Rosetta’s strategic position in Egypt’s Nile Delta, with its easy access to the Mediterranean, made it a vibrant port city after the Ottoman Empire seized control of the region in the 16th century. Both the French and British subsequently took interest in the town. It was here that the legendary Rosetta Stone was discovered by a French soldier during Napoleon’s expedition in 1799. Known in Arabic as ‘Rashid’, the town received its anglicised name from the British, who were delighted to encounter a ‘rosy’ atmosphere of peaceful gardens and dense date palm orchards upon arrival.
Rosetta today is slow-paced and basks in the splendour of its location. Just an hour’s drive east of Alexandria, the city enjoys Mediterranean weather and warm Nile breezes all year round. The Nile-side corniche is lined with fishermen and wooden boats that frequently cross the river to transport the town’s residents between Rosetta’s centre and its more bucolic environs.
The town’s remarkably well-preserved examples of Ottoman architecture include a public bathhouse, palatial homes and mosques. Ten mosques built between the 16th and 19th century remain in use and are maintained by the local Ministry of Antiquities. The oldest of these is the Zaghloul mosque, which was built around 1577. Approximately the same size as the Al Azhar mosque in Cairo, the mosque contains 244 marble columns that are used to support 200 domes. One of the mosque’s minarets was destroyed by the British army in 1807 after it was used to summon the people of Rosetta to join in combat against the invading British forces.
The Masjid Damaksis is located in a stuccoed building in Rosetta’s old town in an area surrounded by carpentry workshops. Built in 1714, the entire mosque is located on an upper floor. A dark wooden staircase leads up to a wooden terrace that surrounds the prayer hall on three sides. The stunning mihrab wall of the mosque is the only one in Rosetta that retains all of its original tilework.
The old town was once replete with Ottoman-style mansions belonging to officials of the Khedivate and wealthy merchants. Twenty-two of these still stand and have been entrusted to the Ministry of Antiquities. Scant tourism and stagnant public funds following the recent political upheavals in Egypt have taken a toll on Rosetta’s heritage structures, says Said Al Hammam, a member of the Ministry. Restoration work on the town’s only public baths, the Hammam Azouz, which date back to the 17th century, has come to a halt and the baths are now closed.
Today Rosetta receives almost no overnight visitors. Though the town has two hotels – one beside the city’s museum and the other along the corniche – the rare tourist is more likely to visit as a day-trip from Alexandria. As a result there is scarce traffic through the heritage sites and little motivation to swiftly carry out the pending restorations. Only three of the 22 heritage homes under the Ministry’s care are completely restored and open to visitors.
Hani Mahmoud, a lawyer native to Rosetta, is appreciative of the efforts towards the upkeep of the city’s architecture but thinks that restoration alone is not enough to preserve the lives of these homes. ‘I appreciate these houses very much. I go inside and look around them whenever I have the chance,’ he says. ‘But I wish somebody lived inside them. A house is not a museum. It needs life. Now to inhabit these houses that have only been open by day for so long – to stay in them at night – could pose a risk to the occupants and I find this sad.’
Also a native of Rosetta, Al Hammam is very attached to the structures that give his hometown its historic character. Still, what he cherishes the most about Rosetta is its people and the strong sense of community. He speaks in rhymes, ‘Rashid howa isem al madina. Here we have no worries. Everyone knows one another. Everyone is like family. I know that if one day I have no money, the grocer will still feed me. If a neighbour loses his house, he has mine. We take care of each other.’
The town’s close-knit nature is fully evident on a Sunday afternoon at the fish market. Those manning flat carts that brightly display the morning’s catch poetically declare the freshness of their fish and the cheapness of their prices, often pausing mid-verse to greet familiar passersby and inquire about their health and well-being.
A man in deep blue overalls and a canvas bucket hat stands behind a basket of fresh tilapia, known as bulti.† Hassan Al Sayyir is a fisherman who lives eight kilometres from the city centre along the coast. He has his own boat that he takes out in the morning and, on a good day, shows up at the market afterwards with a high pile of shimmering green bulti that wiggle and flop in his wicker basket. Al Sayyir explains, ‘People here work to live. Life is simple. Nobody wants big things like in the big cities. And still we always have something to do – fishing, building, cooking.’
At the end of the fish market, Rosetta’s paved corniche borders a brilliant blue Nile.‡ Every few minutes small wooden boats fill up at one of the corniche’s two docks. The boats are packed with those that live across the river in Mahdiyah Rashid. There, the shores are undeveloped save for simple brick houses built right on the water’s edge and a pale yellow mosque beside the docks. A much more recent building than the Ottoman structures across the water, its interior is no less majestic. The Nile-facing wall is lined with wide windows that flood the mosque with pink light during maghrib. Sama Farag lives in Mahdiyah Rashid. She frequently goes to the centre of Rosetta to trade her crops, buy provisions and send her children to school. Yet she insists, with a relieved smile, that she is glad to live on the quieter side of the Nile. ‘Here we live the life of villagers.’
Though the boat trip across the river is only a few minutes long, Mahdiyah feels worlds apart from the main city. This side of the Nile lacks any evidence of Rashid’s cosmopolitan history. Instead it retains the romantic inspirations of the anglicised name Rosetta – with seemingly endless thickets of date palms and the sweet scent of jasmine.
This article can be found in Brownbook’s November/December 2014 Issue.
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