An entrepôt since ancient times, the RED SEA COAST, stretching 1250km from Suez to the Sudanese border, was once a microcosm of half the world, as Muslim pilgrims from as far away as Central Asia sailed to Arabia from its ports. Though piracy and slavery ceased towards the end of the nineteenth century, smuggling still drew adventurers and explorers long after the Suez Canal had sapped the vitality of the Red Sea ports. Decades later, the coastline assumed new significance with the discovery of oil and its vulnerability to Israeli commando raids. The latter led to large areas being mined, which is one reason why tourism didn’t arrive until the 1980s – although it has boomed since then, fuelled by the region’s good-value resorts and superlative dive sites.
Along the coast, turquoise waves lap rocky headlands and windswept beaches, while inland the Nile Valley is divided from the coast by the arid hills and mountains of the Eastern Desert, home to the Red Sea monasteries. Cairenes appreciate the beaches at Ain Sukhna, south of Suez, but the region’s real lure are the fabulous island reefs near the brash resort of Hurghada and the less touristy settlements of Port Safaga, El-Quseir and Marsa Alam to the south.
Around 22km north of Hurghada lies the vast tourist resort of EL GOUNA (w elgouna.com), popular with the Egyptian jet set and Western package tourists. Built on a series of islands linked by purpose-built bridges and canals, El Gouna covers 37 square kilometres and packs in a lot, including an eighteen-hole golf course, casino, two shopping centres, (the main one with an open-air cinema), cafés, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, banks, travel agencies and a post office, plus a museum, aquarium, winery, a cheese factory and an international airport. Most hotels have dive centres attached – for a list of nearby dive sites, see the Hurghada account – and watersports, horseriding, go-karting, tennis, squash and microlight flights are also available. El Gouna’s state-of-the-art private hospital (emergencies t 065 354 0011, w elgounahospital.com.eg) has a decompression chamber (t 0122 218 7550).
Secreted amid the arid Red Sea Hills, Egypt’s two oldest monasteries – dedicated to St Paul and St Anthony – trace their origins back to the infancy of Christian monasticism, observing rituals that have scarcely changed over sixteen centuries. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate their tranquil atmosphere and imposing setting, however, and there’s also scope for birdwatching in the vicinity.
Around 30km south of Ain Sukhna, the fly-bitten town of ZA’FARANA is the nearest settlement to the Red Sea monasteries. West from here, a wide valley cleaves the Galala Plateau and sets the road on course for the Nile, 168km away. Called Wadi Arraba, its name derives from the carts that once delivered provisions to the monastery, though legend attributes it to the pharaoh’s chariots that pursued the Israelites towards the Red Sea.
Travelling for 33km along this road brings you to a turn-off to the south, from where a dramatic ridge of cliffs known as Mount Qalah can be seen in the distance, with the Monastery of St Anthony situated beneath. The monastery was founded shortly after Anthony’s death in 356, although a sojourn by St John the Short is all that’s recorded of its early history. An influx of refugee monks from the monasteries at Wadi Natrun occurred during the sixth century, followed by a wave of Melkite monks in the seventh. Subsequently pillaged by Bedouin and razed to the ground, the monastery was restored during the twelfth century by Coptic monks, from whose ranks several Ethiopian bishops were elected. After a murderous revolt by the monastery servants, it was reoccupied by Coptic, Syrian and Ethiopian monks.
The permanent brethren who now live at the monastery are university graduates and ex-professionals – not unlike the kind of people drawn to monasticism in the fourth century AD. A typical day at the monastery begins at 4am, with two hours of prayer and hymns followed by communion and Mass, all before breakfast.
The monastery is effectively a self-contained village complete with lanes of two-storey dwellings, churches, mills and gardens of vines, olives and palms, surrounded by lofty walls with an interior catwalk – although most of the buildings themselves are recent compared to the monastery’s foundation. An English-speaking monk will give you a partial tour of the monastery, though some areas are off-limits. Highlights include the keep, a soot-blackened bakery and a library of over 1700 manuscripts.
The oldest of the five churches is dedicated to the monastery’s namesake, who may be buried underneath it. Don’t miss the wall paintings, some of which date from the seventh century and have been restored to their former glory. During Lent (when the gates are locked and deliveries are winched over the walls) monks celebrate the liturgy in the twelve-domed Church of St Luke, dating from 1776. A small museum details the monastery’s history; next door is a well-stocked bookshop. The community remains dependent on water from the monastery’s spring, where Arab legend has it that Miriam, sister of Moses, bathed during the Exodus.
Early morning or late afternoon is the best time to go up to St Anthony’s Cave (maghara), 2km from – and 276m above – the monastery (bring water). After passing a sculpture of St Anthony carved into the mountain rock, you’ll face 1200 steps (a 45min walk) up to the cave, but the stunning views from 680m above the Red Sea reward your effort. Technicolour wadis and massifs spill down into the azure gulf, with Sinai’s mountains rising beyond. The cave where Anthony spent his last 25 years contains medieval graffiti and modern tilbas, scraps of paper bearing supplications inscribed with “Remember, Lord, your servant”, which pilgrims stick into cracks in the rock. Birdlife – hoopoes, desert larks, ravens, blue rock thrushes and pied wagtails – is surprisingly abundant, and you might glimpse some shy gazelles.
The Monastery of St Paul has always been overshadowed by St Anthony’s. Its titular founder (not to be confused with the apostle Paul) was only 16 and an orphan when he fled Alexandria to escape Emperor Decius’ persecutions, making him the earliest known hermit. Shortly before his death in 348, Paul was visited by Anthony. Paul begged him to bring the robe of Pope Athanasius, for Paul to be buried in. Anthony departed to fetch this, but on the way back had a vision of Paul’s soul being carried up to heaven by angels, and arrived to find him dead. While Anthony was wondering what to do, two lions appeared and dug a grave for the body, so Anthony shrouded it in the robe and took Paul’s tunic of palm leaves as a gift for the pope, who subsequently wore it at Christmas, Epiphany and Easter.
The monastery (called Deir Amba Bula or Deir Mari Bolus) was a form of posthumous homage by Paul’s followers: its turreted walls are built around the cave where he lived for decades. To a large extent, its fortunes have followed those of its more prestigious neighbour. In 1484 all its monks were slain by Bedouin, who occupied St Paul’s for eighty years. Rebuilt by Patriarch Gabriel VII, it was again destroyed near the end of the sixteenth century.
The monastery complex is much smaller than St Anthony’s and a little more primitive looking. It boasts four churches, but the Church of St Paul is its spiritual centre, a cave-church housing the remains of the saint. The church walls are painted with murals generally thought inferior to those of St Anthony’s, though they have been well preserved. A monk will show you round the chapels and identify their icons: notice the angel of the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and the ostrich eggs hung from the ceiling – a symbol of the Resurrection. The southern sanctuary of the larger Church of St Michael contains a gilded icon of the head of John the Baptist on a dish. When Bedouin raided the monastery, its monks retreated into the five-storey keep, supplied with spring water by a hidden canal. Nowadays this is not enough to sustain the monks and their guests, so water is brought in from outside.
The rock art of the Eastern Desert is one of Egypt’s best-kept secrets. Spread over 24,000 square kilometres of desert east of Luxor and Edfu, the sites vary from a single boulder to cliff walls dotted with pictures of people and animals, flotillas of boats and herds of giraffes, ostriches and elephants. They are difficult to reach, however, and it’s easy to get lost – at least one group has died in the area – so it’s vital to go with a guide. There are three main places of interest: two are partially accessible by 2WD, using the roads between El-Quseir and Qift or Marsa Alam and Edfu, but all of the wadis between them require 4WD.
Created before the unification of Egypt (c.3100 BC), the rock art sheds light on the origins of Egyptian civilization. The oldest human figures are gods or chieftains in ostrich-feather headdresses, brandishing maces – intriguingly similar to the “Conquering Hero” motif in pre- and Early Dynastic art at Hierakonopolis in the Nile Valley. They often appear standing in boats, and are frequently surrounded by ostriches, elephants or cattle. Both Hans Winkler, who did seminal research in the 1930s, and David Rohl, who made recent studies, believe the oldest boats represent “Eastern Invaders” from Mesopotamia, who reached Egypt by the Red Sea and conquered the indigenous people of the Nile Valley, kickstarting Egyptian civilization.
Permits are required for visiting these sites: both Red Sea Desert Adventures and Ancient World Tours (UK t 020 7917 9494, w ancient.co.uk) can obtain them and organize excursions.
The coastal route south from Suez is of little interest, passing numerous oil and natural-gas refineries, while in the distance you can also see the Jebel Ataqa, the northernmost range in the Eastern Desert and an old Bedouin smuggling route.
Around 55km south of Suez is the town of AIN SUKHNA, whose beaches are popular with Egyptians but attract few foreigners. The town’s name derives from the hot springs (35°C) originating in the Jebel Ataqa. Light patches offshore indicate coral reefs, while barbed-wire fences delineate areas sown with landmines (mainly beneath the cliffs). The quality of resorts here is generally low, and it’s better to head on to El Gouna or Hurghada rather than stopping off here.