Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Egypt: Land of the Pharaohs, Back to the mainland

Chapter Eight - Back to the mainland

Except for a couple of sights of lesser importance, there's not much to be seen on the west coast of the Sinai peninsula. The road was being renewed and will be very good (it already is).
What you should do, is make a jeep excursion from Abu Zanima through the Wadi Matalla to Serabit el-Khadim. Here on an 850 meter high plateau are the remains of the only pharaonic temple ever found in the Sinai. It dates back to the 12th dynasty. The unusually shaped, though much ruined temple was dedicated to Hathor, 'Mistress of the Turquoise' and Spodu, 'God of the West'.

In the neighborhood were the most important mines from that time, mostly turquoise mines. In many places inscriptions from different expeditions can be seen. You could try to make the trip using a normal car, but I think a jeep is to be recommended here.

To get to Serabit el-Khadim take the first turn-off inland, south of Abu Zanima. After about 40 kilometres you'll reach a site which apparently has been used by the Israeli's as an emergency air strip. Then you'll arrive at the tiny village Serabit, where you have to go and find yourself a guide. In fact you only need a jeep from here to get to the temple, but then you would have to return the same way. The Wadi at Rod el-Air, about one and a half kilometre to the west, was the last resting place before the climb to the temple plateau commenced. This can be concluded from the extended remains of an encampment that were found here. The Arabian name means 'Valley of the Donkeys', referring to the donkey caravans that passed here on their way to the turquoise mines.

On the rock walls are inscriptions and drawings of boats, some very detailed. Very strange in this dry environment. Drive back to the main road through the Wadi Maghara with its mines and Wadi Muqqatab. Inside and around the mine tunnels are also inscriptions to be found. They're in an - until this day - unknown writing, called Proto-Sinaitic. The amount of characters used in it is limited to about thirty. The only thing that is known about it, is that was must have been used by the local Canaanitic population that worked in the mines for the Egyptians. Depending on where you situate the origin of this Proto-Sinaitic writing - in the Middle or New Kingdom - it could be the oldest letter script known to man (if situated in the Middle Kingdom). Otherwise, if you place it in the New Kingdom, the Ugaritic cuneiform writing (used in Ugarit on the Syrian coast) remains the oldest.

Continue on through Wadi Sidri and you'll arrive back on the main road, a short distance from Abu Rudais.

Back on the coastal road, heading north, you'll arrive at Abu Zanima again.

Continue on towards Suez now. On the way there's a turn-off to Hammam Faraun. Here there are (very) hot springs to be found. They contain a lot of sulphur. You can smell that and see it from the colours in the streams. But, there is also a hot sauna. Right by the spring, you'll notice two almost round holes in the nearby rock. Enter through the right one. Carry a flashlight as it's very dark in there. And it's not too spacious too. But inside, it's really a (hot !) natural sauna. It's nice to sweat it out here for a while. Outside there's a small drinks stand. A bottle of fruit nectar costs E£2.50. Before you can get to the hot springs, you will come to a checkpoint where you have to leave your passport until you come back. It's no problem, and if you want, one of the soldiers can show you through the sauna, because I suppose it can get a little claustrophobic in there for some people, especially as you don't know how big the place is.

Bedouin women at Oyun Musa Oyun Musa is also a nice place to visit. If you have trouble finding the Moses' springs, and if you're coming from Ras Sudr, then drive through the Oyun Musa checkpoint (where there was a very thorough check) to the end of the settlement on the left. Drive a very short distance off-road there and ask the Bedouins. They'll show you the way. You won't have to search for the Bedouins though. Even before we could get out of the car, we were surrounded by women trying to sell us their self-made 'Jewelry'. If you should be interested, bargain very hard. On some 'articles', you can go down to about one fifth of the original price. These women are friendly and helpful, but I guess you'll just HAVE to buy something before you'll see a spring. Also be aware of the children here. They try to jump on the trunk of the car. This is not the case just here. It also happened to us in other small settlements.
Further down the road - direction Suez - you'll come past a war monument. It's been erected to commemorate the 'heroic fighting' here of the Egyptian army against the Israeli's. You can't miss it. On the right there are some heavy machine guns and a few monuments (among which is a big army helmet), marking the entrance to an army base. On the left is the war monument. A sign says 'Oyun Musa Fortified Firing Position'. Nearby is a helicopter landing pad.

The Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel goes right under the Suez Canal. The tunnel was completed in 1982 and engineered - I heard - by the Egyptians. Apparently something was wrong with it and now a Japanese engineering team are rebuilding it. If you want to drive through it now, you might have to wait a while as alternately the traffic coming from and going to the Sinai can enter. A sign says that it's no longer closed from 8PM to 6AM, but between these hours you have to drive your car onto a trailer which will then go through. At any time, it costs E£1.25 either direction to make use of the tunnel. If you would like to take a picture of this architectural achievement, you can do so as there is no problem whatsoever. In doubt, just ask the guards.

In Suez we stayed in the Misr Palace Hotel. Our room was OK, but the hotel itself had a grubby appearance, especially the restaurant. I wouldn't recommend eating here. Our breakfast was a disaster : tap water, old bread and very dirty cutlery. No way !

A better place in Suez to go eating - and what I think must be one of the best deals - is Fresh Food Suez. It's located in the Abd-el-Khalek Tharwat Street, behind the Mobil station, near the Amal Hospital. It's not far from most of the hotels. It looks a bit like a small fast food joint. Ahmed is studying to become a 'chef' cook. He speaks English very well and is a great guy to talk to, eager to learn about your country and your visions on different matters. What you must really taste are his 'hot-dogs'. They're not really hot-dogs as we know it, but more a roll filled with small sausages that he first prepares with different veggies and spices on a hot plate. They're really delicious. To give you an idea about the prices here : together, we had two hamburgers, six hot-dogs and six bottles of coke. We were offered free hors-d'oeuvres, stuffed wine-leaves and a bag of crisps. Total price : E£12.30 !

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