The Mediterranean coast
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Egypt’s 500km-long Mediterranean coast (known as Al-Sahel) has beautiful beaches and sparkling sea all the way to Libya. However, many stretches are still mined from World War II or off-limits due to military bases, while all the most accessible sites have been colonized by holiday villages catering mainly to Egyptians, whose beach culture is so different from Westerners’ that most foreigners prefer the Sinai and Red Sea resorts.
Travelling between Alexandria and the World War II battlefield of El-Alamein you’ll pass a slew of resorts reserved for elite sections of Egyptian society such as the army and diplomatic corps, and others open to anyone who can afford to stay, though for independent travellers they’re simply blights on the landscape which make the colonial-era beach resort of El-Agami (20km from downtown Alexandria and now a commuter suburb) seem historic by comparison. With the ancient lighthouse at Abu Sir and the ruins of Taposiris Magna off-limits, the only accessible “sight” is the Coptic Monastery of St Menas, off the highway between Alexandria and El-Alamein.
Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.
Winston Churchill, The Hinge of Fate
The utterly misnamed “city” of EL-ALAMEIN squats on a dusty plain 106km west of Alexandria, situated along a spur road that turns inland from the highway. Anyone driving past could blink and see nothing except construction debris until they pass the Italian war memorial 9km down the highway. Still, El-Alamein (“Two Worlds” or “Two Flags”) is an apt name for a place that witnessed the turning point of the North African campaign, determining the fate of Egypt and Britain’s empire. When the Afrika Korps came within 111km of Alexandria on July 1, 1942, control of Egypt, Middle Eastern oil and the Canal route to India seemed about to be wrested from the Allied powers by Germany and Italy. Instead, at El-Alamein, the Allied Eighth Army held, and then drove the Axis forces back, to ultimate defeat in Tunisia. Some eleven thousand soldiers were killed and seventy thousand wounded at El-Alamein alone; total casualties for the North African campaign (Sept 1940–March 1943) exceeded one hundred thousand.
Travellers who wish to pay their respects to the dead or have an interest in military history should find the memorials and war museum worth the effort of getting there. While you can be sure of finding the cemeteries open, it’s worth phoning ahead to check about the museum (t 046 410 0021), as it closes now and again for some reason or another.
Beyond the checkpoint where Sharia al-Petrol turns off towards the Qattara Depression, look out for signs by the highway, indicating Allied war memorials. The first is the Greek Memorial, resembling a classical temple, approached by an avenue of oleanders, followed 600m later by the South African Memorial, whose inscription (“South Africans outspanned and fought here during their trek from Italian Somaliland to Germany 1939–1945”) evokes the Boer Voortrekkers.
Another kilometre west is the entrance to the El-Alamein War Cemetery (daily 9am–4pm; free), 400m off the highway. Secluded on the reverse slope of a hill, it is a tranquil site for the graves of 7367 Allied soldiers (815 of them nameless, only “known unto God”), with memorial cloisters listing the names of 11,945 others whose bodies were never found. Though over half were Britons, the dead include Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, Malays, Melanesians, Africans, Canadians, French, Greeks and Poles. If you want to find a particular headstone, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (w cwgc.org) in London can tell you exactly where to look.
Walking down to the cemetery, you’ll pass the Australian Memorial, honouring the 9th Australian Division that stormed Point 29 and Thompson’s Post during the penultimate phase of the Third Battle. At the start of the Third Battle the area now occupied by the cemetery was a staging area for Allied forces; the front line was about 12km west, running 65km inland from where the Italian Memorial stands today to the edge of the Qattara Depression, which formed an impassable obstacle to tanks.
Allied troops reached their staging areas by what is now a minor road, running further inland from today’s highway, past El-Alamein’s War Museum (locally known as Al-Mathaf). An illuminated map showing each phase of the battle, and an Italian documentary, provide an overview of the conflict, while uniforms, photos and models convey the harsh conditions in the field. Notice the section Dropdown content on Almássy, of The English Patient and his role in guiding two German spies through the desert.
Outside are armoured vehicles, cannons and trucks, including a lorry belonging to the Long Range Desert Group Dropdown content found in the desert in 1991. There’s also a restored Command Bunker that was used by Monty during the battle, which you’ll have to ask a guide to unlock.
Roughly 2km west, look out for an Italian plaque on the south side of the highway, marking the furthest point of the Axis advance, which asserts: Mancò la Fortuna, Non il Valore (“Lacking Fortune, Not Valour”), 1.7.1942, Alessandria 111km. The Allies denigrated the Italians as cowardly buffoons whose officers enjoyed field-brothels at the front, but many of their units fought bravely and endured the same hardships as the other combatants.
Three kilometres on you’ll spot the German Memorial atop Tell el-Issa, a ridge overlooking the sea north of the highway. A squat octagonal structure modelled on the Castel del Monte in Apulia, its courtyard lies over a mass grave of 4280 soldiers, whose names are recorded on plaques beside stone sarcophagi, representing their home provinces. The memorial’s custodian can open a gate leading to the German Memorial Beach, 1km away – one of the nicest, most deserted beaches on the coast.
The Italian Memorial, 5km west, is also visible from the highway. A white marble tower at the end of an oleander-lined avenue, it has a small museum and a chapel dedicated to the 42,800 Italian soldiers, sailors and airmen who died during the campaign. Only 4,800 bodies were recovered, due to the efforts of Colonel Paolo Dominioni, who spent ten years and his entire fortune scouring the desert and building the memorial. The surrounding area is still mined, so don’t stray off the paths.
The battlefield itself is generally far too dangerous to explore, due to the minefields laid by both sides. A staggering sixteen million landmines are estimated to remain in the Western Desert, which still kill and maim local Bedouin to this day (only tracts of land where companies are drilling for oil have been de-mined). Britain, Germany and Italy have always rejected Egyptian and Libyan demands that they fund mine-clearance programmes – the current excuse is that Egypt hasn’t signed up to the Ottawa Convention banning the manufacture of mines.
A few local Bedouin with 4WDs are prepared to take people to strategic strongpoints such as Kidney Ridge (which the 51st Highland Division was disconcerted to find was actually a depression, leaving them exposed to enemy fire) via known routes through the minefields. To enter this area requires permission from the Egyptian army, without which visitors have no right to assistance in the event of an accident, and can be fined if caught by a patrol.
Rather than the single, decisive clash of arms that many people imagine, the Battle of El-Alamein consisted of three savage bouts of mechanized warfare separated by relative lulls over a period of five months (July–Nov) in 1942. In the First Battle of El-Alamein, the German Afrika Korps’ advance was stymied by lack of fuel and munitions and stiff Allied resistance organized by General Auchinleck. Once resupplied, however, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was able to press the advantage with 88-millimetre cannons that outranged the Allies’ guns, as well as faster, better-armoured tanks, used with an élan that earned him the title “the Desert Fox”.
In August, General Bernard Montgomery (“Monty”) took over the Allied Eighth Army, vowing that it would retreat no further. He negated his army’s weaknesses by siting its tanks “hull down” in pits with only their gun turrets above ground, protecting them until the Panzers came within range. Aware that the Allies were being resupplied, Rommel attacked the Alam Halfa Ridge in the Second Battle of El-Alamein (Aug 31 to Sept 6). Repulsed with heavy losses and desperately short of fuel, the Afrika Korps withdrew behind a field of five hundred thousand landmines. Monty patiently reorganized his forces, resisting pressure from his superiors to attack until he had amassed one thousand tanks. A stage illusionist, Jasper Maskelyne, concealed them in the desert and constructed fake tank parks as part of an elaborate deception plan to mislead Rommel as to where and when the Eighth Army’s main offensive would occur.
Shortly after nightfall on October 23, Monty launched the Third Battle of El-Alamein with a barrage of 744 guns that was heard in Alexandria. Having cracked the Nazi Enigma code, the Allies knew that Rommel was convalescing in Italy; when the Eighth Army punched a corridor through the minefields of the central front, the Germans were taken unawares. Rommel managed to return two days later, but was obliged to concentrate his mobile units further north, stranding four Italian divisions in the south. The Allies had established a commanding position at Kidney Ridge, from where Monty launched the decisive strike on November 2, leaving Rommel with only 35 operational tanks by the end of the day. On November 5 the Eighth Army broke out and surged westwards; the Afrika Korps fought rearguard actions back through Libya until its inevitable surrender in Tunisia six months later.
Thirty kilometres beyond El-Agami the highway passes a site called Abu Sir, better known to archeologists by its Roman name, Taposiris Magna. This ancient city – which the Egyptians called Per Usiri (“Dwelling of Osiris”) and the Greeks Busiris – had one port on the Mediterranean and another on Lake Maryut. In Roman times the Maryut region was a major source of grain, shipped to Italy to placate the potentially riotous plebs in Rome. A chain of lighthouses from Alexandria to Cyrenaica (Libya) warned sailors of the abrupt change from sea to sand along a coastline devoid of landmarks. While Alexandria’s Pharos has disappeared, archeologists have gleaned clues to its shape from the sole surviving lighthouse in the chain, at Abu Sir – which most believe was a one-tenth scale replica of the Pharos.
Today, both the lighthouse and Taposiris Magna are off-limits while the SCA conducts excavations in search of the tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. The Dominican scholar Kathleen Martinez believes it lies beneath the city’s Temple of Osiris, having found the mummies of ten nobles just outside, and coins bearing Cleopatra’s face and an alabaster mask with a cleft chin similar to portraits of Antony within the temple precincts. Her belief is also founded on the historian Plutarch’s assertion that Octavian allowed the couple to be buried together after their respective suicides in 30 BC. If Martinez is right and finds their mummies, it will be the greatest discovery since Tutankhamun’s tomb.