The coastal town of ROSETTA (Rashid in Arabic) has waxed and waned in counterpoint to the fortunes of Alexandria, 65km away. When Alex was moribund, Rosetta burgeoned as a port, entering its heyday after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in the sixteenth century, only to decline after Alexandria’s revival. It is best known abroad for the Rosetta Stone, discovered here by French soldiers in 1799. Their archeological booty was surrendered to the British in 1801, which is how it wound up in London’s British Museum (from where the Egyptian authorities are campaigning to have it repatriated), but it was a Frenchman, Jean-François Champollion, who deciphered the hieroglyphs by comparing them with the Greek text, and thus unlocked the secret of the Ancient Egyptian tongue.
Today, Rosetta’s main point of interest is its distinctive Delta-style mansions, which date from the Ottoman period of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and many of which have been or are being restored. Hallmarks include pointed brickwork, usually emphasized by white or red paint, along with inset beams and carved lintels, and a profusion of mashrabiya-work. Some also incorporate ancient columns. Our map shows the locations of the most interesting houses, not all of which are described individually in the text, but which make a good basis for exploring the town.
Around mid-November, the chain of festivals that started in Tanta the previous month should reach Rosetta. Don’t despair if you come a few weeks earlier, since similar moulids occur at Fuwa, Mahmudiya and Dasuq, further inland. Salted fish (fisikh) and hummus are the traditional snacks at these events.
Sharia Azouz Sama and around
The places of interest start opposite the service taxi station, on Sharia Azouz Sama, home to some fine Delta-style houses, all dating from the eighteenth century. Kohiya House stands next to the fine Al-Araby Mosque. Two doors further on stand the trio of Ramadan House, Maharem House and Al-Gamal House, with Abouhoum House just across the street.
Sharia Azouz Sama continues down to the Corniche, which runs along the river. One block north of Azouz Sama, shortly before you reach the Corniche, you’ll find the Damaksi Mosque, built in 1714, a curious mosque, located one storey above street level. Next to it is Al-Baqrawali House, a Delta-style mansion built in 1808.
Sharia Sheikh Qanadili
Further examples of Rosetta’s Delta-style architecture lie on, or just off, Sharia Sheikh Qanadili, which runs north (parallel to the river), one block east of Al-Gamal House. Heading north along it from Azouz Sama, you pass Thabet House, one of the oldest of the Delta-style houses, built in 1709. On Haret al-Haj Youssef (the next left heading north from Thabet House), Al-Manadili House is now sadly derelict, its upper storeys having collapsed relatively recently, but its portico survives, supported by two ancient columns that are evidently of pharaonic or Greco-Roman origin.
Two blocks north, back on Sharia Sheikh Qanadili, the street opens out into a square. On its south side is Al-Amasyali House (daily 9am–4pm; £E16), whose upstairs reception room is ennobled by a superb wooden ceiling and mother-of-pearl-inlaid mashrabiyas. The house is open to the public, as is the Abu Shahim Mill next door (same hours; included in Al-Amasyali ticket), with its huge wooden grinders and delicately pointed keyhole arches. The mill was built around 1808 for the Turkish Agha, Ali al-Topgi, who bequeathed them both to his servant Al-Amasyali.
Ali al-Mahaldi Mosque
In a busy market street, a couple of blocks east and one block north of Abu Shahim Mill, the 1722 Ali al-Mahaldi Mosque is held up by an amazing miscellany of pilfered columns, some Greco-Roman, others looking suspiciously like the columns used to hold up the pulpits of Coptic churches. The mosque is under restoration and currently closed to the public, although if the door is open you can see the columns from outside.
On Midan al-Hurriya, the town’s main square, the eighteenth-century Kili House contains the small Rashid Museum. Exhibits include some old swords, guns and documents, but the main attraction is the restored upstairs rooms, giving a feeling of what the house must have been like in its heyday. Also included in the ticket is the pleasant garden opposite, decorated with a few unlabelled cannons and columns.
A couple of hundred metres south of Sharia Azouz Sama, three blocks off the Corniche, is the nineteenth-century Hammam Azouz, a fine example of a traditional bathhouse with a lovingly restored interior decorated with marble floors and fountains. It’s not in use today, however, and was closed at the time of writing, but has been open to the public in the past: ask for latest information at Abu Shahim Mill.
One block south and one block west of Hamman Azouz, the 1545 Zaghloul Mosque (Gama’a Zaghloul) is Rosetta’s oldest and largest mosque, bigger than Al-Azhar in Cairo – although it’s currently under restoration and closed to the public. The mosque’s roof is covered with over fifty domes, and as in other local mosques, the three hundred columns holding it up are a motley miscellany, taken from older buildings of assorted historical periods. In 1807, the minaret gave out the rallying cry for the townspeople to (successfully) fight off an invading British force hoping to occupy the town against Napoleon.
Built in 1479 to guard the mouth of the Nile and protect Egypt’s spice trade against predatory maritime powers, Fort Qaitbey (Borg Qaitbey in Arabic) was reinforced in 1799 by Napoleon’s troops. It was during these reinforcements that a sharp-eyed French officer by the name of Pierre-Francois Bouchard noticed the Rosetta Stone, which must have been among masonry recycled for the fort’s construction.
The fort was originally modelled on Fort Qaitbey in Alexandria, but was built in honey-coloured local stone. The brickwork is Napoleonic rather than Mamluke, and the fort itself isn’t tremendously exciting in itself, but it’s a pleasant few hours’ excursion, and you can climb the ramparts to enjoy the view downriver towards the sea (the coast having shifted a few kilometres since the fort was built), and upstream, past the brick factories which occupy the river bank between here and Rosetta.
Mosque of Abu Mandur
For an alternative river trip (or a long walk up the Corniche), head for the tranquil, eighteenth-century Mosque of Abu Mandur, 3km south of Rosetta, which contains the tomb of a local saint and is thought to stand on the site of Bolbitine, an ancient Egyptian port which fell into disuse after the construction of Alexandria. You can hire a boat to reach the mosque along the Corniche (for example, at the dock 200m south of El Nile Hotel; expect to pay £E50–70 for the round trip).