Home Travelogue A land that time forgot: Shalateen and its people

A land that time forgot: Shalateen and its people

By Ayman H. Taher

This special city offers many fascinating features, combining trade, history, and culture. My first encounter with Shalateen goes back about fifteen years when a group of friends from Heliopolis in Cairo went there on a fact finding trip for a Tourism Company.
Needless to say they had been furnished with all required documents and equipment enabling them to travel to this little known destination, on the south east coast of the Red Sea.

I remember being fascinated watching the video films of this trip, which left a mark in my memory and imagination that remained with me until I was finally able to see the actual place for myself in the mid-nineties. I still remain totally fascinated by the place and its peoples.

Shalateen is located 280 km south of Marsa Alam and is divided into three main parts; the port, the market and the residential area. A desert forest of acacia trees makes a good contrast to the semi arid area surrounding the city. The birds of prey, particularly the Egyptian vultures are often seen at the outskirts of the city feeding on the remains of dead camels. Other species of birds, including crows and falcons can be easily spotted in this region.

The Harbor of Shalateen is located to the north east of the city in a very small bay hosting a number of local traditional fishing boats with their red, green and blue paintwork. The port is not accessible to divers, though it is used by fishermen from all over Egypt. Outside the harbor traditional one storey buildings house the governmental and administrative authorities. They all seem freshly painted (by contrast to governmental buildings in the rest of Egypt), and the city gives the impression of being well planned with plenty of open space between the buildings. All main roads are clearly marked with signposts in Arabic and English. Probably the most interesting part of this city is the camel market (Souk El Gemal), and its surroundings. The city is mainly inhabited by two tribes, the 'Basharin’, and the ‘Rashaida’. The former belong to the Beja nomadic tribe who live mainly in the Red Sea hills between Egypt and Sudan, and along the coast of the Red Sea to Eritrea.

Both the Basharin and Rashaida have their own history, traditions and life styles but they have a common interest in the land and their camels.
The Beja have lived in this area for some six thousand years. Kingdoms have come and gone but till today they have managed to keep their original language and culture, which is a mix of Nubian and Arabic and still remain ethnically distinct. They almost lived without any central government or control until the early nineties when the Egyptian Government implemented a social structure for the inhabitants. Most of them carry dual nationality - Egyptian and Sudanese. They build no towns, nor other fixed habitations: their custom is to wander from place to place with their cattle.

Historians and medieval Arab writers mentioned them a lot due to the old trade routes that ran through this area. The Red Sea route was one of three main trade routes between Europe, the Mediterranean ports and Egypt. Camel caravans carried goods via the river Nile through the Red Sea Mountains to the Red Sea coast at Berenike located 100 km to the north of Shalateen. Other harbors and ports on the coast served the final destination to the East. The other two routes were the silk route through central Asia and the spice route via Iraq to the Persian Gulf and India. Until the sixth century Christianity was widely spread here due to the influence of the Nubians living in the Nile Valley. During the Mamlouk era in the thirteenth century they converted to Islam. The other tribe, the Rashaida, migrated from Saudi Arabia about two hundred years ago. Also ethnically distinct and a very tough people, they wear brightly colored clothes: purple galabija for the men and red dresses with colored scarves for the women.

Both tribes live on the outskirts of Shalateen. The Bashari houses are made from the wood of acacia trees covered in carpets woven from palm tree fronds. The Beja tribes, particularly the Basharin became very busy stations for transporting goods to India, Africa and the Mediterranean during Roman times.
The women usually do the building and take care of the house. It is seemingly not fitting for the men to deal with the house, strangely enough it is they who milk the camels and goats.

In the camel market you will notice the different dress codes, their clothes almost like uniforms for these tribes. The ‘galabija’ is a long loose gown worn by men and the ‘ema’ is the headdress, a long piece of fine cotton cloth twisted then wrapped around the head, turban style. The ema for the Bashari men is at least 4.5 meters in length. There will be many groups of men sitting on the sand negotiating the price of the camels, and other important things. There are herds of camels wandering around, all branded with their different owners’ signs. They have been travelling from Sudan on a journey that takes between thirty to forty days.
A camel has no real price, the buying and selling of these animals is only the financial equivalent of the need (or desperation), of the buyers and sellers. Camels produce milk, leather and meat.

These days camels are sold mainly for their meat, which is very healthy having very low cholesterol, and virtually no fat. The camel herders, who have traveled with the herd from the Sudan, are usually equipped with (apart from their camel whips), a long knife and wooden bowl, which is used for mixing flour with water for their meals and to give camels water when required.

Last and not least is the supply of coffee and a simple coffee grinding machine, which is normally carried in a bag made of goat's skin. Like their camels they don’t need a lot of water, one liter of water can last for two days!

Shalateen is in a remote area with no access to the internet but satellite phones are visible all around so business is done in the open air. All the men standing or sitting near the camels are traders with lots of money in their possession.

One business transaction, simply cash in the hand can be up to 10 thousand Euros passed casually over the sand. The coffee shops here are very different to those in big cities. Even the preparation of the coffee is unique. Coffee is made in a utensil called a Gabana, a small pottery flask with a long neck. First the coffee is roasted, then ground and ginger is added as the flask is heated over charcoal. After coffee drinking its time for lunch, which is usually the traditional Egyptian dish of Foul Medames, brown beans cooked in a special pot over hot charcoal in a hole in the ground. Another typical dish is ‘Salad’, which is the name for goat meat grilled on hot stones and quite tasty even if a little tough! The market is full of many little wooden stores selling herbs, cloth, fruits and vegetables, with a much larger variety than can found or bought in Marsa Alam.
There is always the sound of African and Arabic music in the background making the business of buying and selling more like a social occasion. Souvenir shops are not abundant, maybe only four shops in total but you need a very good GPS to find your way to them. You will definitely find many interesting things to buy, from silver to leather, pottery, knifes, swords and shields, all well crafted and beautifully decorated with traditional designs. The same items that these nomadic tribes use in their daily routines, not cheaper, less well made versions for tourists - think sheesha pipe!

A fascinating city, with fascinating peoples, well worth a visit if you ever get the chance.

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