Eighty kilometers (50 miles) west of Alexandria, the open desert is pinched to a relatively narrow strip of sand between the coast and the Qattara Depression. In early 1942, the Allied armies, retreating in front of a sustained Axis offensive that had already taken British-held Libya and was about to overrun their defenses at Marsa Matruh, threw up a defensive line here. Claude Auchinleck, who preceded the more famous Bernard "Monty" Montgomery as commander of the Allied armies, calculated that Axis commander Erwin Rommel, who had already proven himself a master of using his armor to flank defensive lines in the desert, would be held to frontal assaults by the impassable salt pan, ridges, and fech fech (a light sand that won't hold the weight of vehicles) to the south. He was proven correct, and his decision to hold the line at Al Alamein set the scene for one of the most famous and grueling encounters of the war. Pitting the combined Italian and German armies against an Allied force drawn from all over the world, it took 5 months of fighting and two major battles to reach a conclusion.

When you visit the area now, it seems a long way from Alexandria and a world away from Cairo. Though there is an increasing amount of seaside development, there is little in the way of towns.