A Survey of Egypt, Part IX: Cairo to El-Arish, the Sinai
By Jimmy Dunn and Tamer Ibrahim
I'm not sure what happened to the 2nd of October. I took one photo, so I must have been resting. On the 3rd we took off forSuez at 3:00 am, a drive I had made not long ago, and which I knew to be a fairly boring drive. Even though we left theHotel Longchamps at 3:00 am, it takes a while to exit Cairo, and with the drive to Suez lasting a bit more than an hour, the sun was up by the time we arrived. Of course, while Port Said hosts the northern mouth of theSuez Canal, Suez itself contains its southern extreme. Nevertheless, it did not seem as busy asPort Said, I suppose, because of Port Said's status as aMediterranean port. Not all the ships that harbor their go through the canal.
Photography is not really allowed of theSuez CanalatSuez, and there are signs to this affect, but we had the proper permits and fired away. We also got some good shots of some of the housing where the engineers who built the Suez Canal lived. I was also surprised to see a number of carnivals all around Suez, something that I had not seen elsewhere. Suez is clearly a tourist destination, as we also found a number of cruise ships docked along the coast.
Our real destination on this leg of the Survey of Egypt was theSinai, but we intended to move up along the western side of the Canal, past the Bitter Lakes to Qantir before entering the Sinai. We could have taken the tunnel atSuez under the canal and into the Sinai, but we planned on crossing over at Qantir on the bridge. There is also a tunnel around the same location, but I thought the bridge would provide some good photographs of the canal. Unfortunately, I was wrong on several counts. In order to skirt the western side of the Canal north, we had to travel through a large military base.Once again, we actually had the permits to do this. However, that ended up being a tedious journey with checkpoints seemingly every few yards. About halfway through, some sort of military ship coming down the canal forced us off the base and further east. We basically missed the Bitter Lakes.
Then at Qantir, we managed to get up on this towing bridge and take photographs, but at the end of the bridge we were made to delete those. Nevertheless, I did get some decent photos of thecanal at the bottom of the bridge. Our mistake was stopping on top of the bridge to take the photos. Had I been a good spy, I would have simply taken them out the window, or even better, used Google Earth, but in all fairness to the Egyptian government, this is a sensitive area and I understood their concern. My intent was really not to go about ruffling any feathers, and by now I had a good collection of shots made along theSuez Canal. Our next stop would be Pelusium, an ancient fortress and gateway to Egypt at the northwestern extreme of theSinai, now known as Tell el-Farama.
This is certainly an interesting site, though not really any sort of tourist destination. In fact, I don't think that it is even open to tourists, and one must look about to find it, north of the main road toEl-Arish. It contains a number of structures that are apparently being restored, so that one day it perhaps will be open to tourists. There are also scattered about various columns and obelisks, though really the fortress itself is the main attraction. Regrettably though, the fortress was actively being restored and we had somewhat limited access. Here, there is the ruins of an amphitheater, which we didphotograph in some detail, and nearby that of a Byzantine church. Indeed, there are various structures all about the place and work at uncovering them appears to be ongoing. Pelusium was certainly one of the more remote sites that we visited on this journey, though there would be a few others even more so.
We spent an hour or so at Pelusium but we soon headed back to the highway and our final destination of the day,El-Arish. Once again, we found ourselves on an extended beach, with sand all about. Here and there were palm groves. Its not entirely barren. We skirted the southern side of Lake Zaranik along the way and soon enough found ourselves arriving in El-Arish, Egypt and theSinai's most northeastern resort.
I must mention that this area is well known as a migratory bird sanctuary. It is well known for that, and these days that is the main reason western tourists venture to this locale. That's unfortunate becauseEl-Arish is really a very pleasant destination with its own airport. That actually makes it the closest Egyptian beach resort for many Europeans. I remember some years ago when El-Arish was an up and coming resort city and it was being actively promoted as such. Then came problems in the Gaza strip, and El-Arish was simply too close to the border for large numbers of tourists to feel comfortable. It has since become, for the most part, a destination for locals, and for the mostpart, it has settled into and acclimated itself to that role.
That's really rather unfortunate. Though we had traveled all the way from Cairo toEl-Arishwith no police escorts, the security here was very good and I never felt threatened. Here, the beaches are beautiful, and the ones that we visited were clean, set against an unspoiled sea. Things have changed here. The first stop we made was to what once was the Oberoi Hotel, but is no longer. These days its a Swiss Inn, but it remains a five star hotel with 221 rooms. It is perhaps the finest hotel in El-Arish, with several pools and awonderful beach. We ate lunch there in the bar, which was mostly deserted, as was the hotel itself.
A view of the defensive walls at Pelusium
Actually, the distinction as the most active, somewhat upscale resort inEl-Arish seems to belong to the Sama El-Arish Tourist Village. Though not a five star facility, and though we did not stay there, it appears to be a very nice resort with some considerable activity. In fact, we might have stayed at the Sama but there were no rooms available. We did explore the property for a time. We actually ended up settling into afacility run by the Egyptian government to train hotel employees, mostly because it was cheap (once again I could have stayed at the Swiss Inn, but I chose to remain with my team).
After refreshing ourselves for a bit, my assistant Tamer Ibrahim and I climbed into our car and headed back to the Swiss Inn to see if we could find a beer. No such luck, which speaks volumes for how localizedEl-Arish has become. Five star hotels throughout Egypt usually function as usual during Ramadan,but this one, even though they normally serve alcohol, apparently did not duringRamadan. I suppose it was all for the best considering that we would make another 3:00 am morning of it the next day.
I drove to the Swiss Inn but now Tamer took over, as we decided to head downtown for some food. We actually got lost for a few minutes before finding our way back to our hotel. It had been a long day, and as usual I had the duty of downloading the day's photographs and charging batteries before finally getting to sleep.
A Pharmacist in El-Arish
We ate lunch there in the bar, which was mostly deserted, as was the hotel itself. Actually, the distinction as the most active, somewhat upscale resort in El-Arish seems to belong to the Sama El-Arish Tourist Village. Though not a five star facility, and though we did not stay there, it appears to be a very nice resort with some considerable activity. In fact, we might have stayed at the Sama but there were no rooms available. We did explore the property for a time.
Someday,El-Arish may be more of a foreign tourist destination. It certainly has some facilities for that, including the international airport. But for now and for the immediate future, it will probably remain only a destination for locals. Still, I enjoyed my stay there, and the city itself, and I never felt as though I was in any sort of danger. In fact, the people that I got to know best were very pleasant, and I must say, particularly the guards at the hotel where we stayed, who offered to share their dinner (actually fitar) with me.
Last Updated: June 9th, 2011