Shalatin is located about 280 km south of Marsa Alam on the Sudanese border. It is dived into three main parts: the port, the market and the residential area. A desert forest of acacia trees makes a good contrast to the semi arid area surrounding the city. This special city offers many fascinating features, combining trade, history and culture. The harbour of Shalatin is located to the north east of the city in a very small bay. It is hosting a number of local traditional fishing boats in red, green and blue. The port is not accessible for divers, though it is used by fishermen.
Historically, the Beja people are self-sufficient nomadic camel herders who live in the southern Red Sea Hills in Egypt, East Sudan and Eritrea. The Beja tribes have lived in this area for thousands of years, generally untouched by surrounding cultures or empires. The Beja have a simple outdoor lifestyle, an oral culture, and distinct male and female roles. The community is a traditional one, male-dominated, with women playing a vital role in the household, goat herding and raising children. Out of respect for local custom, it is recommended that female visitors wear long sleeves and loose clothing.
The Beja can be divided into five smaller groups: Bisharin, Ababda, Hadendoa, Amar’ar and Beni Amer. Only the Bisharin and Ababda tribes inhabit Egyptian territories. The majority of Beja speak Beja, and there are tribal dialects. The Beja language is called various names: Beja, Bedawi, Bedauye, To Bedawie, and Tebedwi. Many Beja also speak Arabic as a second language.
The Shalatin community is mainly inhabited by two Beja tribes, Bisharin, which represent the majority of the population and Ababda, a smaller tribe. Also the Arab Tribe Rashaida is living here, a minority with only a few thousand people, which originates from Saudi Arabia. These tribes have their own history, tradition and life styles but they have a common interest in the land and their camels. The tribes live on the outskirts of Shalatin. The traditional houses of the Bisharin are made of from the wood of acacia trees, covered in carpets woven from palm tree fronds.
The most interesting part of the city is the camel market and its surroundings. The camel market of Shalatin is the biggest one of the country. It is a melting-pot of different cultures. At the camel market you can see the different dress codes of the tribes. The men wear a ‘galabiya’, a long loose robe (purple for the Rashaida) with often a dark vest over it. The ‘erna’ is their hair dress, which is a long piece of fine cotton cloth (at least 4,5 m in length for the Basharin) twisted and then wrapped around the head, turban style. The Basharin and Ababda men carry a whip or a dagger as symbols of their status. They are also renowned for their skill as desert trackers and camel breeders.
On the market you see thousands of camels wandering around in the heat of the sun. All the camels are branded with their different owners’ signs. The camels have been travelling with their herders on foot from Sudan on a journey that takes between 30 to 40 days. Buyers from all across Egypt converge here to choose from the different breeds. Groups of men are sitting on the sand, negotiation the price of the camels and other goods. Some buyers want fine-looking white camels, possibly for tourist-related businesses; others look for strong, well-built camels that can handle hard labour, while many are just looking for pounds of meat. After the shopping is done, the camels are taken to the loading area, where they climb into the trucks with the help of man-made platforms and ramps. If this area is too crowded, the men have no choice but to heft the camel into the truck themselves. Riding a camel is easy, but carrying it is hard. It takes about half a dozen men to lift one small camel into a truck.
Trading in Shalatin is not just about camels. You’ll find a lot of other interesting things to buy: silver jewellery, goat skin leather, pottery, palm tree baskets, water bottles, purses, bags, knifes, swords, shields (all well crafted and beautifully decorated with traditional signs) as well as the finest spices and frankincense as sandal wood, cinnamon sticks, pure henna, black hibiscus and many other. These are the same items that these nomadic tribes use in their daily life routines.
ELBA NATIONAL PARK
Shalatin lies within the boundaries of Elba National Park, Egypt’s largest nature reserve. The 35,600 sq km natural reserve encompasses a variety of ecosystems: mangroves, 22 islands, coral reefs, sand dunes, salt marshes, desert plains and a cluster of mountains. These unique habitats support a remarkable diversity of flora and fauna found nowhere else in Egypt. Some 458 plants, 40 birds, 23 mammals, 30 reptiles and 1 amphibian species are known to exist in the reserve.
The mountainous area of Elba National Park harbours a surprising variety of bird species including the Sooty Falcon, the Crowned Sand grouse and the Pharaoh Eagle Owl. Its’ highest peaks, including Gebel Elba (1,435 m), form a ‘mist oasis’. The surrounding cloud that shrouds the mountain tops creates moisture laden dew. This is the reason for the relative abundance of local flora, fauna and wildlife. If you are a nature lover you might want to explore the amazing landscapes and wildlife of the Elba National Park. Of special interest are the various types of ferns, mosses, succulents and acacias that grow in the moist mountainous regions.
The heritage of Shalatin is not restricted to plants and animals. Several archaeological sites are scattered about the vicinity, including what locals call ‘The Water-Gate’ in Abu Safa and the prehistoric rock art site in Deef. Another nearby site worth visiting is the refuse dump where the carcasses of unfortunate cattle are taken. Don’t be repulsed by the idea; there is no lost beauty in the dump itself, but rather the path that leads to it. Everyday at around sunset, Egyptian vultures can be spotted atop lampposts. This yellow-faced vulture is sometimes referred to as ‘Pharaoh’ Chicken because many depictions of this bird in association with man have been found on walls of Ancient Egyptian tombs.