24 breaks for bookworms
1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas In 1971, fuelled by a cornucopia of drugs, Hunter S. Thompson set off for Las Vegas on his “savage journey to the heart of …
Verdant cultivated areas and a rugged escarpment across the northern horizon make a feast for the eyes in Dakhla Oasis. Partitioned by dunes into more or less irrigated, fertile enclaves, the oasis supports 75,000 people living in fourteen settlements strung out along the Farafra and Kharga roads. Although it’s the outlying sites that hold the most attraction, the majority of visitors base themselves in or near Mut, Dakhla’s “capital”. Travelling around the oasis, you can see how the Dakhlans have reclaimed land, planted new crops and generally made the best of New Valley developments. Local farmers wear straw sombreros, seldom seen elsewhere in Egypt.
Most villages have spread down from their original hilltop maze of medieval houses and covered streets into a roadside straggle of breeze-block houses, schools and other public buildings. Besides Islamic architecture, Dakhla has pharaonic, Roman and Coptic antiquities, dunes, palm groves and hot springs to explore.
Dakhla’s capital, MUT (pronounced “moot”), was branded a miserable-looking place by travellers early in the nineteenth century, but has come on apace since the 1950s when the existing town was laid out, complete with wide boulevards. The architect of Mut’s low-rise flats is unlikely to have foreseen their balconies being converted into extra rooms or pigeon coops; donkeys chewing hedges in the backstreets add a bucolic touch to the urban landscape.
The main drag, Sharia al-Wadi, runs past an unfinished tourist village, designed by Hassan Fathy, which later inspired similar domed complexes all over Egypt. As in other oases, locals have embraced modernity and seem keen to forget how previous generations lived.
The old town
Contrary to the impression conveyed by its modern-day flats, Mut originated as a hilltop qasr or citadel, divided into quarters separated by gates that were locked at night. Though the summit is in ruins, the mud-brick lanes below are still bustling with life and exciting to explore (beware of lecherous kids and wild dogs). The old town is hidden away behind a ridge, but easy to find. You can enter from the north and exit on to Midan Gam’a, using the Old and New mosques as landmarks.
Midan Gam’a itself used to be the hub of social life but is pretty sleepy nowadays, despite its role as a bus and service taxi terminus.
Mut el-Khorab wildlife
From Midan Gam’a you can glimpse the remains of Mut el-Khorab (“Mut the Ruined”), an ancient city dedicated to the Theban goddess Mut. Mud-brick walls up to three metres high loom over pits left by treasure-hunters, where Fennec foxes dwell in burrows, emerging to hunt at dusk. Nearby lies a small field of golden dunes, the perfect spot for watching sunset. If contacted in advance, Dr Wael Shoudi (e firstname.lastname@example.org) can organize batwatching. Dakhla is home to the only species of fruit-bat (Rousettus aegyptiacus) found beyond the tropics, of which some 2,500 exist in the oasis. Nocturnal mammals, they feed mainly on dates.
Mut’s Ethnographic Museum is ordered like a family dwelling, with household objects on the walls and a complex wooden lock on the palm-log door. Its seven rooms contain clay figures by the Khargan artist Mabrouk, posed in scenes from village life. Preparing the bride and celebrating the pilgrim’s return from Mecca are two scenes that remain part of oasis life today.
Top of the list for most visitors is the medieval settlement of Al-Qasr, which is easily reached by minibus. With a bicycle rented from its resthouse, you can go on to explore the Muzawaka Tombs and the Roman temple of Deir al-Hagar. To also enjoy bathing in local hot springs, take one of the excursions offered by local safari outfits or hire a taxi through the tourist office. Sunset trips by camel (with the option of sleeping in the desert) are a great way to experience the beauty of the oasis.
There are two routes to Al-Qasr via different villages. If you can, it’s worth following one out and the other one back. Most traffic uses the main road (32km), with minibuses stopping at the villages of Rashda and Budkhulu; while along the secondary and longer loop road (45km) they call at Qalamoun, Gedida and Mushiya.
Best visited on the way back, or in the evening, Mut Talatta (daily 24hr; £E10) is the nearest of Dakhla’s hot springs, enclosed by the Sol y Mar Mut Inn. You don’t have to be a guest to enjoy wallowing in the hotel’s large swimming pool of brown, sulphur- and iron-rich water, flowing from a depth of over 1000m, and with chilled beer and wine available, this is a perfect place to relax after a hard day’s sightseeing.
The Fish Pond
One kilometre beyond Mut Talatta is the so-called Fish Pond, a lake created to serve as a fish farm but which became so polluted with pesticides that it’s now merely a drainage lake for irrigation water – but nonetheless great for birdwatching (avocet, stilt and coot). Further out, off to the right of the junction where the desert road joins the highway and the loop road begins, you’ll glimpse the hilltop El-Douhous Village, offering jeep and camel safaris.
If you have a car it’s worth detouring east off the main road beyond Rashda to admire the Al Tarfa Desert Sanctuary, with eucalyptus groves and dunes receding to the escarpment. Back on the highway, olive groves and orchards precede BUDKHULU, whose old quarter of covered streets and houses with carved lintels harbours a ruined Ayyubid mosque with a pepperpot minaret and a palm-frond pulpit. Visible on a hill as you approach is a Turkish cemetery with tombs shaped like bathtubs, grave markers in the form of ziggurats and domed shrines: the freshly painted one belongs to a revered local sheikh, Tawfiq Abdel Aziz.
Shortly before Al-Qasr, the Badawiya Dakhla hotel marks the turning off the highway leading to the cluster of houses and bathing tank at Bir el-Gabal (6km), set amidst breathtaking scenery on the desert’s edge. Here, the Bir el-Gabal Camp organizes camel trekking and rents bicycles – making it a feasible base for visiting Al-Qasr.
The loop road: Qalamoun, Gedida and Mushiya
An alternative route to Al-Qasr is via the so-called loop road, which links three villages – Qalamoun, Gedida and Mushiya –interspersed by stagnant pools and desert. Just off the road, 1km before Qalamoun, is the Magic Spring, a warm, deep waterhole fringed by palms, so-called because bubbles rising up from below make it impossible to touch the bottom.
QALAMOUN dates back to pharaonic times, with many families descended from Mamluke and Turkish officials once stationed here. Its hilltop cemetery affords fine views of the surrounding countryside. The next village is only two hundred years old – hence its name, GEDIDA (“New”). Traditionally, local men have sought work in Cairo, taking it in turns to share the same job with a friend back home. Local employment is provided by a Woodworking Cooperative where (by arrangement with Mut’s tourist office) you can see palm and acacia trees being sawn and fashioned into furniture and mashrabiya screens.
Shortly before the third village, MUSHIYA, the road passes Bir Mushiya, a keyhole-shaped tank fed by a tepid spring, where tourists may also be taken to bathe. The loop road joins the highway opposite a dune field of crescent-shaped barchans, formed by longitudinal dunes on the plateau above the escarpment cascading down the cliff to reform at the bottom and continue their way southwards. Tourists are brought here by jeep or camel to enjoy rolling down the dunes and to take in the view at sunset.
AL-QASR (or Al-’Asr, as locals say) is a must – an amazing Islamic settlement, built upon Roman foundations, which may be the longest continually inhabited site in the oasis and was indubitably Dakhla’s medieval capital. Three or four families still live in the mud-brick old town crowning a ridge above palm groves and a salt lake, set back from New Qasr beside the highway. The “border” is marked by handicrafts sellers beside the New Mosque and a Tour Centre (daily 8am–5pm) where you can pick up a guide to lead you around and unlock houses and workshops. Pay him at the end: £E15– 20 per group seems fair.
Beyond the twelfth-century Nasr el-Din Mosque, whose 21-metre-high minaret has a “pepperpot” finial typical of Ayyubid architecture, you enter a maze of high-walled alleyways and gloomy covered passages. Over thirty houses here have acacia-wood lintels whose cursive or Kufic inscriptions name the builders or occupants (the oldest dates from 1518): look out for doorways with Pharaonic stonework and arabesque carvings, archways with ablaq brickwork, and a frieze painted in one of the passageways.
Near the House of Abu Nafir – built over a Ptolemaic temple, with hieroglyphics on its door jambs – is a donkey-powered grain-mill. Further north, a rooftop mala’af or air-scoop incorporated into a long T-shaped passage conveys breezes into the labyrinth. Beyond is a tenth-century madrassa (school and court) featuring painted liwans, niches for legal texts, cells for felons and a beam above the door for whippings. The maze of alleyways also harbours a restored blacksmith’s forge.
For more information on these and other facets of the old way of life, check out the Ethnographic Museum (daily 10am–5pm; £E10) near the Tour Centre, founded by the anthropologist Aliya Hussein and containing artefacts and photos from all of the oases in the Western Desert.
The best time to photograph Al-Qasr is midday, when sunlight falls through skylights to illuminate the maze of shadowy lanes.
The Muzawaka Tombs
Six kilometres west along the highway from Al-Qasr, a signpost indicates the track to the Muzawaka Tombs, a twenty-minute walk or a slow drive through the silent desert, past eerie rock buttes riddled with empty Greco-Roman tombs. Of the three hundred or so recorded by Egyptologist Ahmed Fakhry in 1972, two provoked the word “Muza!” (Decorations!) – hence the name. Both tombs were later closed for many years as restorers strove to reattach their murals to the friable limestone, but are set to be reopened by 2013, while a visitors’ centre and caféteria are also planned for the site.
The Tomb of Petosiris is vividly painted with Roman-nosed blonds in pharaonic poses, curly-haired angels and a zodiac with a bearded Janus-figure on the ceiling. In the back right-hand corner is a man standing on a turtle holding a snake and a fish aloft – a curious amalgam of Ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman symbolism. The grapevines symbolize vitality.
Cruder murals in the Tomb of Sadosiris show Anubis (weighing the deceased’s heart in one scene), Osiris judging on the rear wall, and another Janus – looking back on life and forward into the hereafter – just inside the entrance. Visitors may also be invited to peer into a tomb full of leathery embalmed corpses (baksheesh expected).
By bicycle or taxi you can reach Deir al-Hagar via an unmarked road 1km past the Muzawaka turning off the highway. The road runs south past some Roman ruins to a small, colourfully painted village (1km); beyond here a track crosses a ridge, whereupon Deir al-Hagar hoves into view on the right.
Notwithstanding its Arabic name, “Stone Monastery”, this was once a Roman temple dedicated to the Theban Triad and the god of the oasis, Seth. The temple’s sandstone hypostyle hall, sanctuary and brick enclosure wall were built in the first century AD, under emperors Nero, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian (whose cartouches can be seen). It later served as a Coptic monastery (notice the mural of Christ, the lion and the lamb in a niche to the left of the temple pylon) until a huge dune consumed it, collapsing the roof and leaving only the tops of the columns visible.
One column is inscribed with the names of almost every explorer who visited Dakhla in the nineteenth century, including Edmondstone, Drovetti, Cailliaud and the entire Rohlfs expedition. It was they who named Dakhla’s only mountain Jebel Edmondstone, after the first European to reach the oasis since ancient times; Sir Archibald Edmondstone beat his French rival, Drovetti, by ten days, in 1819, to “discover” it in the name of England.
Villages on the eastern arm of the oasis are more or less accessible from Mut by minibus; most terminate at Balat or Bashendi, but some go as far as Teneida. Heading out of town, you’ll see where irrigation canals have enabled wheat, rice and peanuts to be grown on once barren land. SHEIKH WALI is on the verge of becoming a suburb of Mut, yet backs onto desert, with olive groves and goat-pens surrounding a Biblical waterwheel, while dunes swell in the distance. ASMANT, 6km on, has the usual sprawl of modern buildings by the road and a high-walled old village on the hill further back, which lends its name to an ancient site 9km further east.
After the stretch of desert beyond Asmant, it’s delightful to reach BALAT, shaded by mature trees, where minibuses drop passengers at a teahouse. Cross the road to explore the old village beyond the TV mast, with its three hundred-year-old mosque upheld by palm-trunks and a maze of twisting covered streets that protect the villagers from sun and sandstorms, and once prevented invaders from entering on horseback. Painted oxblood, salmon, terracotta or pale blue, with carved lintels and wooden peg-locks, its mud-brick houses are only slightly less impressive than the ones in Al-Qasr, with many still inhabited.
Qila ed-Dabba and Ain Asil
Although the oldest houses in Balat village date only from Mamluke times, this locality was a pharaonic seat of government as long ago as 2500 BC, when the oasis prospered through trade with Kush (ancient Nubia). A few kilometres outside Balat, the ancient necropolis of Qila ed-Dabba is home to five mud-brick mastabas (once clad in limestone but long ago reduced to lumps), marking the tombs of VI Dynasty (2345–2181 BC) governors and their families. Like the mastaba-tombs at Saqqara, these consist of mud-brick superstructures used as funerary chapels and built over burial chambers cut deep into the bedrock.
Since the 1980s, the site has been excavated by the Institut Français d’Archéologie Oriental (IFAO), which has a dig-house nearby. Like the Dakhla Oasis Project, the IFAO hopes to find evidence of a “missing link” between Egypt’s Pre-dynastic civilization and the prehistoric tribes of the desert. Their biggest discovery hereabouts has been the Tomb of Khenitka, who governed during the reign of Pepi II (2292–03 BC). Digging 10m down, they found four chambers containing alabaster and terracotta pottery, copper jewellery, statuettes and ostrich eggs (now in the Museum of the New Valley in Kharga Oasis). Faded but elegant reliefs depict Khentika, his wife and son; people ploughing, driving cattle and sailing boats.
The same ticket is also valid for the ruins at Ain Asil, 1km northeast of the necropolis, where a fortress and farming community, whose name meant “Our Root is Lasting in the Oasis”, existed from the Old Kingdom until Ptolemaic times. From either site, you can see – and walk to – Bashendi (about 2km).
Minibuses from Mut either terminate at, or pass the turning for, the village of BASHENDI, whose name derives from Pasha Hindi, a medieval sheikh who is buried in the local cemetery at the back of the village, where the desert begins. The cemetery dates back to Roman times, and the brick-domed Tomb of Pasha Hindi is itself built atop a Roman structure. Empty sarcophagi separate it from the sandstone Tomb of Kitnes, whose Ancient Egyptian-style funerary reliefs depict Kitnes meeting the desert-gods Min, Seth and Shu. Its key is held by a villager who can be fetched if you want to look inside. Tombs also form the foundations of many of the village houses, which are painted pale blue or buttercup yellow with floral friezes and hajj scenes, merging into the ground in graceful curves.
TENEIDA, on the eastern edge of the oasis, is a modern affair centred on a leafy square, whose only “sight” is a cemetery with weird tombstones resembling tiny houses. With a car, you can press on to see some rock inscriptions off the highway 10km beyond Teneida. The carvings include an ostrich at the base of the sandstone outcrop beside the road, while beyond some fields another rock shaped like a seated camel is covered in prehistoric and Bedouin drawings of giraffes, camels and hunters, as well as the name of Jarvis (British governor of Dakhla and Kharga in the 1930s) and many others. Sadly, recent visitors have covered many of the ancient inscriptions with mindless graffiti.
The road to Kharga Oasis
Beyond the last flourish of greenery, wind-sculpted rocks give way to dun table-tops and gravelly sand, persisting for most of the way from Dakhla to Kharga (193km). Following the Darb el-Ghabari or “Dust Road”, the modern road skirts the phosphate-rich Abu Tartur Plateau that separates the two depressions. The appearance of a phosphates factory 45km outside Kharga alerts you for a treat to follow. Golden dunes march across the depression, burying lines of telegraph poles and encroaching on the highway. Villagers faced with their advance have been known to add an extra storey to their house, live there while the dune consumes the ground floor and move back downstairs once it has passed on. These dunes are outstretched fingers of the Ghard Abu Muharrik, of the type known as “whalebacked”.
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