Inland from Hurghada, the barren plains erupt into the Red Sea Mountains, which follow the coast southwards towards Ethiopia. This geologically primitive range of granite, porphyry and breccia contains Egypt’s highest mountains outside Sinai. They are home to a few thousand Bedouin, who are perfectly at ease in the wilderness – unlike isolated groups of miners and soldiers, who feel almost as exiled as the slaves who quarried here in ancient times.
Jebel Abu Dukhaan and around
Twenty kilometres north of Hurghada, a track quits the highway and climbs inland towards Jebel Abu Dukhaan, the 1161-metre-high “Mountain of Smoke”. Anciently known as Mons Porphyrites, this was the Roman Empire’s main source of fine red porphyry, used for columns and ornamentation. Blocks were dragged 150km to the Nile, or by a shorter route to the coast, from where they were shipped to far-flung sites such as Baalbek in Lebanon or Constantinople. Round about the extensive quarries lies a ruined town of rough-hewn buildings with two large cisterns and an unfinished Ionic temple.
Under the emperors Trajan and Hadrian, the pale, black-flecked granite quarried at Mons Claudianus, 50km from Mons Porphyrites, was used to construct the Pantheon and Trajan’s Forum in Rome. Around the quarries, beneath Jebel Fatira and Jebel Abu Hamr, you’ll find numerous abandoned columns.
Jebel Gattaar and Jebel Shaayib el-Banat
Between Jebel Abu Dukhaan and Mons Claudianus rise the highest mountains in the Eastern Desert: Jebel Gattaar and Jebel Shaayib el-Banat. Jebel Gattaar (1963m) is esteemed by the Bedouin for its permanent springs and comparatively abundant vegetation. Further south, Jebel Shaayib el-Banat (at 2187m the highest in mainland Egypt) rises to a summit that the geographer and mountaineer George Murray likened to a “monstrous webbed hand of seven smoothed fingers”.