Middle East and North Africa: 10 spectacular sights off the beaten track
The Middle East and North Africa have plenty of world-famous attractions – Petra and the Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings and the souks of Marrakesh, the mi…
Bahariya Oasis is the smallest of the four oasis depressions, only 94km long and 42km wide. In the Late Cretaceous era, 94 million years ago, this was a steamy mangrove-swamp inhabited by dinosaurs such as the plant-eating paralititan and the carnivorous carcharodontosaurus (whose bones have been found here). The oasis is known to have been under pharaonic control by the Middle Kingdom, when it exported wine to the Nile Valley, and later thrived as an artery between Egypt and Libya, with Arab armies, merchants and pilgrims passsing through over millennia.
Although it covers 1200 square kilometres, less than one percent is actually cultivated, with date palms, olive and fruit trees, vegetables, rice and corn. Ominously, where ground water was once tapped at a depth of 30m, farmers must now bore 1000m underground; fruit trees have suffered from being irrigated by hotter water, raising fears for Bahariya’s future sustainability.
Meanwhile, many people have prospered from tourism. Local safari outfits employ hundreds of drivers, cooks and gofers, particularly over Christmas and Easter (when many foreigners living in Cairo come here) and the six-day Pharaon Rally in September, when some 150 jeeps and motorbikes race through the oasis, accompanied by TV crews and spectators.
Unlike the three neighbouring oases that comprise the New Valley governorate, Bahariya comes under 6th October City, one of the high-rise satellite cities built to reduce Cairo’s congestion. Plans to build a Museum of the Oases have been stalled for years as the two governorates squabble over whether it should be located in Bahariya or Farafra Oasis.
You’ll pass 6th October City en route from Cairo, shortly after the Pyramids of Giza. Thereafter the landscape is flat and featureless, until a grubby halfway resthouse followed by a reddish-purple tract of desert whose iron-ore deposits are transported to the Helwan steelworks by a mining-railway.
The oasis “capital” BAWITI (pronounced “Ba-weety”) has a picturesque nucleus of old houses on a ridge overlooking luxuriant palm groves, but that’s not what you see on arrival. Breeze-block dwellings and concrete government buildings line the Cairo–Farafra highway, which doubles as the main street (Sharia Gamal Abdel Nasser/Sharia Masr), busy with trucks, jeeps and donkey-carts. Tourism here is intensely competitive, with touts besieging foreigners the moment they step off the bus.
Oasis Heritage Museum
Bawiti’s most visible “sight” is the Oasis Heritage Museum, a qasr-like ensemble beside the highway beyond the town limits. Created by Mahmoud Eed, a self-taught sculptor inspired by Badr in Farafra, the museum is a work-in-progress. Both artists’ figurines portray a way of life that’s almost disappeared in the oases, for men at least, whose job it once was to hunt gazelles and weave mats (women’s roles haven’t changed so much). Besides Mahmoud’s terracotta tableaux there’s a rather sad Reptile Collection of lizards, snakes and hedgehogs, captured in the desert.
Less obvious is Bawiti’s old quarter of mud-brick homes (reached by following Sharia Safaya and nameless streets northwards), flanked by mastabas where elders sit and gossip. Beyond the domed Tomb of Sheikh el-Bishmu you can track down Ain Bishmu, a fissure in the bedrock where a spring was hewn in Roman times, gushing hot water (35°C) into a natural basin. Although the ravine is disfigured by a pumping station, there’s a wonderful view of the palm groves below the ridge, where it’s delightful to wander around (especially in spring when the almond orchards are in blossom).
The old quarter merges into Al-Qasr, built on the site of the former pharaonic capital and continuously inhabited since – though many houses are now abandoned or used as livestock pens. Alleys snake past secretive courtyards and walled gardens, ending in cul-de-sacs or joining up with other lanes. Some houses incorporate stones from a bygone XXVI Dynasty temple, and a Roman triumphal arch which survived until the mid-nineteenth century.
Near Bawiti’s hospital, the bunker-like Antiquities Inspectorate – locally known as “the museum” (Al-Mathaf) – was built to exhibit mummies from a huge cache found outside Bawiti in 1996. Encased in gilded and painted cartonage (linen pasteboard), with sculpted stucco masks, the eleven “Golden Mummies” displayed here include a child buried with its parents. The mother’s head is inclined towards her husband, and she wears a “chest plate” sculpted with tiny triangular breasts – a funerary fashion in Greco-Roman times, when mummification was often perfunctory. Many of the mummies removed from the earth have since deteriorated – some previously on display are no longer fit to be shown. The museum also has an impish statue of Bes, from his shrine at Ain al-Muftillah.
Tombs of Zad-Amun ef-Ankh and Bannentiu
From the Antiquities Inspectorate you can walk downhill and cross the main road to reach Qarat Qasr Salim, a built-up ridge harbouring two tombs found by Ahmed Fakhry in 1938. Both date from the XXVI Dynasty, when rich local merchants built themselves tombs emulating those of the nobility.
The Tomb of Zad-Amun ef-Ankh is sunk in a steep-sided pit. Its votive hall has rounded pillars and is decorated with deities (notice the people bringing gifts, to the left), painted in ochre, brown and black upon a white background. Zad-Amun was wealthy enough to afford his alabaster and limestone sarcophagi to be quarried near Tell el-Amarna and Giza, shipped along the Nile and then dragged 200km overland to Bawiti.
Nearby is the Tomb of Bannentiu, his son, at the bottom of a 10m shaft. Mind your head on the steel grating and the low entrance to its votive hall, whose inscriptions acclaim Bannentiu as a priest and a prophet. Here the pillars are square and the murals are in brick red, golden yellow, pale blue and black upon white. Some of the deities have only been sketched in, but there’s a fine solar barque at the back, and the embalming process is shown on the right-hand wall.
The ancient town once extended to Ain al-Muftillah, a spring nowadays on the outskirts of the desert. It’s feasible to cycle here but better to go by car, as the route isn’t signposted or easy to describe. A little way south of the spring is a wooden-roofed enclosure containing four small ruined shrines from the XXVI Dynasty, excavated by Steindorff and Fakhry. Built of friable sandstone streaked with ochre and sienna (which makes them liable to flake and unusually colourful), none conforms to the canons of pharaonic architecture. One was dedicated to Bes, patron deity of musicians, dancers and prostitutes; all that remains of his image is a devilish foot and a tail.
By crossing the rise and a dune beyond, you can enjoy a panoramic view of Al-Qasr, Bawiti and the surrounding countryside.
Temple of Alexander
Ask at the Ahmed Safari Camp for directions to the Temple of Alexander, 400m away via a sandy track. Built of the same soft stone as the shrines at Ain al-Muftillah, its reliefs have suffered from being sandblasted by the wind for centuries, obliging the SCA to recreate the face and cartouche of Alexander the Great that archeologists recorded in the 1930s. This is (or was) the only temple in Egypt to bear Alexander’s figure and cartouche; some believe that he passed through Bahariya en route to Memphis after consulting the Siwan Oracle.
With its palm groves, fields and desert, this scenic area can be explored on a half-day tour offered by some hotels and safari outfits (see Tours around Bahariya Oasis and beyond), or by renting a bicycle from New Newasha Handicrafts. To visit Bir el-Ghaba and Jebel el-Dist involves a round-trip of about 25km.
The nearest spring to Bawiti is Bir Ramla, a nice two-kilometre walk past palm and fruit orchards, although the springs are too hot (45°C) for most tourists and quite public. Men can bathe here in shorts; women only at night, in full-length opaque clothing. Similar rules apply to Bir el-Negba, 1km further on.
Bir al-Mattar, 5km from Bawiti, is also too hot to bathe in, and there is only a trickle of water at Bir el-Ghaba (“Well of the Forest”), 11km from town, yet the locality is worth a visit purely for its scenery, with palm and eucalyptus groves yielding to scrub and tawny mountains in the near distance.
Jebel el-Dist (“Mountain of the Pot”) is more accurately described by guides as “Pyramid Mountain”, while the ever-changing play of light across it has inspired another name, “Magic Mountain”. Its dinosaur beds have been picked bare, but the fields and acacia groves nearer Bir el-Ghaba abound in insects and birdlife. You’ll also see a herd of camels belonging to a Bedouin family (except in July, when the oasis is plagued by camel-ticks and the camels go walkabout in the desert).
En route to all these sites you’ll pass the aptly named Black Mountain (Jebel Souda), whose dolomite and basalt mass is crowned by a ruined look-out post used by Captain Williams to monitor Senussi incursions in 1916, for which it is nicknamed the “English Mountain” (Jebel el-Ingleez). Most of the inhabited parts of the oasis are visible from its summit, whose rocks have an oddly sticky texture and smell faintly of biscuits.
Linked by a country back-road which makes them easy to explore by bicycle, the villages near Bawiti are unaffected by tourism, and people are friendly and hospitable. AGOUZ, only 2km from town, is reputedly inhabited by the descendants of families banished from Siwa Oasis for the loose morals of their womenfolk, but they would rather forget this slur on their ancestors.
The back-road to Mandisha passes a field of dunes threatening to engulf ZABU’s houses and palm groves in sand. Behind the gardens facing the escarpment a track leads into a canebrake harbouring a giant sandstone boulder known as Qasr el-Zabu, inscribed by Libyan nomads and other travellers with petroglyphs: sun symbols, horses, a charioteer, a woman with her arms akimbo and the name of the explorer Hyde.
This part of the oasis is usually visited on jeep safaris to the White Desert. Some drive around the far side of Jebel Gala Siwa to see a beautiful dune that has formed in the lee of the escarpment – ideal for sandboarding. Most stop for lunch at Heiz el-Bahri, where tamarisk-mounds and palms surround a cold spring, one of several fertile enclaves in the locality called El-Heiz.
In the desert to the west of the highway, roughly 30km from Bawiti, a white monument commemorates Swiss René Michel, a pioneer of tourism to Bahariya, who died here from heatstroke in 1986.
The Black Desert
A hellish landscape of conical and table-top hills with black basalt summits errupting from tawny sand, the Black Desert (Sahara Souda) stretches most of the way to Farafra Oasis. Unfairly under-rated compared to the White Desert, this big-sky country eludes efforts to capture its majesty by photography. During winter-time the Black Desert can be seen from the air in a hot-air balloon – an unforgetable experience. One-hour flights ($100) with Viking Balloons can be arranged through Ahmed Safari Camp
The Bahariya and Farafra depressions are separated by a limestone escarpment where gigantic drifts of sand flank the road as it traverses the Naqb es-Sillum (“Pass of the Stairs”). Two microwave masts relay signals between the oases, and there’s a first-aid post with an ambulance by the mast nearest Bahariya. Shortly after the second mast, some safari groups turn off-road towards Agabat and the White Desert.
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