April is the time of year when Egypt is most likely to experience khamaseen (sandstorms), but sandstorms can arrive during other parts of the year as well. I’ve personally experienced these storms on 3 different visits to Egypt over the years, and in 2018 I “enjoyed” the bonus of experiencing two sandstorms in a single visit! Lucky me! My sandstorm adventures occurred on:
- April 14, 2009 in Cairo
- February 11, 2015 in Cairo
- April 30, 2018 in Luxor
- May 7, 2018 in Aswan
What a Khamaseen Is
The word khamaseen is the Arabic word for the number 50. It is also used to refer to strong winds that blow sand, which are most likely to appear in a 50-day period in the spring between mid-March and mid-May.
Wind speed typically exceeds 25 miles per hour (40 kilometers per hour), and can be as high as 85 miles per hour (140 kilometers per hour), which is about the same as the wind speeds in a Category 1 hurricane. The storm can last for several hours, or even a couple of days. The one I experienced in 2015 was a 2-day event, whereas the one I experienced in 2018 lasted only a couple of hours.
A khamaseen stirs up walls of dust and sand, filling the air with grit. It’s fascinating to watch one approach, because it looks like a wall of sand heading your way.
What It’s Like to be in a Sandstorm
In many ways, a sandstorm reminds me of a blizzard, except that instead of being cold and snowy, it’s hot and sandy.
- Both can snarl traffic due to problems with visibility.
- Note the above photos I took of the pyramids and Sphinx. They show what the view from my hotel window looked like at two different times on February 11, 2015 – one before the sandstorm arrived, and the other during the storm.
- Sometimes, rural roads close until visibility improves.
- Both can create unsafe conditions that affect transportation.
- When the khamaseen struck Luxor in April 2018, it stirred up choppy waters on the Nile river, causing ferries to suspend service until the water calmed.
- Often, airlines will delay or cancel flights when a sandstorm arrives, due to the high winds and poor visibility.
- Both cause businesses and schools to close early. Our original plan for February 11, 2015 was to tour two museums. Both museums hurried us through. They were eager to close so their employees could go home.
- Both can produce howling high winds that last for several hours. The February 2015 sandstorm lasted 2 days, while the others I experienced lasted a few hours.
- The strong winds can cause power outages. That happened at our hotel in Luxor in 2018, causing a 30-minute outage.
Coping with a Sandstorm
It’s a very bad idea to wear contact lenses during a sandstorm. The grit gets under the lenses and hurts. Glasses are much more comfortable, and they offer the bonus of protecting the eyes somewhat against the blowing sand. This is why it’s so important for people who wear contact lenses to take along a pair of prescription glasses when traveling to Egypt. People who don’t need prescription lenses can wear either goggles or sunglasses for this purpose.
The blowing sand irritates breathing passages, which can lead to allergies, asthma, or catching a cold. I think nearly every person in our group caught a cold after the 2015 sandstorm. Egyptians will typically wrap a scarf to cover the nose and mouth. Some even wear a mask over the nose and mouth for further protection. In this 2015 photo, I’m doing both, with the scarf hiding the mask.
If planning any kind of travel, it’s best to check whether the activities you want to do are still available, whether transportation is still running, and whether delays are expected.
After experiencing several sandstorms in Egypt, I have to admit they’re not particularly pleasant. However, I don’t worry about the possibility of being in one, and I’m willing to come to Egypt during the khamaseen season. It’s interesting to take a step back and notice how people who live with this weather deal with it. There’s always a story to tell if you look for it.