple, stands on the south side of the road at the very beginning of the battlefield. It is approached by a small avenue of oleanders.
The south African Memorial is less than a kilometer west of the Greek Memorial on the south side of the road. It is a simple monolith with the following dedication: "South Africans outspanned and fought here during their trek from Italian Somaliland to Germany 1939-1945.:
Another kilometer down the road is the British Memorial, called al-Alamein War Cemeter. It was designed by Sir Hubert Worthington, and is maintained by the British War Graves Commission in Cairo. There are 7,367 burials for men from Britain, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Greece, France, India and Malaysia.
Entering one of the three archways, you come to a wide hall. At each end, broad flights of stairs lead to a rooftop with a breathtaking view of this memorial on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. The hall is lined with walls of white limestone, engraved with the names of almost 12,000 soldiers whose bodies were never found. A directory of the soldiers names and a map of the cemetery make it easier for guests to find the names of loved ones among the rows upon rows of gravestones emerging from the desert sand.
On the west side of the walkway leading to the entrance of the cemetery is the memorial to the gallant 9th Australian Division, who led the final charge in the Battle of al-Alamein.
About three kilometers west of al-Alamein on the south side of the road stands the small marker erected at the easternmost advance of the Axis army in North Africa. It reads, "Manco la Fortuna, Non Il Valore (Lacking Fortune, Not Valor. If one stands beside it and peers south into the desert, one can barely see traces of the original Springbok Road, the main desert artery used by the Allies. Originally, the Italian and German dead were buried by the British in a single cemetery in 1943. In 1949, the Italians sent Paolo Caccia-Dominoni to reclaim the Italian dead. He searched the battlefield for ten years.
Three kilometers west of the Italian marker and 9.6 kilometers from the Greek Memorial is the German War Memorial, a single octagonal building erected in 1959. It sits on the north of the road atop the knoll of Gebel Alam Abd al-Gawad and overlooks the sea. Patterned after the Castel del Monte in Apulia, the memorial contains the bodies of 4,280 German soldiers. Opened in 1959, the austere structure symbolizing Germanys fierce pride looks more like a fortress from medieval times.
Inside, each side of the octagon-shaped courtyard houses an alcove where stone caskets each representing a German province lie beneath plaques bearing the names of the dead soldiers from each region. These modern-day sarcophagi are only symbolic; the actual soldiers are buried in a common grave beneath the memorial. In the center of the inner courtyard is an 11.5-meter obelisk protected by four falcons. Khaled Abdel Raouf, the third-generation caretaker of the German memorial, says that this monument has a double meaning.
In Pharaonic Egypt, an obelisk surrounded by falcons traditionally evoked Horus, believed to be the protector of the dead. The falcon is also a symbol of German heritage. Abdel Raouf says that the Germans found it reassuring to know their soldiers died in a country with a history for honoring the dead, and so adopted the obelisk for the war memorial.
The elegant white marble Italian Memorial, the largest structure at al-Alamein, stands five kilometers beyond the German Memorial. A villa on top of a hill overlooking both the sea and the memorial. Sobhi explains, "This villa belonged to Paolo Caccia Dominioni, a reserve colonel in the Italian army and the son of an Italian diplomat who served in Alexandria. After the [battle], he hid in that very spot for three days before he left for Italy. When he got there, he sold everything he owned and used all his wealth to come back to the desert and collect the remains of the Italian and German soldiers. He then designed and built this memorial and villa, and kept visiting this site until his death in 1992."
Like the Commonwealth Cemetery, one must pass through the arched entrance to enter the grounds of the memorial. Instead of a sea of gravestones, however, you find yourself at the beginning of a long path leading gradually uphill to a tower with marble walls almost as white as the surrounding sand. It begins with an entry cloister containing a chapel, mosque, hall of remembrances and small museum. In the chapel is inscribed, "To 4,800 Italian soldiers, sailors and airmen. The desert and the sea did not give back 38,000 who are missing." The main memorial overlooks the sea at the top of a oleander-lined causeway. In the interior thousands of white marble plaques bearing the names of the Italian dead line the walls.
To the left is the Libyan war memorial. Libya was conquered by Italy at the time of al-Alamein battle, so both forces fought side by side. The fallen Libyans rest separate from their Italian comrades because of differences in religious burial methods.
This section has colorful landscaping surrounding a mosque where Muslim visitors can pray for the souls of the fallen soldiers, as well as an edited memorial plaque. Anwar Sobhi, a guide, explains, "Originally, the inscription on the stone was translated directly from the Italian, which read Libyans who died for Italy. But a Libyan minister came and didn't like what he saw. So he covered it with a plaque which reads Honoring the memory of the Libyans.
The Italian memorial is a sacrario, designed as both a cemetery and a chapel. Walls are lined with 30 x 55 centimeter marble tiles, each dedicated to one soldier. Behind these tiles, caskets hold the remains of the fallen soldiers. Some remain anonymous and are identified only as unknown. The top rows remain empty for soldiers who are still missing in action.
The interior is illuminated by natural lighting. A star-shaped skylight of small openings guides the desert sunbeams through the high ceiling. The back wall of the building is a panoramic glass window facing the Mediterranean. If the memorials front door is open, you can look straight through the building to glimpse the stunningly blue sea.
In front of the window is a marble casket with a wooden cross on the wall above it, creating a serene chapel where visitors may pray for the souls of the fallen soldiers.