The rock art of the Eastern Desert is one of Egypt’s best-kept secrets. Spread over 24,000 square kilometres of desert east of Luxor and Edfu, the sites vary from a single boulder to cliff walls dotted with pictures of people and animals, flotillas of boats and herds of giraffes, ostriches and elephants. They are difficult to reach, however, and it’s easy to get lost – at least one group has died in the area – so it’s vital to go with a guide. There are three main places of interest: two are partially accessible by 2WD, using the roads between El-Quseir and Qift or Marsa Alam and Edfu, but all of the wadis between them require 4WD.
Created before the unification of Egypt (c.3100 BC), the rock art sheds light on the origins of Egyptian civilization. The oldest human figures are gods or chieftains in ostrich-feather headdresses, brandishing maces – intriguingly similar to the “Conquering Hero” motif in pre- and Early Dynastic art at Hierakonopolis in the Nile Valley. They often appear standing in boats, and are frequently surrounded by ostriches, elephants or cattle. Both Hans Winkler, who did seminal research in the 1930s, and David Rohl, who made recent studies, believe the oldest boats represent “Eastern Invaders” from Mesopotamia, who reached Egypt by the Red Sea and conquered the indigenous people of the Nile Valley, kickstarting Egyptian civilization.
Permits are required for visiting these sites: both Red Sea Desert Adventures and Ancient World Tours (UK t 020 7917 9494, w ancient.co.uk) can obtain them and organize excursions.