Egypt is famous for the towering Pyramids of Giza, the imposing mountains of Sinai, the soft sandy beaches along the Red Sea, the tombs in Luxor, and the architectural wonders of Islamic Cairo; but there are also so many more incredible places in the country waiting to be explored. One of these places is Lake Burullus, a little-known area rich with culture, nature, and a lively fishing industry to explore.
Along Egypt’s Mediterranean coast between Alexandria and Port Said sits Lake Burullus in the governorate of Kafr el-Shiekh. Although mostly unknown to foreign tourists and Egyptians alike, this colossal lake stretching over 461 square kilometers is home to both a unique microenvironment of lush reeds and wildlife and a local community with its own traditions.
Taking its name from the Coptic for ‘seaside’, Lake Burullus and the surrounding villages and small towns are home to fishing communities and small ship-building yards often producing fishing boats unique to the area. But while this area has for the most part escaped the attention of Egyptian and foreign tourists, a yearly art festival painting murals on houses and locals eager to promote and preserve this unique part of the country to tourists have increasingly been putting Lake Burullus on the map.
Sandwiched between Lake Burullus and the Mediterranean, a fifty-kilometer strip stretches between the town of Baltim to the westernmost point of the lake before Rasheed. This sandy strip is lined with colorfully painted fishing boats and the occasional reed hut providing protection from the sun or the bitter winds that come in winter.
Unlike fishing boats you can see along the Nile or in the Mediterranean, many of the boats in Lake Burullus follow a unique design that can only be found here. Due to the marshy lake only reaching a maximum depth of one meter, the flat-bottomed boats are built in the shape of large bulging tear drops that almost look like their sinking.
These fishing boats are also unique in the way painted, as a long tradition of boat painters have developed their own styles and motifs to decorate the boats. Many of the masts also feature good luck charms like horseshoes in the hopes that their nets will come up full of fish.
On the other side of the narrow stretch of land that separates Lake Burullus from the Mediterranean, unlike much of Egypt’s northern shores, the area is almost untouched. With rolling sand dunes and plants of all types emerging out of the sand, another one of Burullus’ hidden secrets is this unique and peaceful bit of coastline untouched by resorts or ever-expanding cities.
Through the winding roads of the village of Izbat Al Maqmasah you can find a small port, where you can venture out deep into the reeds and islands of Lake Burullus on a boat. Through the deep reeds, narrow and winding paths enter out onto the open lake and small fishing nets connected via staked of wood stuck in the ground poke out of the surface of the water.
The lake is home to 33 species of fish, 112 species of birds, 18 species of mammals, and 23 species of reptiles, according to the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency. From the boat, kingfishers can be seen hovering on either side before darting into the water to pick up small fish and the reeds often rustle as animals hidden underneath.
As the boat follows narrow paths surrounded by towering green reeds, it is easy to mistake the vast areas of reeds for islands, but they are just deep areas of vegetation rich in wildlife that hide within. The lake is home to around fifty islands of varying sizes, but they only take up around 0.7 kilometers squared out a total area of 461 square kilometers.
Fishermen also dot around on small boats to check their nets and some of the smaller islands house small huts made out of reeds where fishermen sort their fish before taking them to market. The fishermen often also sleep in these huts, ready to fish in the early morning when fish are at their most eager, carrying on a traditional fishing practice that has existed for centuries.
On an island hidden away in the reeds, you can also try the fish for yourself cooked in a local way. Caught just hours before from the lake you’re surrounded by, it’s harder to get fresher fish than this.
Among the reeds and fishing boats, some islands stick out on the horizon with a single building standing amidst the expansive lake. One building in particular that used to be a small sorting house where the fishermen would sell their fish has now become a local landmark, whose unusual and striking appearance almost appears to be out of a film about castaways stuck in a small isolated island outpost.
A small opening alongside the sleepy seaside town of Al Burj opens up the lake to the salty waters of the Mediterranean. The mouth of the lake opening up towards the sea creates Lake Burullus’ unique brackish microenvironment as seawater mixes with the freshwater of the Nile from its canals and tributaries.
However, the unsuspecting town of Al Burj hides a wealth of incredible murals that stretch across the town’s seafront. Across dozens of houses, in between alleyways, pasted across large walls, and hidden in small corners, the wealth and variety of the murals are enough to keep you entertained for hours.
On and off, Burullus has hosted the International Burullus Symposium for Painting on Walls and Boats, which sees the walls of buildings throughout the town and its boats erupt in color and patterns. Artists from Egypt and the rest of the world converge on this small town to create huge murals that line the houses along the seafront.
Sometimes covering whole buildings and sometimes just focusing on a small area, the murals not only vary in size but also in style. Throughout the murals, however, that differ greatly in style and size, certain themes began to emerge from the brickwork.
With many of the artists making heavy references to the town’s history as a fishing village and to the broader continuum of Egyptian culture and history, the murals give you a sense of the pride and belonging of the community that calls Al Burj home. However, some simply explore the beauty and the joy in every day, with emotive images of families and children at play.
A local artist called Abdel Wahab Abdel Mohsen launched the International Burullus Symposium nearly ten years ago in a bid to use art to create a dialogue and bring attention to his hometown which he clearly loves. After having painted his own house, he is said to have realized the potential for this millennia-old Egyptian culture of house painting to bring people together, give a sense of pride to the local community, and introduce joy and beauty to people’s everyday lives.
Al Burj, however, isn’t some touristy town devoid of real life and local industries, far from it. For centuries and until today, the small town has been the host to a thriving fishing and shipbuilding and ship painting industry. The small town hosts several shipyards where skilled craftsmen create both traditional fishing vessels whose designs haven’t changed for centuries and more modern sea-vessels
If you want to explore Lake Burullus for yourself, the very professional and well-organized Camp Burullus is a locally run group that organizes weekly group trips and private trips from Alexandria and Cairo.