15 - 21 August 2002
Issue No. 599
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Outpost on the Red Sea

The old Turkish fortress at Qosseir has been restored, and Amira El-Noshokaty took a pre-opening peek

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Chambermaid looks out from the Qosseir Hotel
photo: Ayman Ibrahim

In the small town of Qosseir on the Red Sea stands one of the most important fortresses on the east African coast. It stands at a strategic point overlooking the end of the town, perched on a limestone hill covered with round pebbles.

When I told people I was visiting Qosseir at this time of the year they showered me with warnings about the heat. But what place isn't hot right now? I have to admit it did heat up during the day, but my morning began when it was still only 34 degrees and there was no trace of humidity. I knew I could take it.

It is to easy to reach Qosseir. You can take the bus from Turguman Square on Al-Galaa Street or fly to Hurghada and take a taxi or bus from there. The Mövenpick Hotel even provides an airport pick-up for the hour-and-a-half drive from Hurghada. There are two flights daily, one in the early morning and the other at 10pm.

Staying at the Mövenpick is a treat. It's just you, the desert and a Nubian-style hotel that captures the mood of the sea, the mountains and the romance of history all at once, only a few metres from the Graeco-Roman port of Leukos Limen (Pharaonic Taaou). "This is the place to go when you really need to recharge your batteries," Robert Fellermeier, the general manager, puts it. It is also a diver's paradise. Unlike at Hurghada, one does not need to rent a boat to see the beauty of the coral reefs. The reef is right there off the beach, and night dives are popular on hot summer nights. Diving in Qosseir means you can go in the water without spending a whole day on a boat, while non-diving friends and family members can laze just feet away.

The Mövenpick is 10 minutes away from the town. In Qosseir itself the only hotel is the small but fascinating little Qosseir Hotel, the former residence of the local head of the Ababde -- the tribe who live in the Eastern Desert from here to Sudan. This has been restored and has seven guest rooms. The stone building, arabesque windows and warmth, cleanliness and simplicity enraptured me -- it deserves a look, at least. The house is 80 to 100 years old and has a sea view.

Qosseir has a grand history for a little town. Its position established it as a major trade route stop from early times, and later it became a main embarkation point for pilgrims to Mecca. Up to the 11th century it played a major role in the pearl fishing business. Its peace was shattered by fighting during the Crusades and under European occupation.

Charles Le Quesne, leader of the excavation team at the fortress, says the team has found fragments of 18th-century printed texts in French, too small to identify, and fragments of what were probably dark blue military uniforms as well as large quantities of wine and brandy.

When the French arrived in 1799, according to Kamaleddin Hussein's book Bonaparte and Qosseir, the fortress had a bastion at each corner and limestone walls 26 and 30cms thick. The castle held only a small number of rooms, and the water in its well was brackish. At a distance of 100 feet from the southwest main entrance lay a cistern which could hold up to 45 cubic metres of water, and linked to this were several natural water sources from outlying hills which made it a natural reservoir in the rainy season.

A joint restoration project at the fortress was planned in 1997 by the Supreme Council of Antiquities under its then director Gaballa Ali Gaballa and the Antiquities Development Project of the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) with a grant from USAID. Quite a formidable team was assembled for the project. ARCE's client representatives were Michael Jones and Brian Martinson, while the contractor was Keminco, run by Dick Keen. The exhibition on Red Sea archaeology at the fortress museum was designed by Willeke Wendrich and Hans Barnard, who have been working on excavations at Berenice. The site work was supervised by the architect Nicholas Warner. The carved lettering was by Nils Kulleseid and Theo Gayer- Anderson.

The building -- variably called a fortress, citadel, or small castle -- was built about 1516 to secure that stretch of the coast for the trade and pilgrim route. The town is said to have taken its name from the fortress, as the word Qosseir means "the small castle". The locals, however, argue that Qosseir means "the shortest" in Arabic, with reference to the fact that the road from Qosseir to Qeft is by far the shortest link between the Nile and the Red Sea.

As part of Napoleon's plan to take full control of Upper Egypt following his expedition to Egypt in 1798, troops headed from the Nile to Qosseir through the Hamamat Valley. Through surviving correspondence between the commander of the French troops, General Beliar, and the sharif of Mecca we hear about local resistance to the French. At the time civilians from Mecca were volunteering to help the resistance movement in Egypt, but Beliar asked the sharif to put a stop to this on the grounds that "the French loved Muslims". Beliar sent troops to Qosseir to ensure the aid from Mecca stopped. His letter stated: "I have taken over the fort of Qosseir and have established in it a French protectorate that can protect us from the enemy, whoever they are. And I aim to facilitate the trade especially with India, and to protect transport between Egypt and Mecca and ensure the transport of grain... We are friends of the Turkish Empire and we protect the Muslims wherever they are. But if we do not occupy Qosseir, the British will, and then they would cut the trade route to India and be an obstacle to the trade between Egypt and the Arab peninsula." That was in 1799.

When the French troops took over the fortress they reinforced it with a new stone gate parallel to the old one, and used old letters, wine bottles and all kind of refuse to fill the gap between the gates. When in 1800 the Turks failed to drive out the French, then led by General Menou, from Egypt, the British gave them a hand. The plan was a triple push: from the north by Turkish and British troops via the Mediterranean, from the east at Al-Arish by the Turks, and at Qosseir by British troops coming from India.

The fortress that witnessed such glory and defeat survived to be used later as a post for the haggana, or border guards. Nowadays the fortress is surrounded by houses and overlooks the market place. Unfortunately it lost its east bastion to a road widening scheme in the 1960s.

Over the years the town has shifted sideways and the fortress, once well on the outskirts, now dominates the town centre. An old wooden door opens onto a large space with cannons dating from the era of occupation by the Turks, French and British, when the fort was a major target. On one side lies a small boat built in the typical local way for fishermen, whose trade largely depends on fesikh and molouha (salted fish). Lying beside it is the rudder of a very old boat, huge compared with more modern ones.

Inside, sunbeams stream through the windows. "The north bastion had no roof and we needed to cover it," Michael Mallinson, a member of the restoration team, told me later. "It is very interesting as the inside was lined with mud brick by the French to protect it from cannon fire. This feature was being damaged by the rain so a roof that both sheltered it and allowed the mud brick to be seen was necessary." Mallinson said some parts needed much more restoration than others. The vault over the entrance had fallen and had to be rebuilt, the south bastion needed repair and its two stages of construction -- French (1799) on the outside and Osman Sultan Selim (1516) on the inside -- needed to be made clear to visitors.

"Among the ancient findings at the fort, a number of the walls of the earlier fort's structures were uncovered, with relics of the occupants: pipes, Chinese ceramics, some calligraphy and a large number of cannon balls from the British bombardment of the fort," Mallinson said. Some of the structures date from the occupation of the fort by the Coastguards Camel Corps, and the camel lines on the southwest wall and the tack room with the saddle racks are still in place. The flagpole was re-erected over the front entrance using old photographs, and the staircase leading up to it was restored.

In the north bastion is a special exhibition of the people of the desert. Photographs of Ababde people hang on the walls among traditional ornaments. Among them is a camel saddle and the leather feraya worn to protect the camel rider's legs, along with their cooking utensils. These allow a glimpse of the history of those still living in tents in the desert, still shepherding their flocks.

In the west bastion is an exhibition about the ancient trade route to Qosseir from the Nile. It shows the old routes taken by the Pharaohs and through to Graeco-Roman times. Also on show is a small replica of a Pharaonic sailing ship. A small exhibition in the south bastion gives information on the trade routes by sea and land along which foreign trade goods were carried until very recently. It shows where they came from and gives a brief history of the haggana who policed the carriers.

At the centre of the castle lies a coastguard's watchtower. This has lost its original stairs and now sports a new metal spiral staircase which leads to a wonderful view of the whole town of Qosseir. Below, laid out on the ground, is a huge map of Graeco-Roman Egypt which covers the cistern in the courtyard underneath. This had been a dumping area for years and was in a fragile condition. It needed to be safeguarded, and it was this that gave rise to the idea for the map which forms a protective roof.

It was rumoured that in front of the main door of the fortress was a secret underground tunnel linking the castle to ancient Qosseir, eight kilometres north of Qosseir and where the Mövenpick now stands. But no evidence of this tunnel has been found.

The Mövenpick still provides a glimpse of the past as it has been carried down to us by tradition. And what of the famous desert nomad night? It was there all right, waiting for us at a camp in Palm Valley, a 20-km drive away along a bumpy road. This area used to be the main source of the bardaqosh plant, the sweet tea of the mountains with a relaxing effect which brings on sweet dreams. A camel was wandering back to the camp after drinking from the nearby well, and we were thrilled to hear that a gazelle had scampered past only moments before our arrival. But we never drank the sweet mountain tea, since it thrives on rain drops and it has not rained here for almost nine years. It is hard to believe that for a short time after it rains the desert hereabouts is smothered with flowers; now it is parched and barren, but life goes on.

Practical information:

Mövenpick resort: Tel: (065)332100

Fax: (065) 332128.

Qosseir Hotel: Tel/Fax: (065) 332301.

Upper Egypt Bus Co.: Turguman Square (Tahrir). Daily to Qosseir at 10pm, LE60. Tel: 5760261.

EgyptAir: 5793049, 3930831, 5793048.

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