Al-Quseir on Egypt's Red Sea Coast
by Heba Fatteen Bizzari
Al-Quseir, in Arabic translates as the Smaller Version of a place. Nevertheless, the position of the city once made it one of the major strategic ports of the Red Sea. It is located 85 kilometers south of Safaga and 140 kilometers south of Hurghada. The city was known as the White Harbor in the Ptolemaic times. Several civilizations during the past four thousand years have used this remote outpost on the Red Sea coast as a starting point to go exploring, expanding and trading with remote lands.
The importance of Al- Quseir is due to the fact that it is located at the end of the shortest route from the Nile River to the Red Sea, and therefore it became one of Ancient Egypt's very earliest and most important ports. It was the route used in ancient times to transport goods to and from remote lands to Egypt and the Mediterranean.
Probably the most famous ancient expedition through Al- Quseir was the one deployed in 1493 BC by Queen Hatshepsut to the fabled land of Punt. It is recorded at Deir el-Bahari, her legendary temple on the West Bank of Luxor that contains a detailed report on the expedition. Punt was a very rich country which has been identified by many with current Ethiopia, and to this land Hatshepsut sent her general Senenmet to purchase refined goods such as myrrh, frankincense, ebony, ivory, and exotic animals.
When the Roman Emperors ruled Egypt, Myos Hormos, the Roman name for Al- Quseir, became the main gateway to India and East Africa. During the peak years of the Roman rule, around 20 AD, an average of 120 ships per year set out from Myos Hormos to India in order to bring luxury goods such as silk, spices, medicines, pearls to Egypt, while exporting wine, fine pottery, glass and precious metals. The remains of Myos Hormos are only eight kilometers north of present Al-Quseir, where one can see the ancient port structures and, scattered on the terrain, a myriad of Roman amphorae.
The wadi that links Al- Quseir with Qift on the Nile River contains more historical remains. The road is intersected by a series of other wadis, the most famous one being Wadi Hammamat. This was the site of the quarries of the bekheni stone, much appreciated in ancient times. In Wadi Hammamat some 200 hieroglyphic tablets adorn the cliffs, and more inscriptions are on the south side of the wadi, engraved in the ravine walls. Some are from 4,000 years ago, and depict the typical Nile reed boats. Along these roads the Romans built a series of watch towers and guesthouses at regular intervals, and some of them can still be seen nowadays.
The Ottoman era was another flourishing period in the history of Al- Quseir. The oldest part of town lies between the port and the Ottoman fortress of Sultan Selim, ruler of Egypt during the 16th century, who built an impressive fortress which speaks of a lively town of strategic importance. The Ottomans felt that it was a necessity to protect the city against invaders. Therefore they built a fortress as a military stronghold. Later on the port of Al Quseir was the main departing point for the pilgrims bound to Mecca, on the opposite shore of the Red Sea. The Islamic influence is found in the enchanting architecture of many buildings in town, with intricate wooden terraces and mashrabiyyas. More interesting sites are to be found in the surrounding area, such as the mines at Bir Umm Fawakir, the rock pictures at Wadi Russumat, and the vast Roman settlement at Mons Claudianus.
The fortress of Al-Quseir, now restored, was built to protect once again the trade with India. The recently restored fort hosts an interesting Visitors' Center with displays of local history, archaeology and culture. After the Ottoman Period, first Napoleon, and then the British Empire occupied it as a key port. The French used the fortress to cut off supplies coming from the Arabian peninsula to the Mameluke leaders.
Only the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869 led to a decay of the town. With the crossing to the Mediterranean made easier by the channel, Al- Quseir lost its prominent place as a link between the Occident and the Orient.
The phosphate mine that used to exist is closed now, with possible plans to convert it to a hotel management institute, and most of the residents have changed their activities from industrial or fishing to tourism. The narrow streets of the town has made it a perfect spot for the colored bazaars which have a Bedouin accent. The winter months are an ideal time to exploring these ancient historical sites, easily reachable by a taxi or via your travel agent. Hence, Al- Quseir's nascent tourist industry is a year-round affair.
Today, the city remains a quiet resort with sandy beaches and coral reefs, which has come a long way from the major industrial town it once was, to become a wonderful destination for diving. It has also become an environmentally aware area. The regions prize attraction are well preserved, stunning coral reefs. In Al- Quseir, diving is restricted to a limited number of divers, thus reducing the stress on the underwater environment.
In fact, many of the hotels, such as the Movenpick, the Flamenco Beach Resort and the Utopia Beach Club, the Mangrove Bay Resort and the Fanadir, which all have diving centers, are working to keep Al- Quseir environmentally friendly, even training their staffs to think environmentally.
Furthermore, since Al- Quseir is not only a seaside resort, but one also of historical importance, local officials are trying to ensure the city's heritage is kept safe. Old buildings built in the classic French and British styles, with large terraces and wooden balconies, need to be protected from being sold and demolished. An association has been set up to accomplish these goals, so that Al-Quseir can retain its wonderful old essence while emerging as a first rate tourist destination.
So today, Al- Quseir is one of those actually unusual places in Egypt where one may go for some scuba diving in the Red Sea or spend a comfortable afternoon sunbathing on a pristine beach, and at the same time, visit historical sites located only a stone's throw away.