EL-QUSEIR, 85km from Safaga, is another phosphates extraction centre, though with fewer inhabitants and more appeal. In pharaonic times, boats sailed from here to the “Land of Punt” (thought to be Yemen or Somalia), as depicted in reliefs within Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri. The Romans knew it as Leukos Limen (“White Harbour”), while under Arab rule El-Quseir was the largest Red Sea port until the tenth century, remaining a major transit point for pilgrims until the 1840s, when Flaubert caught its last flickers of exoticism.
Today, El-Quseir is a sleepy place, mostly unaffected by tourism, despite the resorts on its outskirts. Life moves pretty slowly, except on Fridays, when Ma’aza and Ababda Bedouin flock in for the weekly market. The best dive sites nearby are the Brothers, east of El-Quseir, and the Elphinstone and Abu Dabbab reefs, down towards Marsa Alam, although the Quei and Wizr reefs are closer. All the resorts have their own dive centres although they may not allow outside divers to join their trips; it’s best to book a dive package deal from the outset.
Smack in the town centre, just past the main traffic roundabout, sits El-Quseir’s most impressive landmark, the sixteenth-century crumbling walled fortress, which now houses a museum. Designed to protect trade routes used by the Ottomans, the fortress declined after trade was diverted around the Cape of Good Hope. Napoleon’s army raised the French flag here in 1799, only to attract the attention of British warships sailing off the coast. The French survived a brief assault, but abandoned the fort two years later. Its most recent occupant was the Egyptian army, stationed here until 1975. The cistern, watchtower (climb up for excellent views) and rooms built into the walls of the fortress each contain small exhibits on the history and traditions of the Red Sea coast.
The rest of the town
In addition to the fortress, El-Quseir has a few other sights that are worth a quick look, including a small harbour where you can see local boat-builders at work, and a beachside promenade, good for a stroll. A few blocks back from the waterfront, past a number of shuttered and balconied houses, are the thirteenth-century Faran Mosque and an imposing former quarantine hospital dating back to the nineteenth century.