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Published: April 2nd 2012
Na'ama Bay, Sharm El Sheikh
Greetings from Egypt! Country number 68, and to be honest I’m surprised I’ve left it so long, being so near to Europe and so many things of wonder to see. But alas, I have made it now, so no complaints there, and the next 2 weeks and a bit I plan to cover quite a bit of the place.
First up, the Sinai Peninsula, where I am right now. This amazing piece of bottom-up triangular-shaped land forms the bridge not only between the African and Asian continents, but also the link between the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and beyond these, the Atlantic and Indian Oceans respectively. A major crossroads throughout the last few thousand years, and steeped in historical and military importance as empires and armies trekked along the north Sinai coast towards North Africa, or back again towards the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Of quite remarkable importance considering the stark and barrenness of the land – in fact, flying over it on the way in to Sharm, I might easily have been flying over the surface of Mars. The land is rocky, mountainous, craggy and desert-like, with a reddish-brown tinge enhanced by the setting sun.
St Katherine's Monastery
Foothill of Mt Sinai rising in the background
Remarkable that anything could survive here, let alone a fully-fledged tourist resort such as Sharm El Sheikh.
So yes, flew EasyJet over the Mars-scape into Sharm on Saturday evening, and staying my first 3 nights in the country in style. I am sure I booked into the cheaper “Beach Hut” option at this Sharks Bay Umbi Diving Village, but they put me into a more upmarket “Bedouin Village” room – an amazing reconstruction of, well, a Bedouin Village, going up a steep, vertiginous cliff face with lovely rooms shaped with arches and domes, like mini-mosques. It’s really quite plush, and I’m going to keep the fact that I booked into a “Beach Hut” room hush hush, as they look pretty shabby to be honest, and back right onto the beach – some people love that, but a bit noisy for my liking. Yes, my cliff-top room with a huge balcony overlooking the beautiful Red Sea is enough for me…!
Anyways, Sharm El Sheikh – pretty much a European sun and fun destination, and I thought it’d be a nice way to ease my way into the country. On second thoughts, I’d probably prefer to have jumped straight into
the deep end with Cairo. This place is very much a tourist bubble, as I’d come to expect, but right now I’m ready to explore the real Egypt – the bustling alleyways and markets, the frenetic 7-lane highways impossible to cross, the desert oases, and of course the Pyramids and Temples. I’m sure these exist out there, but on the Costa del Sheikh I’m surrounded by banana boats, Hard Rock Café wannabes, and locals who only wish to sell me something or make some money somehow. Perhaps though in two weeks’ time I’ll come to say that this is what the whole of Egypt is like, and I’m naively assuming right now that it’s only Sharm. I hope I’m proved wrong…
This is not to say I’m not having a great time, I am. Arriving in the evening on Saturday I didn’t do much except take a leisurely dinner at my hotel’s beachside restaurant, lulled by the lapping waves of the Red Sea. Sunday I spent looking around the tourist centre of Na’ama Bay, 8 km away from here – not a bad place to spend a couple of hours, just at least to say I’ve been to Sharm,
The Red Sea
View from my hotel balcony, Shark's Bay Umbi Diving Village
and a great place to improve my Russian. But the afternoon was much better, involving a camel ride into the desert and mountains surrounding the resort. You could almost imagine, beyond the quad bikes and Egyptian cameramen filming every moment of the journey to try to sell back to you as a DVD afterwards, that you were really on a long camel trek through the Sahara on a distant trade route to exotic lands… But after an hour on the back of a camel, I was actually glad I wasn’t….! Did get some decent snaps in the meantime though.
Today was a bit less kitsch, involving something that I’ve been looking forward to for some time now. Took a tour bus to the nearby St Katherine’s Monastery, at the foot of the holy Mount Sinai. The former being built upon the place where God spoke to Moses through the Burning Bush, telling him to go (back) down to Egypt and “Let My People Go!”, and the latter where he was given the Ten Commandments after having freed the people of Israel from their Egyptian oppressors. Such a momentous place of Biblical importance, I could just imagine Moses having wandered
up there with his sheep herd, whereupon he glimpsed the fire that did not consume, and the plains below where the Israelites all waited and trembled with fear as the Lord spoke to Moses through lightning and trumpet blast on the summit, giving His people His commandments. Apologies for the prose, but I have just spent the last term teaching about this, and it really was amazing for me to actually be in this place.
The monastery itself was built at the foot of Mt Sinai about 330AD, as monks and holy men gathered there seeking refuge and seclusion from the more worldly locales such as Alexandria. It was nearby, on Mt Katarina, where St Katherine’s body is said to have been transported to by angels from the city of Alexandria where she was martyred for her faith. The monastery is one of Christianity’s oldest living ones of its kind, and has historically been of great importance to visiting pilgrims, and more recently tourists. During my visit, there were a number of other tour buses, but it still kept its air of peace and tranquillity which I enjoyed very much. And within the grounds themselves, I also caught a
Costa del Sheikh
glimpse of the very descendant of the Bush which Burned for Moses all those years ago. They keep it there, all watered and trimmed – amazing!
What I failed to inform of for fear of causing fear (!) is that the area is also currently renowned for local tribal hostilities, and terrorism. Indeed, the whole of the Sinai region was pretty dodgy around 10 years ago when a number of bombs over a number of years claimed hundreds of lives, including tourists’, in Sharm and around. That seems to have quietened down now, but about a month ago I read in the news that two tourist buses on the way to St Katherine’s were taken by local Bedouin tribesmen and held for ransom, only to be freed again a few hours later. Indeed, security around here is extremely tight, and at about 3 points on the way to the monastery, we were checked into armed police checkpoints – the last 60km stretch we had to travel in convoy with other buses and armed police vans, testifying I guess to the troubles in the area.
But at least for me, it was a terrorist-free trip! And topped off by
Sharm El Sheikh
a call in at beachside Dahab, the “backpackers’ mecca of Egypt”. What a breezy little coastal town, I really loved being there – shame it’s further to get to than Sharm, but if anyone’s reading this and wondering whether to stay in Sharm or Dahab, go for the latter – it’s chilled, relaxed, friendly, and has none of the upmarket chain hotel-ness of Sharm.
Anyway, I think I’ll end this one here as I feel it’s been a bit of a ramble – owed really to me writing this late in the evening and being a bit tired and all from the day’s excursions. Tomorrow am up early to catch a bus to a city to the north-west of Sinai called Suez, funnily enough on the Suez Canal, where I hope to see this amazing waterway which connects Europe to Asia so easily, and from there on to the Nile Delta and more classic (hopefully less touristy, but I doubt it…) Egyptian lands.
Thanks for reading, and hope you like the pictures! Till next time.
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