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…
Despite being the nearest of the oases to Luxor and the capital of the New Valley, Kharga Oasis gets far fewer tourists than the others. El-Kharga, the “capital” of the oasis, is a 1970s metropolis of eighty thousand people with adequate facilities and a good museum, but otherwise dull, and while the oasis contains many ancient sites, relatively few are accessible without a car, and some can only be reached by jeep.
Submerged by the sea aeons ago, leaving fossils on the high plateau, the Kharga depression is hemmed in by 300-metre-high cliffs, with belts of dunes advancing across the oasis. It’s thought that there were no dunes here in Roman times; myth has it that they erected a brass cow on the escarpment, which swallowed up the sand. Many desert trade routes converged on the oasis, notably the Forty Days Road. Both Roman legionaries and Mamluke troops were stationed here, and deserted Roman forts and villages that claim descent from Mamluke soldiers attest to centuries of firm control by Egypt’s rulers, who have used Kharga as a place of exile since antiquity. Under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, Islamist militants were incarcearated in the tuberculosis-ridden Kharga Prison (visible as one enters the oasis from the north).
Kharga is seen by some as a portent that the New Valley spells ruin for the oases. The influx of fellaheen from the Nile Valley has changed agricultural practices; rice cultivation has proved more water-intensive than expected, depleting aquifers and turning land saline – leading to strict limits on its production. It’s indicative of the mixed antecedents of its citizens that the name Kharga may be pronounced “Harga” or “Harjah”, depending on who’s talking. Both the oasis and its capital are called Kharga; we’ve used the prefix “El-” to refer to the city.
As the capital of the New Valley Governorate (comprising Kharga, Dakhla and Farafra oases), EL-KHARGA has grown into a sprawl of mid-rise buildings and highways, with the only reminder of its romantic oasis-town origins being the souk and lush palm groves in the “lower” town. The modern town was laid out on higher ground than the original settlement, with banks and government buildings lining the wide Sharia Gamal Abdel Nasser, which is too long and monotonous for pleasant walking, despite its ornamental obelisks, arches and shrubs. Public minibuses run along its length, en route between the upper and lower parts of town.
Though El-Kharga is no longer encircled by palm groves, they still flourish beyond Sharia Bur Said, and dates play an important part in the social calendar. City Day (Oct 3) celebrates the beginning of the date harvest with a parade of floats along Sharia Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the marriage season is also timed to coincide with the flowering of the date crop (from July until harvest time).
Museum of the New Valley
Housed in an imposing modern building modelled on the Coptic tombs of nearby Bagawat, the Museum of the New Valley exhibits artefacts from sites scattered across three oases. The most impressive are Greco-Roman: painted sarcophagi from Maks al-Qibli to the south of Kharga Oasis; death masks from Qasr el-Labeka to the north; and mummified rams, eagles and ibises from Dakhla Oasis. The Old Kingdom is represented by jewellery, scarabs and headrests from the tombs of the VI Dynasty governors at Qila ed-Dabba, also in Dakhla. Look out for the ba birds, representing the soul of the deceased, unearthed at Dush Temple in the far south of Kharga.
The lower town
From Midan Showla a busy souk runs off into an old quarter of mud-brick houses painted apricot or azure and daubed with the lucky Hand of Fatima. Turn right at the first crossroads and then left to find the Darb as-Sindadyh, a dark, serpentine alley roofed with palm trunks which once extended over 4km through a medieval settlement like the qasr in other oases. Most of this has crumbled into ruin, but a short stretch has been restored to remind visitors of what used to exist here.
Three of the oasis’ most evocative monuments lie a few kilometres north of El-Kharga, within walking distance during winter. Here you can see the Temple of Hibis juxtaposed against the Bagawat Necropolis, one of the oldest Christian cemeteries in Egypt, itself backed by an imposing ruined monastery, Deir el-Kashef. Further north and harder to reach, Ed-Deir, Qasr el-Labeka and Ain Um Dabadib are ancient forts, tunnels and other feats of Roman and Persian engineering.
Temple of Nadura
Hardly anyone bothers to visit the ruined Temple of Nadura, sat atop a 135-metre-high hill in the desert en route to the Bagawat Necropolis. Its eroded sandstone wall and pronaos aren’t anything special, but the view of the surrounding countryside is great, as suggested by its name, Nadura, meaning “The Lookout”. Built during the reign of Antoninus Caesar, Nadura is typical of the Roman temple-forts that once protected the oasis from desert raiders.
Temple of Hibis
Sited just off the highway before the Bagawat Necropolis, the Temple of Hibis is the largest cult-shrine in any of the oases. Dedicated to Amun-Re, it was begun in the reign of the XXVI Dynasty ruler Psammetichus II and completed by the Persian emperor Darius I (521–486 BC). Fields roundabout cover the site of ancient Hibis, a town that prospered during the same period. The temple was reconstructed after a $20 million conservation fiasco, when it was dismantled to move it to higher ground only for engineers to decide that a drainage system was a better solution to the rising groundwater that was undermining its foundations.
Some 200m past the Temple of Hibis you’ll see the Bagawat Necropolis, consisting of 263 mud-brick chapels spread over a hilltop. Used for Christian burials between the third and sixth centuries (latterly by followers of Bishop Nestorius, who was exiled to Kharga for heresy), the chapels embody diverse forms of mud-brick vaulting or Roman-influenced portals, but are best known for their Coptic murals.
Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Abraham and Isaac populate the dome of the fifth-century Chapel of Peace near the entrance to the necropolis. Further north, Roman-looking pharaonic troops pursue the Jews, led by Moses, out of Egypt, in the Chapel of the Exodus. Flowery motifs and doves of peace can be seen inside Tomb #25, one of three adjacent family vaults. The scenes in all these tombs are crudely executed but full of life and vividly coloured.
From Bagawat’s ticket kiosk, a track runs behind the hill past an archeologists’ resthouse and rows of rock-cut tombs to reach the dramatic ruins of Deir el-Kashef (“Monastery of the Tax Collector”). Named after a Mamluke governor, the five-storey Coptic monastery once housed hermits and travellers in its vaulted cells, and still commands a view of the point where the Darb al-Ghabari from Dakhla crossed the Forty Days Road.
In the valley below you can see the ruins of a small church or hermitage, with Greek texts on the walls of the nave and the tiny cells where the monks slept.
The best-preserved and most accessible of Kharga’s Roman forts is Ed-Deir, near the eastern scarp-wall, which once guarded the shortest camel route to the Nile. Built during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Diocletian (244–311 AD), its twelve rounded towers are connected by a gallery, with numerous rooms featuring obscene graffiti drawn by generations of Roman, Turkish and British soldiers.
The abandoned railway visible in the distance was built by the British in 1906–8, but gradually blocked by advancing dunes. The same fate befell another railway built further south in the 1980s, whose steel tracks were stolen after the 2011 Revolution.
Qasr el-Labeka is the nearest site where you can see the amazing system of underground aqueducts, known as manafis, that drew on ground water like the qanats of ancient Persia (Fakhry suggests that the system originated under Persian rule). Labeka is reached via a spur-road off the highway that turns into a sandy track leading to a tiny oasis, where a farmer has cleared out the manafi to irrigate palms and plots. If you don’t mind getting your feet wet, the horizontal shaft is narrow but tall enough to venture into. The vertical shafts allowing access from the surface give their name to such aqueducts (manafi means “shaft”).
You can tell where water lies near the surface from the scrub or palm trees on the plain beyond. Ruined houses and a temple lie half-buried in the sand, with a Roman fortress looming from a nearby crag. Its twelve-metre walls enclose sand-choked chambers and the rear gate overlooks a palm grove. If Labeka’s Arabic name “Palm-wine Fort” signifies anything, it wasn’t the worst posting for a legionary.
Ain Um Dabadib
Despite its proximity to Labeka, cars may have to backtrack as far as El-Kharga to find a corridor through the dunes to reach Ain Um Dabadib. The largest ancient site in the oasis (covering over 200 square kilometres), it includes a ruined Roman fortress, Byzantine churches and tombs, but is most remarkable for its underground aqueducts, the deepest 53m beneath the surface and the longest running for 4.6km. When one of these manafis was cleared in the 1900s, water began to flow again. Now choked with sand and inhabited by snakes, scorpions and bats, they are risky to explore.
Further west beyond the limits of the Kharga depression, the isolated Ain Amur (“Spring of the Lovely One”) is situated 200m up the cliffs of the Abu Tartur Plateau. At 525m above sea level, this is the highest spring in the Western Desert, fed by aquifers in the escarpment rather than deep below the desert floor. Coptic graffiti includes the testimony of a traveller “faint from thirst” who stumbled upon Ain Amur late at night, which “saved him”. Some believe the spring was the last watering hole of the legendary Lost Army of Cambyses, before it disappeared into the Great Sand Sea.
Exploring the southern part of the oasis entails flitting between sites off the highway. The temples of Qasr el-Ghweita and Qasr al-Zayn are both relatively close to town; Dush is further out and harder to reach. Dr Mahmoud Youssef can guide visitors to two lesser Roman ruins, amidst the dunes behind Kharga’s extravagantly marbled train station, moribund since the railway line to Luxor was abandoned to the desert sands in 2008 (its tracks were stolen by looters following the Revolution).
Qasr al-Baramoudi and Qasr al-Nasima
Reached by a farming track turning off the highway just before the train station, these two unguarded sites have been looted since the Revolution. Qasr al-Baramoudi is a small Roman fort with an oven-shaped pigeon tower which once supplied the garrison with fowl. Such towers have been used in Egypt since antiquity and are still seen in the Nile Valley, but this is exceptional for being Roman and being incorporated into military architecture.
Two kilometres further southwest, Qasr al-Nasima is another ruined fort, with an underground shaft which possibly housed an archive of messages transmitted by carrier-pigeons between the forts in the oasis.
Visible from behind Hamadalla Sahara City, where a spur-road runs off towards it, Qasr el-Ghweita (“Fortress of the Small Garden”) is a fortified hilltop temple from the Late Period with a commanding view of the area, which was intensively farmed in ancient times. Its ten-metre-high walls enclose a sandstone temple dedicated to the Theban Triad, built by Darius I on the site of an older shrine. The Hypostyle Hall contains scenes of Hapy the Nile-god holding symbols of the nomes of Upper and Lower Egypt. Inscriptions attest to the quality of the grapes grown hereabouts; wine from Kharga was prized during the New Kingdom, if not earlier.
From Qasr el-Ghweita the spur-road loops south to Qasr al-Zayan, a Roman temple that lends its name to a still-thriving village built over the ancient town of Tkhonemyris. This proximity to daily life helps you imagine it as a bustling settlement in antiquity. Dedicated to Amun-Re, the temple is enclosed within a mud-brick fortress, together with living quarters for the garrison, a cistern and a bakery. The plain hereabouts is 18m below sea level, the lowest point in Kharga Oasis.
Returning to the highway, the next settlement, BULAQ (meaning “Watch”), consists of a picturesque old village to the west and a larger modern one to the east. Its rustic hot springs (open 24hr; free) are visible immediately before you enter town, on the right.
South of Bulaq stretch a string of New Valley settlements founded in the 1980s, named Algeria, Kuwait, Palestine, Baghdad and Aden in a gesture of Arab solidarity.
Seventy kilometres from El-Kharga, BARIS (pronounced “Bar-ees”) is named after the French capital, though its foraging goats and unpaved streets make a mockery of a billboard welcoming visitors to “Paris”.
Two kilometres before town, you’ll pass the abandoned village of Baris Gedida (New Baris), begun in the early 1960s by architect Hassan Fathy and based on the principles of traditional oasis architecture, including wind shafts to cool the marketplace. Work was halted by the Six Day War of 1967 and never resumed, so the initial settlers soon drifted away.
More recently, Baris was poised to develop once the Sheikh Zayed Canal – drawing water from Lake Nasser – reached Kharga, entering the depression here, but the completion of the final 80km stretch was postponed during the Mubarak era and may never happen now that the Toshka scheme has been discredited.
Temple of Dush
Reached via a spur-road leaving Baris next to a radio mast, the Roman Temple of Dush was built by Emperor Domitian and enlarged by Hadrian and Trajan, who added a monumental gateway. Reputedly once sheathed in gold, the temple is covered in dedications to the last two emperors and the gateway in graffiti by Frederic Cailliaud and other nineteenth-century travellers. “Dush” is believed to derive from Kush, the name of the ancient Nubian kingdom.
Abutting the temple to the east is a hilltop fortress dating from the Ptolemaic era, now partially buried in the sands, with mud-brick walls up to six metres high, and four or five storeys below ground.
The fortress formerly protected the ancient town of Kysis, an agricultural settlement enriched by the Forty Days Road, that had potters, jewellers and brothels. Since 1976 these sites have been studied by the IFAO, which is currently investigating nearby Ain Manawir, three deep subterranean aqueducts that once supplied water to Kysis. From October to April visitors will find the IFAO mission in residence near the temple, and also the deluxe Tabuna Camp, an idyllic place to stay if you can afford it.
Maks Bahri and Maks Qibli
From Dush, it’s 32km by road to MAKS BAHRI (“Customs North”), a village that once lived off the infamous Forty Days Road, taxing each slave that entered the oasis, selling supplies and pandering to the slavemasters. Caravans going in the other direction were taxed at MAKS QIBLI (“Customs South”), where you can see a small mud-brick fort, the Tabid el-Darawish, built by the British after the Dervish invasion of 1893. Nowadays, the Forty Days Road has been paved as far south as Bir Tafarwi to link up with the agricultural project at East Oweinat.
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