Nineteenth century view of El Quseir
Nineteenth century view of El Quseir – from Carl B. Klunzinger,Upper Egypt: Its People and Products, Scribner, Armstrong & Co. New York, 1878

From your hotel the small historic town of El Quseir, with a population of approximately 40,000, makes for a great half or full day excursion.  To book an excursion email steven@marsaalam.com or contact Steven via WhatsApp on +201284332337.

El Quseir is the Red Sea’s oldest port and dates back to Pharaonic times and has a fascinating but largely forgotten history.    

The fishing harbour’s narrow side streets lead up to an area of tourist bazars flanking the main street, Sharia Gomhuriya, which ascends to an unmissable and impressive Ottoman citadel.

Steven’s limousine Service offers to pick you up from your hotel just after lunch and take you back after sunset.  The two way journey (as of early 2023 ) from most hotels (excluding only the few which lie a long way south of Marsa Alam) is just 52 euro for a trip, meaning that for three passengers it would be less than 18 euros for each person..

You can easily save that money and more on the shopping prices in town which are much cheaper than inside the hotels.  For more information  email steven@marsaalam.com.


A cannon at El Quseir Fort.  Photograph by Alisdare Hickson

The fort of El Quseir lies on high ground in what is now the centre of town.  Coming from Marsa Alam jump out of your taxi near the  petrol station and then it’s a five minute walk up the hill.  Coming the other way from Safaga you can’t miss it as you follow the one way main road in to town.  

Your attention is immediately arrested by the muzzels of two potruding cannon.  Brought by the French to protect the town and harbour, they now overlook visitors as they shop in the bazaars beneath.    Only one of them is actually of French manufacture, the other is probably of Dutch origin. 

The castle was originally built by Sultan Selim I in 1517 (those guide books which state 1571 forget that Selim I was long dead by then ) to protect what was Egypt’s most important port on the Red Sea.  El Qusier means “the short” in Arabic and probably the town earned this name because it was the port allowing inland pilgrims to make the shortest journey possible from the Nile valley to Mecca.  

Cannons at El Qusier Fort ©Rob Atherton via Canva.com

El Quseir’s  strategic importance derived from it being located close to an ancient route from the Red Sea to the Luxor area via the Wadi el Hammamat – a twisting valley which cuts a snake like path through the mountains of Egypt’s Eastern Desert.  

Haj pilgrims would leave their camels and horses at the castle before embarking by ship for Mecca.  The port also served as a vital entrepot for Egypt’s trade with Arabia and Asia and was a major transhipment point for the spice trade on the route to Europe. 

It was in the late sixteenth century, at the same time the castle was built, that the town centre of El Quseir moved from its’ original site, which was near the modern Movenpick hotel, to its’ current location around the fort and harbour.

The watch tower at El Quseir Castle ©Rob Atherton via Canva.com

In 1799 the French, who had sent a military expedition to Egypt under the command of General Napoleon,  seized the fort, built a tall viewing platform ( now rebuilt),  widened the ramparts and added a number of cannon, some of which can still be seen.  They also left a garrison of some one hundred soldiers.

In August of the same year the fort’s enhanced defences withstood a three day assault by two British 32 gun frigates, HMS Daedalus and HMS Fox which fired an estimated 6,000 cannonballs at it.  However, before retreating, these two battleships caused major breaches to the walls, especially in the area close to the main entrance.

The British twice attempted landings in order to destroy the drinking wells of the city but were forced to withdraw in the face of heavy cannon and musket fire and lost one cannon in the surf which may subsequently have been added to the fort’s own battery of guns.    

In June 1801  the fort was finally abandoned by the French army when  an army 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.

In 1816 the fort was used as a base for Muhammad Ali Pasha’s wars against Arabia but after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, its’ strategic significance was considerably diminished.  However, it remained in use as a base for the Egyptian coast guard until 1975. 

At the main gate you can buy a 30LE ticket ( price as of 2018 – equivalent to about 1.70 euros  ) which gains you access to the entire fort ( open daily from 0900 to 1700 ) which includes several small exhibits of the area’s history, shipbuilding, phosphate mining and  Bedouin life and traditions. You can also climb the stairs of the central watchtower which gives you magnificent views over the town and harbour. 

But there is a lot more to El Quseir than the castle.


The town offers a large number of traditional tourist friendly bazaars along Sharia Al Gomhuriya which lies below the castle selling the usual array of papyrus, alabaster statues, t shirts and leather goods etc. However there as also some fascinating local markets, especially on a Friday, to which the Ababda and Ma’aza Bedouin and other local farmers bring their produce.  

El Quseir market and various street scenes – May 2010 – 9.15 mins – 20,000+ views.


El Qusier is a place where Muslims and Christians work and live alongside each other and while there are 33 mosques including the Faran Mosque with its’ minaret dating back to 1704. The town is also home to a thousand Coptic Christians and it has the only church for over 100 km in any direction.  

The Coptic Church of St. Mary (previously named St Barbara’s – after the patron saint of miners) stands close to the sea, less than a ten minute walk north from the town centre.  It was completely rebuilt in 2008 but houses some beautiful paintings on its’ walls.  The original building, which fell into disrepair, had been established by the Italian Red Sea Phosphate mining company in 1920 as a Catholic church.

The town also has shrines to a number of eminent Muslims who died while undertaking the haj. Perhaps best known is the nineteenth century shrine of Abdel Ghaffaar Al Yemeni, which can be found opposite the castle on Sharia Al Gomhuriya in a niche in a wall.  


El Quseir where you get a feel for the ‘real Egypt.’ 
Apr 2010 – 2.48 mins – 67+ likes – 21,000+ views

Those who wish to chill out or relax after a hard day’s sightseeing, should make for the fishing harbour which has two small but quiet beaches nearby and a great seafood restaurant, Al Fanoos, opposite the car park deservedly popular with Egyptians.   Here you can enjoy a great meal at a table right on the beach.

Also surrounding the harbour (please see map) are the Faran and Sidi Abd El Rahim mosques and behind the old police station (originally either an Ottoman council chamber or custom house), the old quarantine hospital built during the reign of Sultan Selim II ( 1566 – 1574 ) and the old granary, which in the nineteenth century stored wheat for shipment to the Arabian peninsular. Flowing the other way into the port from Arabia came coffee, pepper, incense and spices from as far away as the East Indies, some of which prior to 1868 and the completion of the Suez canal was probably then exported through the Mediterranean port of Alexandria to Europe. 

El Quseir public beach ©Rob Atherton via Canva.com

El Quseir’s corniche, known as Sharia Port Said, which runs both north and south west from the harbour is flanked by numerous narrow alleyways lined by old houses with wooden balconies and brightly painted doors. Amid this arthitectual mix you can also find a number of small cafes and restaurants which line the beach on the south western side of the harbour.

Surprisingly you won’t normally find many tourists in this part of El Quseir  but it’s a rewarding area to stroll around, watch the fishermen and forget the worries of the world.

Locals wearing traditional clothes ©Dilerka1 via Freepik.com



1. The Black Death.  Archaeologists researching the area around Quseir El Qadima can find little evidence of any acitivity in the area during the Fifteenth century.  The plague was probably brought by rat infested ships in late 1348 or early 1349. Originally historians thought the plague entered Egypt on grain ships via Alexandira, but it could equally have arrived on ships from Asia docking at El Quseir and then via the caravan routes to the Nile Valley. Historians claim that perhaps 40 per cent of Egypt’s population died in the next few years – an even higher percentage than in most of Europe.  

2. The Suez canal in 1869. During the first half of the nineteenth century El Quseir enjoyed the economic blessing of being the most easily accessed Egyptian Red Sea port from the Nile Valley.  Before 1858, and the completion of a rail route between Suez (also located on the Red Sea some 270 miles further north) and Alexandria (on the Mediterranean), the town was a crucial link and transhipment point on the trade routes linking Europe with Asia via the Mediterranean, Nile Valley and the Red Sea. 

A rusting boat in El Quseir port.
A rusting fishing vessel in the historic port of El Quseir. ©Rob Atherton via Canva.com

Prior to the completion of the canal in 1869, the only alternative to this route had been by a long perilous ocean voyage around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. The town was also the major port for pilgrims travelling to Mecca and for the export of Egyptian grain to Arabia.  But with the construction of first the Suez railway and then the canal, the port could no longer compete as both merchants and pilgrims (except a few from Upper Egypt) preferred the convenience and speed of travelling by Suez. The economy of the town collapsed, with its’ population plummeting by 90 per cent, only about 800 people remaining by the mid 1870s.  

3. The Great Egyptian famine of 1784 and a another famine in 1863 saw sharp falls in the population as food became scarce and the death rate surged and desperate people migrated back to rural areas. In 1863, the Egyptian government also halted grain exports to Arabia which had flowed primarily through the port in an attempt to reduce the shortages, but while this may have helped to limit the impact of the famine across Egypt, it was a devastating economic blow for the town.    

The German physician Carl Benjamin Klunzinger, who was a resident at El Quseir from 1863 to 1875, testified to the devastating impacts the famine and the Suez canal had on life in the town, explaining in his book Upper Egypt: Its People and Products, that ‘the town is now in the condition of  a sick person wasting away through some internal complaint, it can neither live nor die, but every year becomes worse and weaker, and will hardly as such last more than half a score years.’ 


As of September 2020 there was not a lot of ultra cheap places on offer, except possibly one flat on Airbnb five minutes walk from the beach and asking just £14 a night (including the service fee) – but the following seemed reasonable value. 

The El Quseir Hotel on the corniche (Sharia Port Said) just north of the fishing harbour (see map). It’s a restored former merchant’s house with a lovely wooden staircase and has six spacious, if basic, rooms with clean shared bathrooms.  Try to get a room with a sea view and watch the sun rise !

Local children in a doorway. ©Dilerka1 via Freepik.com

You might be surprised to learn that despite its affordability, from around  £143 (single) or £180 (double) a week as of late September 2020, it has the highest rating of all 10 hotels in the El Quseir area on Booking.com based on some 80 reviews scoring an impressive 9.3 out of 10 points and now boasting 24 hour front desk, room service and free wifi throughout the building. Its also worth checking in case they might have better prices for the hotel on Airbnb. They have a Facebook page on which they post occasionally and you can contact them either via email – elquseirhotel@gmail.com or tel +20 1033140049.  

Another popular choice is The View, El Quseir with a superb rating of 9.2 on Booking.com (based on 6 reviews) offering clean modern self-catering apartments ranging in size from 55 sqm to 140 sqm for 2 to 4 people at prices starting from around 20 euro a night.  In addition to a kitchen and shower room, each apartment also comes equipped with a washing machine, flat screen TV and air conditioning. There is wifi access in all areas. 

About 3 km from the centre in the northern suburbs of the town is Egyptian House providing fairly spacious  rooms for three with kitchen, fridge, satellite TV and a  terrace. For availability, prices and to book a room please check the hotel’s page on Booking.com


There are a number of four and five star hotels located close to El Quseir, including the Movenpick just 8km north of the town centre and the much cheaper and in our opinion better value five star Dreams Beach Resort, located 27 km ( a twenty minute drive ) south of the town.

If you want information on an El Quseir excursion please email steven@marsaalam.com.


Around 8km north of the city centre lie the remains of an ancient port. Some historians claim that during the Roman period this was the port of Myos Hormos (‘Mussel Harbour’) and others that it was Leukos Limen (‘White Harbour’). Nowadays many people refer to it by its’ Arabic title El Quseir El Qadima.

During the first century AD a fleet of around 120 ships (according to the Greek geographer Strabo) exported pottery, slaves (mostly from Europe) including “singing boys”, wine and precious minerals to India and East Africa and returned with imports of stone, silk and spices for the Roman empire.

The imports would have then been transported by a six day camel journey to Koptos (now called Qift) and then floated up the Nile river to Alexandria and subsequently onward by ship to Europe.  

Unfortunately today the ancient harbour has long silted up and all that remains of the former port are a few of the ancient foundations although a lot of imported ancient artifacts of Indian and Chinese origin have been found in the area and offshore there are the sparse remains of a Roman shipwreck lying  some 65 metres deep in the water.

Myos Hormos was also the same place from where in 1493 BC Queen Hatshepsut ( 1508 – 1458 BC ) sent an expedition of five ships and some 200 sailors to the land of Punt (Eritrea/Somalia area) 1600 km (or 1000 miles ) away.  They returned,  up to a year later, with many precious goods including ivory, ebony and frankincense.  The story of the voyage is depicted on the walls of her temple at Luxor.

It may also have been the port from where Phoenecian sailors set sail in 600 BC and returned via the Mediterranean (according to the ancient historian Herodotus) completing what may have been the first circumnavigation of Africa.    


Exploring El Quseir – inc St. Mary’s, the Faran mosque & the old phosphate factory.
Dec 2017 – 3.44 mins – 13+ likes – 900+ views 

The opening of a rail route linking Suez with Alexandria in 1858 and subsequently the opening of the Suez canal in 1869 finished El Quseir’s position as a transhipment point on the European-Asian trade routes.  Around 90 per cent of its’ population left and by 1900 El Quseir had become a ghost town with less than a thousand inhabitants.  

However the world demand for agricultural fertilizers provided renewed demand for labour when in 1916 the Italian Red Sea Phosphate Company started mining operations in the area.  The company’s derelict warehouses can still be seen by the coast – about a ten minute walk north from the harbour area.

Workers were drawn from all over Egypt but conditions were hard and as newer more cost efficient mines opened and environmental concerns about the damage of phosphate ore dust to the coral reefs and human health mounted, many of the El Quseir mines closed.

In the 1990s El Quseir found a new economic lifeline – as it started to attract divers and other tourists wishing to avoid the crowds of Sharm El Sheikh and looking for virgin unspoiled areas. Fortunately the town itself has remained free of the large scale resorts and construction that might have otherwise destroyed its’ quiet charm.


Photo copyright: Alisdare Hickson 2009
Photo copyright: Alisdare Hickson 2009.


Running all the way from Alexandria to Cape Town was never going to be easy. 17 days after leaving Alexandria on 1 October 1997, two runners, Nicholas Bourne and Chris Rainbow, had just reached El Quseir. They were hoping to raise £1 million for Save the Children and the Born Free Foundation, but were warned by an Egyptian army officer that, due to the difficult security situation with Sudan they would not be able to cross the military zone on the border.

They were however welcome to stay in El Quseir or anywhere else in Egypt, and according to The Times (13 Nov 1997), they remained in the country some time trying to negotiate a solution. After a few weeks, Bourne and his support team decided to do the run in reverse from Cape Town to Cairo, which he completed on 5 December 1998, arriving at the Sphinx where the Cairo Tourism Authority laid on a reception to honour his achievement. Since leaving Cape Town 318 days earlier he had worn out some 30 pairs of running shoes !

Sources – ‘Tied by Red Tape and Running in Circles,’ The Times, 13 November 1997, ‘Bourne Runs out of Africa,’ The Times, 26 November 1998 and web page by Matthew Kleinosky, entitled ‘End of a Long Run.’




(FromCarl B. Klunzinger,Upper Egypt: Its People and Products, Scribner, Armstrong & Co. New York, 1878, pp. 271-277.)

Annotations added to the original text are in blue italics.

The Turkish conqueror of Egypt, Sultan Selim III (Ottoman Sultan 1789-1807), appears to have been the first who again directed the route for trade and pilgrims to the Egyptian coast: at least he built a small fortress, the modern Koseir ( El Quseir ),  principally for protection against the Bedouins, erecting others of the same kind also on the east coast (Arabian coast), in Moilah (Moelh Fort at Al Muwailih)  and Wudj (Al Wajh) for example. But no inhabited town arose under the protection of this fortress, El Quseir being only a periodical trading place. The road through the desert (from the Nile Valley to El Quseir) was so dangerous, on account of the plundering Bedouins, that only large caravans could venture to pass through it.

The merchants attached themselves to the pilgrim caravans, and crossed the sea with the pilgrims as well in going as in coming; the Arabic merchants, chiefly belonging to Yemba (now Yanbu – Saudi Arabia), at this time transacted their business in El Quseir, and then returned home. There were only a few houses standing inhabited by people from Yemba.  In this condition, the place was found by the French on their conquest of Egypt; as a point of strategic importance they kept it garrisoned during the three years (1798-1801) that they possessed Egypt; and cannon and mortars still remain ornamented with the Jacobin cap and republican inscriptions of the year III.

El Quseir first became a permanent settlement of importance under Mohammed Ali (De facto ruler of Egypt 1805-1848), and under the favour of this pasha soon rose to a flourishing position. The fact of its having a comparatively good harbour, at least for smaller vessels, in a situation that could be reached from the Nile Valley more easily and in a shorter time than any other port, and enjoying a climate celebrated as being temperate and healthy, appeared to justify the selection, notwithstanding the want of fresh water. The viceroy was, as he still is, bound by treaty to pay a portion of his annual tribute to the Porte in the form of deliveries of grain for Arabia, with which the (Ottoman) Sultan on his part, had to supply the Turkish soldiers and officials there, the chiefs of the Bedouins, who would not allow the caravans to pass unmolested through their territories unless on this condition, and the sherifs or descendants of the Prophet.

These deliveries, called “dachire” (the annual provision for the Holy Cities Mecca and Medina), consisted of about 180,000 ardeb (approx 36 million litres) annually – wheat, barley, beans, lentils, and also oil, biscuits and the like. El Quseir was selected as the place where these were to be collected. At that time, when there was no railway, Suez (today Egypt’s most important Red Sea port) was as difficult to reach fron the fertile regions as El Quseir; from it a long and dangerous sea voyage had first to be made to the Arabian ports of Yemba and Jeddah, and the corn of Upper Egypt (closer to El Quseir) was better and cheaper than that of the Delta (closer to Suez). The distance by sea from El Quseir was considerably shorter, and through the energetic measures of the viceroy, who had effected treaties with the Bedouins, the desert route had been rendered quite safe.

The hope of deriving a large profit from the transport of this grain as well as from the then flourishing private trade, and from the passage annually of a large number of pilgrims to Meccah, as well as certain privileges granted to the place (freedom from military service and direct taxation), soon attracted a multitude of people both from the neighbouring valley of the Nile and from the Hedjaz, especially Yemba. Thus in a short time (in the first thirty years of the nineteenth century) El Quseir acquired a settled population of 6,000 to 8,000 souls.

Cannon at El Quseir Fort
Cannon at El Quseir Fort ©Rob Atherton via Canva.com

It obtained the title of “bander,” meaning pretty much the same as “good town” or “good trading town,” and had a governor of its own (Muhafiz) of the rank of a bey, who was directly dependant on the central government at Cairo, as those other seaports, Alexandria for example, still are. Correspondence with the central government was partly carried on by messengers mounted on dromedaries, who set out at least once a week, and, taking the most direct route, traversed the desert in five days, partly by a system of towers and semaphores running through the Nile Valley to Cairo.

At this time there were in El Quseir about sixty persons employed by the government, including besides the governor, a port-captain, a doctor, two superintendents of police and customs, three overseers for the grain store (shuna), nine Coptic clerks, eighteen soldiers, with two corporals, for the fort, hospital-superintendent and male attendants, custom-house officers &c. Every month these received as pay sixty four purses (one purse=500 piastres=about £5,) the governor alone claiming sixteen purses. Extensive public buildings rose for the government, the customs and the grain depot. The citadel was repaired and additions made to it, a quay faced with stone and a wooden mole projecting into the harbour were built. The inhabitants on their side filled up a portion of the beach and built houses, mosques and the bazaar. 

The prosperity of the place increased to an unusual degree; almost all the trade between Egypt and Arabia went through El Quseir, every year there passed about 30,000 pilgrims (12,000 going to Meccah, 18,000 returning), and among them many men of rank and wealth from the whole Mohammedan (sic) world. Numerous inns served for the reception of these pilgrims, though the greater number of them encamped in the open air or in tents; all around the town a still larger town of tens was pitched.

The passage of this multitude of people, who could leave Koseir only by ship or camel, occupied nearly nine months of the year. If it is considered also that every day several hundreds, nay thousands of camels arrived from the Nile valley, that another hundred or two hundred or two brought water from the mountains and were quartered in the neighbourhood, and also that the Ababdeh settlement outside the town numbered about 200 persons, a conception may be formed of how busy a scene the town and environs must have been. 

Carriage on display at El Quseir fort
An early nineteenth century carriage on display at El Quseir fort. ©Rob Atherton via Canva.com

Entertainment and amusement were also provided for; there were thirty coffee houses, three spirit shops, and more than fifty dancing girls, who inhabited a special quarter of the town. At that time, too, the overland route for the English to India passed through El Quseir, and twice a month Anglo-Egyptian steamers entered the harbour and brought numerous European travellers who, from El Quseir to Keneh (Qena) in the Nile Valley, rode on camels, or perhaps (especially the ladies), had themselves carried this distance in palaquins, a journey of four or five days. For these steamers, a coal depot was formed. An English, a French, An Austrian and a Persian Consul – all natives of the country – looked after the interests of the travellers belonging to the country represented by each. 

Hundreds of vessels entered the harbour every month; for the transport of contributions of grain, and perhaps also for certain warlike purposes, the Egyptian government itself possessed seven large three masted vessels of European build, of from 4,000 to 7,000 Ardeb burden, with European captains and officers, as well as eleven one-masted vessels of Arabic build; but even these were not sufficient, and had to be always supplemented by many ships hired from private persons. 

Under Abbas Pasha ( ruled Egypt 1848 to 1854 ), and up to the beginning of the government of Said ( Muhammad Sa’id ruled Egypt 1854 to 1863 ), El Quseir still continued to flourish. An English company undertook to lay a submarine telegraph to India, and in the Red Sea it was run along the west coast. At Suez, El Quseir, Suakin, Massowa and Aden stations were established, with four or five Europeans attached to each. After steamers had become less common at El Quseir, in consequence of the establishment of the overland route to India by way of Suez, they were again often seen, being partly engaged in the laying of the cable, partly in bringing supplies for the employees, who were allowed to want for nothing belonging to English comfort.

These well-paid individuals also spent their money freely and brought no little life into the town – a subject spoken of long after. While these Englishmen were staying at El Quseir, the massacre of Christians at Jeddah (on the other side of the Red Sea in Arabia) took place in 1858. A war steamer sent by the English for the purposes of observation and giving its security to its subjects created a panic, but in peaceful El Quseir there was nothing to avenge. The telegraph soon began to cease to work; when a thorough inspection of it was made, the cable was found to be damaged throughout; the coral rocks had chafed it; and after scarcely two years the telegraph was entirely given up. 

The severest blow, however, and one from which it has not yet recovered, was received by El Quseir in the same year (1858) – the railway between Cairo and Suez was completed. By this means the traffic, including the pilgrims, was almost entirely removed to Suez, for which Said Pasha ( Muhammad Sa’id had as great a favour as Mohammed Pasha ( Mohammed Ali ) had had for El Quseir; all kinds of advantages were granted for it, the Meccah pilgrims must go by way of Suez to make the (railway) line pay, and the dachire was managed at Suez. It thus happened that El Quseir was deserted by the greater number of its inhabitants almost at once, and it sunk more quickly than it had risen. 

An old sea going sail boat on display at El Quseir Fort
An old sea going sail boat on display at El Quseir Fort – ©Rob Atherton via Canva.com

El Quseir only retained the grain trade with the Hedjaz ( the western portion of the Arabian peninsula then under Ottoman rule ), which, however, was of some importance, and sufficient to prolong the life of the town. The profit from the pilgrims became rather negative than positive, as with the exception of a few persons from Upper Egypt it was generally none but begging pilgrims that took this route, over the whole of which they could beg. The number of the government employees was greatly diminished, that of the inhabitants sank to 1,500, whole streets were deserted and fell into ruins. But still more blows fell.

The year 1864 was a year of scarcity, and in order to some degree to lessen this the export of grain was strictly prohibited by an edict of Ismail Pasha ( ruled Egypt 1863 to 1867 ). For the town, this was a mortal injury. The prohibition was so sudden and unexpected that a large quantity of grain had already been stored up. A deputation of merchants to the government received the answer that of the 11,000 ardeb of grain found to be in the town 8,000 might be exported, as the corn could not be taken back again to the Nile Valley, 3,000 were to remain in the place in order to support the inhabitants for six months. 

After the year of scarcity the trade again went on, but no longer as formerly. The prices of grain, like the prices in Egypt generally, were no longer so low as formerly, and the costs of transport and customs dues made them still higher for the opposite coast. Hitherto, Father Nile had almost exclusively supplied arid Arabia with corn; but now the Euphrates and Tigris, even the Indus and Volga, began a dangerous rivalry. By the steamers, which, since the opening of the Suez canal, traverse the Red Sea in great and increasing numbers, grain can now be brought to the Arabian sea-ports from the distant but cheap countries on the above-named fertile streams at a lower rate than is possible for the Egyptians. Occasionally, in years of extraordinary abundance, or when high prices rule in these countries, a short period of improvement is again induced, but after those injuries formerly received mainly at the hands of the government, the town is now in the condition of a sick person wasting away through some internal complaint; it can neither live nor die, but every year becomes worse and weaker, and will hardly as such last more than half a score years. 

The government has, to be sure, given it a strengthening medicine by causing the dachire to be again exported from El Quseir, after finding that the Suez route was too expensive; but the contribution now amounts to only 24,000 ardeb, far from sufficient to bring about any improvement. The remaining trade, exclusive of the grain trade, is also too insignificant to keep up the town; and while the sources of income are drying up, taxes are enormously increasing; provisions, being generally brought from a distance, are usually higher (in cost) than in the Nile Valley, to which must be added the cost of water, amount to a considerable household from 1s 6d to 6 shillings a day.  At present, therefore, everybody is now leaving his native town, formerly so dear, and the population can now scarcely amount to more than 800. 

The history of the town of El Quseir, as we received it from the mouths of natives, we have given in some detail, partly because it is not uninteresting in itself, partly because it shows what an ephemeral existence the waterless sea-ports on the Red Sea have and always had. Even Suez is not secure against a blow to its prosperity, in spite of its canal. Some time ago the project was brought forward of bringing the traffic which passes Egypt through the canal, and brings nothing to the country, more into the country itself, and on the Egyptian coast of the Red Sea a good harbour which could easily be provided with fresh water was sought for.  The harbour was then to be connected by a railway with another railway to be constructed in the Nile Valley, and it was hoped that at least a portion of the trade with India would be attracted to this quicker route, much in the same way as the route to Egypt via Brindisi (southern Italy) is often preferred to that via Marseilles (France) or Trieste (northern Italy). All these advantages, it was believed, were to be found in the good harbour of the anciently celebrated town of Berenice (70 miles south of Marsa Alam), but the project was quite given up. 

Perhaps recourse may once more be had to the unfortunate town of El Quseir, which, though it neither has yet a good harbour nor yet fresh water, possesses the advantage of being near the Nile Valley, of being connected to this via a road along which a road might easily be constructed. A good harbour would be found at Shurum, 18 or 19 miles further south, and the want of water might be remedied by cisterns.

View from El Quseir Fort's high viewing tower looking towards the sea.
View from El Quseir Fort’s high viewing tower looking towards the sea. Photo copyright: Alisdare Hickson. c. 2009.


(From Karl B. Klunzinger – Upper Egypt: Its People and Products, Scribner, Armstrong & Co. New York, 1878, pp. 277-281. ) 

The picture of our sea-port town essentially resembles that which we have already drawn of a provincial town of Upper Egypt ( see Chap 1. ), but many Arabic elements from the Hedjaz also present themselves. Here also the houses are generally of one story and built of sun-dried bricks, and they stand in straight rows, the streets being remarkably clean. A few handsome government buildings of stone, some mosques and sheik-cupolas, rise above the other houses, and the whole is commanded by a citadel occupying a considerable area, but of no use for modern warfare. On Sundays and feast days many flags are hoisted. In the foreground, lies the bay with the shipping, in the back-ground rise picturesquely the mountains of the desert. 


The population, as in other sea-ports, is remarkable for the diversity of races it exhibits, while here also there is a still more striking diversity of colours. The chief body consists of the free proud offspring of sacred Arabia, who for the sake of gain have bowed themselves under the rigorous spectre of Egypt, and have accustomed themselves to behave like the submissive slaves of the land of the Pharaohs. These “Yembauiyeh” or Bedouins as they like to be called, still continue to look proudly down upon the Fellahin. They love to clothe themselves in bright and gay-coloured attire instead of the blue blouse of the Fellah; round their heads they wear a bright-coloured cloth which hangs down over their shoulders behind; their naked feet carry thick sandals. These Yembauiyeh are generally connected with the shipping, especially as owners, captains and sailors. The Egyptians are more important numerically; they are the petty traders, artisans and porters, though many are also excellent sailors, or have become merchants and ship-owners. The greater number have come from Upper Egypt, only the younger having been born in the place. There are also a number of Copts among them. Of genuine Turks there are only the governor and a few officials; the half-dozen soldiers in garrison are of Turkish descent, but have been born in the place and are quite Arabified. 

The negro slaves form an essential constituent in the population, acting mostly as sailors. To these are to be added – besides the deep-brown Upper Egyptians – the almost black Ababdeh (Ababda – an ethnic group inhabiting eastern Egypt and the Sudan), so that the prevailing shade of colour among the people of this place is very dusky. In keeping with the etiquette of the neighbouring holy land, the women here are more strict than elsewhere in closely veiling themselves. When ladies of position arrive by sea they are not put ashore until late at night, and also when they come from the desert they choose the night for their arrival if possible. Men whose business takes them to both shores of the sea alternately like to keep a legitimate wife on each side. 


In the town we have a bazaar in which the retail dealers, in their primitive booths, sell the products of three quarters of the globe, and the Red Sea to boot, such a coffee, frankincense, pepper, ginger, rice, tobacco for the hookah, crushed dates in skins, cocoa-nuts, fancy wooden boxes, and textile fabrics from the East; oil, sugar, rice, dried dates, tobacco, pipe-bowls, camel travelling-bags, shoes, wooden utensils and fruits from the Nile Valley; textile fabrics, cigar paper, lucifer-matches, tapers, tin, metal plates, and porcelain dishes from Europe; plaited-leather thongs, leather pouches, confectionery, bread and biscuit as industrial products of the town itself; and, lastly, dried fish, dried molluscs, the opercula of the molluscs, cuttle-fish bones, porcelain shells (Cypraea), shells of the pearl mussel, and other shells from the sea. Here too, the broker runs up and down the market with all kinds of auction-wares; clothing, amber mouth-pieces for pipes, carpets, chairs, goats, sheep, asses and camels. Large objects for auction, such as boxes, trunks, and other furniture, are exposed in other parts of the market-place, and if they cannot be sold they remain all night under the charge of the night-watchman that sleep there.

In the fish market the strange forms and brilliant colouring of the Red Sea fish are exhibited as they hang in bunches by means of a cord of alfa grass drawn through their gill-openings; the large-ones lie on straw-mats waiting till they are cut up with the hatchet and sold in pieces, while the parts that are not eaten, such as the entrails, gills and ovaries, are flung to the cats, multitudes of which always collect here. In the fruit-market the parched inhabitants struggle for the fresh fruits and vegetables which the camel-drivers bring from the Nile Valley, and are prevented from plundering only by the switch of a police-soldier. The cargo is generally sold to the retail dealer that offers most, after the doctor, who has been summoned for the purpose, or his agents, as overseers of the markets, have passed the goods as not being injurious to health, this being soon managed if a few first-fruits for their families, either gratis or at a low price. Any objections on the part of the police or the “sheik of the vegetables” are also removed in this manner. 

Many citizens, however, in their longing for green food, set out very early and go a long distance to meet the expected camels, getting their wants supplied on the spot. In the cattle-market are exhibited various varieties of sheep descended from the fat-tailed breed; the brown-wooled shaggy headed Nile sheep, the lean sheep of the Ababdeh, and the long-legged, smooth-haired Arab sheep, transported from Arabia by sea, besides the goats of these regions, all of them with large ears. A portion of them are immediately slaughtered on the beach, which is employed as a slaughter-house, by a tranverse cut across the throat, in the name of God the all-merciful, according to the rules of the Koran, sea water being plentifully poured over them; others are previously kept and fed in the yards of the corn-dealers, in order to give milk and produce progeny.

The latter object is promoted by the public he-goat, who has the market place allotted to him as his home; here he remains day and night in the midst of the numerous consorts provided for him, and forms an essential feature in the scene. From the sellers of the high-priced drinking water, who set their commodity before them in casks, compassionate souls buy for him the delicious refreshment; but his food he procures for himself, penetrating into the court-yards of the corn-dealers, plundering the baskets of children that sell bread, or biting unnoticed a hole in a skin containing dates. He even contrives to find entrance into the government grain warehouse by means of his commanding warehouse and stately horns. 

The wood-market is provided by the Ababdeh with the excellent wood of the acacia and other trees of the desert, as well as with wood charcoal, and by ships with same articles from the opposite shore (Arabia), or with shora-wood. A very cheap fuel, and one in general use, is also brought hither by the Bedouins, viz, balls of camels’ dung in sacks, collected on the caravan road; they also occasionally bring all kinds of desert plants as fodder for cattle. At other times, the cattle kept in the town receive the bran arising from the grinding of grain, barley, among the grain-dealers only wheat, and always beans, without which they do not thrive; the latter take the place that oats occupy in other regions. 


The peculiarity of our town is the water market. Every morning arrives a stately water caravan with a supply for the wants of the citizen from the springs and wells of the desert. The better springs are from 8 to 10 leagues distant (24 to 30 miles or 39 to 48 km distant). Each camel carries six tanned goatskins, which are always rubbed with oil after being used in order to keep them from cracking with the heat from the sun on the up journey…. The water is brought partly by Bedouins, partly by inhabitants of the town itself, who make that their special trade. They require at least two nights and one day, the Bedouins three days. Some of the townspeople who have a large household keep special camels for carrying the water.

The water being dear, a full goat-skin, which is by no means large, always costs from half a franc to 2 francs; it is dearer than usual at the pasture season, when the camels are sent into the Nile Valley, and only those of the Bedouins remain, and also at the time when many pilgrims are in the town. Government officials get their water paid for or delivered by the government; several water camels are the orders of the governor. The poorer people provide themselves with water from less remote springs, but these are all saline, bitter and hard. The domestic animals are watered with springs in the closest proximity to the town; this water is still worse, and is just drinkable for human beings only for a few months after a fall of rain. 


The castle’s high tower (left) and French quarters built up against the ramparts (right). Photo copyright Alisdare Hickson 2009
You can see the wagons that, through much of the twentieth century, miners had to push while loaded with phosphate. Photo copyright Alisdare Hickson 2009
The fort’s cannon overlook a row of tourist bazaars. Photo copyright Alisdare Hickson 2009
Photo copyright Alisdare Hickson 2009