2009-06-12 / Travel

A Middle East Expedition

Part 13: Sharm el- Sheikh, Paradise on the Red Sea
By Warner M. Montgomery Warner@TheColumbiaStar.com

Mary Jo dresses appropriately to enter the mosque. Mary Jo dresses appropriately to enter the mosque. At the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula at the junction of the Gulf of Suez, the Gulf of Aqaba, and the Red Sea is an unlikely paradise - Sharm el- Sheikh (City of Peace).

For millennia, this mountainous desert was visited only by wandering Bedouins, resting pirates, and lost pilgrims. Today it is a thriving resort that offers snorkeling, diving, sailing, parasailing, windsurfing, camel and Jeep safaris, happy hour bars, and dancing clubs - entertainment you'd never expect to find in the middle of the Moslem world.

During the Cold War, Sharm (as it is usually called) became of strategic importance, and Egypt turned it into a major port and naval base. Israel captured it in 1956 then returned it in 1957, only to seize it again in 1967. Before it was again returned to Egypt in 1982, the Israelis built an infrastructure of roads, powerlines, water supply, and sewerage systems.

The last two decades have seen Sharm become a tourist destination of high- end hotels, fast food joints, and adventure tourist agencies. To support its burgeoning population (30,000 and growing) and religious preferences, magnificent churches, mosques, and synagogues have been built alongside Hyatt Hotels and Kentucky Fried Chickens.

We were entertained at the Bedouin camp by musicians. We were entertained at the Bedouin camp by musicians. There are weekly flights from all European capitals including Moscow and Warsaw; daily flights from Cairo, Luxor, and Jerusalem; and six- hour buses from Cairo. Even though the language of the hawkers was English, the tourists spoke many tongues. Signs in Russian, Japanese, and Chinese advertised T- shirts and massages.

Our ship, the MV

Artemis, docked during the night in between huge yachts flying flags from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and France. After an early breakfast we were off on a diving trip to the coral reefs. Many in our group went snorkeling in the crystal clear water, others sunbathed under the hazy 80 degree sun, and a few sipped fruity drinks and ogled at the Russian babes in thongs in the next boat.

Following a terrific fish lunch at a seaside restaurant on Naama Bay, our Group of 24 boarded a bus and visited several holy sites. A very modern Catholic Church built in 2000 claimed to contain the bones of a saint. A brand new majestic mosque allowed us to enter so long as we did not eat, drink, smoke, kiss, walk in front of a praying person, or touch anything. Women had to wear a head covering, a long dress, and slippers. Men had to wear slippers and long pants. No one was allowed to tip any workers or ask them to explain anything.

Inside the mosque in Sharm el- Sheikh is a sacred rock said to be one on which Mohammed once stepped. Inside the mosque in Sharm el- Sheikh is a sacred rock said to be one on which Mohammed once stepped. The bus took us into the desert to a Bedouin camp where we watched the sunset as musicians played tribal music on a lute, a flute, and a gas can. The evening concluded with a "traditional" shish- ka- bob feast.

(Next week:

Climbing Mt. Sinai)

Warner returns to the MV Artemis after a hard day of adventure travel. Warner returns to the MV Artemis after a hard day of adventure travel. The fake submarines had glass bottoms and took tourists on sightseeing trips over the coral reefs. The fake submarines had glass bottoms and took tourists on sightseeing trips over the coral reefs. Nancy jumps into the Gulf of Aqaba for a snorkeling adventure. Nancy jumps into the Gulf of Aqaba for a snorkeling adventure.

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