From your hotel the small historic town of El Quseir (population approx 40,000 ) makes for a great half or full day excursion. El Quseir is the Red Sea's oldest port and dates back to Pharaonic times.
The fishing harbour's narrow side streets lead up to an area of tourist bazars flanking the main street, Sharia Gomhuriya, which ascends to an unmissable and impressive Ottoman citadel.
Steven's limousine Service offers to pick you up from your hotel just after lunch and take you back after sunset. The two way journey from most hotels (excluding only the few which lie a long way south of Marsa Alam) is just 15 euro per person for a group of three or more or 20 euro per person for two.
You can easily save that money and more on the shopping prices in town which are much cheaper than inside the hotels. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The fort of El Quseir lies on high ground in what is now the centre of town. Coming from Marsa Alam jump out of your taxi near the petrol station and then it's a five minute walk up the hill. Coming the other way from Safaga you can't miss it as you follow the one way main road in to town.
Your attention is immediately arrested by the muzzels of two potruding cannon. Brought by the French to protect the town and harbour, they now overlook visitors as they shop in the bazaars beneath. Only one of them is actually of French manufacture, the other is probably of Dutch origin.
The castle was originally built by Sultan Selim I in 1517 (those guide books which state 1571 forget that Selim I was long dead by then ) to protect what was Egypt's most important port on the Red Sea. El Qusier means "the short" in Arabic and probably the town earned this name because it was the port allowing inland pilgrims to make the shortest journey possible from the Nile valley to Mecca.
El Quseir's strategic importance derived from it being located close to an ancient route from the Red Sea to the Luxor area via the Wadi el Hammamat - a twisting valley which cuts a snake like path through the mountains of Egypt's Eastern Desert.
Haj pilgrims would leave their camels and horses at the castle before embarking by ship for Mecca. The port also served as a vital entrepot for Egypt's trade with Arabia and Asia and was a major transhipment point for the spice trade on the route to Europe.
It was in the late sixteenth century, at the same time the castle was built, that the town centre of El Quseir moved from its' original site, which was near the modern Movenpick hotel, to its' current location around the fort and harbour.
In 1799 the French, who had sent a military expedition to Egypt under the command of General Napoleon, seized the fort, built a tall viewing platform ( now rebuilt), widened the ramparts and added a number of cannon, some of which can still be seen. They also left a garrison of some one hundred soldiers.
In August of the same year the fort's enhanced defences withstood a three day assault by two British 32 gun frigates, HMS Daedalus and HMS Fox. However, before retreating, these two battleships caused major breaches to the walls, especially in the area close to the main entrance.
The British twice attempted landings in order to destroy the drinking wells of the city but were forced to withdraw in the face of heavy cannon and musket fire and lost one cannon in the surf which may subsequently have been added to the fort's own battery of guns.
In June 1801 the fort was finally abandoned by the French army when an army of some 6000 British and Indian soldiers, under General Baird, landed at El Quseir. This force then crossed the Eastern Desert in a ten day march at the height of summer to capture Qena on the Nile. A feat which helped to hasten the final surrender of French forces in September.
In 1816 the fort was used as a base for Muhammad Ali Pasha's wars against Arabia but after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, its' strategic significance was considerably diminished. However, it remained in use as a base for the Egyptian coast guard until 1975.
Today, at the main gate you can buy a 15LE ticket* ( open daily from 0900 to 1700 ) which gains you access to the entire fort which includes several small exhibits of the area's history, shipbuilding, phosphate mining and Bedouin life and traditions.
But there is a lot more to El Quseir than the castle.
MARKETS AND SHOPS
The town offers a large number of traditional tourist friendly bazaars along Sharia Al Gomhuriya which lies below the castle selling the usual array of papyrus, alabaster statues, t shirts and leather goods etc. However there as also some fascinating local markets, especially on a Friday, to which the Ababda bedouin and local farmers bring their produce.
El Qusier is a place where Muslims and Christians work and live alongside each other and while there are 33 mosques including the Faran mosque with its' minaret dating back to 1704, the town is also home to a thousand Coptic Christians and it has the only church for over 100km in any direction.
The Coptic Church of St. Mary (previously named St Barbara's - after the patron saint of miners) stands close to the sea, less than a ten minute walk north from the town centre. It was completely rebuilt in 2008 but houses some beautiful paintings on its' walls. The original building, which fell into disrepair, had been established by the Italian Red Sea Phosphate mining company in 1920 as a Catholic church.
The town also has shrines to a number of eminent Muslims who died while undertaking the haj. Perhaps best known is the nineteenth century shrine of Abdel Ghaffaar Al Yemeni, which can be found opposite the castle on Sharia Al Gomhuriya in a niche in a wall.
RELAXING BY THE CORNICHE AND BEACH.
Those who wish to chill out or relax after a hard day's sightseeing, should make for the fishing harbour which has two small but quiet beaches nearby and a great seafood restaurant, Al Fanoos, opposite the car park deservedly popular with Egyptians. Here you can enjoy a great meal at a table right on the beach.
Also surrounding the harbour (please see map) are the old police station, the Faran and Sidi Abd El Rahim mosques, the old granary (which in the nineteenth century stored wheat for shipment to the Arabian peninsular ) and behind the old police station, the old quarantine hospital built during the reign of Sultan Selim II ( 1566 - 1574 ).
The corniche, known as Sharia Port Said, which runs both north and south west from the harbour is flanked by numerous narrow alleyways lined by old houses with wooden balconies and brightly painted doors. Amid this arthitectual mix you can also find a number of small cafes and restaurants which line the beach on the south western side of the harbour.
Surprisingly you won't normally find many tourists in this part of El Quseir but it's a rewarding area to stroll around, watch the fishermen and forget the worries of the world.
ANCIENT EL QUSEIR - THE ROMAN RUINS.
Around 8km north of the city centre lie the remains of the ancient Roman port of Myos Hormos ("Mussel Harbour" and now sometimes referred to by its' Arabic title El Quseir El Qadima ).
During the first century AD a fleet of around 120 ships (according to the Greek geographer Strabo) exported pottery, slaves (mostly from Europe) including "singing boys", wine and precious minerals to India and East Africa and returned with imports of stone, silk and spices for the Roman empire.
The imports would have then been transported by a six day camel journey to Koptos (now called Qift) and then floated up the Nile river to Alexandria and subsequently onward by ship to Europe.
Unfortunately today the ancient harbour has long silted up and all that remains of the former port are a few of the ancient foundations although a lot of imported ancient artifacts of Indian and Chinese origin have been found in the area and offshore there are the sparse remains of a Roman shipwreck lying some 65 metres deep in the water.
Myos Hormos was also the same place (then called Leukos Limen or White Harbour) from where in 1493BC Queen Hatshepsut ( 1508 - 1458 BC ) sent an expedition of five ships and some 200 sailors to the land of Punt (Eritrea/Somalia area) 1600km (or 1000 miles ) away. They returned, up to a year later, with many precious goods including ivory, ebony and frankincense. The story of the voyage is depicted on the walls of her temple at Luxor.
It may also have been the port from where Phoenecian sailors set sail in 600BC and returned via the Mediterranean (according to the ancient historian Herodotus) completing what may have been the first circumnavigation of Africa.