A survey of Egypt, Part VII: Alexandria to Port Said

A survey of Egypt, Part VII: Alexandria to Port Said

By Jimmy Dunn and Zahraa Awed

Date Palm trees and flowers along the road to Rasheed

On the 30th of September, I was looking very forward to the next leg of our survey, between Alexandria and Port Said along Egypt's northern coast. This was new ground for me, as I had never been along this coastal highway. Unfortunately, I was expecting a bit more of a coastal highway, when in fact, the Mediterranean Sea is mostly out of site, usually no more than a few kilometers away, but rarely visible, except as one approaches Port Said. To the south, several lakes border the road, but these too are often just far enough away that they cannot be seen, though occasionally one spies a ghostly sail seemingly growing from a field. Sometimes we pass fish forms, and there is really a lot of water, but mostly these appear to be mere ponds, though they might be attached to larger bodies of water. At first, as we set out from Alexandria, there are everywhere date palm groves, thick and lush, and this time of year bearing fruit. Along with these forests of date palms, there are flowers too colored in red, orange and white.

Boats all along the banks at Rasheed

Our first stop, which finally brings us back to the water, is Rasheed (Rashid), often known as Rosetta on many maps, because it was here that the famous Rosetta Stone was discovered. Rasheed is an interesting town; a town seemingly making much of its living off the sea in one form or another, and of course from the surrounding orchards. While we saw mostly date palms on our way, other fruit crops must be grown nearby, for the markets were loaded with dates, oranges and a variety of other produce.

Two just finished, fine yachts sit off the the coast at Rasheed

Here, we also passed by commercial markets, were groups of men scramble to bid on various produce. However, Rasheed also has a boatyard, and apparently a well known one at that. Ships are built here, and not just commercial vessels, but fine yachts as well. There is also a vast fleet of small fishing boats, evidenced at this point only by the huge number of small docks set along the water way. It is hard to imagine anyone going hungry in this city, with fish and fruit so plentiful.

Fisherman cast there nets out at the Boghaz

We made our first stop at Rashid Duke, sometimes referred to as Boghaz. This is actually where the Nile meets the Mediterranean Sea, really just to the north of the city proper. All about were fishing boats, along with some people fishing from the banks. On the way back, I had to stop and take a closer look at the yachts. I couldn't help wondering how much one might cost. Someone seemed to think that about half a million pounds would do, or less than one hundred thousand dollars. Thoughts of selling my home played through my head, but then I could probably not afford the gas to get very far in one of these, so I filed this information back for later reflection.

Inside the fortress at Rasheed

There is a bit more to see in Rasheed than most people might imagine. Our next stop took us to Fort Qaitbey, known by the French as Saint Julian, and yes, this complex was built by the same ruler who also built the more famous fortress in Alexandria. However, this one has its own claim to fame, for it was here that the Rosetta Stone was found, which eventually aided Champollion in his efforts to decipher hieroglyphics. The fortress itself is in good repair, apparently restored at some time in the past, though I know not when. From its walls one also has an excellent view of the Nile and much of the city. If visiting the fortress, note the columns jutting out of the lower walls. These are actually ancient columns that were used to add structural strength to the walls of the fortress.

The actual location in the fortress where the Rosetta Stone was discovered and removed

These days, Rasheed's best known tourist attractions are its old Ottoman era houses. There are a number of these, located in easy walking distance from each other. They date from the early to mid 1700s, though a few of the signs are not clear on this matter. They are indeed beautiful brick structures, well preserved with wonderful, intricate Mashribiyya screens covering the windows. Nearby, there is also a Turkish bath house, that is also interesting. In fact, parts of this building, aged as it may be, are absolutely gorgeous.

One of the Ottoman era houses at Rasheed, with beautiful Mashribiyya screens

One of the things that I enjoyed most about this part of the survey, which equally applied to Rasheed, was the lack of tourists. We pretty much had the city to ourselves, much as we did at sites in the Delta. People do visit the city, often as part of an Alexandrian tour, but there seemed to be no others here today. Before leaving the city, we sat for a while and sipped on fruit drinks in front of the Rasheed International Hotel, which might be of interest to some. Alexandria itself is somewhat expensive, but this hotel, near enough to Alexandria for a tour, is extremely reasonable, and a very nice, clean three star facility. Soon though, we were once more on our way

A chamber within the bath house at Rasheed

Now, and for most of the remainder of our journey, the landscape turned to beach; one great big beach, even when the sea could not be seen. Sometimes we passed fleets of boats and ships, more on Lake Burullus, which bordered the road to the south, than in the Mediterranean, before finally arriving in the small resort village of Baltim.

Along the northern coast between Alexandria and Port Said are a number of small resorts such as this. They are often listed in tour guides, but in fact they are mostly frequented only by locals. I really saw no hotels here, though I am sure one could probably rent a flat for a period of time. At this time of year (late September), no one was really at home. Once again, we had the place almost exclusively to ourselves. In reality, I doubt that many foreign tourists would want to come here, even though the beach is nice and it is probably very affordable. Doubtless, middle class Egyptians, which are probably the ones who come to Baltim, would just as soon keep a few of the resorts to themselves, rather than having foreign tourists drive prices up on everything. Nevertheless, we were welcomed here, and enjoyed a few minutes strolling about the beach.

I promise I didn't pose this group of boys just outside of Rasheed. What natural models!

The drive between Baltim and our next stop, Damietta (Dumyat), was thankfully not all that long, as the scenery mostly consisted of sand and more sand. Today, after Cairo, the Nile splits into two main branches as it winds its way to the Mediterranean Sea. One branch empties into the sea at Rasheed, while the second one does so at Damietta. However, these two cities are very different from one another. While Rosetta seems more agricultural and fishing based, Damietta is known for manufacturing, and specifically, the manufacturing of furniture. While I am sure that much fishing takes place out of Damietta, as it does all along the coast, Damietta has the reputation of producing the finest furniture in Egypt. And while no one may ever go hungry in Rasheed, it is said that no one is ever unemployed in Damietta.

The Nile River branch at Damietta

We took the time to visit what one of the furniture factories that we were told was the best of the best, El Shamy Furniture. Indeed, their showroom was full of finely crafted pieces. Most of this furniture is made of imported wood, and frankly I was amazed when we took a peek into the manufacturing facility itself. I have a small shop at my house that probably contains nearly as much wood working equipment as this factory (well, not exactly), and yet, the pieces they turn out are very well done.

Fine wooden furniture at El-Shamy

Soon, we were back on the road for our final destination this day, Port Said. Port Said is, of course, the northern entrance to the Suez Canal. Its southern counterpart is the city of Suez. For the most part, the Suez Canal is the main attraction at Port Said, though there is also a national museum, a military museum and a Museum of Modern Art.

Port Said appears to be a relatively wealthy city, perhaps not surprisingly because of the canal. As could be expected, there was considerable traffic at the canal, with ships entering the locks one after the other. However, until very recently, it also enjoyed the status of a tax-free zone, where local residents could purchase most anything at considerably reduced prices. Some of this has changed, but the outward result is, for example, that the average car is a bit nicer than one might see elsewhere in Egypt.

The busy Port Said mouth of the Suez Canal. In the lower left hand of this photo is the passenger terminal for cruise ships

Port Said does enjoy some status as a resort, and it does receive a fair number of foreign tourists, perhaps mostly because a number of cruise ships dock here. It has some nice resort hotels to support this business, including a Sonesta, who operate some of the best hotels throughout Egypt. After exploring the canal and taking in a bit of the city, we retired to a two star hotel for the evening of our next to the last day in the Delta. Ports Said is a bit expensive, similar to Alexandria, and my team, who were on a budget, had to keep their expenses down. To preserve a certain spirit, I always stayed in the same hotels as my team, though certainly I could afford a bit better than a two star hotel for myself.

Though I have reviewed budget hotels in Egypt, I had actually never stayed in a two star hotel prior to this. I generally consider three star hotels to be the lowest rating that most foreign tourists would accept, though that is really not true, considering the number of back packers and tourists from less affluent nations that visit Egypt.

Another view of the Suez Canal at Port Said

Actually, this facility was not bad. It was actually a small resort, with a swimming pool, and my room had a good bed, an air conditioner, a phone and even a TV, though the picture was fuzzy. So what was the main difference between this and a normal three star hotel? No toilet paper, no towels and no soap. I actually thought this was a mistake, so I called reception, and managed to get some soap and one towel. Two towels seemed out of the question, as did toilet paper. Oh well, it had been a long day, it was late, there were electrical plugs to recharge all the batteries for my photographic equipment, and after downloading and backing up the day's shots, the night would be short and the wake-up call early, at 3:00 am, as usual.

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Last Updated: June 9th, 2011