This was not the first time I visit Wadi al-Natrun, the Western Desert spot that lies off the Cairo Alexandria Desert Road midway between the two cities. The area is especially famous for the desert monasteries that have lain there since as far back as the 4th century, inhabited by men who gave up worldly possessions for the solitude and spirituality fostered by the remote desert sands. In the first centuries some 50 monasteries dotted the area; today only four remain: Anba Macarius’s, Anba Bishoi’s, the Holy Virgin’s (al-Suryan), and al-Baramous’s.
I had visited the monasteries countless times before, drawing on the strength of the mysticism of the forefathers. My recent visit, however, was quite different. I was invited with my family for the day by a friend who owned a holiday home there.
We left the Cairo Alexandria highway and took the road to the monasteries. Some three kilometres off the road we turned left. What a surprise awaited us!
Amid the arid desert, a splendid expanse of tranquil water surrounded by rich vegetation spread as far as the eye could see. We learned that this was Lake al-Hamra (in Arabic: the Red Spring), a little known natural gem that only the locals are familiar with.
St Mary’s spring
Wadi al-Natrun is a place which derives its name from the word ‘natrun’, Arabic for sodium carbonate salt. The name refers to eight lakes in the region that have a substantial concentration of natrun salt. The ancient Egyptians used it to mummify the dead, and the Romans extracted the silica they used to making glass from there. In the years the British occupied Egypt—from 1882 to 1954—a railroad system was built to transport the salt to factories in Cairo.
Al-Hamra is unique among the Wadi al-Natrun lakes because, according to historian Ayman Abul-Maati who specialises in the local history of the area: “It has unique features. Its salinity is eight times the normal salinity of the sea. In this it is second only to the Dead Sea in Jordan.
“There is also a spring of fresh, sweet water that flows amid the saline waters of the lake. Tradition has it that the Holy Family—St Mary, St Joseph and Baby Jesus—passed through this spot during their flight to Egypt from the face of Herod the King who wished to kill the little boy. They were thirsty but could not drink of the water because it was salty. It is said that the sweet water spring, named Mariam’s Spring after the Holy Virgin, welled then for them to drink. The story is circulated by the locals and the desert fathers in an attempt to explain the mystery of the spring, which they see as a miracle.”
The red waters
“The lake is called Hamra because its water turns red in summer,” Mr Maati explains.
“The deep red colour is the result of the distinctive pink coloured natural mineral, the natrun. During summer, and owing to the high temperature, the water of the spring starts to evaporate, unveiling piles and piles of the precious mineral.”
But the ancient Egyptians offered a different explanation, Mr Maati says. There lived on the eastern and western sides of the lake a species of brine shrimp called Artemia which was thought to be the reason behind the red colour during the summer time.
The waters of al-Hamra are famous among the locals for their curative power. Mr Maati says the sulphurous waters can help cure skin and bone diseases and, in this capacity, can be an excellent destination for curative or therapeutic tourism.
Tourist expert Hamdy Ezz totally agrees with Mr Maati. He told Watani that the government and tourism investors should realise the importance of Lake al-Hamra. “The lake and its vicinity afford a superb experience in curative and eco tourism, endowing the soul with serenity, wellness, and physical and mental balance.”
Mr Ezz insists that Wadi al-Natrun may be exploited as a multi-purpose world-class tourist destination if a visit there is made to include the monasteries and other old churches in the vicinity that go back to the 7th century, as well as Lake al-Hamra.
No easy task
Al-Hamra ecolodge is the only resort on the banks of the lake. Its owner Hany al-Kamouni still talks of his first sight of the spot in the 1990s with absolute wonder. “I was driving nearby when my car suddenly stopped. I disembarked and walked around to ask for help. I came across the lake and froze to the ground at the wonderful scene that spread before me. I directly fell in love with the place and decided I would make it known to the whole world.”
“Building my dream project was far from easy,” Mr Kamouni says. “The problem of land ownership was an especially thorny one. Even though the land is State-owned and I paid the State for it, the local Bedouin insisted it belonged to them. I knew I could never build the resort and run it peacefully without the Bedouin’s approval, so I ‘purchased’ the land again from them; that is I paid them to let me work and live here in peace.
“I started building in 2000,” Kamouni notes, “I tried to go along the same line as international ecolodges; visitors can fully savour the exceptional environment and wildlife while enjoying the comfort of unobtrusive modern amenities.
Mr Kamouni says the shallow waters of the lake are beautiful to swim in and the salt makes them very buoyant for bathers. A recent study by Berlin’s Humboldt University has revealed that the high concentrations of specific elements, combined with the effects of sun radiation, are extremely beneficial for people with a wide variety of skin complaints: psoriasis, eczema, acne and others. The waters additionally stimulate the metabolism, improve blood circulation and activate the body’s immunity system.
The wildlife, he says, is diverse and abundant. There are lizards and foxes, and a wealth of bird life. The area is a natural habitat for spur-winged plovers, yellow wagtails, swallows, crested larks, warblers, black-shouldered kites, lanner falcons, hoopoes, larks, buzzards and kites, as well as the beautiful Kittlitz’s sand plover.