'The sea is everywhere in my paintings in Egypt, in Lebanon, and in Greece (...) I painted the calmness and the serenity in another work called Around Cleopatra's Bath in Marsa Matrouh, and many other paintings where the sea is the key element in all of them, and in my being and if it's not the subject of all of my paintings, it is at least in the background (...)' (translated from the Arabic, cited in E. Dawstashy, Mahmoud Saïd, Cairo, 1997, p. 256).
Marsa Matrouh - vers le bain de Cléopâtre is one of Mahmoud Saïd's most iconic works as it is quintessentially Egyptian through its colours, compositional elements, setting and historical references. Combining some of his favourite motifs with a typical seaside landscape of the Northern Egyptian coast, Saïd presents one of the many facets of his homeland's national character in this painting. The title refers to the Mediterranean seaport Marsa Matrouh, capital of the Matrouh Governorate in Egypt, located west of Saïd's native town, Alexandria. It was and still is a very popular beach resort destination for the Cairenes and Alexandrians who fled the suffocating summer heat to this serene place characterised by its soft white sand and crystal clear calm waters.
Known as Amunia during the Ancient Egyptian times and the reign of Alexander The Great, or Paraitonion during the Ptolemic era and Paraetonium during the Roman occupation, this succession of names for the city Marsa Matrouh reflects its excellent strategic position in the Mediterranean and its turbulent history, having fallen several times in the hands of various conquerors. Nonetheless, whilst chains of hotels have now been built east of Marsa Matrouh towards El
Alamein, the area west of the city towards the Libyan border is one of the last undiscovered places in Egypt, which has not been spoilt by civilisation and is still today a testament of the traditional Bedouin way of life. Mahmoud Saïd's painting pays tribute to this area with its breathtaking seascape, as he glorifies its true Egyptian character, which survived through several occupations over the past centuries, sometimes under its purest form. The two donkeys, another of Saïd's recurring motifs, further emphasise this traditional Egyptian character, having long been one of the most common beast of burden in Egypt and which are still frequently used to pull carts in some villages. Donkeys also represent humility and innocence as depicted throughout Medieval Christian Art in which Jesus mounts a donkey, as well as retaining their symbolic value as faithful companions to human beings and active witnesses of people's daily lives throughout the centuries.
As in many other works, Mahmoud Saïd here captures the essence of the national Egyptian identity through his extraordinarily glowing palette. He uses a bright yellow pigment full of sunlight for the ground, followed by a luminous white for the hills in the background, both entrapped by the radiant electric blue tone of the sky and sea, reflecting the distinctive colours of Marsa Matrouh. Although these vibrant colours are some of Mahmoud Saïd's trademarks, they also recall some of the works realised by the Fauves, such as the scenes of the seaport Collioure in the South- West of France by Andr Derain painted around 1905, yet Saïd adds translucence to his pigments, creating a gem-like effect.
The title of this masterpiece, Marsa Matrouh - vers le bain de Cléopâtre, also makes a historical reference to the most famous queen of Ancient Egypt Cleopatra synonymous of Egypt's Golden Age. One of the beaches in the area of Marsa Matrouh happens to coincidently be known as 'Cleopatra's beach' and one of the attractions in Siwa, close to Marsa Matrouh, is called 'Cleopatra's Pool', which is a cool stone pool fed by natural spring water. The female figure on the right of the composition, draped in a voluptuous blue cloak, very much recalls that of the ancient statues and the goddess Tanagra which Mahmoud Saïd would have seen in Alexandria's Graeco-Roman Museum. Furthermore, just as in Les Chaddoufs of 1934, Mahmoud Saïd also pays homage to the sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar, whom he admired and praised, through the grace and nobility of his female figure in the present work, emblematising the beauty of Egyptian women from the Hellenistic era and perhaps even indirectly alluding to Cleopatra herself. The reference to this iconic figure in Egyptian civilisation may also have a deeper meaning in the context of Mahmoud Saïd's oeuvre, possibly echoing the awakened national Egyptian pride yet at the same time reviving the glorious past of the artist's native country.