For the Ancient Egyptians civilization began and ended with the Nile Valley and the Delta, known as the “Black Land” for the colour of its rich alluvial deposits. Beyond lay the “Red Land” or desert, whose significance was either practical or mystical. East of the Nile it held mineral wealth and routes to the Red Sea Coast; west of the river lay the Kingdom of Osiris, Lord of the Dead – the deceased were said to “go west” to meet him. But once it was realized that human settlements existed out there, Egypt’s rulers had to reckon with the Western Desert Oases as sources of exotic commodities and potential staging posts for invaders. Though linked to the civilization of the Nile Valley since antiquity, they have always been different – and remain so.
Siwa Oasis, far out near the Libyan border, is the most striking example: its people speak another language and have customs unknown in the rest of Egypt, while its ruined citadels, lush palm groves, limpid pools and golden sand dunes epitomize the allure of the oases. The four “inner” oases of Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga lie on the “Great Desert Circuit” that travellers can explore starting from Cairo, Assyut or Luxor. Each oasis is different in character due to their diverse landscapes and degree of modernization. The Black and White deserts draw visitors to Bahariya and Farafra, whose village-like “capitals” are trumped by modern towns in Dakhla and Kharga, with Roman temples and fortified villages (qasr) in their hinterlands.
Nearer to Cairo are two quasi-oases: the Fayoum and Wadi Natrun. The Fayoum resembles the Nile Valley, with pyramids to prove its importance since the Middle Kingdom, while Wadi Natrun is renowned for its Coptic monasteries. Both make good day-trips from Cairo.
Much of the fascination of this region lies in the desert itself – vast tracts of which were savanna before climate change and overgrazing by Stone Age pastoralists altered it irrevocably. The Western Desert, covering 681,000 square kilometres (over two-thirds of Egypt’s total area), is part of the North African Sahara belt: its anomalous name was bestowed by British cartographers who viewed it from the perspective of the Nile – and, to complicate matters further, designated its southern reaches and part of Sudan as the “Libyan Desert”.
Among its most striking features are the Qattara Depression (the lowest point in Africa), the Ghard Abu Muharrik (Egypt’s longest dune) and the Great Sand Sea, which swallowed up an army. Mysterious craters and silica glass may be due to meteorite strikes, while the Gilf Kebir and Jebel Uwaynat are rich in prehistoric rock art, made famous by the book and film The English Patient.
Cassandra Vivian’s The Western Desert of Egypt: An Explorer’s Handbook is the most comprehensive source of information (including GPS waypoints), while Alberto Siliotti’s pocket-sized guides to The Oases and Gilf Kebir National Park contain excellent maps. All are available from bookshops in Cairo and Bahariya.