No longer feted as a triumph of nineteenth-century engineering, nor regarded as the linchpin of Britain's empire, the Suez Canal seems as Joseph Conrad described it: "a dismal but profitable ditch", connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Except around the harbour mouths or where ships are glimpsed between sandbanks, it's a pretty dull waterway, too, relieved only by the Canal cities of Port Said and Ismailiya.
With its evocative waterfront, prosaic beaches and duty-free shopping, Port Said feels like Alexandria minus its cultural baggage - and a place that's somehow more authentic as a maritime city. By contrast, the canal scarcely impinges on the leafy, villa-lined streets of Ismailiya , once the residence of the Suez Canal Company's European staff and now a popular honeymoon destination. Foreigners generally overlook both cities, prejudging them on the basis of Suez , a neglected city but a vital transport nexus between Cairo, Sinai and the Red Sea Coast.
Heading to Sinai, bus passengers (or car drivers) cross the Suez Canal at either the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel (12km north of Suez City) or the car ferry 7km north of Ismailiya; at Qantara , between Ismailiya and Port Said, there's a passenger ferry across to East Qantara, whence service taxis run to El-Arish in Sinai, though these days buses and service taxis also run direct to El-Arish from Ismailiya. Drivers should be aware that stretches of the canal are off limits and should stick to main routes to avoid questioning by the military.
While the Nile Valley's place in ancient Egypt remains writ large in extraordinary monuments, the Nile Delta's role has largely been effaced by time and other factors. Although several pharaonic dynasties arose and ruled from this region - Lower Egypt - little of their twenty provincial capitals remains beyond mounds of debris known as tell or kom. The pharaohs themselves set the precedent of plundering older sites of their sculptures and masonry - hard stone had to be brought to the Delta from distant quarries, so it was easier to recycle existing stocks - and nature performed the rest. With a yearly rainfall of nearly 20cm (the highest in Egypt, most of it during winter) and an annual inundation by the Nile that coated the land in silt, mud-brick structures were soon eroded or swept away. More recently, farmers have furthered the cycle of destruction by digging the mounds for a nitrate-enriched soil called sebakh, used for fertilizer; several sites catalogued by nineteenth-century archeologists have all but vanished since then.
Of the Delta's show of ancient monuments, the ruins of Tanis, Avaris and Bubastis are certainly worth knowing about, if not visiting. As for Islamic architecture, there's a sprinkling of "Delta Style" mansions and medieval mosques in the coastal towns of Rosetta and Damietta.
Practically everywhere else on the map is an industrialized beehive or a teeming village, only worth visiting for moulids or popular festivals, of which the region has dozens. Combining piety, fun and commerce, the largest events draw crowds of over a million, with companies of mawladiya (moulid people) running stalls and rides, while the Sufi tariqas perform their zikrs. People camp outdoors and music blares into the small hours. Smaller, rural moulids tend to be heavier on the practical devotion, with people bringing their children or livestock for blessing, or the sick to be cured.
For ancient Egyptians, the Mediterranean coast marked the edge of the "Great Green", the measureless sea that formed the limits of the known world. Life and civilization meant the Nile Valley and the Delta - an outlook that still seems to linger in the country's subconscious. For, despite the white beaches, craggy headlands and turquoise sea that stretch for some five hundred kilometres, the Egyptian Med is eerily vacant and underpopulated.
Egypt's 500-kilometre-long Mediterranean coast has beautiful beaches and sparkling sea all the way to Libya. However, many stretches are still mined from World War II or off limits due to military bases, or simply hard to reach - while all the most accessible sites have been colonized by holiday villages. Unlike in Sinai and Hurghada, these cater exclusively to Egyptians, whose beach culture is significantly different from Westerners'.
Egypt has been called the gift of the Nile, for without the river it could not exist as a fertile, populous country, let alone have sustained a great civilization five thousand years ago. Its character and history have been shaped by the stark contrast between the fecund Nile Valley and its Delta, and the arid wastes that surround them. To the ancient Egyptians, this was the homeland or Kemet - the Black Land of dark alluvium, where life and civilization flourished as the benign gods intended - as opposed to the desert that represented death and chaos, ruled by Seth, the bringer of storms and catastrophes.
Kemet 's existence depended on an annual miracle of rebirth from aridity, as the Nile rose to spread its life-giving waters and fertilizing silt over the exhausted land during the season of inundation. Once the flood had subsided, the fellaheen (peasants) simply planted crops in the mud, waited for an abundant harvest, and then relaxed over summer. While empires rose and fell, this way of life persisted essentially unchanged for over 240 generations, until the Aswan Dam put an end to the inundation in 1967 - a breathtaking period of continuity considering that Jesus lived only about eighty generations ago.
For 1250 kilometres, from Suez to the Sudanese border, turquoise waves lap rocky headlands and windswept beaches along a coastline separated from the Nile Valley by the arid hills and mountains of the Eastern Desert. Like Sinai, the region's infertility and sparse population belie its mineral wealth and strategic location, and there are further points in common in the wildlife, Bedouin nomads and long monastic tradition. Tourism, too, is developing along similar lines, with holiday villages proliferating along the coast, and dive boats ranging down the Red Sea as far south as Eritrea.
An entrepôt since ancient times, the Red Sea Coast was once a microcosm of half the world, as Muslim pilgrims from as far away as Central Asia sailed to Arabia from its ports. Though piracy and slaving ceased towards the end of the nineteenth century, smuggling still drew adventurers like Henri de Monfried long after the Suez Canal had sapped the vitality of the Red Sea ports. Decades later, the coastline assumed new significance with the discovery of oil, and its vulnerability to Israeli commando raids, which led to large areas being mined - one reason why tourism didn't arrive until the 1980s.
The Sinai peninsula has been the gateway between Africa and Asia since time immemorial and a battleground for millennia. Prized for its strategic position and mineral wealth, Sinai is also revered by disparate cultures as the site of God's revelation to Moses, the wanderings of Exodus and the flight of the Holy Family. As Burton Bernstein wrote, "it has been touched, in one way or another by most of Western and Near Eastern history, both actual and mythic", being the supposed route (there's no archeological proof) by which the Israelites reached the Promised Land and Islam entered North Africa, then a theatre for Crusader-Muslim and Arab-Israeli conflicts, and finally transformed into an internationally monitored demilitarized zone.
Though mostly wilderness, Sinai looks far too dramatic - and too beautiful - to be dismissed as "24,000 square miles of nothing". The interior of southern Sinai is an arid moonscape of jagged ranges harbouring Mount Sinai and St Catherine's Monastery, where pilgrims climb the Steps of Repentance from the site of the Burning Bush to the summit where God delivered the Ten Commandments. Further north, the vast Wilderness of the Wanderings resembles a Jackson Pollock canvas streaked with colour and imprinted with tank tracks. The Sinai is also home to a remarkably high number of plants and wildlife; over sixty percent of Egypt's plant life thrives in this area, and thirty-three species are unique to the Sinai. Among a number of mammals that inhabit the region are the hyena, ibex and the rabbit-like hyrax. Venture into this "desert" on a camel trek or jeep safari and you will also find remote springs and lush oases, providing some insights into Bedouin culture.
For the ancient Egyptians civilization began and ended with the Nile Valley and the Delta, known as the "Black Land" for the colour of its rich alluvial deposits. Beyond lay the "Red Land" or desert, whose significance was either practical or mystical. East of the Nile it held mineral wealth and routes to the Red Sea Coast; west of the river lay the Kingdom of Osiris, Lord of the Dead - the deceased were said to "go west" to meet him. But once it was realized that human settlements existed out there, Egypt's rulers had to reckon with the Western Desert Oases as sources of exotic commodities and potential staging posts for invaders. Though linked to the civilization of the Nile Valley since antiquity, they have always been different - and remain so.
Siwa OasisFar out near the Libyan border, is the most striking example: its people speak another language and have customs unknown in the rest of Egypt. Its ruined citadels, lush palm groves, limpid pools and golden sand dunes epitomize the allure of the oases.