When Belgian artist Jean Berame came to Egypt sinai in 1980, the theme song for the work he did here might have been “Don’t it make your brown rocks blue,Armed with ten tons of UN-blue paint, making enormous brown boulders blue (the color of peace) was exactly what Berame did.
The result is an extraordinary installation between St. Catherine and Dahab in which the artist has used the landscape of Sinai — once a battleground in the 1967 war between Egypt and Israel — as a canvas to honor the realization of peace between the two nations.
The Blue Desert, however, transcends its functionality as a peace monument.
The four miles of painted stones, some of which rise to heights of over 30 feet, is a vision in which Berame has used color to successfully alter the substance of the rocks.
At times they appear more like giant balloons, or great gobs of cast-out chewing gum.
The stones contrast vividly with the reds, browns, and yellows of the desert, and masterfully compliment Sinai’s deep-blue sky.Egypt sinai
Millions of years ago, Sinai was covered by the sea, and nowhere has the ancient ocean left a more brilliant legacy upon the landscape than at the Colored Canyon, near Nuweiba.
A visit to the canyon provides instant recognition of where it gets its name.
The walls of the canyon, which reach up to sixteen stories, are easily the most colorful and intriguing rock formations in all of Sinai.
They were created by the erosion of water upon sandstone and limestone. In some places the deep coloration of rocks gives the canyon walls a prismatic and metallic sheen; in others, the stone is so smooth that it appears soft and pillowy.
The canyon mouth is accessible by car, and its short length (about 700 meters) makes for perfect hiking.
As one ventures into the canyon, the walls narrow in width to just a few feet in some places, giving the channel a close and secretive atmosphere.
The canyon is most commonly compared to the Jordanian city of Petra, although here the spectacle is completely natural.
Dahab is the Arabic word for gold, and it is almost certain that this locale in eastern Sinai derived its name from the fine yellow sand that colors its beaches.
Though it has not yet achieved the popularity of Sharm el-Sheik to the south, Dahab has a growing following, and the name may soon refer to the wealth that tourism is bringing to the small Bedouin village of Assalah.
The combination of soft sand, gorgeous blue water, and a luxuriant strip of palm trees is pulling in the world.
Assalah is the most developed part of Dahab, a sprawling conglomeration of palm trees, shops, campgrounds, hotels, bars, and restaurants that lie along the shore of Ghazala Bay.
Assalah has a distinctly bohemian feel, and during the Israeli occupation it wasn’t uncommon to see soldiers patrolling the same beaches as dreadlocked vagabonds from Europe and America. Less laid back, but still relaxed, is the area just south lying along El-Qura Bay.
Within just a few miles of Dahab are some great adventure spots. Excellent dive sites lie both to the north and south, including Blue Hole, one of Sinai’s best. Just south are the wadis of Qnai el-Rayan and Qnai el-Atschan.
Few places are as steeped in Biblical mystery as the great Wadi Feiran-the Sinai’s largest wadi and one of it’s most archaeologically important stretches of terrain. It was here, according to locals, scholars, and legend, that Moses struck a rock with his staff, bringing forth a spring so his people could drink.
Feiran is also the site of Rafadim, the fabled oasis where the Hebrews camped and battled the Amelecites.
For the pilgrims and believers who have been coming to this wadi for centuries, a journey through Feiran is to pass through an entire chapter of the Old Testament itself, Exodus 17.
Given such prominence in the Old Testament, it is no surprise that Feiran is littered with the ruins of dozens of ancient churches; some dating back to 4th century AD, when Feiran began to develop into a major religious center for monks and pilgrims, many on their way to Mt. Sinai and St. Catherine Monastery further east.
The Wadi’s chief religious sites are the rock from which Moses drew water, which convention places at the western entrance to the oasis, and Mount Tahoun, which Moses supposedly used as an observation point to view the battle with the Amelecites. Atop the mountain is an ancient cross, and the ruins of a small church dating back to the 4th century.
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Na’ama Bay, located just a few kilometers north of Sharm el-Sheikh, has in the past few years become the epicenter of tourism activity in the southern Sinai.
Its resort hotels and shops, dive and tour operators, and energetic nightlife–to say nothing of the stunning beauty of the bay itself–make this recently developed area a magnet for visitors to Sinai.
Geographically, Na’ama Bay is a natural outgrowth of Sharm el-Sheikh.
It is situated along a lovely stretch of coastline at the mouth of the Wadi el-Aat, itself an attraction of considerable beauty.
All of the outstanding dive sites of the south Sinai, as one would expect, are within easy reach.
Eighty-five kilometers north of Dahab, and just above Abu Galum, lies the port and beach resort of Nuweiba.
Like Sharm el-Sheikh, Nuweiba actually consists of several different locations, each with its own distinctive character.
To the south, tucked at the foot of the steep mountains of the interior and lying on the shore of an expansive bay, are the port and luxurious oasis of Nuweiba Muzeina.
This coastal resting spot has drawn travellers for centuries, having long been an important port for Muslim pilgrims en route to Mecca.
Today, Nuweiba Muzeina’s magnificent beaches and coral reefs are the most common draw, and the bay is home to a number of resorts and tourist villages. The port continues to offer ferry service to Aqaba on the Jordan coast on a daily basis.
Further north, on the far side of the prominence that thrusts out into the Gulf of Aqaba to form Nuweiba Bay, is Nuweiba el-Tarabin.
Although possessed of an equally lovely beach, Tarabin is more modestly developed, for the area is home also to the Tarabin tribe of the Bedouin.
Also at Nuweiba el-Tarabin are the ruins of the great fortress of Tarabin, constructed at the outset of the 16th century by the Mameluke sultan Ashraf Qansouh el-Ghouri (1501-1506).
The sultan was concerned to protect the Sinai from Turkish invasion, as well as to ensure the safety of travelers around this port city.
Although the construction proved of little help against the Turks (who invaded shortly afterward), its well has for centuries served as a convenient source of fresh water for the Bedouins.
Just a few kilometers south of Taba, at the very top of the Gulf of Aqaba and just a few hundred meters from the coast, lies Pharaoh’s Island.
Surmounted by the imposing crenellated bulk of the restored citadel of Salah ad-Din, Pharaoh’s Island is one of the most blatantly picturesque spots in the entire gulf.
While the restored fortifications have firmly imposed a medieval character upon the island, the history of Geziret Faroun in actually one of exceptional complexity and interest.
The earliest recorded constructions on the island are those of Hiram, king of Tyre (c.969-936 B.C.), a friend to both David and Solomon.
Tyre, an ancient city situated just off the coast of present-day Lebanon, was in Hiram’s time one of the most powerful cities of the Mediterranean.
Hiram figures prominently in the Bible (see Kings 9-10), where it is related that he supplied much of the cedar and gold for the Temple of Jerusalem.
Hiram’s interest in Pharaoh’s Island, which he knew as Esiongaber, was to further develop trade with Egypt, and he built up the island’s fine natural harbour.
About two thousand years later, the Byzantines occupied the island, and they were followed there (in the 12th century) by the Crusaders and then by Salah ad-Din.
In 1182, Salah ad-Din rebuilt the Byzantine and Crusader fortifications and further strengthened the island’s defences, and it is his “Kasr El-Hadid” that has in large part been restored here.
Ras Mohammed National Park occupies one of the world’s most extraordinary settings: a slender, dramatically arid peninsula at the very southernmost tip of the Sinai, rising to a dramatic promontory that looks out over some of the most gloriously rich coral reefs that you will ever see. The Ras Mohammed peninsula marks the nexus of the shallow Gulf of Suez and the deep intercontinental chasm of the Gulf of Aqaba, itself a small portion of the Great Rift Valley that stretches deep into Africa.
Declared a park in 1983, Ras Mohammed contains within its modest area an astounding variety of life, ranging from the gazelles of its northern desert area to the brilliant orange coral groupers of its skirting reefs.
The boundaries of Ras Mohammed extend far out into the surrounding waters, and even the most casual of visitors is struck by how much of the park is dominated by the sea.
Even the dry land area of the park seems a part of the marine world: in the north, large dunes are interspersed with outcroppings of Miocene limestone in which are embedded an astonishing wealth and variety of marine fossils.
In fact, the dramatic promontory that marks the Sinai’s southernmost tip belongs in part to the sea, as it is in fact an enormous, fossilized coral reef, left high and dry tens of thousands of years ago.
For many visitors, Ras Mohammed’s most stunning scenery is found underwater, in the broad, terraced coral reefs that encircle the peninsula. Fire corals and brilliant sea fans abound here, and among these lush reef corals roams a truly magnificent array of both reef and pelagic fish–over a thousand species in all.
Archaeologists have found that the very earliest known settlers in the Sinai–they arrived about 8,000 years ago–were miners. Drawn by the region’s abundant copper and turquoise deposits, these groups slowly worked their way southward, hopping from one deposit to the next. By 3500 BC, the great turquoise veins of Serabit el-Khadem had been discovered.
At the same time, the kingdoms of Egypt became united under its first pharaohs, and these great rulers soon turned their eye eastward.
By about 3000 BC the Egyptians had become masters of the Sinai mines, and at Serabit el-Khadem they set up a large and systematic operation.
For the next two thousand years, great quantities of turquoise were carved from Serabit el-Khadem, carried down the Wadi Matalla to the garrisoned port at el-Markha (just south of Abu Zenima), and set aboard boats bound for Egypt. For the Egyptians, the brilliant blue-green stone served myriad purposes: scarabs were carved from it, and the bright mineral enamels of powdered turquoise were used to color everything from fine statuettes to bricks.
To mine the turquoise, the Egyptians would hollow out large galleries in the mountains, carving at the entrance to each a representation of the reigning pharaoh–a symbol of the authority of the Egyptian state over the mine and its yield.
Although many of the region’s pharaonic reliefs were destroyed by a British attempt to re-open the mines in the mid-nineteenth century, the excellent bas relief of Pharaoh Sekhemkhet on the east face of Gebel Maghara survives.
Also at Serabit el-Khadem are the ruins of a temple dedicated to Hathor, containing a large number of bas-reliefs and carved steles.
Sharm el-Sheikh is probably the best-known town of the southern Sinai, for the simple reason that it is Sharm el-Sheikh which gave the Red Sea an international reputation as one of the world’s most extraordinary diving destinations.
And the coral reefs of Ras Mohammed, Tiran, and the Aqaba coast, on which Sharm built its legendary reputation, are as dazzling as ever.
Today, however, diving is only part of the attraction here, as many visitors arrive simply to enjoy the sun, to parasail and windsurf and bicycle, or to explore the magical desert landscape of the southern Sinai.
Since the mid-1980s, the Sharm el-Sheikh area has come into its own as a world-class resort destination, with the construction of almost forty hotels and resorts.
Of course, such expansion brings with it new problems and concerns–it is the natural beauty of the Sinai that brings so many guests, and it is also the natural beauty of the Sinai that is most endangered by so many visitors.
Accordingly, the last several years have witnessed strong efforts by the Sharm el-Sheikh community to protect and to preserve the fragile environment of this region.
The creation of Ras Mohammed National Park in 1983 marked the first great step in this effort, and today a full 52% of the Egyptian shoreline on the Gulf of Aqaba is now protected.
Before 1967, Sharm el-Sheikh didn’t even appear on most maps, and it was politics rather than diving that first brought the world’s attention to this tiny port.
Situated right at the approach to the Strait of Tiran, Sharm became famous when Egypt’s President Nasser decided to blockade the straits, thus cutting off Israel’s access to the Red Sea.
The direct result of the blockade was the Arab-Israeli conflict of June 5th, 1967, and Sharm el- Sheikh only began to grow in 1968, under Israeli occupation.
Over the ensuing years it gradually began to attract divers, travelers, and resort guests, but its strategic importance is still evident.
The town’s large southwestern inlet, Sharm el-Sheikh bay, remains a military harbour.
Set beneath the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, Saint Catherine Monastery has been one of the world’s great centers of religious pilgrimage for over fifteen centuries.
Within its imposing walls rests a citadel like no other, incredibly rich in important religious and historical structures.
Among its treasures is a library of ancient manuscripts and icons second only to the Vatican’s itself, and a 6th century church reputed to lie directly on the site of the Burning Bush. Quite simply, the monastery is a defining feature of the Holy Land.
At the northernmost edge of the Gulf of Aqaba lies the small town of Taba, a picturesque beach town that in ancient times was once a stopover on the caravan route to the Fort of Aqaba.
In modern times, it is best known as the last piece of land that was returned to Egypt following Israel’s occupation of Sinai.
Taba is situated right on the edge of the Israeli border, which can be crossed on foot.
The town is a perfect excursion point for visits to the surrounding wonders, such as The Island of the Pharaoh and the Israeli city of Eilat.