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Pharaoh's Island: A Mediaeval Castle Sitting off the Coast of Sinai

Listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site, the island blends ancient ruins with breathtaking corals.

Karim Abdullatif

Pharaoh's Island: A Mediaeval Castle Sitting off the Coast of Sinai

Travellers find solace in Sinai in a variety of ways, whether it’s hiking Mount Sinai to visit St. Catherine’s Monastery, spending the day at Fjord Bay or unwinding in the resort towns of Dahab, Sharm El Sheikh and Taba. Sinai, however, hosts countless historic secrets that are easily missed, chief amongst them Pharaoh's Island and its mediaeval castle.

Located in the Gulf of Aqaba, just off the coast of Sinai and in full view of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Pharaoh's Island is accessible only by boat through a lagoon which separates it from the mainland. Known for its diving spots, the island presides over the Picasso Reef, an underwater mountain with mammoth corals.

Underwater, divers may come across the distinctive Picasso Triggerfish with its black and white scales and its yellow streak. On the island, they get to explore a history shrouded in mystery. Between its initial use during the reign of Ramses III and housing the Mamluk governor until the 14th century, it has been disputed whether the castle was used as a Crusader stronghold before being turned into an Arab bastion.

In the 1980s, the ruins on the island were extensively restored - although some argue it has been over-restored, with many of its authentic mediaeval features lost. Eventually, the island was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Tentative List for its universal cultural value in 2002.

Today, visitors can enter the castle and wander inside its many rooms, including its bathhouses, archer towers, sleeping quarters for the garrison, and pigeon towers, the first long-distance communication network.

Stories about the castle range from the biblical claims to tales of how Lawrence of Arabia couldn’t resist stepping foot in it after floating on a makeshift raft from Sinai’s coast. Recent expeditions shed light on the geographic significance of the castle, finding textile fragments originating in India, Iran and Iraq. Traces of commercial activity should come as no surprise, as the area once stood at the junction of sea and land trade routes connecting southern Arabia and East Africa with Syria and Egypt.

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