Rosetta – the Rose of the Nile

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Today Rosetta is known around the world as the place where the Rosetta Stone was found. It was because of this broken slab of stone that we learned how to translate hieroglyphs and opened up the world of Ancient Egypt.

Rosetta is also famous for its abundant yield of dates and is called the ‘City of a Million Palm Trees’. It is also known for its manual crafts, fishing and fiseekh (salted fish) industry. It has a large navy of fishing ships and more than 40 workshops that make more than a thousand yachts every year.

Rosetta may be a little difficult to get to, but is well worth a visit for its restful and relaxing ambience. Located in Beheira governorate, the city falls on the west bank of the Nile, of which two of seven original branches remain, one leading to Damietta and the other to Rosetta.

There is no direct road linking Cairo to Rosetta. If you decide to go on a day trip to see the treasures of this city, take a private car. The drive takes about three and a half hours along the Desert Road, passing by Alexandria, or along the Agricultural Road through Damanhour.

If you happen to already be in Alexandria, then Rosetta is only 65 kilometres to the east. There are many travel agencies in Alexandria that can arrange a guided tour of Rosetta, if this is what you prefer.

Rosetta is second only to Cairo in the number of old Islamic buildings, hence it is called the city of living history.

An example of a mashrabiya screen

The town itself is an open museum, with 22 monumental residences dating back to the Ottoman era, in addition to twelve mosques, mills, castles and public baths. Designed in the Islamic architectural style, the houses comprise of mashrabiyas (oriel window), vast reception rooms, inlaid seashell woodwork, domes and densely-ornamented doors.

One of the outstanding landmarks of Rosetta, is the Mosque of Abu Mandour, where Vivien Dinon, a major historian of the French Expedition, monitored the famous Abu-Qir naval battle between the British and French fleets.

If you would prefer a river trip (or a long walk up the Corniche), head for this tranquil, eighteenth-century mosque, 3 km south of Rosetta, which contains the tomb of a local saint. You can hire a boat to reach the mosque along the Corniche, or alternatively you can relax and enjoy the marvellous scenery where the Nile meets the Mediterranean. Sea waves break on the Nile water without merging.  When the sea is high, you may be lucky and catch sight of dolphins swimming in the warm waters.

Abu Mandour Mosque is located in a beautiful setting by the Nile

The National Museum of Rosetta makes a good start to explore the town. On the far side of Gomhoreya Square from the Nile, the museum is located in a restored eighteenth-century house, with a replica of the Rosetta stone near the entrance.

The copy of the Rosetta Stone outside the museum

The collection of local coins and ceramic pieces is interesting, but it’s the building which is really impressive. Four stories high, it is typical of the tall, brick houses of wealthy Ottoman merchants. Open daily 9 am–4 pm, entrance fee is LE20.

The National Museum in Rosetta

The most interesting places start opposite the service taxi station, on Sharia Azouz Sama, home to some exquisite Delta-style houses, all dating from the eighteenth century. Kohiya House stands next to the fine Al-Araby Mosque.

Two doors further on stand the trio of Ramadan HouseMaharem House and Al-Gamal House, with Abouhoum House just across the street. Sharia Azouz Sama continues down to the Corniche, which runs along the river.

Shortly before you reach the Corniche, you’ll find the Damaksi Mosque, built in 1714, an unusual mosque, located one storey above street level.

Next to it is Al-Baqrawali House, a Delta-style mansion built in 1808. Further examples of Rosetta’s Delta-style architecture lie on, or just off, Sharia Sheikh Qanadili, which runs north (parallel to the river), near to Al-Gamal House.

Heading north along it from Azouz Sama, you pass Thabet House, one of the oldest of the Delta-style houses, built in 1709.

Thabet House in Rosetta

On Haret Al-Haj Youssef (the next left heading north from Thabet House), Al-Manadili House is now run-down, its upper storeys having collapsed, but its portico survives, supported by two ancient columns that are of pharaonic or Graeco-Roman origin.

Interior of the House of Amasyali built in 1808

Back on Sharia Sheikh Qanadili, the street opens out into a square. On its south side is Al-Amasyali House (daily 9am–4pm; LE16), whose upstairs reception room has a superb wooden ceiling and mother-of-pearl-inlaid mashrabiyas.

Abu Shahin mill

The house is open to the public, as is the Abu Shahin mill next door (same hours, included in Al-Amasyali ticket), with its huge wooden grinders and delicately pointed keyhole arches. The mill was built during the eighteenth century to grind wheat and rice, both products Rosetta has long been famous for.

Al-Gamal House in Rosetta

In a busy market street, the 1722 Ali Al-Mahaldi Mosque is held up by an amazing collection of pilfered columns, some Graeco-Roman, others looking suspiciously like the columns used to hold up the pulpits of Coptic churches.

The stunning Hammam Azouz bathhouse

The roof of the bathhouse

A couple of hundred metres south of Sharia Azouz Sama is the nineteenth-century Hammam Azouz, a fine example of a traditional bathhouse with a lovingly restored interior decorated with marble floors and fountains.

In the next street, the Zaghloul Mosque is Rosetta’s oldest and largest mosque, built in 1545, bigger than Al-Azhar in Cairo – although it’s currently under restoration and closed to the public. The mosque’s roof is covered with over fifty domes, the three hundred columns holding it up are a mixed assortment, taken from older buildings from various historical periods.

In 1807, the minaret gave out the rallying cry for the townspeople to (successfully) fight off an invading British force hoping to occupy the town against Napoleon. It was originally built in 1479 to guard the mouth of the Nile and protect Egypt’s spice trade against predatory maritime powers,

Fort Qaitbey (Borg Qaitbey, in Arabic) was reinforced in 1799 by Napoleon’s troops.

Fort Qaitbey

It was during these reinforcements that a sharp-eyed French officer by the name of Pierre-Francois Bouchard noticed the Rosetta Stone, which must have been among masonry recycled for the fort’s construction. The fort, built in honey-coloured local stone, isn’t very exciting, but it’s a pleasant few hours’ excursion, and you can climb the ramparts to enjoy the view downriver towards the sea and upstream.

While the actual Rosetta Stone is indeed a wondrous artefact, the town from which it gets its name offers a variety of beautiful natural and historical sites. Touring Rosetta is a fascinating getaway from the larger bumbling cities, yet still expresses history in motion as a lush living city frozen in time.