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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Stargazers in Egypt witness spectacular cosmic displays

The Red Sea town of Marsa Alam is an ideal place from which to view the annual Lyrid meteor shower, so-called because it seems to radiate from the brightest star in Lyra the Harp, a constellation which appears low in the northeastern sky in Egypt in late April

Elsewhere in Egypt, a man uses a light on his head to monitor the Milky Way in the natural reserve area of Wadi Al Hitan, or the Valley of the Whales, in Al Fayoum governorate, south-west of Cairo, on August 12, 2015. Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters
Elsewhere in Egypt, a man uses a light on his head to monitor the Milky Way in the natural reserve area of Wadi Al Hitan, or the Valley of the Whales, in Al Fayoum governorate, south-west of Cairo, on August 12, 2015. Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

Nayzak Beach lies about 14 kilometres south of Marsa Alam in Egypt’s south.

The approach to the beach is off-road, but otherwise unremarkable — except for the turquoise sea. Until you are at the edge of what looks like a crater, there’s no noticeable attraction there.

But the Egyptian town of Marsa Alam is known to be one of the best places for stargazing.

Nayzak means asteroid in Arabic. The popular belief is that this hole in the coast was made by one, before it was filled with clear, deep blue water along with some butterfly fish and purple jellyfish.

This is folklore, of course, but there is something about Egypt’s southern Red Sea coast that connects you with space. It’s not strictly deserted, but you can drive on long stretches of unlit road without seeing anyone, until a pair of headlights appears on the horizon.

If that particular car is on a hill, one might even be led to believe it is a UFO.

I might have been predisposed to think about Marsa Alam in this way, given the reason for my trip to the area. My friends and I had planned our visit to coincide with the Lyrid meteor shower — an annual shower that seems to radiate from the brightest star in Lyra the Harp, a constellation which appears low in the northeastern sky in Egypt in late April.

This year’s shower came just after a popular music festival in Marsa Alam, 3alganoob. But most of the crowds had already left, clearing the beaches of people. As the moon rises only late at night, the sky is usually cleared of light.

"Egypt is one of the best places in the world for stargazing — we have 300 clear nights a year,” said Amr Abdelwahab, the president of the Dr Mostafa Mahmoud Astronomical Society.

“Marsa Alam is a great place for stargazing because it’s away from light pollution, but we have some problems there because of the humidity,” Mr Abdelwahab said.

An ideal location for stargazing is a place with clear skies, high elevation, low humidity, and low light pollution.

“Generally, beaches, deserts and farms are considered good places to stargaze, in particularly meteor showers,” said Ashraf Tadross, the head of Egypt's astronomy department and the National Research Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics. The NRIAG operates the Helwan Observatory, which is the largest telescope in the Middle East.

During the annual Lyrid meteor shower, most shooting stars appear as quick streaks, an effect created by the earth passing through debris from the long period comet Thatcher, which is currently on its 415-year orbit around the sun.

Viewing meteors is best just after dusk, when the earth’s orbit cuts into the comet’s debris trail, or just before dawn when Lrya is at its highest point in the sky. When my travel companions and I laid down to stargaze, we expected more of the quick meteors that pass in the blink of an eye. But the first one was a fireball: a brilliant streak with a particularly bright lead in the shape of an arrowhead. Fireballs enter the atmosphere at 49 kilometres per second, before burning up at 1,650°C. We spent the rest of the night waiting for another one as brilliant, but found out later that only one or two fireballs can be observed during the night of a meteor shower.

Life back on earth in Marsa Alam is slower, with most beaches inside Wadi El Gemal National Park — another popular stargazing spot in the area — are undeveloped.

Qulaan, a beach in the far south of the national park, is famous for its large mangrove tree on the entrance of a large lagoon. Carrying your towels, books and snacks across 350 metres of ankle deep crystal clear water is a small effort for the view of the tree whose isolation and size gives it an air of spirituality. The sea beyond the tree is a rocky reef, which breaks a few hundred yards out, where the ocean drops dozens of metres.

Egyptians and foreigners can camp in Wadi El Gemal National Park for some of the clearest skies in the region for stargazing.

Equipped with just a DIY telescope, which can be made at a cost of around 1,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh204), you can see as far as the surface of the moon.