Green Mint Tea and Beduin Carpets at Mersa Matruh – and an Anniversary at El Alamein

Revised 19 May 2014
An areal shot of Mersa Matruh and the beach.  Since pharaonic times this areas offered the only protected bay and deep water for vessels and contains several archaeological sites - as well as remains from the Second World War when General Rommel encamped in the area, to be driven out by Allied Forces.  Source - casablanca 146

An areal shot of Mersa Matruh and the beach. Since pharaonic times this areas offered the only protected bay and deep water for vessels headed for the northern coast of Egypt, and contains several archaeological sites – as well as remains from the Second World War when General Rommel encamped in the area, to be driven out by Allied Forces. Source – www.pbase

Mersa Matruh is about 160 miles west of the Alexandria, with El Alamein located in between. From the Mersa Matruh there were desert busses going south to the oasis of Siwa, which I visited on several occasions. Source. onthegotours.com

 The Battle of El Alamein, which opened with a 1,000-gun artillery barrage on the night of Oct 23 1942, amounted to a turning point in the Second World War for the British Army.
In a 12-day offensive, the British Eighth Army under General Bernard Montgomery routed the German Afrika Korps, destroying about a third of its fighting strength and wrecking Hitler’s hopes of capturing the Middle East.

Source – El Alamein Veterans Gather …

This blog was written not only to commemorate my good colleague at Mersa Matruh and his mint tea, but also to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein that took place on the north coast of Egypt,which Winston Churchill proclaimed to be “the end of the beginning” of WW II.   Troops from Britain as well as different Commonwealth Countries participated; the event is now being celebrated at the battleground in Egypt and elsewhere.

Here follows some information on the battle, as well as on my own past trips to El Alamein and to the nearby coastal town of Mersa Matruh, on the way to the southern oasis of Siwa in the Libyan Desert.

70th Anniversary Of The Battle Of El Alamein To Be Commemorated

Events to commemorate El Alamein, in London, period dress. Source: newc4u.com
The courage and contribution of those who fought bravely in the Battle of El Alamein will be formally marked by the Ministry of Defence with a special Service of Thanksgiving, held in Westminster Abbey at 3pm on Saturday 27 October 2012
TheReverend Jonathan WoodhouseQHC Chaplain-General (Army) will give the address at the Evensong service.

Winston Churchill famously described the battle, which began on 23 October 1942 and ended on 4 November 1942, as the end of the beginning of the war. Led by General Montgomery, the Battle of El Alamein was the climax of months of struggle in the Western Desert as the Allies fought to keep open vital supply lines from the Mediterranean to the East.
Minister for Defence, Personnel, Welfare and Veterans, Andrew Robathan said:
“The Battle of El Alamein was hugely significant as it was the first time the British gained the upper hand over the German Army. “The end of the beginning”. We should honour the survivors of the Battle and commemorate all those who took part. El Alamein turned the tide in the Western Desert – and arguably of the war.”
  • Those wishing to attend are asked to apply by email to tracey.broome576@mod.uk or by telephone 0207 807 0970. Tickets will be posted by 19 October.
  • A reception will follow in Church House.
  • Commemorations to mark the 60th Anniversary of The Battle of El Alamein included a service at the Commonwealth War Cemetery, El Alamein, Egypt and at a Service of Thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey on 23 October 2002, followed by a reception.
 Source:  BNTVA Newsdesk
El Alamein. Source: telegraph.co.uk.com
Cooking dinner. Source: nzetc.victoria.ac.nz.com

On to Mersa Matruh:

Each time I’ve visited Siwa Oasis, located in the Libyan Desert (see above map), I’ve stayed a few days at the small, picturesque Mediterranean town of Mersa Matruh – made famous as the camp of the allies, and earlier of Rommel, ‘The Desert Fox‘, of WW II fame.  My trips there were in the early 1980’s, and at that time the town looked like this:

Mersa Matruh during World War II; in the early 80's the town had not grown far beyond this.  Source:  Univ. of Wellington
Mersa Matruh during World War II; in the early 80’s the town had not grown far beyond this. Source: Univ. of Wellington, nzetc.victoria.ac.nz 

Until recently, this was an outpost – a sea-side market town linking trade from the interior of the Sahara and from Libya with the Nile Valley.  As well, for centuries Matruh has been a key market for bedouin tribes that practice semi-permanent pastoralism along the coast.

Mersa Matruh, close to the Libyan border, was a key market town and point of entry for caravan trade coming from West Africa, generally thorugh Siwa Oasis
Mersa Matruh, close to the Libyan border, was a key market town and point of entry for caravan trade coming from West Africa, generally through Siwa Oasis. ‘Beja Tribe Territory’, bottom right, is another area in which I’ve worked. See: Coffee Customs in Eastern Sudan and Egypt: The Beja TribesThe waters of the Mediterranean are beautifully clear and blue at Mersa Matruh.
Until recently 'discovered', the beaches here were uncrowded and wonderful.  Source:  al-Maza Beach Resort
Until recently ‘discovered’, the beaches here were uncrowded and wonderful. Source: al-Maza Beach Resort

As the only other port on the northern coast aside from Alexandria, Mersa Matruh was a crucial military site during World War II.  And for the same reason, it was colonized during Greco-Roman times.

Harbor of Mersa Matruh, showing Roman and WW II shipwreck sites. Source: shipwrecksofegypt.com
Depiction of the battle at al-Alamein, allies and Germans.  Source: (c)  Galen R. Frysinger
Depiction of the battle at al-Alamein, allies and Germans. Source: (c) Galen R. Frysinger

On one trip – a Christmas/New Year’s holiday with three friends – we were blocked on our return drive back to Cairo by a convoy of over 100 tanks and heavily armed military who were on their way to deployment along the Libyan border.  We were stopped, asked to identify ourselves (at the time, we were all in senior positions in different international organizations), and politely told to remain stationary on the side of the road while the convoy passed.

One… Two… Three… 141 tanks rumbled past us in a slow procession, with soldiers in each tank gazing down at us from the top of the tanks – clearly in shock at a cluster of foreigners who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Many waved with surprised and delighted smiles; we waved back with, we hoped, with equally enthusiastic smiles.

... 141 tanks rumbled past us
… 141 vintage tanks rumbled past us, which were similar to this WWII model that is on display at el-Alamein.  Photo Source (c) Galen R. Frysinger

It is at Mersa Matruh that the rickety, old desert buses used to depart for the 12-16 hour trip to Siwa Oasis, which is located 300 kilometers to the southwest.  In the past, the bus churned over the hard-pan, following the one telegraph line out to the oasis.  On one trip, the bus broke down and we were ‘stranded’ for about 12 hours before a relief bus arrived from Mersa Matruh.  An earlier post talks about Siwa and its Cuisine.

Part of the pleasure of staying in Mersa Matruh was a visit to my favorite merchant of locally-grown mint and bedouin sheep hair carpets, hand-woven by bedouin tribes of the area.  They are beautiful – both simple and elegant – and always, in  sitting down to bargain for a carpet, Muhammed the merchant would prepare a pot of green mint tea on a small babuur [kerosene burner] on the floor of his tiny shop.  Mint of this area is the best tasting in Egypt – something to do with the salty soils or salt air near the sea – and mint tea at Muhammed’s was always a great joy:

Muhammed had a shop like this one.  The bags in the front are selling cinnemon, ginger and other spices.  Source:  Royal Geographic Society
A merchant in Mersa Matruh.  Muhammed had a shop like this one. The bags in the front are selling cinnamon and other spices. Source: Royal Geographic Society

Into a small enamel tea-pot he would first put 2 heaping tablespoons of green tea, a small tea glass of sugar, and water. He would bring it to a boil as we talked, and then stuff a handful of fresh mint down into the pot and continue to brew until the fragrance challenged us to stop bargaining and enjoy the tea, which, in customary Middle Eastern fashion, is served by means of an elaborate pouring ceremony whereby pouring is begun at the glass, and then the pot is quickly raised several feet above, all the while pouring continues. This not only sounds wonderful, but also produces a froth on the tea and increases the aroma.  Tea glasses are usually very small – about 1/3 cup – because the brew is extremely strong and sweet; more can send one into a sugar/tea ‘high’.

While this tea pouring ceremony is being performed in Morocco by a Touareg, it is exactly as it is performed across North Africa and in the Middle East - and by Muhammed.  Source:  Royal Geographic Society
While this tea pouring ceremony is being performed in Morocco by a Touareg, it is exactly as it is performed across North Africa and in the Middle East – and by Muhammed. Source: Royal Geographic Society

Then, sipping loudly, we continued our bargaining and I’d often go happily away with a carpet –  and always fond memories of tea and chit-chat.   Ah, but then the last time I was there, Muhammed had developed a tumor on his head and expected not to be plying his trade much longer… It was a very sad parting.

As well, tourism had finally begun to invade both Mersa Matruh and Siwa Oasis, and both were loosing their unique charm.

Today, the the beduin outpost has become a tourist town.  Source:  (c) Ir. Laiks
Today, the bedouin outpost has become a tourist town. Source: (c) Ir. Laiks

Ma’aa Salaama – Muhammed!!

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About dianabuja

A recent group photo at a training course for veterinarians and vet technicians here in Burundi. I discuss in French with some Kirundi and have also a Kirundi translator to help with technical aspects ... Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Cuisine, Egypt, Egypt-Ancient, Egypt-Recent, Graeco-Roman era, Great Western Desert, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, War Games, World War II and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Green Mint Tea and Beduin Carpets at Mersa Matruh – and an Anniversary at El Alamein

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    Like

  2. Clanmother says:

    Thank you for another one of your outstanding posts! I love mint tea and now have a story to remember as I sip the fragrant brew….

    Like

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