Last month, the Heritage section travelled an enchanting journey exploring the intangible culture of the 'Red Land,' between the Red Sea and mighty mountains.
Guided by Khalid Sobhy, an expert on desert roads and pro diver who helped chart Egypt's diving laws.
We unfolded the social history of one of Egypt's natural gems: Wadi El-Gemal (Valley of the Camels).
Sobhy, who spent 39 years exploring and navigating the desert and sea, shared with Ahram Online the lessons he learned.
"You learn patience, care and humbleness because no matter how clever you are, it's easy to get lost and die in the desert. You can never match the resilience of rocks or the vastness of the sea," he noted.
The Road to Hankorab
According to the Ababda tribe, Hankorab is a mussel that used to abundantly fill the bay, naming it.
Ras Hankourab Bay lies inside the Wadi El-Gemal Protectorate, an 808-kilometre (9 hours) drive from Cairo to the southeastern part of Egypt.
Our 7am drive along the magnificent Red Sea mountains easily captivated us.
The 'Red Land' is what valley inhabitants call Egypt's eastern desert, also known as Deseret as explained in The Red Land, The Illustrated Archeology of Egypt Eastern Desert by Steven E. Sidebotham, Martin Hense, and Hendrikje M. Nouwens.
The road crossed paths with many historic and pre-historic events. According to The Red Land, the 25 million-year-old Red Sea formed when African and Arabian landmasses spread apart. The Red Sea has many anchorages known as Marsa, like Marsa Alam.
Mighty mountains parallel the Red Sea, connecting it to the Nile via numerous valleys and routes. Wadi Shaiba linked Al Zafarana on the coast to the Nile at Beni Sweif. Egypt's 220,000 square kilometre Eastern Desert has famous trade roads like the Silk Road and Spice Road.
Pilgrimage hajj routes from Qena on the Nile to Quseir Port on the Red Sea passed through, holding Roman wells, gold mines and mausoleums. We crossed roads leading to Homaithera with the mausoleum of Sidi Abul Hassan Al-Shazly, head of the Shazliah Sufi order.
"Prehistoric civilizations left their mark. People lived there 250,000-10,000 B.C., finding routes, water and animals. Ancient Egyptians, Ptolemies and Romans built on this, expanding roads and quarrying."
“However, about 5,000 years ago, the eastern desert was in the final stages of becoming the desiccated, hyper-arid region that we know today… as a result of desertification the Savanna fauna of Egypt including elephant, giraffe and rhinoceros disappeared before the age of the pyramids beginning in the third dynasty (2649-2575 B.C.)” explained the book."
A Meteor pool
Approximately 14 kilometres south of Marsa Alam, we visited Naizak (The Meteor) Bay named after a legend that a meteor hit, causing a deep pool by the bay though no scientific proof exists to support this theory.
The pool, layered with various shades of blue, looks like a deep hole in dark, friction-worn rocks.
Wadi El-Gemal (Camels Valley) protectorate
Around 70 kilometres from Marsa Alam, a diving retreat, we reached Wadi El-Gemal National Park. According to UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage Convention, Wadi El-Gemal is a fascinating unpolluted site on the Red Sea coast, south of Marsa Alam with magnificent palm groves, coral reefs, mangroves and diverse plants/animals. The park's biodiversity especially the Gebel Hamata mountains is vital with seagrass beds housing dugongs, fish and marine life. Wadi El-Gemal Island nearby is key for breeding and migrating birds/sea turtles. Prehistoric, Ptolemaic and Roman ruins abound along with emerald quarries and the indigenous people's unique traditions and their exceptional local traditions and culture.
Ras Hankorab beach
We camped for three nights at Hankorab Bay, inside Wadi El-Gemal. Camping under the endless sky by the sea was an incredible experience- direct contact with nature that's rare nowadays. It was windy and some windsurfed, a surprise in summer. Modern camping provided inflatable mattresses, showers with solar heaters, portable toilets and a full kitchen with fresh meals. There was an internet connection and we used red light instead of white to avoid mosquitoes and learned to clean up after ourselves. Camping taught me patience and simplicity while allowing our group to connect and communicate, rare nowadays.
How the Ababada tribe read the Sky
“Hankorab is a kind of mussel that was found in abundance here, hence the name of the beach,” explained Hassan Abdel Saleh, the Hankorab Bay guide and a member of the Ababda Tribe who lives inside the protectorate. “Hankorab is part of Wadi El- Gemal, which was once indeed the residence of camels. It was green pastures, as our ancestors used to tell us,” he added.
UNESCO's tentative list of World Heritage Convention notes the Ababda live nearer the Nile valley while local Bishari or Bisharin (of Hamitic origin) are a Red Sea coastal Beja tribe branch speaking an ancient Hamitic language, the Bishari language. Their material culture differs from Nile valley groups and northern Arab Bedouins like the Maaza near Hurghada and Hawitat in the Suez Canal area.
“In the old days, there was no electricity, mobiles, no connections with people nowadays it's better, the children go to school and we get in contact more with people, "Abd El-Saleh told Ahram Online. He said they still wear white and play heritage games like Tarbana and Siga. They still grill meat on basalt stone called Salat meat. He remembered an anthropologist who wrote her PhD on the Ababada and Bashari tribes. “Shahira Fawzy helped our tribe dig the wells to reach underground water. You see they knew the right place to dig because the earth would emit water vapor," he noted.
One interesting piece of Ababda's knowledge passed down is astronomy. They depend on stars to navigate the desert. “At night, we follow specific stars, such as those who form the shape of Scorpio for example, it leads to our village Abu Ghosoun. Some stars move like the one star that rises and sets with the moon. You cannot depend on this kind of star because it moves and it would get you lost," he added explaining:
“Al gozi star is in the north, the group of stars forming Scorpio shape marks the east, the teria star marks the west points to Aswan,” he concluded.