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Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Hidden treasures of Matrouh

Sherif Sonbol revisits Marsa Matrouh on Egypt’s North Coast after a first visit 30 years ago

Sherif Sonbol , Tuesday 18 Jun 2019
Marsa Matrouh
Agibah beach, Marsa Matrouh
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My first visit to Marsa Matrouh on Egypt’s North Coast was in May 1989. It was a dreamland at the time, with very few people on the streets. Some cows belonging to local Bedouins sauntered on the beaches and among the ruins of the Lido Hotel that was built on the sandy shore. 

The only form of transportation for tourists like me was a decorated wooden wagon called al-carta pulled by a donkey. The children’s magazine Samir declared at the time that al-carta was a key feature of this coastal city.

I met with expatriate Mitzo, the founder of tourism in the city and owner of the Beau Site Hotel on the western side of the beach. Beau Site was the first hotel in the town, and at the time it was only one storey high and stretched for some distance along the seafront.

At its centre there was also a simple home for nuns, and the hotel restaurant was a wooden boat docked on the sand. I remember everything there, including a tanned woman called Naima with an engaging laugh who used to prepare Greek zalabya, a popular delicacy in Alexandria that Cairenes knew nothing about at the time.

Bedouin Museum
The Bedouin Museum, Marsa Matrouh

Mitzo was very friendly and always sported shorts, never long trousers. He walked around the guest tables, exchanging banter and pulling up a chair if people seemed to want a longer chat since he knew them all well.

He suggested that we go to Agiba Beach, which at the time, and true to its name in Arabic, was truly “wondrous” as it had not been developed.

We also rode in al-carta for some distance along the eastern beaches of Matrouh until we reached Rommel’s Cave, which the German general had used as his headquarters during World War II.

Although 45 years had passed since the famous Battle of Alamein that took place in the area, Rommel’s presence could still be strongly felt.

Years passed, and I visited Marsa Matrouh again. This time I visited the Shatt Al-Gharam (Lovers’ Beach) and the boulder where the famous singer Laila Mourad had once sung “People of Matrouh, a fairy in your sea”.

I also visited Cleopatra’s Bath, which was packed with adventurous young men climbing the rocks and plunging into the water and then re-emerging, laughing, showing off their muscles.

I met my artist friend George Bahgoury, and together we published an article in Al-Ahram Weekly about the legendary Mitzo. I went to Rommel’s Cave again and found that it had been renovated. Unfortunately, it now carried the scent of modernisation instead of the rich smell of history.

Shoshenq II
The statue of Shoshenq II

In the evening, I went to the Libya Market, which was packed with tourists and locals wanting to buy goods from neighbouring Libya and the Siwa Oasis such as hareesa (hot pepper paste) and olive oil.

On Market Street, I saw al-carta again, having noted that it had all but disappeared from the beaches. It may be simply personal bias, but I believe there is much more to Matrouh than donkey-drawn wagons and Rommel. There is also “water and air”, as Mourad once sang.

I went back again many years later and found that the Beau Site Hotel that I had known had been refurbished, along with the nun’s home, and both had become much taller.

Mitzo sadly had passed away, but I did still find Naima in the kitchen, now located on the first floor (though I could not see the sea out of the window).

Her laugh was the same, and she was still serving Greek zalabya. She had become a kind of icon of the place and a reminder of days gone by.

Kütahya
Kütahya OTTOMAN Porselen

Most holidaymakers and local people were now going to the Agami beaches or other locations on the coast, and I decided to try a hotel that was highly recommended by an official at the Matrouh governorate called Carols Beau Rivage located 30 minutes west of Matrouh.

I looked at ways to travel by asking friends and searching the Internet, including private car, bus, and train, though the latter only operates in summer. I chose the bus and witnessed a fierce fight between the passengers and driver regarding the onboard toilet.

At The Hotel

On my arrival at the hotel, I met with owner Farag Mikhail, who surprised me with an invitation to an elaborate Ramadan Iftar with Bedouin tribal leaders from the surrounding area and headed by the Matrouh governor.

Mikhail told me that this had become a routine event after 2011 when some saboteurs had tried to take advantage of the unstable security conditions during the 25 January Revolution by attacking the hotel.

The Bedouins had stood in their way, declaring that this would happen “over our dead bodies”. As Mikhail had expected, they had also refused to be compensated for their heroic stand.

Since then, and in order to commemorate their action, Mikhail had hosted an Iftar attended by tribal leaders and the governor as an expression of solidarity.

At the Iftar, I was pleased to see a Coptic bishop and an Al-Azhar Muslim cleric walking hand in hand towards the gathering rather than arriving by car like everyone else.

Safwat Gerges, the hotel manager, said that this happened every year. I took the opportunity to make an appointment to see the governor, Magdi Al-Gharabli, the next morning.

Psalmody book
Psalmody book of Coptic church written in 2 languages,

Waiting at his office, I chatted with chief of staff Mona about the great Mitzo. She surprised me by saying that he had been “the only person ever allowed to come to governorate offices wearing shorts.”

During the interview, Al-Gharabli said that major developments were taking place in the area and that these were a priority of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.

There were many tourist projects, he said, most notably at New Alamein and Ras Al-Hekma. Along with tourism, there was also the Jarjoub Port west of Matrouh and its accompanying logistics zones.

The Saloum Land Port was also underway, as were several power stations and desalination plants. The Dabaa nuclear power station would soon be inaugurated, but keeping Matrouh as beautiful as ever would remain his top priority, the governor said.

With its population of 300,000 people, Marsa Matrouh is visited by some seven million tourists every summer, so the beaches were being improved, cinemas and other facilities were being built, and the local Rommel Museum was being refurbished, Al-Gharabli said.

He added that a Heritage Museum had been added to the Matrouh Library as well as an Antiquities Museum. Since I sometimes have trouble getting permission to photograph museums, I promptly asked for a permit. The governor immediately agreed and assigned Asmaa, a staff member, to accompany me.

I was surprised at the size of the library building, which also houses the Bedouin Heritage Museum. On display were traditional Bedouin and Siwan (not the same as Bedouin, by the way) items of clothing, jewellery, shoes, woven bags and other handicrafts.

I enjoyed the museum and took many photographs. Perhaps if they had played some local music it would have enlivened the display, which was mostly explained through wall texts.

I then visited the Antiquities Museum, home to material from all of Egypt’s historical periods, as was noted by Amer Saad, an antiquities inspector at the museum.

The collection includes ancient Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Coptic, and Islamic items, and is not just a regional one limited to the history of Marsa Matrouh.

There is a statue of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II, for example, as well as Greek frescos and statues. Next to them, there is a statue from the ancient Egyptian 22nd Dynasty, a somewhat enigmatic dynasty of Libyan origin that ruled Egypt from Tanis in the Delta area.

Shoshenq II was one of its kings, and a statue of him is displayed on the first floor of the museum protected by the god Amun Ra.

The museum could make a wonderful three-hour outing for a family. However, my Bedouin driver, Khairy Al-Sarhani, was more sceptical.

“Why would anyone who was visiting for a week spend a day looking at antiquities when he could be enjoying the sea,” he asked. “The museum should be open in the afternoons and evenings,” he added.

We left the museum and headed to the Carols Beau Rivage Hotel to enjoy the magic of Matrouh’s “water and air” and chat with manager Gerges over a refreshing drink.

Gerges had left a career in world-class hotels to come to Matrouh and make this hotel one of the best in Egypt. “Marsa Matrouh has so much to offer to visitors,” he told me.“It’s true that the beaches are the top attraction, but there are also many other attractions including historical sites such as Cleopatra’s Castle and Roman graves and cultural destinations that allow visitors to sample Bedouin life and traditions.”

He said that Marsa Matrouh had changed a lot from what it was and that this process would likely continue. So, now is the time to visit the city in order to catch a glimpse of bygone days before these too disappear.

*Photos by Sherif Sonbol

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Hidden treasures of Matrouh

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