This week is Passover, when we celebrate that super-long road trip across the desert from Egypt to Israel that my ancestors took a few thousand years back. Since then, travel between Egypt and the Promised Land usually hasn’t been much easier. Except for that brief period when there was a bus, of course.
I’m talking about Route 100. After the Camp David Accords of 1977 between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat brought a ceasefire and peace agreement to the contentious border between Israel and Egypt, enthusiasm for warm relations between the two companies was in the air. The animosity behind five wars fought over three decades actually did seem like something that could be overcome through the commercial and cultural cooperation that an open border could provide, and the big bus companies in Israel and Egypt were up to making it happen in real life.
Israel’s Egged bus cooperative, then the provider of almost all public transportation in the country, joined forces with Egypt’s East Delta bus company to launch the “peace line,” the first bus line to cross the Israeli frontiers since the state was established. Diplomats and bus company executives worked for five long years to overcome the challenges and turn the dream of an international bus line between Cairo and Tel Aviv, a stipulation of the agreement signed at Camp David, into a reality.
In April 1982, the Peace Line, officially known as route 100, was finally ready for action. For the fleet, Egged chose hardy Mercedes O303 buses similar to the ones in service on intercity bus routes across Israel but modified to feature a lavatory, a feature not usually needed in a small country like Israel where journeys are never too long. These buses featured heavy-duty air conditioning that would be more than necessary when crossing the desolate terrain of the Sinai, and when waiting at the border for clearance by customs in either direction.
The trip was meant to take seven and a half hours when all went right, but it hardly ever did. Crossing the frontier at Rafah, not far from Gaza, was a process that always took hours. On the other side of the Sinai, the Suez canal posed another challenge. Slow and irregular ferries carried the buses across the canal and congestion around Cairo kept the bus off-pace as well. All told, the inaugural run of the line took nineteen hours, eleven of which were spent stationary at the border and the canal. Good thing they decided to install that toilet, right?
One thing that traveling between Israel and Egypt allowed for was filling up on discount fuel. The buses would carry only enough expensive Israeli diesel to make it across the border. Once in Egypt, they would fill up on the far cheaper fuel available in El Arish. On the way back to Israel, they’d try and fill up once more before crossing back in.
Though Egged buses had traversed the dusty roads of the Sinai Peninsula during its occupation by Israel between 1967 and the agreement with Egypt ten years later, usually carrying Israeli soldiers to bases across the Sinai, they hadn’t ever made it to the far side of the Suez Canal and into Cairo, a city that at the time had a population double the size of the entirety of Israel. It was a treat for Egged’s drivers, some of whom had even been born in the city and had not yet had a chance to visit since their families fled the country after the establishment of Israel. Even though the drive was difficult compared to the normal lines within Israel that drivers were familiar with, enthusiasm for route 100 meant that the assignment was always in demand.
Though drivers were, by and large, excited to take on Egged’s flagship route, operating this kind of service was a significant challenge for the cooperative. Disagreements about ticket pricing between Egged and East Delta sapped already light passenger demand for a line between Egypt and Israel. While an $18 ticket for an international journey seems. rather reasonable today, it was a barrier to most potential Egyptian tourists to Israel (of which there were already few). Daily service disappeared, responsibility for route 100 was traded back and forth a few times between Egged and competitor Dan during the ‘80s and the line was finally discontinued for good in 1996.
Ten years after that, a pilot project to return direct bus travel between Cairo and Tel Aviv to regular service was put in place after productive discussions between Israeli and Egyptian tourism officials and diplomats. The route would take the service south to Eilat and across the border at Taba rather than a more direct crossing at Rafah. The extended route and complicated political climate at the time made the resurrection of the service short-lived.
These days, a revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt, ISIS presence in the Sinai, and an endless list of other political conflicts challenging the integrity of the relationship between Egypt and Israel, there isn’t much market space for another bus service that would bridge the gap between Cairo and Tel Aviv. Those looking to travel between the two cities are better off on the reasonable and frequent direct flight, and if you’re itching for overground transportation, there are buses to be found just over the border from Eilat. They might not be especially comfy or safe, but they sure do beat forty years of wandering.