Worth a Trip: On the Emerald Trail

The source of Egypt’s famed emerald mines, the southern region of the Eastern Desert is a wild place of white sand wadis and craggy peaks that are rarely visited. Starkly beautiful Wadi Gimal Protectorate extends inland for about 85km from its coastal opening south of Marsa Alam and is home to a rich variety of bird life, gazelles and stands of mangrove. The tumbled remains of emerald and gold mines dating from the Pharaonic and Roman eras are scattered throughout the interior. This area provided emeralds that were used across the ancient world and was the exclusive source of the gem for the Roman Empire.

Some major remnants of the Romans' thirst for emeralds have been left in this harshly beautiful desert, including:

  • Sikait Thought to be the main settlement for the workers of the Roman emerald mines, this site is about 80km south-west of Marsa Alam. The small Temple of Isis still stands, while the remnants of other buildings lie strewn across the hillside.
  • Nugrus The ruins of the actual emerald mines can be seen on the slopes of Nugrus, where the ground is littered with pottery fragments. The smaller ruins of Geili and Appalonia (both trading points) are nearby.
  • Karba Matthba The mysterious ruins of what must have once been a substantial villa or complex sit on top of an isolated desert ridge. From here there are incredible panoramas over the sprawling desert tracts.

Red Sea Monasteries

The Coptic monasteries of St Anthony and St Paul are Christianity’s oldest monasteries and among the holiest sites in the Coptic faith. The establishment of the religious community of St Anthony’s, hidden in the barren cliffs of the Eastern Desert, marks the beginning of the Christian monastic tradition.

If you’re at all interested in Egypt’s lengthy Christian history, both monasteries make for fascinating and inspiring visits. The surrounding desert scenery is simply breathtaking and, depending on where you’re coming from, the Red Sea monasteries are a refreshing change of scene from the hassles and noise of Cairo and the Nile Valley, and from the package tourism of the coastline.

The two monasteries are only about 25km apart, but thanks to the cliffs and plateau of Gebel Al Galala Al Qibliya (which lies between 900m and 1300m above sea level), the distance between them by road is around 85km.

If you don’t have your own vehicle, the easiest way to visit the monasteries is to join an organised tour from Cairo or Hurghada (any hotel or travel agency can arrange these). It’s also possible to join a pilgrimage group from Cairo – the best way to arrange this is by enquiring at local Coptic churches.