A weekend in Qusseir

Rania Khallaf , Sunday 21 Oct 2018

Rania Khallaf travels back to the 18th century and beyond on a weekend trip to the historic Red Sea city of Qusseir

Qusseir Hotel
Qusseir Hotel overlooking Port Said Street, the city’s main road

It all started with a Facebook post from the Qusseir Hotel, a place I have longed to visit. The post announced activities run by the Roeya Society, calling friends interested in preserving the heritage of the city to engage in its activities.

Browsing the pictures, I fell in love with the architecture of the hotel, with its high ceilings and dark brown bricks. It turned out to be one of the city’s most beautiful architectural monuments built back in 1910.

A few days later, I received a kind invitation to visit the city and attend the society’s activities from Ali Sayed, one of the founders and an active board member of the Roeya, or Vision, Society. Obviously, I could not resist the idea of spending the weekend in the arms of history.

I arrived on Thursday morning after a hectic nine-hour trip by bus. There was no time to rest, though.

The schedule was busy, and on my first free day in the part of the city called the harret foug, or Upper Alley, I could literally smell the fragrance of history.

The ancient two-floor houses with wooden balconies built in the 18th and 19th centuries looked amazing. The narrow alleys have no specific tracks; you start from a lower point to end up on upper ground, passing ancient houses of amazing antiquity.

As I roamed the streets, seven young visual artists were also taking their seats in different spots to sketch ancient sites as part of the four-day activities of the local People and Heritage Project.

Architectural buildings such as the old Police Station, a marvelous one-floor building with a balcony on which late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser once appeared to address the people of Qusseir in the 1950s, punctuated the scene.

Police station
The old police station where Nasser once addressed the locals

As I walked, the azan (prayer call) came in a soft voice from the Al-Senousi Mosque, another ancient building from the Ottoman era located in the haret taht, or Lower Alley, originally built by the Al-Senousi family from Morocco. Many nationalities have coexisted in this city, including Indians, Italians, Moroccans and Arabs from the Hijaz.

Most of the houses are built of stone from the nearby mountains, and one can also observe coral reefs mixed in with the stone in some ancient houses.

The city once hosted foreign consulates, including those of France, Austria, Morocco and Iran, to facilitate trade even before the 18th century.

18th century houses

As I stopped for a break, I was welcomed by three girls who came to say hello. They were not all veiled: the hijab is not obligatory, and young girls do not necessarily wear it.

Mariam, the youngest, hastened to say that walking along the seashore was the sole form of entertainment. “I like Safaga more. It is where I can go to swim,” she said, adding that she wanted to be a physician when she grew up.

Qusseir, located 133km north of Marsa Alam on the Red Sea, was once a hub for the cloth, spices and porcelain trade coming from Yemen, India and Portugal during the Roman and Islamic periods.

Yet, today there is little trace of the traditional handicrafts, and the local bazaars are full of products from Aswan and Luxor.

The scarcity of water, in addition to attacks by Bedouins during the Islamic era and the Ottoman-Portuguese trade conflict in 1558-1566 ended the once-flourishing trade.

Touring the city at midday, I found it to be remarkably quiet. All the bazaars and supermarkets were closed for the lunch break and because of the high temperature and humidity.

I was sweating, too, but I couldn’t resist walking in the alleys and along the city’s Corniche where the Qusseir Customs Office, another old building, is located.

Fishing centre
Qusseir’s ancient fishing centre at the port

As I was walking through the streets, people would proudly tell me that Qusseir was the most ancient port on the Red Sea coast and boast that Hurghada, Ras Ghareb and Marsa Alam had no history compared to theirs.

Today, the city has few inhabitants at around 107,000 people. With around 25 schools, illiteracy is low, as is the crime rate.

However, entertainment is limited, and a picnic on the beach or a night in a café overlooking the sea is what there is for local people.

However, unlike in coastal cities like Port Said or Alexandria, residents do not pay fees to enjoy a picnic on the beach, or to go for a swim, or watch water turtles. The beaches are free and open to the public.

Fishing boat
An old fishing boat

Traces of ancient Egyptian, Roman, Ptolemaic, Mameluke and Islamic civilisation could be easily observed.

History of Qusseir

Accompanied by Sayed and Wasfi Tameer, a school teacher known as the historian of Qusseir, I walked through what seemed to be an open-air museum.

We roamed the city on foot, stopping at every corner to get clarification about the establishment and founders of each building. Tameer often quoted Kamal Hussein Hamam, a historian who wrote eight books on the history of the city.

Our first stop was Al-Shona, or the storage house, another historical building that dates back to the 18th century. Government officials used to store grain there before transporting it to the Hijaz for the Hajj season.

The number of pilgrims travelling from Qusseir is estimated to have been some 30,000 during the pilgrimage season.

The storage house is a spacious building, whose six-metre enclosure is supported by triangular-shaped pillars. It looks marvelous, if somewhat neglected, with garbage at its front gate.

It is widely believed that queen Hatshepsut once walked along the Gods Road, known as wadi hamamat, a 180km road connecting Qaft and Qusseir.

During the French Expedition to Egypt at the end of the 18th century, French general Napoleon Bonparte wanted to settle in Qusseir because of its importance as a port and as a link to the East.

The people of Qusseir joined the French campaign against Britain. However, in 1801 French soldiers departed from Qusseir, and the port continued to serve until the establishment of the Suez Canal in the later decades of the 19th century when trade and Hajj activities were transferred to Suez, adding to the decay of Qusseir.

Around 15 minutes from Al-Shona is the Qusseir Citadel on a relatively high spot overlooking the sea.

Qusseir Citadel
The Qusseir Citadel

The citadel was built in 1541 after a message sent from Sinan Pasha, the wali (governor) of Egypt to the Ottoman Sultan Selim complaining that the people of Qusseir had deserted it.

The letter recommended that a Citadel should be built to protect the city from invaders and to facilitate the Hajj.

The citadel is surrounded by a six-metre wall that includes four towers, 12 canons, and a huge water storage tank. I took the narrow spiral stairs to reach the underground level, originally the water storage room.

It was spacious, and pictures were on display to illustrate ways of life in ancient Qusseir. These featured members of the Baabda tribe, the indigenous inhabitants, together with their homes, weapons, and societal features.

Baabda tribe
An old picture of the Baabda tribe displayed at the bottom room of the citadel

It was amazing to feel how those people, unfamiliar to almost all Egyptians, once lived there. Using steel stairs, I mounted to the top of one of the citadel’s ancient towers.

It was marvelous to view all the details of the citadel, which definitely needs a lot of restoration to convert it into an attractive tourist spot.

Our next stop was the Italian Phosphate Company, built in 1910 and only metres away from the citadel. The production and export of phosphates started in 1916 and continued until 1962.

The 5km space includes workshops, a hostel, a petrol station, and a Roman Catholic Church, all built in Italian architectural style.

An abandonded workshop attached to the Italian Phosphate Company

The St Barbara Church, where 25 Italian workers are buried, was part of the Italian community in Qusseir. In 1988, it was renovated and enlarged by the Egyptian Orthodox Church, partly maintaining the Italian style to serve a community of 6,000 Copts.

The company premises were a hub for educational and cultural activities, and perhaps the Italian influence is one of the reasons behind the cheerful spirit of the local people, which is dissimilar to residents of other remote areas in Egypt.

The church once offered educational facilities for Italians, including weaving and knitting classes. In addition, the Italians established tennis and football teams, and relations with the locals were fairly good.

An aerial tramway going the 1,300m from the administration building to the port to export phosphates to Yugoslavia and China was a marvelous sight for the inhabitants in the early 20th century, Tameer said.

Entering the building, I felt I was in a cinema studio. There were many spacious workshops with large windows and high ceilings.

I entered one of them, and found it to be full of old machines, with documents scattered on the dusty floor. The place is now attached to the Ministry of Antiquities, but it has been neglected.

Past To Present

At the beginning of the last century, Qusseir had some 7,000 residents, as a result of the Italian Company “which attracted people from surrounding governorates and created a booming economic atmosphere”, Tameer said.

Near the Qusseir Hotel, the city’s police station stands like an ancient skeleton. Originally built as the Ottoman Diwan, or administrative building, the history of the station dates back to the French Campaign.

It was renovated by Mohamed Ali Pasha in 1837 after the war in the neighbouring Arabian Peninsula to become the premises of Ibrahim Pasha. The building was then used as the premises of the local governors.

Renovation took place in 1869 under the khedive Ismail, but today the building, located on the waterfront, is dilapidated. “It was converted into a police station, and after years of negligence, it is now full of garbage. The Ministry of Antiquities has done nothing to protect the ancient building,” Tameer lamented.

The city is rich with touristic assets and could become a booming venue for cultural tourism and safari activities. However, there are problems with communications and access.

“There are many places that could serve as museums, such as the old police station, and Al-Shona, where thousands of pictures and antiquities could be displayed,” Tameer said.

On Friday night, the Roeya Society hosted a simsmiya night by famous local musician Salah Atteya, part of its participation in the People and Heritage Programme.

The outer space was full of young people and children who had come to celebrate, and an exhibition of sketches of old buildings by young artists from different governorates was held the following day in the open area beside the police station to conclude the People and Heritage celebrations.

Simsmiya is a stringed instrument originating from Africa and later transferred to Yemen, and then to the Hijaz and the Red Sea coastal ports of Egypt.

It is popular among fishermen during their long journeys. It is believed that Abdallah Kabarbar, a famous simsimiya musician from Qusseir, introduced it to the Suez region at the time of building the Suez Canal, Tameer said.

“However, it is more famous there as it was associated with resistance songs,” he noted.

Atteya added that the instrument was alone used to celebrate weddings, especially in Qusseir and Ras Ghareb.

“I used to have a band, but don’t have enough time now. Playing the simsmiya has never been a source of income for me. It is just something I do on social occasions,” he said.

Omniya Abdel-Malek, a young woman who joined Roeya eight years ago, is one of the very first women to take part in voluntary activities in Qusseir. She is a graduate of the History Department at Cairo University, where she first started to engage in voluntary work.

Roeya was established in 2010 to serve the local people and to contribute to children’s education.

“What makes Roeya different than other voluntary organisations is the spirit of freedom. Young volunteers can take responsibility for a whole project without interference from their elders. We represent the whole of society. The development of Qusseir is our sole aim,” Abdel-Malek said.

At the premises of the society, children are smiling and girls behave freely wearing beautiful colourful dresses. “Generations” is the title of a yearly project launched by Roeya that includes competitions, theatrical performances, and cleaning and visiting heritage sites.

The programme is tailored for children to have a better awareness of their city.

Keep Qusseir Beautiful (KQB) is another project aimed at cleaning up the city, which suffer from a problem of garbage.

“There are no cleaning companies here, and everything depends on the residents,” Abdel-Malek said, adding that her biggest wish was to see the sea without the garbage and plastic bags that kill fish and coral reefs.

“In 2010, it was weird for a girl to join a voluntary society. But things are different now. The number of girls is much larger than that of boys,” she said.

After eight years of voluntary work, she believes that awareness has developed among the new generation, though the older generation still preserves outdated concepts when it comes to developing the city.

Mustafa Sebak, a young man from the Baabda tribe which has historically resided on the Red Sea coast, is one of the owners of the Qusseir Hotel.

Overlooking the sea, this was built originally as a home by Hassan Sebak, his grandfather, and one of the most powerful tribal figures at the beginning of the last century.

Hassan had five wives and 18 sons and daughters and died in 1962. His house was later deserted. “It was difficult for all the heirs to reach agreement over converting the house into a hotel, which is also why it is difficult to convert other ancient houses into hotels or museums,” Mustafa said.

Mustafa later managed to regain the house and with the assistance of some foreign businessmen managed to convert it into a beautiful hotel.

“I don’t know why the government completely ignores Qusseir,” he said, pointing out that around 40,000 antiquities are locked in storage ready to be displayed in a local museum.

“Hurghada, historically part of Qusseir, is a perfect example of quick development. The same thing could also happen here,” he said.

“It makes me proud that queen Hatshepsut walked the ancient path from Qusseir to Qaft, which is believed to be the shortest way between the Nile and the Red Sea.

We are hoping for a better tomorrow. Investors are interested in the city, but they need a push forward,” Mustafa concluded as we sat in a small dining room overlooking the ancient port.

* All photos by Rania Khallaf

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A weekend in Qusseir


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