Ras Mohammad is a national park in Egypt at the southern extreme of the Sinai Peninsula, overlooking the Gulf of Suez on the west and the Gulf of Aqaba to the east.
When the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt, Ras Muhammad was declared for protection from fishing and other human activities. Some of the fishing methods, such as using dynamite and knives also were impacting the coral reef and the fish populations.
In 1983, the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) established the area as a marine reserve for the protection of marine and terrestrial wildlife. The park was also established to protect against urban sprawl from Sharm El Sheikh and other coastal development.
The name literally means “Mohammad’s Head”, where “head” in this instance means “headland”. There is a saying in the area that the name arose because in side view the contour of the cliff looks like the profile of a bearded man’s face, with horizontal hard strata providing the nose and bearded chin.
The park is situated in the tourist region of the Red Sea Riviera, located 12 km from the city of Sharm El Sheikh. The park spans an area of 480 km², including 135 km² of surface land area and 345 km² area over water.
Marsa Bareika is a small bay inlet in Ras Mohammed, and Marsa Ghozlani is a very small inlet located across from the park visitors’ center.
Ras Mohammad encompasses two islands, Tiran and Sanafir. Tiran Island is located approximately 6 km offshore from the Sinai Peninsula. Underwater caves formed as the result of earthquakes are located in Ras Mohammad.
About 0.9 hectare of mangrove forest covers a 1.15 km shallow channel at the southernmost end of Ras Mohammad peninsula.
Near the mangrove and approximately 150 m inland, there are open cracks in the land, caused by earthquakes.
One of the cracks is approximately 40 m length and 0.20−1.5 m in width. Within the cracks, there are pools of water, some with a depth of over 14 m.
The inland area includes a diversity of desert habitats such as mountains and wadis, gravel and coastal mud plains and sand dunes. The area also plays a role in bird migration, serving as a place of rest and nourishment.
Ras Mohammad National Park experiences a very dry climate, with only minimal rainfall during the winter. During the summer, temperatures often exceed 40°C (104°F) and low temperatures around 27°C (81°F).
Temperatures are mild during the winter, with daytime high temperatures averaging around 23°C (73°F) and low temperatures 14°C (56°F).
Coral reef of the fringing and hermatypic types, exist along the coast around Ras Mohammad close to the shoreline. More than 220 species of coral are found in the Ras Mohammad area, 125 of them soft coral.
The coral reefs are located 50 to 100 cm below the sea surface, and they have a width of 30 to 50 m in most places. Though in some spots on the western coast, the coral reef is 8km to 9 km wide.
Shark Reef and Yolanda Reef are popular areas of coral reef in the park for divers. Other coral reef sites include South Bereika, Marsa Ghozlani, Old Quay, and Shark Observatory.
The wreckage of the SS Thistlegorm, located off the coast of Ras Mohammad, is a popular area for divers.
The area is home to more than 1000 species of fish, 40 species of star fish, 25 species of sea urchins, more than a 100 species of mollusc and 150 species of crustaceans.
Among others, sea turtles, such as the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) appear regularly in Ras Mohammad.
On the Ras Mohammad peninsula, there are acacia trees and dum palms (Hyphaene thebaica) around the wadi mouths. Ephermal herbs and grasses also exist in Ras Muhammad.
Saint Katherine Protectorate
St Katherine Protectorate is an Egyptian national park in the south of Sinai. It encloses most of the mountainous area of central South Sinai, including the country’s highest mountain, Mount Catherine (2641m, above sea level).
In 2002, a 640 km2 area demarcated by the ‘Ring Dyke’ within the Protectorate core has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. The listed area includes the highest mountains in the Protectorate, including Mount Sinai and the Saint Catherine’s Monastery.
In September 2001 a delegation from ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) conducted a site review and the site and their recommendations are included in the listing memorandum.
A site visit by IUCN, the administrative agency for Natural Sites, was conducted in December 2002. It is proposed that the site be re-designated as ‘An Associative Cultural Landscape’. World Heritage status brings higher protection and international oversight but will entail a more intensive management effort and full co-operation from local and national authorities.
It is average for temperatures to cross 30°C in summer mid-days with a moderate climate at nights; meanwhile it is quite common for snow mountain peaks to be visible during winters with temperatures ranging between averages of 10:16°C during mid-days, during winter nights temperatures can normally drop below zero and reach -14C at the top of the mountains.
Visitors are advised to dress appropriate warm clothing if they are climbing the touristic historic Mount Sinai at night particularly during winters.
Primary management goals
- The conservation of the contained mountain ecosystem of Southern Sinai including all its elements and processes and the conservation of the site’s traditional cultural and religious values.
- To facilitate and strengthen the institutional capacity for Protectorate management and development in partnership with relevant institutions and local stakeholders.
- The integration of the St. Katherine Protectorate management and development planning into the network of protected areas forming the South Sinai Management Sector.
- The integration of the protectorate into the local development process and land use management system in order to assist sustainable local rural development.
This arid, mountain ecosystem supports a surprising biodiversity and a high proportion of plant endemics. Its high altitude ecosystem supports a surprising diversity of endangered wild flora and wildlife; some found nowhere else in the world.
Around 472 plant species out of which115 of medicinal importance and 19 are endemic to Egypt. To date 27 mammal species have been recorded, 9 of which are bats. There are 46 reptile species, where 15 of which are found nowhere else in Egypt.
Medicinal Plants, Pastoral Plants, Wildlife, Ground Water, Granite, Marble, Building materials, Introduced fruitful trees such as palm trees, fig, olive, and almond.
The protectorate is home to 7000 Egyptian Bedouin citizens from six different tribes who play a very vital role in managing the protectorate with their invaluable traditional knowledge about the area and its natural characteristics.
Around the monastery you will find the Bedouins of the Gabalia tribe who have played a very important role in the building and protection of the monastery since they were brought from Macedonia for that particular purpose at the sixth century.
Throughout the years the newcomers became Bedouins with very close relations with the monks which proved mutually beneficial for the two sides.
- Law 102/1983 The main Protectorate legislative instrument, Law 102 sets out the principles for the declaration of natural protectorates and stipulates development restrictions and activities within and adjacent to the protectorate. The Law obliges the EEAA as the concerned administrative body to:
Forbid actions leading to the destruction or deterioration of the natural environment, biota or which would detract from the aesthetic standards of the protectorate.
Regulate scientific research
Develop management program for declared Protected Areas
Increase Public Awareness
Regulate recreational activities in protectorates to protect natural resources
- Law 4/1994 Prohibit the hunting, possession, transport and sale those species of wild fauna (live or dead) determined by Executive Statues of same Law.
Unsustainable tourism practices
Over collection of plants
Extinction of endangered wildlife species
Rising demand on scarce water resources
Rising demand on building materials extracted from the Protectorate
Marginalization of local community and forced change in their lifestyles
Disappearance of traditional knowledge
Sannur Cave was discovered in the 1980s after blasting in a quarry created an entrance. It is 10 km (10 mi) southeast of the city of Beni Suef.
It has only one chamber which is about 700 m (2,300 ft) long and 15 m (50 ft) in diameter.
It is a limestone cave overlaid with alabaster created by thermal springs. Its unique geology and beautiful formations (stalactites and stalagmites led it to being recognized as a Protected Area in 1992.
The Siwa Oasis is an urban oasis in Egypt, between the Qattara Depression and the Egyptian Sand Sea in the Western Desert, nearly 50 km (30 mi) east of the Libyan border, and 560 km (348 mi) from Cairo.
About 80 km (50 mi) in length and 20 km (12 mi) wide, Siwa Oasis is one of Egypt’s most isolated settlements, with about 33,000 people mostly Berbers who developed a unique culture and a distinct language of the Berber family called Siwi.
Its fame lies primarily in its ancient role as the home to an oracle of Ammon, the ruins of which are a popular tourist attraction which gave the oasis its ancient name Ammonium. Historically, it is part of Ancient Libya.
The Siwa oasis is in a deep depression that reaches below sea level, to about −19 meters (−62 ft). To the west the Jaghbub oasis lies in a similar depression and to the east the large Qattara Depression also lies below sea level.
The Ancient Egyptian name of the oasis was Sekht-am, which meant “palm land”. Early Arab geographers termed it Santariyyah.
Its modern name Siwa, first appeared in the 15th century; the etymology of the word is unclear. Basset links it to a Berber tribal name swh attested further west in the early Islamic period, while Ilahiane, following Chafik, links it to the Tašlḥiyt Berber word asiwan, a type of bird of prey, and hence to Amun-Ra, one of whose symbols was the falcon.
Although the oasis is known to have been settled since at least the 10th millennium BC, the earliest evidence of any connection with Ancient Egypt is the 26th Dynasty, when a necropolis was established.
Ancient Greek settlers at Cyrene made contact with the oasis around the same time (7th century BC), and the oracle temple of Amun (Greek: Zeus Ammon), who, Herodotus was told, took the image here of a ram.
Herodotus knew of a “fountain of the Sun” that ran coldest in the noontime heat. During his campaign to conquer the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great reached the oasis, supposedly by following birds across the desert.
The oracle, Alexander’s court historians alleged, confirmed him as both a divine personage and the legitimate Pharaoh of Egypt, though Alexander’s motives in making the excursion, following his founding of Alexandria, remain to some extent inscrutable and contested.
During the Ptolemaic Kingdom, its Ancient Egyptian name was sḫ.t-ỉm3w, meaning “Field of Trees”.
Evidence of Christianity at Siwa is uncertain, but in 708 the Siwans resisted an Islamic army, and probably did not convert until the 12th century. A local manuscript mentions only seven families totaling 40 men living at the oasis in 1203.
In the 12th century, Al-Idrisi mentions it as being inhabited mainly by Berbers, with an Arab minority; a century before Al-Bakri stated that only Berbers lived there.
The Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi travelled to Siwa in the 15th century and described how the language spoken there ‘is similar to the language of the Zenata’.
The first European to visit since Roman times was the English traveler William George Browne, who came in 1792 to see the ancient temple of the Oracle of Amun.
The oasis was officially annexed to the Eyalet of Egypt by Muhammad Ali of Egypt in 1819. In the Spring of 1893, German explorer and photographer, Hermann Burchardt, took photographs of the architecture of the town of Siwa, now stored at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin.
The Siwans are a Berber people, so demographically and culturally they were more closely related to nearby Libya, which has a large Berber population, than to Egypt, which has a negligible Berber population.
Consequently, Arab rule from distant Cairo was at first tenuous and marked by several revolts. Egypt began to assert firmer control after a 1928 visit to the Oasis by King Fuad I, who berated the locals for “a certain vice” and specified punishments to bring Siwan behaviour in line with Egyptian morals.
Siwa was also the site of some fighting during World War I and World War II. The British Army’s Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) was based here, but Rommel’s Afrika Korps also took possession three times.
German soldiers went skinny dipping in the lake of the oracle, contrary to local customs which prohibit public nudity. In 1942 while the Italian 136th Infantry Division Giovani Fascisti occupied the oasis, a tiny Egyptian puppet government-in-exile was set up at Siwa.
The oasis makes a brief appearance as a base of the LRDG in the 1958 war film Ice Cold in Alex.
The ancient fortress of Siwa, known as the Shali Ghadi (“Shali” being the name of the town, and “Ghadi” meaning remote), was built on natural rock (an inselberg) and made of kershif (salt and mud-brick) and palm logs.
After it was damaged by three days of heavy rains in 1926 it was abandoned for similar unreinforced construction housing on the plain surrounding it, and in some cases those in turn have been replaced by more modern cinder block and sheet metal roof buildings.
Only one building in the Shali complex has been repaired and is in use, a mosque. Gradually eroded by infrequent rains and slowly collapsing, the Shali remains a prominent feature, towering five stories above the modern town and lit at night by floodlights.
It is most easily approached from its southwest side, south of the end of the paved road which curves around from the north side of the Shali.
Several uneven pedestrian streets lead from the southwest end of the Shali into it, the ground rent in places by deep cracks. Many of the unreinforced kershif buildings bordering the streets of the Shali are also split by large cracks, or they are partially collapsed.
Other local historic sites of interest include: the remains of the oracle temple; the Gebel al Mawta (the Mountain of the Dead), a Roman-era necropolis featuring dozens of rock-cut tombs; and “Cleopatra’s Bath”, an antique natural spring.
The fragmentary remains of the oracle temple, with some inscriptions dating from the 4th century BC, lie within the ruins of Aghurmi. The revelations of the oracle fell into disrepute under the Roman occupation of Egypt.
Köppen-Geiger climate classification system classifies its climate as hot desert as the rest of Egypt.
The traditional culture of Siwa shows many features unusual in Egypt, some reflecting its longstanding links with the Maghreb and the fact that the inhabitants are of Berber origin. Until a tarmac road was built to the Mediterranean coast in the 1980s Siwa’s only links with the outside world were by arduous camel tracks through the desert.
These were used to export dates and olives, bring trade goods, or carry pilgrims on the route which linked the Maghreb to Cairo and hence to Mecca.
As a result of this isolation, the Berber inhabitants of the Oasis developed a unique culture manifested in its crafts of basketry, pottery, silverwork and embroidery and in its style of dress.
The most visible and celebrated examples of this were the bridal silver and the ensemble of silver ornaments and beads that women wore in abundance to weddings and other ceremonies. These pieces were decorated with symbols which related to Siwa’s history and beliefs and attitudes.
The best known of these pieces are a huge silver disc called ‘adrim’ and a torc called ‘aghraw’ from which it hung over the breast. A girl would give up the disc at a special ceremony at the Spring, the day she was married.
The jewellery, which was made by local silversmiths, comprised silver necklaces, earrings, bangles, hair ornaments, pendants and many rings. For a wealthy woman, the full ensemble could weigh as much as five or six kilos.
These pieces are decorated with symbols common to Berber people across North Africa designed to promote good health, fertility and to protect the wearer from misfortune. Some of the same signs and patterns are found on the embroidery which embellishes women’s dresses, trousers and shawls.
Art and local customs
The arrival of the road and of television exposed the oasis to the styles and fashions of the outside world and the traditional silver ornaments were gradually replaced by gold.
Evidence of the old styles and traditions are however still in evidence in the women’s embroidery and costume.
Like other Muslim Egyptians, Siwis celebrate Eid al-Fitr (lʕid ahakkik,”the Little Eid”) and Eid al-Adha (lʕid azuwwar,”the Big Eid”). Unlike other Egyptians, however, on Id al-Adha Siwis cook the skin of the sheep (along with its innards) as a festival delicacy, after removing the hair. They also eat palm hearts (agroz).
The Siyaha Festival, in honour of the town’s traditional patron saint Sidi Sulayman, is unique to Siwa. (The name is often misunderstood as a reference to “tourism”, but in fact predates tourism.) On this occasion Siwi men meet together on a mountain near the town, Jabal Dakrour, to eat together, sing chants thanking God, and reconcile with one another; the women stay behind in the village, and celebrate with dancing, singing, and drums.
The food for the festival is bought collectively, with funds gathered by the oasis’ mosques.
Relations with other ethnic groups
Siwans are preferentially endogamous, only rarely marrying non-Siwans. Nonetheless, Bedouin brides command a higher bride price in Siwa than Siwan ones.
According to older members of the Awlad Ali Bedouins, Arab Bedouin relations with Siwans were traditionally mediated through a system of “friendship”, whereby a specific Siwan (and his descendants) would be the friend of a specific Bedouin (and his descendants).
The Bedouin would stay at the Siwan’s house when he came to Siwa, and would exchange his animal products and grain for the Siwan’s dates and olive oil.
The material for the tarfutet, the distinctive all-enveloping shawl worn by Siwan women is still made in the town of Kirdasa near Cairo.
Siwan homosexual tradition
Siwa is of special interest to anthropologists and sociologists because of its historical acceptance of male homosexuality and even rituals celebrating same-sex marriage – traditions that the Egyptian authorities have sought to repress, with increasing success, since the early twentieth century.
The practice probably arose because from ancient times unmarried men and adolescent boys were required to live and work together outside the town of Shali.
The German egyptologist Georg Steindorff explored the Oasis in 1900 and reported that homosexual relations were common and often extended to a form of marriage: “The feast of marrying a boy was celebrated with great pomp, and the money paid for a boy sometimes amounted to fifteen pounds, while the money paid for a woman was a little over one pound.”
Mahmud Mohammad Abd Allah, writing of Siwan customs for the Harvard Peabody Museum in 1917, commented that although Siwan men could take up to four wives, “Siwan customs allow a man but one boy to whom he is bound by a stringent code of obligations.”
In 1937 the anthropologist Walter Cline wrote the first detailed ethnography of the Siwans in which he noted: “All normal Siwan men and boys practice sodomy…among themselves the natives are not ashamed of this; they talk about it as openly as they talk about love of women, and many if not most of their fights arise from homosexual competition….Prominent men lend their sons to each other.
All Siwans know the matings which have taken place among their sheiks and their sheiks’ sons….Most of the boys used in sodomy are between twelve and eighteen years of age.” After an expedition to Siwa, the archaeologist Count Byron de Prorok reported in 1937 “an enthusiasm could not have been approached even in Sodom… Homosexuality was not merely rampant it was raging…Every dancer had his boyfriend and chiefs had harems of boys”.
In the late 1940s a Siwan merchant told the visiting British novelist Robin Maugham that the Siwan women were “badly neglected”, but that Siwan men “will kill each other for boy. Never for a woman”, although as Maugham noted, marriage to a boy had become illegal by then.
The Egyptian archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry, who studied Siwa for three decades, observed in 1973 that “While the Siwans were still living inside their walled town, none of these bachelors was allowed to spend the night in the town and had to sleep outside the gates…Under such circumstances it is not surprising that homosexuality was common among them….Up to the year 1928, it was not unusual that some kind of written agreement, which was sometimes called a marriage contract, was made between two males; but since the visit of King Fu’ad to this oasis it has been completely forbidden…However, such agreements continued, but in great secrecy, and without the actual writing, until the end of World War II. Now the practice is not followed.”
Despite the multiplicity of sources for these practices, the Egyptian authorities and even the Siwan tribal elders have attempted to repress the historical and anthropological record. When the Siwa-born anthropologist Fathi Malim included reference to Siwan homosexuality (especially a love poem from a man to a youth) in his book Oasis Siwa (2001), the tribal council demanded that he blank out the material in the current edition of the book and remove it from future editions, or be expelled from the community.
Malim reluctantly agreed and physically deleted the passages in the first edition of his book, and excluded them from the second. A newer book Siwa Past and Present (2005) by A. Dumairy, the Director of Siwa Antiquities, discreetly omits all mention of the famous historical practices of the inhabitants.
Controversy over Jewish and Israeli tourists
In 2010, Siwa viewers complained to Al-Jazeera after Ibrahim Nasreddin, an Egyptian expert on African affairs, claimed on Al Jazeera’s File (Al Milaff) program that Israel was forming ties with Siwa residents during the Siyaha Festival.
Partly in response to these complaints, the program’s host produced an episode about the history and Berber heritage of Siwa which aired on 5 November 2010. As part of the episode, six Siwa residents, including Bilal Ahmad Bilal Issa, an Egyptian MP (from Siwa), and Omar Abdallah Rajeh, Sheik of the Awlad Musa Tribe, responded to Nasreddin’s claims.
In their replies (as translated by MEMRI) the interviewees stated that there were no Jews or Israelis in Siwa, at the Siyaha Festival or otherwise, that Jews or Israelis are not welcome in Siwa as tourists and that they reject any relations with Jews/Israelis or even hate them; the reasons given were that they support the Arabs in the Arab–Israeli conflict, and as such “view them as enemies”.
Agriculture is the main activity of modern Siwi, particularly the cultivation of dates and olives. Handicrafts like basketry are also of regional importance.
Tourism has in recent decades become a vital source of income. Much attention has been given to creating hotels that use local materials and display local styles.
In the mid-20th century, Egyptian archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry worked at Siwa (and elsewhere in the Western Desert).
In 1995, Greek archaeologist Liana Souvaltzi announced that she had identified one alleged tomb in Siwa with that of Alexander the Great.
The claim was put in doubt by George Thomas, then general secretary of the Greek Ministry of Culture, who said that it was unclear whether the excavated structure was even a tomb or its style Macedonian, while the fragments of tablets shown did not support any of the translations provided by Souvaltzi.
An extremely old hominid footprint was discovered in 2007 at Siwa Oasis. Egyptian scientists claimed it could be 2–3 million years old, which would make it the oldest fossilized hominid footprint ever found. However, no proof of this conjecture was ever presented.
In late 2013, an announcement was made regarding the apparent Archaeoastronomy discovery of precise spring and fall Equinox sunrise alignments over the Aghurmi mound/Amun Oracle when viewed from Timasirayn temple in the Western Desert, 12 km away across Lake Siwa.
The first known recent public viewing of this event occurred on 21 March 2014 during the spring Equinox.