Most people who have an interest in Egyptian travel are certainly familiar with Sharm al-Sheikh on the southern tip of Sinai, and may also know of the resorts which line its southeastern shore such as Dahab, Nuweiba and Taba.
The rest of Sinai’s landscape is always interesting, and the road to Sharm al-Sheikh along the west coast is full of places to see. After entering Sinai and turning south along the coastal highway one soon comes to Ayun Moussa. There are 12 springs in the Ayun (pronounced Oyoun) Moussa Oasis, which lies 35 kilometres south of Suez, 60km from the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel that links Suez and Sinai, and 165km from Cairo.
The opening of the New Suez Canal on 6 August coincided with the completion of the first phase of a renovation and restoration project of the historical site of Ayun Moussa or Springs of Moses in South Sinai, which is hoping to extend its appeal as a tourist destination.
Bitter into sweet
Ayun Moussa is believed to contain the spring where Moses, after leading the Israelites across the Red Sea, turned a bitter water source into sweet drinking water by throwing a tree branch into it, as instructed by God. Beside each spring is a label with the name of the spring and its depth. The average depth is about 14 metres. Today there is only one spring, called al-Sheikh, that provides sweet drinking water.
Ayun Moussa is one of the most important religious pilgrimage sites in Sinai, and officials at the Tourism Ministry see that the recent renovation project will support both domestic and foreign tourism. The renovation has taken into account the religious and archaeological location.
The first phase of the project included installing canopies over the springs as well as creating parking areas for cars and tour buses. The second phase will include a rest house and a coffeeshop to provide services to tourists travelling between Ras-Sidr and Sharm al-Sheikh, as well as to other places in Sinai.
“Ayun Moussa comprises a number of archaeological sites dating back to the Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras,” Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh al-Damati says. The most prominent area, called al-Ummal (the Labourers), includes a number of kilns used for firing pottery, one of the major industries in ancient Egypt.
The search for old wells
“A number of sensors were used to search for dry wells, with the aim of tracing the old water sources in the region which was a starting point of pilgrimage for both Muslims who went to Mecca and Christians who went to Jerusalem,” Dr Damati said. “We are exploring for more springs that have been filled in by wind-blown sand. The Egyptian excavation team has found several of the pottery kilns, a large number of pottery pieces, labourers’ houses and nine of the original 12 water wells.”
Modern studies by Philip Mayerson have proved that the region from Suez to Ayun Moussa was dry and very arid, just as described by pilgrims who visited the region in the 18th and 19th centuries. The water streaming through the oasis, however, nurtured abundant date palms and grasses. Roman engineers fortified the wells with brick walls to preserve them from being filled by sand. During the Islamic era, Ayun Moussa was a major station for Red Sea traffic. Offshore in 1538, Venetian ships massed with ships of the fleet of Ottoman Sultan Suliman II against Portuguese warships, and the Venetians constructed a canal extending from the springs to the Red Sea coast to supply their crews with sweet water. Remains of this canal still exist today.
Capture and recapture
The fortifications near Ayun Moussa were used by the Israeli army when it occupied the Sinai Peninsula in the wake of the Six-Day War in June 1967 and until the October 1973 War through which Egypt finally regained Sinai. The Egyptian army was able to take back this strategic site from the Israelis on 9 October 1973.
One of the most famous springs is Hammamat Pharaoun, known in English as Pharaoh’s Bath, which lies on the southern part of the Ayun Moussa Oasis about 45km from Suez and 125km from Cairo. It consists of two parts: the Kahf Pharaoun, or Pharaoh’s Cave, and the springs themselves. The cave extends about 25 metres into the mountain, while the sulphuric water springs which line the seashore produce significant quantities of water with temperatures as high as 92C.
Despite its reek of rotten eggs, sulphuric water is believed to be effective in the treatment of bone, skin, liver and kidney diseases. Other springs in the south of the oasis include Ayn Abu Morir on the eastern side of the road to al-Tor, which is a fresh water well surrounded by clusters of rare palmsand reeds, and Ayn Taraqi, another sulphuric spring with temperatures ranging between 20C and 30C.
Altogether, these features make Ayun Moussa a fascinating location for ecological tourism.
6 October 2015