(Me, rock-climbing in Ageeba!)
By Hoda Nassef
Matrouh is bordered to the north by the Mediterranean Sea, to the east by Alexandria and Al Beheira governorates, to the west by the Egyptian-Libyan border. To the south it extends into the desert for a distance of 400 km.
The governorate has a population of about 160,567 people, of whom 83% represent Bedouin tribes, chief of which are Al-Abyads, Al-Ahmars, Al-Sinanas, Al-Jumai'ats and Al-Got'ans. The population of Siwa Oasis accounts for 5% of the governorate’s total population. The major towns of the governorate are Al Hammam, Al Dhab'ah, Sidi Barrani, Al Salome and Siwa, with Matrouh as its capitol.
HOW TO GET THERE
If not by plane, which takes about 45 minutes from Cairo, you can get to Marsa Matrouh in about five hours, with the air-conditioned Super Jet buses (about L.E. 50, one way) - or you can take the air-conditioned West Delta bus, which costs a bit less, and reach there in six hours.
Marsa Matrouh is considered as Egypt’s ‘western gate’, thus has always been of strategic and historical importance, and as far back as in the Pharaoh’s era, its territory has witnessed many historical events.
Libyan tribes crossed its land in the course of their invasion of Egypt, where they were chased back by Ramses II. Impressed by the beautiful scenery of the area, Alexander the Great ordered a town to be built over there.
This area was also the site of part of the famous love story of Queen Cleopatra and Anthony. There is still a beach named after the Queen.
At present, an English mission from Liverpool University is conducting excavations at an isolated place called Um Al-Rakhm located 30 km west of Matrouh. The mission discovered a castle and a temple built by Ramses II. Remains of urns, tools and statues were discovered also there.
ARCHAEOLOGISTS' DELIGHT: Marina Ruins – Al Alamein
Lying to the west, was once the capital of the region during the Roman and Greek eras. An ancient city discovered in 1985, it comprises temples, tombs, baths and nobles' houses; it is the largest archaeological city after Alexandria.
Not only is it the perfect place for a vacation, any time of the year, with the weather moderate to cool all year long, and the perfect spot for water sports, Matrouh is also an archaeologist’s paradise, because it is rich with different types of monuments of all eras, dating back to the pharaoh’s age.
TOURISM & DEVELOPMENT
Marsa Matrouh celebrates its national day on 24th August, with parades marching along the beautiful corniche, folklore dances, prancing horses, decorated ‘chariots’ (horse & buggies) and smart brass bands.
It has several activities; tourist investments being on top of the list, in addition to several natural resources under exploitation, such as petroleum, limestone, and silica sands, marble and gypsum. As for agriculture, desert fruit, such as watermelons, and olives, dates, nuts, and mint leaves are the most famous. Vegetables and other fruit are also cultivated.
Meanwhile, there still exists the major problem of landmines, further on along the coastal areas and into the desert, which requires consolidated efforts by world communities for ‘de-mining’ the land for the safety, welfare and future of its citizens, and in order to make its economy flourish once again in tourism, agriculture and construction, as well.
GOVERNOR OF MATROUH
Installation of electricity, paved streets, water sewage systems, had been initiated by the hyperactive former governor, Lt. General Mohamed Abdel-Hamid El-Shahat, whom the 'locals' loved and admired, as he had an 'open door' policy and met everyone and anyone, despite his very busy daily schedule. (I forgot the name of the new governor, and am not acquainted with his achievements.) Anyway, the former governor had beautified the city, in continuation with his predecessor, with sculptures, statues and works of art in the streets and along the corniche, which in itself is a work of art. Lampposts and corniche walls are painted white and turquoise – matching the unmatchable transparent turquoise waters of Marsa Matrouh.
All the beaches are famous for the soft white to cream-coloured sand, and breathtaking transparent waters, ranging from transparent turquoise, to crystal aquamarine, to clear amethyst.
Al-Ageebah Beach: About 28 km west of Marsa Matrouh, it is distinguished by its rocky hill, descent to the beautiful small bay, transparent blue hues of the water and numerous natural caves etched in the multicoloured rocks.
Al-Obayad Beach: Lies about 20 km. west of Marsa Matrouh. Its breathtaking beauty surpasses that of Marsa Matrouh beach.
Beau Site Beach: Not far from central Matrouh, this beach, with shallow stunning turquoise water stretching deep into the gentle waves, and as still and gentle as a lake, is the perfect spot to take your children.
Cleopatra Beach: Needless to say, this is named after the Cleopatra Baths, the remains of a cave in the water, with square openings hewn from the natural rock formations.
Shatek El-Gharam: Or, “Lovers’ Beach”, is only less than a mile from the Cleopatra Beach, with left-over ruins of a Greco-Roman palace, and is famous for the old black and white movie filmed there, starring Leila Mourad and Anwar Wagdy.
Rommel Beach, and others: More “popular”, but just as beautiful, with chairs and umbrellas for rent.
MAJOR LANDMARKS & TOURISTIC SITES
Cleopatra's Palace: lies 12 km to the west of Marsa Matrouh. The remains of the palace were found by the side of the Cleopatra Baths on the coast.
Egyptian Fleet Anchorage: Built by the Ptolemaists; the remains of the naval installations still stand west of the port. Coptic Chapel: Built during the early Coptic age, and contains several caves bearing inscriptions.
Rommel's Hideout: A cave, hewn in the rock, where Rommel, the Commander of German troops during World War II, drew up plans of his military operations. It is now a military museum, which contains samples of weapons, maps and ammunitions that were used by the German army.
Borg Al Arab: There is a museum of monuments across ages as well as Abu Seer temple. Also, mass burial cemeteries; dating to the Roman era lie 2 km from Borg Al Arab.
The British Cemetery: Thousands upon thousands of rock-hewn tombstones stand in straight rows amidst a fenced garden.
The German Cemetery: It is a fortress-like memorial that was built on a high plateau overlooking the sea.
The Italian Cemetery: It is a high tower fort standing on a high hill. The walls of the building are covered with marble.
Siwa Oasis Monuments: Siwa is a natural oasis situated in the heart of the desert, 300 km. south of Matrouh. It is famous for its fascinating scenery and clear water springs.
Marsa Matrouh Information Complex: It is an outstanding landmark of the governorate. Developed in 1995, it started operating in 1996. The complex is equipped with ultra modern information and media facilities, including a movie house and a children’s library. The complex provides conferences, seminars and lectures, where cultural, social and environmental issues are discussed and documentary films are shown.
REMOTE PLACES WORTH VISITING
Salome: While Salome is not a tourist area, there are nevertheless a few places to lodge, and one hotel (Al-Ahram). However, this is certainly not a town familiar with western travellers. This was the ancient Roman port of Sidi Barani, and there are still some Roman wells in the area. It is also a Bedouin trading centre. It sits on the Egyptian northern coast, but its location is basically on the boarder with Libya and about as far to the east as one may travel in Egypt. There is a post office and a National Bank of Egypt branch, and some nearby beaches may be isolated and attractive. However, one should ask for permission prior to visiting these.
Sidi Barani: Sidi Barani is a town on the northern coast of Egypt, east of the Libyan boarder and west of Marsa Matrouh. Mostly it is a Bedouin community with food and gasoline resources, a single small hotel, and very little if any tourist activity or historical curiosities.
Ras el-Hikm: Ras el-Hikma has some beautiful beaches, and an official camping site. It is located about 30 miles east of Marsa Matrouh and might make a pleasant distraction on the way there. The town is little more than a Bedouin village, and is situated on a land mass that juts out into the Mediterranean.
Inns, Camps, Rentals & Others
There are several inns, villas, camps and apartments for rent during summer, but most of these are closed during the winter. Many private sports clubs and companies in Cairo or Alexandria have summer camps there for the summer as well.
Tourist villages are not only for tourists. Many Egyptians actually own private apartments or villas in these private “villages” and spend weekends there, or stay there for their summer vacations. Those who aren’t too fussy or are a bit budget-oriented even rent them to others, when not in use.
Bazaars & Groceries
Marsa Matrouh is practically one big bazaar! There are plenty of “souks” everywhere, apart from the grocer shops, which they call “supermarkets”. The famous “souks” are the “Chinese” souk and the “Libyan” souk, at both ends of “Sharie Isskindria” (Alexandria Street). Apart from those, there are plenty of places to buy well-made cotton clothes, but after bargaining a lot. Also available are lovely Indonesian viscose kaftans (galabayas), spices and costume jewelry (made in China!)
Coffee Shops & Restaurants
There are plenty of sidewalk coffee shops to choose from, and a few good restaurants, with amazingly inexpensive prices and menus.
Schools, Universities, Hospital
There are schools, but no universities, for the “locals”. Matrouh, however, has four hospitals - two private, and two public. All four are equipped with the latest technology, and fair to good doctors. Many of the doctors are from Cairo, or Alexandria.
Airport & Inside Transportation
About one or two years ago, the huge “Rommel” bridge was completed, connecting Rommel to Matrouh’s mainland seashore. There are no civilian airports, but only the military airport. As for getting around inside Marsa Matrouh, if you don’t have your car with you, you can take inexpensive rides in the private “service” microbuses, or the public mini buses. All taxis have no meters, and you must bargain with the drivers. Most of them have a mobile, so, if you appreciate his fares (and driving) you are offered his number, and can contact the driver for future errands and destinations. Also, there is the “tuff-tuff” (little tram that takes you around in some districts) or, for a more romantic ride, you have a variety of “horse ‘n’ buggies”, replacing the ancient “carettas” – which resembled Chinese carts, but driven precariously by donkeys instead, with the caretta drivers racing each other, giving their passengers near-heart attacks!
Comments & Conclusion
This is the future IN spot for real estate investors, as there is great potential in the tourism industry, for hotel resorts. One thing struck me as strange, especially during the “Tourism & Shopping Festival”: there is not one single bookshop, or foreign-language book sold in Marsa Matrouh! Only the occasional magazine or newspaper could be found. But, there is one bookshop (always closed) belonging to the Al Ahram news agency, which sells only Arabic books.
However, a great obstacle must clearly be taken care of: the explosive situation of the land mines. In any case, what I personally did not like, was the litter that I witnessed last year, which gathered in the pristine sands and virgin waters. There were bottles, cans, paper plates, and rubbish floating and bobbing everywhere. In the middle of it all, ugly tables and chairs are set up by vendors to sell soft drinks and other junk food, thereby encouraging the visitors to litter the place. It should be strictly forbidden to carry picnic stuff, food and drinks, while exploring the caves or climbing the rocks. I was really aghast when I saw rubbish floating in Ageeba, Cleopatra baths, and other beautiful beaches, caves and remains of historical ‘ruins’ hewn out of natural rock.
Apart from that, and even worse, were the unsightly graffiti in black or red charcoal, or paint, in huge print or engraved on the rocks, by ruthless people. Does the price of “development” mean that one has to digress, instead of progress? Preserve, and save the environment ... please!