Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Travel: On the warpath

Egypt Today (Omar Mohsen)

In the past century, Egypt was no stranger to war, whether as a nation confronting foreign enemies or as a proxy for colonial powers. Several of the sites where battles took place and pivotal events unfolded still stand today, making a great themed getaway for history buffs.

With a bit of effort and imagination, those with a passion for the subject can recapture a bit of the thrill, intrigue and yes, heartbreak, of some of Egypt’s most notable military moments by visiting battle sites and war cemeteries. Some of the getaways make especially poignant trips for those with relatives who fought in the Second World War’s North Africa campaigns.

Start your journey in Cairo, where a number of neighborhoods and the hotels within played host to British military and intelligence offices during the Second World War. Regrettably, many of these old bastions have been replaced by glitzy modern franchises, but back in the day they were the heart of international intrigue.

Take yourself back to “Ash Wednesday,” July 1, 1942, when the British General Headquarters and British Embassy in Garden City blanketed Cairo streets in smoke and ash as they torched classified documents upon Germany’s Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s entry into Egypt.

Make sure to swing by the houseboats on the Nile banks as your tour continues. These relics pay homage to a time during the two world wars when Cairo was the cloak-and-dagger capital for spies on all sides. But it was in one such houseboat that two German spies, sent from Rommel’s ranks during WWII, attempted to set up a radio post that would deliver information on Allied men and material to the Axis forces near El Alamein. The scheme, codenamed Operation Salaam, fell apart, but before it did, it took on the air of a spy novel, with a bellydancer named Hekmat Fahmy helping the spies, as well as a young man from the Free Officers movement named Anwar El Sadat.

From there, move on to the War Cemetery in Heliopolis, in which the remains of nearly 2,000 Allied soldiers from WWII are interred and a pavilion is dedicated to the unknown soldiers of WWI.

For anyone interested in a less approachable modern legacy of the Second World War - unexploded ordinance, which still wounds and kills Bedouin who use the desert battlegrounds to plant olives and herd their animals, you may be interested in a summary of the situation on my Archaeology of Egypt's Deserts blog.

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