Ahmed Shams's story started with a telescope he got as a young kid, which sparked his interest in nature, adventure, and most importantly the unknown. He even used that telescope to build an observatory on the roof of his grandfather's house building, and as he gazed towards the stars, he knew that what was out there was something he wants to unravel.
As Shams grew older, he found his passion in hiking and exploring things around him, but it was a book and a movie - The English Patient - that got him hooked on the desert. Maybe it was the Sahara that was the backdrop of the touching love story that takes place in the film that sparked his interest and fascination in nature and vast landscapes, or perhaps it was that feeling of our insignificance in the face of such raw and majestic nature. Whatever the reasons were, by the year 2000, he had started exploring the outdoors and documenting everything he saw, focusing mainly on Sinai. "For 10 years, I kept going to the Sinai desert, sketching maps using a compass and documenting everything I observe," Shams shares.
Left picture: Gebel Umm Shoumar 2586m ASL, 22 June 2003. Right picture: Wadi Ghazna 2000m ASL, 05 September 2013.
He started creating maps for the entire Sinai Peninsula, and he ended up with two maps: one of Sinai itself, and one of the mountainous terrain in the peninsula.
While Shams would glean information on the ground and document it through the local Bedouin of Sinai, he would always do his research before going to explore a new place. "I used to read up as much as I could about a certain place before going, and when I finally did go, I'd look for what I read about and much more," he explains. He talked with the locals about the origins of each place he visited and its etymology, and everything he was told and all places he visited were kept in notes that spanned years upon years. He also used to take pictures of every place he visited as further documentation.Photo title: To Sinai via the Red Sea, Tor, and Wady Hebran. Old Bedouin sheikh. Source: A. Shams, Sinai Peninsula Research, 2018
After graduating as an engineer, he wanted to use his education alongside his years of accumulated knowledge in a way that would not only harness all that, but also help people. In 2007-2008, he wrote a book chronicling everything he saw and drew maps of, but his academic endeavours did not end there. After using his book's rich material as a source for his PhD analysis, he started creating maps for the entire Sinai Peninsula, and he ended up with two maps: one of Sinai itself, and one of the mountainous terrain in the peninsula.
While creating a map of the mountains, Shams noticed a huge lack of information concerning Sinai. "The first known detailed survey done in the High Mountains of Sinai Peninsula was almost 150 years ago! Up until my survey between 2000 and 2010 in the High Mountains of Sinai Peninsula, there was no on-ground surveys of the region," Shams explains. This huge discrepancy in available information led to an equally massive gap in the actual places. According to Shams, the surveys done by the English in the 1860s had around 100 place names in Sinai - mountains, wells, etc. - but by the time he was done with his work, Shams had reached over 500 names in the mountains!
The importance and depth of his work caught the attention of the Library of Congress - one of the biggest in the world - who had hundreds of documented photos of Sinai and its Bedouin, dating back to the late 1800s. Yet, it was never possible to put a place to the pictures nor get a background on the location and the people who were there. This is where Shams came in with his years long surveys, and he spent the better part of the next decade putting a name to the place where each picture was taken as well as a historical background, amounting to a total of 19 years' work on Sinai and documenting what he saw there, 10 of which were intensive field work from 2000 to 2010. Although the quality of maps and the level of detailed drawings improved over the years by virtue of technological advancements and satellite imagery, the only way you could get access to the place names was by field work on the ground, hence the relevance of Shams's work.
The importance of his work lies beyond just the significance of documentation. These maps he created are very important to the development plans of the area. "You can't build anything in the desert without knowing the name of the mountain, well, inhabitants," he adds. Knowing information about the place and linking it to people is crucial for any hopes of development in the area, as having this information would let you know if your plans are applicable or not; what would be the impact on the livelihood of the locals? Are you trespassing on some sacred or archaeological ground? Is your new project going through a water source for a certain locality? ? These were all questions that need answers, which could only be gotten from surveys as extensive as the ones Shams did. Knowledge of what's happening on the ground is as important as any satellite image could show you.
"Let's say you want to turn a part of the desert into a natural reserve, and you want the locals to refrain from hunting an animal or collecting a plant for domestic use which opposes the reserve's purpose. You can't just go ahead and do that; you have to provide alternatives," Shams adds on the importance of knowing the people's culture and traditions.Photo title: To Sinai via the desert. Wady Mokattab. Source: A. Shams, Sinai Peninsula Research, 2018
All those years in the deserts and mountains of Sinai bore many experiences and adversities, but Shams says there's one encounter that comes to mind whenever he looks back on his days surveying the peninsula. "We had decided to take a long, unconventional way to the top of a mountain called Umm Shoumar on June 20, 2003," he says. "We didn't really have a water problem at first. Me and the guide each had two bottles on us, which we believed we could fill from nearby wells; this was going well for the first two days. On the third, we were climbing a 1000-meter high plateau. By midday, we ran out of water climbing the plateau. There were wells up ahead according to the maps, but by the time we reached the top of the plateau, we found that all the wells on the map that were supposed to be there were completely dried up, Shams says.
Spending all day looking for water wells around the plateau was futile but by night, they found a little spring nearby which proved to have more biodiversity than they had anticipated. "It literally had every mountain bug I ever knew of in it. The water was also yellow and in a very poor condition," he adds. Although the water was less than encouraging, they knew it might be their only option till God knows when, so, they filled up their bottles with the yellow water just in case and marched on hoping to find another well. "The maps I had were very bad, which was the reason I was there, to make proper maps of the place."
Taking a more traditional way back, they stumbled upon a well with water in it, but it was salty water. "We were left with a choice between the yellow or the salty water. Eventually, we went with the salty one," Shams says. Fortunately, he'd learned his lesson from this trip, and his mission to carve out accurate maps depicting all there is in the vast area that is Sinai was never clearer. "That day really showed me the importance of having proper maps of the land and all within it. That and I never hiked a mountain in summer again after that unless I had four water bottles on me," he adds.
Many people are in love with Sinai and its culture and traditions, but few to none have spent the time and made the effort to really get to know what's behind the gorgeous beaches and picturesque valleys. Ahmed Shams decided to spend the better part of two decades of his life documenting every stone he ever came across and drawing every hill he ever set foot on, not to mention every Bedouin culture he experienced first-hand. He didn't do it for the fun of it; he did it because someone needed to do it, and because if we want to know where we're headed, we need to know first where we came from, and where we are now. His extraordinary documentation efforts have been recognized and part of the survey results were made available to public online by the project with the Library of Congress, and it's time he gets the recognition he deserves in his own country for giving us Sinai like we never knew it before, an ancient, mysteriously gorgeous land with so much hidden treasures and details as well as a culture that is truly fascinating.