In the third installment of our Egypt's golden beaches series, we proudly reveal the North Coast in black and white.
Since the mid-nineties, two terms have gradually settled in our summer vocabulary: Al-Sahel (the coast) or Al-Sahel al-Shamali (the north coast). Implicitly, they refer only to Egypt's western Mediterranean coast and very particularly to the stretch of it extending from Al-Dekheila to Sidi Abdel-Rahman
(Photo: Al-Dekheila shore).
Anywhere further west is known as Marsa Matrouh, although technically it is very much “the” North Coast. And while in the last half of the twentieth century Alexandria became Egypt’s most popular summer resort, Marsa Matrouh gained its reputation primarily for its serene beaches, limpid clear sea and white sands.
The oral history of its habitués has vividly recorded the role of the local Greek community who ran several of its seafront boutique hotels. Among others are the non-extant Lido Hotel, where Churchill once stayed, and the charming original stone building of the Beausite, which is now a less cozy and intimate concrete building. Unfortunately, the beauty of its beaches could not be recorded in the black and white photographs of the fifties and the sixties but they capture the quietness and the peculiarity of Rommel, Cleopatra and Agiba beaches.
(Photos: Marsa Matrouh 1961 and Rommel 1961)
The only other competition that possibly rivaled Marsa Matrouh's pristine beaches was the medium-sized Sidi Abdel-Rahman hotel where Rommel resided to administer the events of World War II which took place in Al-Alamein desert near Sidi Abdel-Rahman. By virtue of its central location on the Sahel road, Al-Alamein became a rest house for travelers wishing to rest during the long drive from either Cairo or Alexandria to Marsa Matrouh.
(Photo: A-Alamein museum 1961)
While some were entertained by the antiquity of the tankers and the equipment that was used in WWII in Al-Alamein museum, some others explored the nearby cemeteries of the Italian and the German soldiers for their respective architectural values and to rapidly salute the WWII participants, or most commonly just to read a few regimental names as do the tourists in the Père Lachaise in Paris.
Apart from Marsa Matrouh and Sidi Abdel-Rahman which attracted some locals who went to their untouched turquoise beaches for a week or two every summer, the North Coast remained untouched until housing minister Hassaballah El-Kafrawi launched in the late eighties a campaign to populate the area with two pilot compounds, Maraqia and Marabella. These were soon crowned by Marina Al-Alamein, which started as a compound but expanded into the "capital" of the North Coast due to its magnitude that far surpasses any subsequent development on the North Coast even twenty years after its foundation. Its distinctive stone architecture, its wide greenery zones are conceived around a set of sea water lagoons animated by water sports and activities
(Photos: Marina 2002 and Marina 2000).
Somehow, such magnitude and the Mediterranean ring of its name suggest that Marina would have harboured an international or a national harbour enabling maritime traffic. But alas, it is not the case.
The early success and glamour of Marina, which was state-built, drew the attention of investors and speculators to the North Coast in the mid-nineties and since then the number of touristic compounds has expanded rapidly. The nostalgia of Alexandria is reflected in the names of the new compounds, such as new Montazah, Miami and even Bianchi named after the neighborhood within Agami that was attributed to its developer and earliest resident, the Swiss Achille Bianchi
(Photo: Agami sea).
Its charm was in the simplicity of the Bedouin houses which maintained the vernacular feel that matched the beach lifestyle
(Photo: Agami house).
(Photo: Agami house detail)
Only a very few are now left of these houses which still bear trèfle motifs on the shutters.
The Agamists who have now moved to Al-Gouna and other beaches still remember fondly at least two locations that they all knew well. Those are the Champ Elysées and Al-Hanafia streets, referring to the only source of tap water at a time prior to the introduction of infrastructure. Of those there are no known photographs, but very interestingly, only on Agami's beach one can still find a professional photographer roaming on its beaches in a white sports outfit like in the good old days to capture photos that will become heritage in another decade or so.
(Photos: Agami beach photographer and Agami beach photographer 2).
Another link between Alexandria and the North Coast is the Ras Al-Hikma spot where King Farouk had a rest house built for him on an exclusive bay on which he used to go to sailing on in his yacht Al-Mahroussa to escape from the politics and the cabinet which officially relocated in Alexandria in summer.
The Sahel is undergoing yet another major state-initiated change. The small town of Al-Alamein is becoming an independent governorate. Hopefully its urban planning will feature an essential feature missing so far, which is a public corniche like most Mediterranean coastal cities.
Photos courtesy Ola R. Seif