A SHORT HISTORY OF MARSA ALAM
Until recently Marsa Alam was a sleepy fishing village, but the barren hinterland has a surprisingly interesting history.
There is plenty of evidence in the rock inscriptions and paintings that Stone Age man made in the surrounding mountains many thousands of years ago. The smooth rock was perfect for such work. This prehistoric art includes depictions of hunting scenes showing numerous animals including giraffes, ostriches and hunting dogs.
WADI HAMMAMAT AND THE SILK ROAD TO ASIA
Graffiti from a later period can also be found in the towering smooth walls of Wadi Hammamat ( Valley of Baths ) which is closer to El Quseir, but still a not too distant excursion from Marsa Alam. These include graffiti dating from Pharaonic times, including drawings of reed boats which have been dated to 4000 BC.
Evidence suggests that the valley was the major trading route between ancient Thebes (Luxor) and the Red Sea and that crucially it provided a trading link via El Quseir, the Red Sea and the Silk Road between Thebes and Asia. Historians believe that ancient Egypt’s trade routes extended not just to Arabia, but as far as the Han Dynasty of China.
Biblical text also suggests that the Jews may have used the valley on their exodus from Egypt although there’s no other evidence to support this. However, we do know that the Romans later constructed watch towers and wells at regular intervals along the route.
MARSA ALAM’S ANCIENT GOLD AND EMERALD MINES
There was another equally important reason why the Marsa Alam area was vital to the economy of ancient Egypt. The surrounding coastal area was rich in deposits of copper, lead, gold, emeralds and semi-precious stones. It is thought that the region contained the first emerald mines anywhere in the world and was the sole source of emeralds for the Roman Empire.
You can still visit what are popularly known as Cleopatra’s Mines in the Wadi El Gamal National Park south of Marsa Alam. Most historians think these mines were already in use during the Ptolemaic period ( 330-30 BC ), some even arguing that the history of the mines may go back as far as the second millennium BC.
While there’s no hard evidence linking Queen Cleopatra to the mines, there is every reason to believe they may have been in operation in her time. Cleopatra adored jewellery and she loved the green gem stone above all others. She even gave emeralds with her portrait engraved on it to favoured ambassadors as well as to Julius Caesar.
Additional evidence for emerald mining in the desert at that time can be found in the local desert valleys. There is a large rock cut temple which can be seen at Sikait ( about 80 km south west of Marsa Alam ) and which is typical of the Ptolemaic period. The ancient Greek geographer Strabo, writing only a few years after Cleopatra’s death, also refers to the mining of emeralds in Egypt, even though he doesn’t refer to the precise location.
The only datable artefact to be found in these mining villages is a Roman coin from the reign of Emperor Nero in the first century AD. By this time there were at least nine mining villages across an area of seventy square kilometres with the biggest two at Nugrus and Sikait. The Romans called the area Smaragdus Mons or The Emerald Mountains.
It was almost certainly the only emerald mining area in the Roman Empire and the mines remained in use until the fourteenth century but declined thereafter with the importation of emeralds from India.
The mountainous Red Sea coastline was also an important source of granite for the Empire, and slaves were used to hack the stone out of the mountains. Even the Roman guards considered such locations as a punishment posting. One such Roman granite/quarry complex, Mons Claudianus, can be found a two hour drive to the north of Marsa Alam off the Safaga-Qena road; about 40km west of Safaga.
It is thought that it was during the reign of Ptolemy II (281-246 BC) that the first road was built linking Marsa Alam on the Red Sea with Edfu. This route ran through what is now the “Wadi el Gemal” (Valley of the Camels) national park. The main purpose of the road was to take emeralds and other precious stones and metals from the mines near the Red Sea to the Nile for onward shipment.
Historians estimate that the Egyptian Eastern Desert produced some thirty types of stone, gem stone and metal and that prior to 1000 BC more than seventy gold mines contributed to a significant part of ancient Egypt’s legendary wealth.
Some of the gold mines continued to operate under the British administration during the early twentieth century before eventually closing down due to the high cost of extraction. However in the first decade of this century they were reopened by foreign investors using the latest mining technology. These mines together with some marble and granite quarries provide employment for some of the population, while others are now being drawn in to the tourist trade.
THE OTTOMANS, BRITAIN AND FRANCE FIGHT FOR EL QUSEIR
In 1571 the Ottoman Sultan Selim I constructed a formidable fort on high ground overlooking the port of El Quseir to protect both the harbour and the Ottoman Empire’s flow of trade up the Red Sea. Both the fort and the town are a short excursion from hotels in the area.
In 1799 the French army under Napoleon seized the town and fort, widening the ramparts and fortifying them with cannon. Shortly afterwards these enhanced defences withstood an assault by the British battleships HMS Daedalus and HMS Fox.
In June 1801, however, the fort was finally abandoned by the French army when an invasion force of some 6000 British and Indian soldiers under General Baird landed at El Quseir. This force then crossed the Eastern Desert in a ten day march at the height of summer to capture Qena on the Nile. A feat which helped to hasten the final surrender of French forces in September.
Today, at the fort’s main gate you can buy a ticket for a forty minute tour which includes a look at several small exhibits of the area’s history, Bedouin life and traditions.
( See our detailed excursion and history page for El Quseir )
TOURISM COMES TO MARSA ALAM
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the coastal resorts of Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh to the north began to flourish, some began to realise that Marsa Alam, with its virgin beaches and coral reefs, had an enormous tourist potential.
In 2001 Marsa Alam obtained it’s first international airport. The only privately run airport in Egypt. The M.A. Kharafi Group were given a forty year concession. Soon after the airport’s completion Egypt Air began a scheduled service.
In July 2007 a new LE 707 million ($14 million) 220 km road was completed between Edfu and Marsa Alam. Previously tourists had to take a long circuitous route by Safaga and Qena to reach Luxor.
More and more tour operators are now jumping on the bandgwagon and putting Marsa Alam in their brochures.
At the same time the covid-19 pandemic as well as the ongoing global downturn threaten to at least temporarily put the brakes on Marsa Alam’s tourist boom. This was underlined when Thomas Cook, the 178 years old travel agency and airline and one of the major carriers to the Red Sea, went bankrupt in September 2019. This was followed by the bankruptcy of German Wings in April 2020 and SunExpress Deutschland in June.
MAP OF THE EASTERN DESERT IN ROMAN TIMES
Leucos Limen ( shown half way up the coast) was the Roman name for El Quseir