Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt 2022
October 29 found us in Sharm el Sheikh, a resort town at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula on the Red Sea. We had booked a long excursion to St Catherine’s Monastery, several hours by bus each way into the central Sinai desert. This is the oldest functioning Christian monastery in the world, in part because it is fortified, established in 565 by order of Roman Emperor Justinian I. It sits at the foot of Mt Sinai on the spot where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush (a claimed descendant of which can still be seen there) and contains the oldest continuously operating library in the world, among other treasures. So you can see why this sounded interesting, but upon learning that the monastery usually closes to visitors by noon and being told that our stop in port was barely enough for the round trip bus ride we decided to back out. From what we heard it was a long and difficult bus ride with only about 45 minutes at the monastery and the scheduled restaurant meal and tour of a Bedouin town was cancelled for lack of time. So we were glad we cancelled.
We signed up instead for a HAL excursion to see the highlights of Sharm el Sheikh along with our friends and tablemates Peggy & Kay. Until the last few decades there was nothing here but sand, water and a camp occasionally used by local fishermen. The Israelis built a settlement called Ofira during their occupation of the Sinai Peninsula betweem the Six Day War in 1967 until the Egyptian Israeli peace agreement of 1979. They built a hotel and a barracks for their troops, which was pointed out to us as the oldest building in town.
A natural diving and snorkeling wonderland with 25 coral reefs and more than 1,000 species of fish, the town really took off as a vacation hub after its repatriation to Egypt. From 1982 to 2,000 it went from 3 resorts to more than 90, and from 16,000 nights of vacation bookings to more than 5 million. With a current population around 70,000+ there was quite a bit of visible building activity still going on during our visit. Sharm el Sheikh is also a favorite site for international conferences; the COP27 international climate conference was to begin here the week after our visit. So there is plenty of hustle and bustle. But its quick development to serve the international tourist trade has left it with an ambiance that is something of a cross between Las Vegas and Disney World.
After it was returned to Egypt after the peace accords with the Israelis, Sharm el Sheik was designated by the government “The Peace City.” The first stop on our city tour was to the Peace Icon Memorial, one of the largest metal artworks in the world, measuring more than 125 ft tall. It depicts a lotus flower holding up eight wings with the world above. Across the street from the parking lot is a gilded metal sculpture of a group of camels relaxing on the sidewalk. Nearby were some palm trees . . . and some not palm trees (cell towers)>
Our next visit was to a Coptic church. The Coptics are the Egyptian branch of the Greek Orthodox Church and we had never visited one of their churches before. As with everything in Sharm el Sheikh, of course, this church is not very old although we don’t know when it was built. The outside is a smooth beige in what appears to be concrete, with Greek crosses atop the domed roof and towers.There was a sculpture of a lion wearing a crown near the front entrance.
A large domed porch covered the church’s main entrance, the walls of which were covered with paintings.
The inside of the church is filled with elaborate decoration, wall and ceiling art as well as chandeliers and other objects.
We stopped by a large bay called Ras Um Sid, which is supposed to be one of the best diving and snorkeling sites in the area. We didn’t see much happening there (I guess it was mostly under the water), but there were people swimming in what looked like a private beach for a resort hotel. The water here was very blue and clear, relatively shallow well out into the bay.
We saw two large mosques in Sharm el Sheikh. Al Mustafa Mosque is the older (2008) and larger (236 ft minarets) of the two, but unfortunately we did not get anywhere close to it.
We walked by the second, the Al Sahaba Mosque, which looks more like something from Disney World, with lots of carefully designed and rendered decorative details, than from the desert. It was opened in 2017 and is the second biggest mosque in Sharm el Sheik. Unfortunately it was closed so we couldn’t see the inside (not clear to us whether it is ever open to non-Muslim visitors).
The mosque is situated next to the old market, a neighborhood with several streets of vendors and restaurants. Most of the vendors had their wares displayed on the sidewalk and there was even a souvenir shop next to the mosque. Some kind of event was being prepared in the park in front of the mosque, which included a camel made entirely from used soda cans.
Back on the ship, a group picture was made of the Table 65 inmates, a compatible and fun set of table mates. And as we left Sharm el Sheikh we were favored with a dramatic sunset.