The Sinai

Dahab History and Culture

Dahab by night
Dahab by night

Dahab has changed from an isolated Bedouin oasis to an international hippy hang-out, to a trendy Egyptian tourist resort. Yet this small town remains a unique place with a remarkably rich array of cultures.

The population is estimated to be around 15,000, although a part of this is very transient, with many people making Dahab their home for only a few months at a time. Many tourists come to visit, particularly during the Egyptian school holidays. Large coaches of people arrive and the town feels incredibly crowded for a short space of time, before returning to normal as the holiday ends. 

Recent History

Dahab started as a small Bedouin fishing village and oasis, covered in palm trees. The village gained popularity with European and Israeli hippies who enjoyed the laid-back culture. During the Israeli occupation of the Sinai from 1967 – 1982, Bedouins were introduced to paid jobs, healthcare, and education. When Egypt regained the Sinai, Egyptian entrepreneurs developed Sharm El-Sheikh to become a modern tourist resort. Dahab has also developed yet kept some of its Bedouin culture and charm, particularly the northern area around Assala. 

Local Bedouin

The local Bedouins belong to the Mezzaina Tribe. Historically, they lived between the mountains in the winter and the sea in the summer, setting up their tents as they moved. While the influx of tourism has resulted in many having adapted and now living in houses, the tradition of taking shorter trips to the mountains remains strong.

The Mezzaina Tribe is exclusively Muslim, and the women and many of the men wear traditional clothing. From the age of around 16, women wear long sleeved dresses called ‘abayas’ and wrap their heads with a scarf so only their eyes are visible. Please do not take photos of Bedouin women unless they have given you permission (which is very rare). Men usually wear jalabeyas (a long, white, dress-like garment) and a scarf over their heads.  

The most famous Bedouin food is ‘Mendi’ which involves slow cooking a goat underground. It’s a special (and expensive) meal, but definitely worth trying if you eat meat. It’s served with rice and salad and is really tasty. 

In January each year, a camel race is held in a valley between mountains, towards the southwestern side of the Sinai. Each tribe from the peninsula sends racers, and spectators follow alongside in pick-up cars and jeeps. Many groups from Dahab attend and it is known to be quite the spectacle! In 2023, a rider from the Mezzaina Tribe won and there was much celebration.  

Egyptians

Over the past decade, there has been a huge increase in awareness about Dahab. It has become much more popular with Egyptian tourists who fill the town during the holidays. Egyptians from upper Egypt, Alexandria and the Delta come to Dahab in search of work in a more relaxed laid-back environment. Some are moving here with their families. 

Foreigners

Dahab’s demographic remains varied. Europeans and a handful of Americans still enjoy Dahab’s relaxed lifestyle. A growing trickle of Asians are coming as tourists for the water sports. There is a significant Russian community of around 1,000 people residing here. They have become a self-sustaining community with their own school, property, and businesses where people are able to function primarily in Russian. Among them are Ukrainians, some of whom have escaped from the war. Israelis used to come on holiday to Dahab, St. Catherine’s, Nuweiba and further north up the coast, but they returned rapidly to Israel after the Hamas attack in October 2023. 

Muslim

Most people in Dahab are Muslim, in line with the rest of Egypt. Across the city, you will see mosques of varying sizes. You will also hear the call to prayer five times each day, with the first call being before sunrise. A significant number will go to the mosques to pray at these times. On Fridays, most Muslim men and boys will attend the main sermon of the week and many of the shops and restaurants will be closed until after the prayers are finished at around 12.30-1pm.  

New Age

A New Age culture is present in Dahab, with many members of the community participating in meditation, healing retreats, drum circles, full moon rituals, and cacao ceremonies, to mention a few activities. 

Christian

There is a Christian community of around 120 families. They share one Coptic Orthodox Church in Happy Life Village around 8km to the south of Dahab. Abuna (Father) Boulos and Abuna Matta lead the services there on Friday and Sunday mornings and attend to pastoral issues the rest of the week. Christians from other backgrounds gather in one-another’s homes for fellowship. 

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