Lawrence of Arabia would weep if he saw the Sinai Desert today

In the classic 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia the American journalist Jackson Bentley asks Lawrence what he loves so  much about the desert.

Lawrence answers: It’s clean.

It’s a good thing T.E. Lawrence died a long time ago, because he’d be absolutely horrified if he saw the condition of the Sinai desert today.

When I first visited the Sinai 30 years ago in December, 1980, I was awe-struck.  I’d never been in a place that looked so stark and felt so empty, so unsullied by modern life.  I remember looking at the Sinai’s towering folds of jagged rock, the endless craggy peaks splashed with rust or slashes of black fault lines running for miles from the desert floor to peak and thinking: who needs Eden?  This is purity.  This is paradise.

Even more striking was the contrast with the seemingly endless array of tropical fish and coral just under the surface of the clean, clear waters running for hundreds of kilometres along the Sinai’s eastern coast.  You’d be swimming along in the water with fins and snorkel one moment, stop, look up, take off the mask, and be equally dumb-struck that such a barren landscape could be the backdrop to the completely foreign world teeming with life just below.

Not that it was complete wilderness back then, but aside from a few paved roads and some scattered coastal villages there was hardly any sign of human intrusion.  What was to become the all-inclusive, charter-flight Eurotrashed hell hole sprawl of Sharm-el-Sheikh at the peninsula’s southern tip was still a modest little town.  I really wish it had stayed that way, because if you travel overland by bus for nine hours as we did from Cairo to Dahab, you will be astounded at how dirty and spoiled it is, both from afar and up close.

How can they have allowed one of the world’s most beautiful expanses of coastline to be cluttered with faceless holiday villages, many of which stand empty as half-built ruins?  The horror show starts about 15 minutes after you leave the tunnel under the Suez Canal and start heading south.  You start seeing one ugly clump of concrete after another, and it goes on for miles and miles.  On the northern end closest to Cairo the resorts look ready for business, but they look empty of guests.  As you travel further south you see the more recent attempts at construction: columns and slabs of bare, grey cement with no sign of activity for miles, the site abandoned for who knows how long to the salt air and desert.  Those piles of rubble that seem closer to completion but remain unfinished are often linked to the roadside by a crumbling entranceway, the road behind it to the resort lined with the stumps of palm trees left to dry out and die in the sun.

As you leave the last military checkpoint heading north out from Sharm-al-Sheikh toward Dahab 90 kilometres away, the visions of what the world might look like after the apocalypse get even worse if you dare to look up close. The sight as you slowly rise through a wide expanse of desert ringed by high mountains on either side should be awe-inspiring, and I’m sure it once was, but today it’s sickening.  How else to describe the feeling of seeing mounds of discarded plastic strewn about everywhere?  It’s like driving through a garbage dump, only instead of the garbage staying in one place, it’s spread out for miles.  Whipped about by constant winds, it’s even creeping up the mountainsides to lodge in crannies hundreds of metres above the desert floor.

Once we were settled into our place in Dahab I could ignore it and really enjoyed the place, but as soon as you venture away from the coastal strip you’re jarred back into reality.

This is the main street of Dahab running parallel to the tourist strip along the water:

This was a stone’s throw from a beach where tourists were taking windsurfing lessons:

This is the coastline just north of Dahab:

This is the garbage dump / desert landscape along the highway running past Dahab:

I looked at the pile of empty plastic water bottles we’d accumulated in our week in Dahab and knew that because they obviously make no attempt to dispose of their waste properly, to say nothing of reusing or recycling, that our mere presence there was actually making the situation worse.  I know that the cash we spent on our hotel rooms and daily restaurant visits helps support jobs in a country where unemployment is high, so that’s a good thing, but how much more can the environment take?  How much more garbage will have to lodge itself into the landscape before tourists are so turned off by the sight they’ll stay away?  I guess Sharm-al-Sheikh will always attract the last-minute crowd, the idiots who don’t give a damn about anything beyond their immediate gratification and conspicuous consumption and never leave their tourist ghettos unless it’s via air-conditioned bus to another pre-fab tourist ghetto …forgive me, I’m starting to rant here….

But if they really cared about the place, they’d do something about it.  If they have enough money to build concrete ruins, if they have enough money for all the military installations littering Sharm-al-Sheikh, if they have the money to build, staff and maintain the array of military checkpoints you have to go through, then they have enough money to collect and properly dispose of waste.  There’s no excuse for it, I don’t care if it is happening in a developing country like Egypt.

17 Responses to “Lawrence of Arabia would weep if he saw the Sinai Desert today”

  1. April 6, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    It’s really a shame to see the disregard for the wonderful land. What is worse is seeing this abuse from under the water line.

    Egypt was once a world destination for coastal/reef diving. Now the focus has moved off the shore to liveaboard boat diving. These days the standard dive vacation in Egypt starts at a port city where you are loaded onto a boat, not to return to land for a week or more.

    The dive companies will tell you that there is nothing to see on the coast anymore, but in reality there is a LOT to see on the coast… it is just trash.

    I simply won’t go. I don’t want to be a part of the problem.

  2. April 6, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    That is really sad. It’s a good thing though to post about it, to make people aware.

  3. April 6, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    What a waste! Thank you so much for posting these pictures. I have always wanted to visit this place and now I know what to exepect. It is paradoxal that I want to get there regardless of this mess? I think there is still beauty in this place and maybe more media attention will get the right people to perform corrective action on such a precious history site.

    • April 7, 2010 at 5:48 am

      I’d still recommend you should go, if only to enjoy what parts of it there are to see that are still surviving intact. Avoid Sharm-el-Sheikh at all costs as a place to stay, though. Go and dive or snorkel as a daytripper from Dahab, but otherwise, forget it. There are also excursions into the desert…don’t mind the quad bikes. Gee, forgot to mention them…

  4. 5 yg
    April 7, 2010 at 8:17 am

    Well I certainly felt like weeping when I looked at those pictures. Sigh.

  5. 6 transientreporter
    April 7, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    I hear they’re razing the pyramids and building a new McDonalds there. The McPharaohs are apparently quite tasty…

  6. 8 writechic
    April 7, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    Ian, you go to all the cool places. I should be kayaking the Panama Canal in two months. I feel pretty cocky about that.

    The first photo reminds me of Mona Lake in California. Not the colors or shapes necessarily, but the otherworldliness of the landscape.

    The garbage tells a story. If we protect what we love than we see where Sinai stands. Lawrence of Arabia would weep.

  7. 10 writechic
    April 11, 2010 at 12:05 am

    I’m sure they’ll steer clear of me since I’m all tough.😆

  8. April 11, 2010 at 12:47 am

    I’ve tried to form a coherent response to this one and just can’t. It’s so sad. Is most of that trash from tourists who feel no real connection to the place, and hence are unmotivated to keep it clean?

    Never mind Lawrence of Arabia. I’m sure there are a good number of folks today who weep over this one.

  9. April 11, 2010 at 7:35 am

    “I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.” Agent Smith, The Matrix

    • April 11, 2010 at 10:05 am

      Tourists are probably the major contributor to the mountains of garbage, but you can’t say they deliberately foul the landscape. Once you throw your trash into a container, do you follow where it goes?
      I would be in favour of a local tax to fund a proper disposal site, but just getting that organised would probably take them years, and there’s no guarantee the money gained wouldn’t just be siphoned off by some official. Corruption is rife.

      The street scene is pretty appalling, too, but who has an incentive to clean up a mess when everyone contributes to it?

      As for the larger issue: Agent Smith had it right, but the problem is self-correcting, isn’t it? Militarily and environmentally, the seeds of our demise are already in place. The end result is only a matter of time.

  10. April 12, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    You’re right. The negative impacts of tourism are so dramatic in places where recycling doesn’t exist. Even in places where it does exist the negative impacts of tourism on the environment are horrific.😦

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