The Other Side of the Sinai
by Mark White
Most people who have an interest in Egyptian travel are certainly familiar with Sharm el-Sheikh, on the southern tip, and may also know of the resorts which line its southeastern shores, such as Dahab, Nuweiba and Taba. However, most non Egyptian travelers are far less familiar with the Sinai's western coast, facing the Gulf of Suez. One resort along this coast that warrants considerable attention is Ras Sidr.
Ras Sidr is better known to Egyptians, perhaps because it represents a quick, two and one half hour get-a-way from Cairo. Yet foreign tourists with limited time who wish to experience the Sinai, including an adventurous drive should also take note of this expanding tourist area. Getting there involves visiting the Suez Canal, and then going under the it via the Shaheed Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel. The landscape is always interesting, and along the way, after entering the Sinai and turning south along the coastal highway, one soon passes by Oyoun Moussa (Ain Musa, Ayoun Moussa, or Springs of Moses). It is believed to be the spring where Moses, after leading the Israelites across the Red Sea, turned a bitter spring into sweet drinking water by throwing a branch into it, as instructed by God. Today, there remains twelve springs as in the Old Testament, but after about 1860, all but one turned brackish.
Ras Sidr as an resort area about 60 kilometers south of the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel, occupies a zone extending some 95 kilometers along the Sinai Coast. At one time, Ras Sidr was nothing but a quite coastal town, locally well known for sail boarding, but today, it sports considerable, new tourist facilities, as well as shops and private villas, while at the same time, the old pioneers, mostly modest, camp-like resorts also remain. It is divided into North Ras Sidr, consisting of tourist centers at Ras Masalla, South Oyoun Moussa and Ras Dehaisah, and South Ras Sidr, including Ras Matarma, an-Nakhila and Ras Mal'ab. Most of the recent development is in the southern section.
Along this stretch, Ras Sidr enjoys a number of natural assets, including desert areas, mountains, valleys, unusual virgin beaches and small, sandy gulfs, and its well known sulfuric, therapeutic springs. The area is particularly rich in desert plants and herbs, and it is also the habitat of fascinating marine creatures including a number of different rare fish. Characteristically, Ras Sidr enjoys a fine, moderate climate year round, with temperatures ranging between 20c (68 Fahrenheit) in January and 25c (77 Fahrenheit) in August. During all periods, the humidity remains relatively low.
One of the most famous springs is Hammamat Phara'oun, or "Pharaoh's Bath", which is located in the southern part of Ras Sidr about 45 kilometers from the main town. It consists of two parts, including the Kahf Phara'oun, or "Pharaoh's Cave", and the springs themselves. The cave extends about 25 meters into the mountain, while the sulfuric water springs which line the seashore produce significant quantities of water with temperatures as high as 75 (167 Fahrenheit). This water is said to have properties which are effective in the treatment of bone and skin diseases. Other springs include Ein Abu Morir in the southern part of the city on the eastern side of the road to al-Tor, which is a fresh water well surrounded by clusters of palm trees and reeds, and Ein Taraqi, a sulfuric spring with temperatures that range between 20c (68 Fahrenheit) and 30c (86 Fahrenheit), also located in the southern part of Ras Sidr.
Beyond the springs and beaches, there is considerable landscape to explore, and often an abundance of wildlife. Nearby is Wadi al-Gharandal, which some consider to be one of the most beautiful valleys in South Sinai. It extends for some 80 kilometers and has a wealth of plants dependent upon a number of fresh water springs that flow year round. Other valleys include Ras Mattarqa and al-Gharandel, which also abound with plant life, and Abu Gada, where one finds tamarisk trees, as well as various quail and mountain partridges during their migration periods.
If there are valleys in the Sinai, there are also majestic mountains and the area around Ras Sidr is no exception. They include the Pharaoh, at-Teeh and Om-Kathira, among others, and they represent fine attractions to the safari tourists and mountaineers. Here, specially trained camels ascend into the rough mountain areas where mountain goats are famous and widely known to hunting hobbyists.
Another nearby attraction but probably only if traveling by private car or hired taxi (as opposed to bus), is the 800 year old fortress known as Qalat El Guindi, about 80 kilometers southeast of the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel. This fortress was built by Salah el Din, one of Egypt's (as well as the Crusade's) most famous leader during the ancient Islamic period. This is a true crusader fortress built to protect pilgrimages to Mecca, as well as to protect Egypt from the Crusaders who at the time had conquered Jerusalem. It is believed that he used this fortress to launch attacks against the Crusaders when he managed to evict them from the Holy City.
Today, Ras Sidr probably remains somewhat of an adventurous locale for foreign tourists, mostly visited by Egyptians, and in many facilities, oriented towards Egyptians. However, new, international hotel chains and a new airport will undoubtedly change Ras Sidr forever, for it is simply too tempting for us to ignore for long.
Last Updated: June 9th, 2011