The harbor city of Quseir is located on the Red Sea coast – three hours’ drive west to the Nile banks of Luxor – situating it at the narrowest point between the Nile River and the Red Sea. Because of this strategically advantageous position, Quseir has operated as a commercial and military harbor since Egypt’s Roman period. In the first century, a port was developed at Quseir al-Qadim (the old city of Quseir) and remained active until the fourth century when it was abandoned. The Ayyubid Dynasty revived it in the 12th – 13th centuries, but by the 15th century the port was deserted for good. However, just five miles (eight kilometers) south of Quseir al-Qadim, a new harbor and fort was founded by the Ottomans in 1571. Centuries later, a project undertaken by the American Research Center in Egypt and the U.S. Agency for International Development created a restored fort and visitor center that stands prominently in the center of present-day Quseir city.
The modern history of Quseir Fort in its active years is a captivating kaleidoscope of trade, migration and military power in Egypt. After the Ottomans constructed it, the fort functioned as a military garrison but was phased out of use due to local resistance from neighboring Bedouin tribes, leaving it to fall into disrepair. In 1799, the Napoleonic army recognized the strategic advantage of the fort’s location – which could allow them to thwart British expansion into Egypt from India – and retook the fort from the local Bedouin tribes. The fort was reconstructed to face battle, and survived a three-day bombardment by the British Royal Navy later that same year. In 1801 when the French withdrew from Egypt the fort was deserted again, but was revived by 1816 when the sons of Mohamed Ali used it during military excursions against the Wahhabis.
Quseir remained a power player until the mid-19th century, when it faced competition from the much larger port at Suez. Quseir’s importance slowly declined, and for decades the fort housed a phosphorous factory. In the mid-20th century, it became an Egyptian Coast Guard station and remained that until 1975, when the fort was vacated and left to grow increasingly dilapidated. In 1996, ARCE partnered with USAID to restore the fort and convert it into a visitor center highlighting the heritage of the city of Quseir and the Red Sea coast. This project fell under the umbrella of the Promotion of Sustainable Tourism Cultural Activities, also known as the Mubarak-Gore Agreement.
Work on the Quseir Fort consisted of archaeological excavation alongside conservation and restoration work on the body of the fort, in addition to the design and installation of a visitor center. Excavation and restoration work, which began in 1997, repaired the fort’s most pressing structural and aesthetic issues and produced a small but insightful collection of artifacts. These included Ottoman tobacco pipes, Yemeni coffee cups, and Far Eastern blue-and-white porcelain, many of which remain on view at the visitor center. All accessible areas of the fort were utilized to provide a range of historical information, including interpretive signage in the three surviving towers, the cistern, the watchtower and the internal courtyards. These displays offer background on the history, function and importance of Quseir and the fort over its centuries of use, including its role in sea and land trade, religious pilgrimages to present-day Saudi Arabia, and military defense.
The larger artifacts on display in the courtyard include original phosphate trucks, a locally commissioned pearl diving boat, and a collection of Napoleonic cannons that were used to defend the fort during the British bombardment in 1799. Six of the cannons had been placed around the city’s town hall and painted silver, while another was retrieved from outside a local iron smelting workshop. Under the framework of the project, the cannons were collected, cleaned and conserved. Four guns now stand inside the visitor center courtyard and two are placed on the parapet overlooking the street. ARCE also reached out to Nicolas Hall, then Keeper of Artillery for the British Royal Armories at HMS Victory in England, to help in identifying the origins of the cannons. Hall was able to classify them as 18th century French, British and Dutch/Swedish, from Dutch design.
The Quseir Fort project was successfully completed in 1999 and formally opened in October of that year. Today, the Quseir Fort visitor center continues to attract tourists to the quiet port city and stands as a fascinating testament to the historic Red Sea trade routes and powerful armies that rose and fell over the centuries in Egypt.