Hurghada: Jewel in the Red Sea

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This is the true history of Hurghada, which has often been misunderstood.

The origins of Hurghada have so often been misquoted and misinterpreted that the truth — which is well documented — might come as a surprise. In fact, in a part of the world where towns are thousands of years old, here is one that was founded by the British in 1909 on what was then a patch of scrubland home only to occasional Bedouin nomads.

About 200 British and Italian mining engineers working for the Shell company, with their families, servants, and Egyptian mining employees, settled in what is still the city centre, sometimes erroneously called New Hurghada (there was no Old Hurghada). Local tribesmen had given the area the name Ghardaqa on account of the prickly yellow shrub of that name that grows here in abundance.

photo: theuforce

Major C. S. Jarvis, one-time governor of Sinai, recounts in his entertaining book Three Deserts how the name came to be changed: “The Anglo-Egyptian oil fields in the Gulf of Suez are at a place named after this shrub, but the mining engineers, after suffering from sore throats for some time, rechristened the spot Hurghada, which is sufficiently near the correct name to be recognisable, and can be correctly pronounced by everybody, providing there is no difficulty about sounding the aspirate.”

This notwithstanding, the local pronunciation, which sounds roughly like Ghardaka, does not prevent some modern Cairenes from mispronouncing it as as a throaty Rha’da’a, but that is the way they like to do it.

Conditions in the new settlement in 1909 must have been very harsh. Apart from some wells in the mountains the area had no water, which had to be brought by ship from Suez. Nevertheless, the engineers stayed and drilled their oil wells (production started in 2014), and built elegant houses for themselves as well as a British and an Italian school. During the following decade or so some fishing families from Saudi Arabia, from Saudi stock in Sinai and from Kosseir saw an opportunity to supply the foreign workforce with fresh fish and settled beside the harbour in Sigalla, four kilometres from the town centre.

Downtown Hurghada (photo: holidaycheck)

These few Arab families formed a close-knit community, and their houses, now sadly dilapidated, can still be seen lining the beach along Shohada Road, between the two mosques of Sigalla. A Frontiers administration camp and barracks were also built near the harbour. A boat-building industry was established, which today thrives on the building of boats to take divers out to the reefs.

Egyptian migrants, mainly from Qena and Luxor, and including some Ababde families, arrived in the 1940s and 50s to work in the oil fields and in service industries. In 1956 the British left during the Suez crisis, but by then oil production had seriously declined and Hurghada became a controlled military area of strategic importance at the gate of the Gulf of Suez; its waters were controlled by cast guards, and the beaches by camel police.

The Hurghada market

The year 1967 brought two events that helped put Hurghada on the modern map. With the first, the seizure by Israel of the Suez Canal, the water supply suddenly ceased and for a while water was shipped over from Aden while a Nile water pipeline from Qena was completed. The second event was the arrival of the first scuba divers — Americans.

A few years later the Hurghada Hotel was built (smaller hotels for Egyptian workers already existed in the town); the Club Mediterranée opened in 1977; and the Sheraton, constructed under different ownership but closed since the 1967 war, opened at last in 1979. All the other hotels in Hurghada have opened since 1982. Many of the hotel and restaurant operaters migrated from Luxor bringing their long experience in the tourism industry. The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism invested heavily in Hurghada.

Tourism increased sixfold among Egyptians in the years 1980 and 1986, and threefold for foreign tourists, bringing the numbers to well over 30,000 a year. As well as some of the most stupendous scuba diving in the world, much of the emphasis is still on fishing, windsurfing, or just enjoying the glorious weather. There are also guided excursions to local Roman, Coptic and Islamic sites, including the white granite quarries of Mons Claudianus and the porphyry mines of Gabal Abu Dukhan.

photo: aquasub

Conservation remains a major issue. Desert and marine fauna are officially protected, and in the sea this includes dolphins, dugongs, turtles, manta rays, reef fish, shells and corals. Tourists should not take shells, and boat captains should not allow them to do so. However, in spite of environmental department rules, boat anchors damage the reef and every carbon footprint in this frail ecological system is a heavy one.

The loss of tourism in the last three years may have an upside in that it has given the reef a short respite and a chance to recover some of its pristine wonder.

Jenny Jobbins is the author of The Red Sea Coasts of Egypt: Sinai and the Mainland, AUC Press.