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.
The best (and often the only) way to reach many sites, desert safaris are organized by operators in the various oases, Cairo and Europe. Bahariya Oasis is the safari-hub of the Western Desert and the best place to arrange one at short notice, particularly to the White Desert. Longer safaris (four to nineteen days) to remoter sites such as the Great Sand Sea or the Gilf Kebir must be booked at least a month ahead and are generally restricted to spring and autumn, due to bureaucracy and the climate. Sadly, some safari outfits fail to respect the environment, leaving rubbish behind or even helping foreign collectors to plunder artefacts or minerals. All those we recommend below have good environmental credentials.
Several near-fatal incidents in remote areas have prompted tighter controls on travelling in the “deep desert”, which the Egyptian Army takes to mean everywhere west of the highway between Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga – namely between Bahariya and Siwa, to Ain Della, the Great Sand Sea or the Gilf Kebir – but not sites east of the highway, such as the White Desert or El-Qaf.
Permits for 24 hours (£E50/person) can only be used to travel by day between Siwa and Bahariya (without leaving the road), or to Ain Della and the Hidden Valley. Doing either with a safari operator means they’ll handle the paperwork, otherwise you’ll need to submit a photocopy of your passport and visa (plus your licence and insurance if you’re driving) to NGOs in Bahariya or Siwa, which will process them in 24 hours (except on Fri & Sat).
Only registered travel agencies can apply for overnight or multi-day permits for off-road travel between Siwa and Bahariya (£E100/person daily) or to the Gilf Kebir (£E160/person daily). Expect to pay a surcharge if your safari outfit uses a partner agency to apply on its behalf, and allow a month for the application to be processed.
A soldier with a satellite phone accompanies vehicles travelling between Bahariya and Siwa in case of breakdowns. Safaris to the Gilf must have an armed escort from the Tourist Safari Police (established so that responsibility no longer lies with the army). Four guards are required for travel below longitude 27° and eight guards below longitude 23°.
Though gravel plains, limestone pans and scarps account for sixty percent of Egypt’s Western Desert, it is the region’s dunes that captivate the imagination. Lifeless yet restless, they shift and reproduce, burying palm groves, roads and railways in their unstoppable advance. Their shape is determined by prevailing winds, local geology and whatever moisture or vegetation exists. Where sand is relatively scarce and small obstructions are common, windblown particles form crescent-shaped barchan dunes, which advance horns first, moving over obstacles without altering their height. Baby dunes are formed downwind of the horns, which produces parallel lines of barchans with flat corridors between them, advancing up to 20m each year. Barchans can grow as high as 95m, extend for 375m, and weigh up to 450 million kilos. However, their mass is nothing compared to parallel straight dunes, or seif dunes (from the Arabic word for “sword”) – some in the Great Sand Sea are 140km long. Formed by a uni-directional wind, they have slipfaces on both sides and a wavy, knife-edged crest along the top. When seif dunes fall over an escarpment they reform at the bottom as crescent dunes, which is why barchans are the prevailing form in Dakhla and Kharga. Occasionally, they pile one on top of another to create mountainous whalebacks or mega-barchans. Seif and whaleback dunes can combine to form huge sand seas or ergs. Egypt’s Great Sand Sea extends from Siwa Oasis to the Gilf Kebir and far into Libya, where it merges with the Calanscio Sand Sea. When the wind direction alters constantly, it can even form star-shaped dunes. These are rare in Egypt, but one has been recorded at Wadi al-Bakht in the Gilf Kebir. Another type of formation is the flat, hard-packed sand-sheet, found in the Darb al-Arba’in Desert.
Much of the science of dune formation was discovered by the explorer Ralph Bagnold, whose classic book The Physics of Blown Sand and Desert Dunes (1939) later helped NASA to interpret data from its Martian space probes. The book was written with the benefit of five years’ experimentation with a home-made wind tunnel and builder’s sand; after his desert journeys of the 1920s, Bagnold felt “it was really just exploring in another form”.
Likened in Ancient Egypt to a bud on the stem of the Nile, the Fayoum depends on river water – not springs or wells, like a true oasis. The water is distributed by a system of canals going back to ancient times, through palm groves and orchards, to flow into the Lake Qaroun, the Fayoum depression’s main topographical feature since ancient times (known as Lake Moeris in the Greco-Roman era). The word “Fayoum” probably derives from Phiom, the Coptic word for “sea”, although folklore attributes it to a pharaoh’s praise of the Bahr Yussef canal which irrigates the depression: “This is the work of a thousand days” (alf youm).
The Fayoum’s capital, Medinet Fayoum, is far less alluring than the depression’s periphery, rich in natural beauty spots, wildlife and antiquities. West of Lake Qaroun, the artists’ colony of Tunis makes a relaxed base for exploring Qasr Qaroun temple, the wildlife sanctuary of Wadi Rayan and the fossilized prehistoric Valley of the Whales. Of the Fayoum’s pyramid sites, the Collapsed Pyramid of Maidum marks a step between the first pyramid at Saqqara and subsequent efforts at Dahshur and Giza. Lahun and Hawara are later, ruined pyramids from the XII Dynasty, which ruled Egypt and ordered the waterworks that transformed the Fayoum from its capital Itj-tway (Seizer of the Two Lands), near El-Lisht, where the dynasty’s founder built his own pyramid.
It’s worth visiting Medinet Fayoum simply for its festivals, as many local farmers do. Hotels overflow during Ali er-Rubi’s moulid in the middle of Sha’ban (the eighth month in the Muslim calendar), when the alleys around his mosque are crammed with stalls selling sugar dolls and horsemen, and all kinds of amusements can be tried, while the devout perform zikrs in the courtyard. The other big occasion is the “viewing” (er-ruyeh) of the new moon that heralds Ramadan, celebrated by a parade of carnival floats representing different professions, whose riders bombard spectators with “lucky” prayer leaflets.
Evidently Maidum began as a step pyramid (like Zoser’s at Saqqara), with four levels, which was then enlarged to an eight-step pyramid, and finally given an outer shell to make it a “true” pyramid. It seems, however, that the design was faulty, distributing stresses outwards rather than inwards, so that its own mass blew the structure apart. When exactly this happened is unknown – and the crux of the riddle of the Collapsed Pyramid.
No inscriptions appeared on the coffin found inside, but New Kingdom graffiti in the nearby mortuary temple led archeologists to attribute the pyramid to the IV Dynasty ruler Snofru or to his father Huni (c.2637–13 BC). Partisans of Huni argue that Snofru commissioned the Red and Bent pyramids at Dahshur, and would therefore not have needed a third repository for his ka.
Most scholars accept Kurt Mendelssohn’s theory that the design of the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur was hastily altered because Maidum collapsed during its construction. But critics argue that there is no evidence for the collapse having happened while Dahshur was underway – indeed, Maidum’s mortuary temple would not have been built had this happened – and the collapse might have occurred as late as Roman, or even medieval, times.
The nineteenth-century Egyptologist Flinders Petrie calculated that its original height from base to summit was 93.5m (today’s ruin is 65m high), with a base-to-height ratio and slope identical to the Great Pyramid at Giza which would have been expressed by the Ancient Egyptian measurement of seked (dividing the royal cubit into seven palms and four further digits), specified millennia after the last pyramid was built in the XVII Dynasty Rhind Mathematical Papyrus.
The Fayoum’s ancient capital, Crocodilopolis (later renamed Arsinoë after Ptolemy II’s sister-wife), was the centre of the crocodile cult supposedly began by Pharaoh Menes, the legendary unifier of Upper and Lower Egypt, whose life was saved by a croc while he was hunting in the Fayoum marshes. The crocodile deity, Sobek, was particularly favoured by Middle Kingdom rulers and assumed national prominence after being identified with Re (as Sobek-Re) and Horus. Sobek was variously depicted as a hawk-headed crocodile or in reptilian form with Amun’s crown of feathers and ram’s horns. At the Sacred Lake of Crocodilopolis, reptiles were fed and worshipped, and even adorned with jewellery, by the priests of Sobek. Today, nothing remains of the ancient city, north of the modern capital.
One kilometre beyond Tunis, a well-signposted spur-road turns off the lakeside highway towards Wadi Rayan, a separate depression 15km outside the oasis which has become a man-made wildlife haven. The idea of piping excess water from the Fayoum into the wadi was first mooted by the British but only put into practice in 1966, when three lakes and a waterfall were created, vegetation flourished and the area became a major nesting ground for birds.
Wadi Rayan is now a nature reserve harbouring the world’s sole known population of slender-horned gazelles, eight other species of mammals, thirteen species of resident birds and 26 migrant and vagrant species. The prehistoric fossils of the Valley of the Whales also come under its auspices, supported by several foreign NGOs.
Initially cultivated, the valley gets sandier the closer you get to Wadi Rayan’s azure lakes, where hordes of visitors descend on Fridays and holidays to sunbathe and play ghettoblasters on the beach. The lake is too saline for swimming, but boating (and floating in rubber tyres) is popular, and its tatty lakeside cafés are always busy.
From the main lake a track leads to the waterfalls (shallalat). The only ones in Egypt, they’ve appeared in countless videos and films despite being only a few metres high, and are usually busy with families enjoying the novelty of an outdoors power-shower, surrounded by reeds and sand dunes.
About 10km beyond the visitors’ centre, the road passes a hill known as Al-Mudawara which you can hike up for a spectacular view of the reed-fringed lake and desert scarp beyond. Soon afterwards is the turn-off for the Valley of the Whales, followed by a signposted turning to a birdwatching site by the shore. Besides the ubiquitous cattle egrets, grey herons and little bitterns, there are hard-to-spot wagtails, skylarks, kestrels, kites and Senegal coucals.
Further on, magnificent seif dunes 30m high run parallel to an inlet fringed by tamarisks, with three sulphur springs nearby, before the road crosses a boring stretch of desert to return to the oasis. All of this route can be done in a 2WD car, unlike the route to the Valley of the Whales, separated from Wadi Rayan by the Garet Gohanimeen (Mountain of Hell), so-called because the light of the setting sun appears to transform it into an inferno.
Egypt’s remotest corner is dominated by the Gilf Kebir (Great Barrier), a 7,770-square-kilometre plateau that forms an even more formidable obstacle than the Great Sand Sea. Before its discovery by Prince Kemal el-Din in 1926, the Gilf was only known to desert nomads who saw no reason to share their knowledge with outsiders.
What subsequent European explorers found there illuminated Saharan prehistory, later inspiring the book and film The English Patient, relating the exploits of explorer László Almássy and his discovery of the Cave of the Swimmers. This superb example of prehistoric rock art is only one of thousands of paintings and petroglyphs in the wadis of the Gilf and Jebel Uwaynat, depicting giraffes, ostriches, lions and cattle, and people hunting and swimming – before the decisive shift from savanna to desert occurred at the end of the Holocene wet period, around 5000 BC.
Since then the Gilf Kebir has become one of the driest places on earth. Rainfall is less than a millimetre a year, and may fall only every five years, while temperatures range from 0°C to 42°C, with as much as 30°C difference between night and day. With colossal dunes leapfrogging each other to climb the 300-metre-high escarpment, it is (like Chile’s Atacama Desert and the dry valleys of Antarctica) one of the places in the world where the environment comes closest to the surface of Mars, and has been intensively studied by NASA.
Yet aeons ago in the late Tertiary age, the Gilf was a watershed draining in all directions; its wadis eroded by water and then by wind and sand over one hundred thousand years. The sheer cliffs on the south and southwest sides are the highest, while the northeasterly ones have been worn down by the Sand Sea. Dunes have filled up the valleys and are climbing one on top of the other; white by the Sand Sea, or red around the middle of the Gilf and its southern massif. Despite being so arid, the top of the plateau gets enough rainfall for hardy flora and fauna to survive: Barbary sheep, gazelles, foxes, lizards, snakes, birds and butterflies, Roses of Jericho and acacia trees. Visitors may find other surprises, too, like the wreck of a Blenheim bomber discovered on the plateau in 2001 – one of many relics from World War II.
Besides all this, visitors are drawn by the romance of the explorers who “discovered” the Gilf – not only Almássy, but Englishmen Ralph Bagnold, Douglas Newbold and Kennedy-Shaw, and Irishman Patrick Clayton. During World War II, they set up the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) that wreaked havoc behind Italian and German lines, while their former comrade Almássy served on the other side with the Afrika Korps.
In 2007, the Egyptian government established the Gilf Kebir National Park, whose 48,533 square kilometres encompass the Gilf, Uwaynat, and the Silica Glass area of the Sand Sea. Protecting this vast area is another matter, especially since the revolutions in Egypt and Libya have weakened authority at every level. Please abide by park regulations (don’t disturb or remove anything), and report safari outfits engaged in trafficking artefacts to the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (w eeaa.gov.eg).
Of all the trade routes between North Africa and the tropical south, the Forty Days Road (Darb al-Arba’in) was the one most involved in slavery – the only business profitable enough to justify the risks and rigours of the thousand-mile journey. The slaves, purchased at the Dongola slave market or kidnapped by the fierce desert tribes, were assembled at Kobbé, a town (no longer existing) 60km northwest of El-Fasher, the capital of Sudan’s Darfur Province, once an independent kingdom.
After a few days’ march from Kobbé, the slaves were unchained from their yokes, for there was no way to escape. With no permanent water source until Bir Natrun, 530km away, they could only survive on the ox skins of water that burdened the camels. While human losses were erased by the sands, the road gained definition from its Bactrian casualties; a 1946 survey of northwestern Sudan noted “a track about one mile wide marked with white camel bones”.
Egyptian customs posts taxed caravans arriving in Kharga Oasis, the last stage before their ultimate destination, Assyut. As the caravans approached, small boys were hidden in empty water skins to evade tax, but officials would beat them to thwart this ploy. Traffic along the Forty Days Road ended in 1884, after the rise of the Dervish Empire in Sudan closed the border; by the time it reopened, slavery had been prohibited in Egypt. Today, a new form of human trafficking is flourishing in the far southern Darb al-Arba’in Desert: smuggling refugees from Darfur, Somalia and Eritrea into Libya, via the remotest region of Egypt.
Jeep-safaris to the Gilf are a major logistical effort involving multiple 4WD vehicles equipped with GPS and satellite phones, authorized by a permit and accompanied by an armed escort of Tourist Safari Police – all of which add to the basic cost of fuel, drivers, food and water. Reckon on paying €120–150 per person per day, once everything has been factored in.
Aside from the cost there’s the bureaucracy: you must book at least a month if not six months’ ahead of the only times when the temperature is tolerable (Feb–March & Sept–Nov). Even so, discomfort is inevitable: sand gets into every crevice of your body, there’s no water to spare for washing and you start to stink – like everybody else. Unless you’re willing to rough it and muck in when needed, there’s no point in coming at all. But if you do, you’re sure to remember it for the rest of your life.
Since the kidnapping of a safari group at Uwaynat in 2008 (a wake-up call for the Egyptian authorities who had previously turned a blind eye to people being trafficked into Libya and failed to anticipate that banditry in Darfur might spill over the border), security is now a consideration for anyone travelling this way. Check your own government’s travel advice (Germany warns its citizens not to expect to be rescued at the state’s expense), and that your insurance covers deep-desert journeys and what (if any) back-up exists in case of emergencies.
Though the safari operator will supply meals, tents and bedding, you need to bring personal essentials such as sun block and skin cream and any luxuries like alcohol or cigarettes (the nearest supply is in Kharga or Dakhla oases). Binoculars are a must, too.
Most safari outfits will take people in their own 4WDs providing they’re able to handle the driving, which requires experience, skill and nerve. If you have doubts on any of these scores then you should come as a passenger and let the safari team handle all the work.
On a map of North Africa, the ruler-straight borders of Libya, Egypt and Sudan intersect at Jebel Uwaynat, the highest, most isolated point in the Libyan Desert. Surrounded by sand-sheets, it rises sheerly to 1898m above the desert floor, just high enough (600m above sea level) to attract a little rainfall, which percolates down to small pools or “springs” at its base, after which Uwaynat is named.
The valleys here (called karkurs) are fertile if watered, and sustained communities from prehistoric times until the early 1930s, with rock art spanning thousands of years.
In Karkur Talh (Acacia Valley), Hassanein Bey found engravings of lions, giraffes, ostriches, gazelles and cows, and Shaw discovered ninety human figures drawn on the roof of a cave. These figures were lither than the hunters in the Cave of the Archers at Wadi Sura but otherwise similar, leading Winkler to conclude that both were the work of the ancient Tebu, who ranged across the Sahara from their mountainous homeland of Tibesti, in Chad (as they still do today).
After the Italians occupied Kufra and placed an outpost at Uwaynat, the possibility that it could be an unguarded back door into Egypt during wartime occurred to both Bagnold and the Italian commander Lorenzini – but not to the HQ staff-wallahs who turned down Bagnold’s proposal for car patrols along the frontier. It wasn’t until Italy declared war in 1940 that Bagnold was authorized to set up long-range patrols to monitor any activity. In the event, the Italians never tried anything so bold, but Almássy later slipped through from Kufra via Uwaynat and the Gilf, to guide two German spies as far as Kharga Oasis, before returning to Libya.
Since the kidnapping of a safari group at Karkur Talh in 2008, Egyptian Border Guards have been stationed there and an armed resort of eight Tourist Safari policemen has been mandatory for all expeditions to Uwaynat.
Founded by Ralph Bagnold in June 1940 to reconnoitre Axis forces and engage in “piracy on the high desert”, the Long Range Desert Group’s motto was “Not by Strength, but Guile.” Led by Bagnold and other prewar explorers such as Patrick Clayton, William Kennedy-Shaw and Douglas Newbold, it consisted mainly of New Zealanders, who soon learnt the arts of desert warfare. As with Special Forces ever since, the emphasis was on self-reliance and mobility. Each patrol took all it needed for a cross-desert journey of 1500 miles (which could be doubled by establishing a forward supply dump), in stripped-down Chevy trucks fitted with sand mats and tyre-tracks (doubling as air markers for supply drops) and a sun compass invented by Bagnold. Patrols operated for up to eleven weeks as they spied on convoys or delivered SAS commandos to attack airfields – in ten months, over four hundred planes were destroyed in this way (more than the RAF managed). You can read about the LRDG’s exploits in Bagnold’s Sand, Wind and War: Memoirs of a Desert Explorer, Saul Kelly’s The Hunt for Zerzura, Peter Clayton’s Desert Explorer (about his father, Patrick), or on the LRDG Preservation Society’s website w lrdg.org.
First mentioned in 1246 as an abandoned village in the desert beyond the Fayoum, the “Lost Oasis” of Zerzura reappeared as a fabulous city in the fifteenth-century Arabic treasure-hunters’ Book of Hidden Pearls. Its setting was described as three valleys endowed with springs, palm trees, birds and animals, where robbers would find a city “white like a pigeon”, with a bird carved on its gate. Inside were riches, and a king and queen asleep in their castle. “Do not approach them, but take the treasure”, the book advised.
After the nineteenth-century Egyptologist John Wilkinson learnt of the story, the search for Zerzura obsessed European explorers. As successive desert surveys dashed hopes of finding it anywhere within reach of the known oases, attention turned to the far south, where Jebel Uwaynat and the Gilf Kebir had recently been discovered by Hassanein Bey and Prince Kemal el-Din.
In February 1932 Almássy and Lord Robert Clayton launched the Zerzura Expedition (the first to combine cars with light aircraft). Almássy was away visiting Kufra Oasis when Clayton and his observer Penderel flew in their Gypsy Moth biplane over the northern Gilf, sighting “an acacia-dotted wadi”. After Almássy’s return they made further flights and spotted two such wadis, which they planned to explore by car the following spring. But fate intervened in their plans, for Clayton died of polio on a visit to England, swiftly followed by the expedition’s sponsor, Prince Kemal el-Din, leaving Almássy to seek new sponsors and Clayton’s widow to continue her husband’s quest independently.
It was a Tebu caravan guide who told Almássy of the existence of a third valley. When asked if he knew of Zerzura, he replied: “Oh, those silly Arab people, they do not know anything, they call these three wadis in the Gilf, Zerzura, but we local people know their real names.” Almássy was certain that he had identified the lost oasis at last.
Although The English Patient locates the Cave of the Swimmers at Jebel Uwaynat, it actually lies in the Gilf’s Wadi Sura (Picture Valley), where Almássy found it in 1933, with the Frobenius expedition that was searching for rock art at Uwaynat and in the western valleys of the Gilf that had been explored by Patrick Clayton two years earlier. Clayton’s son believes that his father found the wadi and its other caves first, but it was Almássy’s privilege to discover the Cave of the Swimmers and name the valley.
Shot in Tunisia, the film of The English Patient portrays the cave as a deep, convoluted passage, whereas it is really a shallow hollow at the mouth of the wadi, shockingly exposed to the elements (like the Cave of the Archers).
The Cave of the Swimmers harbours well over a hundred figures in diverse styles. Its famous swimmers are 10cm long and painted in red, with small rounded heads on stalks, tadpole-shaped bodies and spidery arms and legs. Some are diving, implying that a lake once existed here (for which there’s geological evidence).
A second group of figures are depicted standing, with clumsy limbs, thick torsos and pea-shaped heads; hands only appear on the larger figures. Most are dark red, with bands of white around their ankles, wrists or waists, similar to the hunters at Karkur Talh. Still more intriguing are two yellow figures that seem to be stretching out their arms to welcome a third, smaller, red one, which may be a child and its parents. Cattle, giraffes, ostriches and dogs are also depicted on the walls.
Not far away – beyond a patch of cliff-face where some cretin from London has carved his name – the Cave of the Archers contains dark red and white figures of naked men clutching bows, some of them shooting at cattle – whose presence dates these pictures to the Cattle Period (5000–2500 BC) of North African rock art.
Hans Winkler of the 1938 Monod expedition termed the style of the male figures “balanced exaggeration”, since they all have wide shoulders and hips, tiny waists and tapering limbs. Feet and hands are rarely shown, and heads often omitted too – unlike the spear-carrying hunters depicted in Karkur Talh at Jebel Uwaynat, which are otherwise similar in style.
On the sandy plain beyond the wadi’s entrance, a massive boulder perched upon smaller ones forms the Giraffe Cave, found by Clayton in 1931. Inside are giraffes, cattle and dogs, painted in black or white. Anthropologist Roland Keller believes that the giraffe images here prefigure the headless creatures in the Cave of the Beasts as early avatars of the Ancient Egyptian god Seth, whose cult accompanied the prehistoric savanna-dwellers as they were forced to move to the Nile Valley by the increasing aridity of their hunting grounds.
The Great Desert Circuit extends for around 1400km through four oases, once ruled by pharaohs, Persians, Romans, Mamlukes, Turks and Britons, which have been transformed since the 1970s under the New Valley programme. Bahariya and Farafra harbour the fantastic Black and White deserts, hot springs and palm groves, while in Dakhla and Kharga, temples and villages attest to historic ties with the Nile Valley and Saharan caravan routes. As well as the inhabited oases there are more remote sites such as the El-Qaf stalactite cave and the Ghard Abu Muharrik dune, plus uninhabited oases along the road to Siwa.
Allow a week to sample all four oases. If you only have a few days, Bahariya and Farafra are the ones to aim for from Cairo; starting from Luxor or Assyut go to Dakhla rather than stopping in Kharga. Each oasis shares the climate of Nile Valley towns on the same latitude – Bahariya is like Minya and Kharga like Luxor – although the air is fresher (except during sandstorms). Winters are mild by day and near freezing at night (bring a sleeping bag); in summer temperatures can soar to 50°C at midday and hover in the twenties after dark. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit, with orchards in bloom or being harvested and enough tourists around to make sharing costs easy.
Don’t expect any fancy restaurants (though you can look forward to Bedouin parties round a campfire) or be surprised by accommodation and safari operators under the same roof (which can cause problems if you decline their trips). Tourism is in the hands of officials and entrepreneurs whose competence and honesty varies. While it pays to shop around, don’t let over-suspicion sour things, as you really need local help to get the best from the oases and will have to strike a deal with somebody in the end.
Visitors should respect local values by dressing modestly and observing the conventions on bathing in outdoor springs (mostly keyhole-shaped concrete tanks fed by hot water pumped up from below). The ones nearest town are always used by local men; if women bathe there, it is only after dark, never when males are present, and only fully covered by a galabiyya. You can avoid these restrictions by bathing in isolated spots, but most women cover up anyway. Women on their own should beware of entering palm groves or gardens – regarded here as an invitation to sex.
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.
Meditation tours are a lucrative sideline for local safari outfits, working with such new-age tour companies as Cosmic Flower (w cosmicflower.nl), Energies of Egypt (w hiddenegypt.com) and The Lightweaver (w thelightweaver.org). At the Bawitie Oasis Resort, Donny Heuvelmans runs courses in spiritual healing based on Ancient Egyptian rituals, and other forms of natural healing, while the International Hot Spring hotel offers various massage treatments (£E200/hr).
Half-day local tours of Bahariya Oasis – visiting the Black Mountain, Bir el-Ghaba and Jebel el-Dist – can be arranged by El-Beshmo Lodge (£E300), Ahmed Safari Camp (£E400) or freelance drivers (negotiable). The cost can be split between four or five passengers and a 4WD vehicle isn’t essential.
Bahariya is a hub for jeep safaris throughout the Western Desert, whether to the White Desert in nearby Farafra Oasis, Siwa via the Great Sand Sea, or the Gilf Kebir in the far south. Although this is the best oasis in which to shop around for a deal, price shouldn’t be your only benchmark when choosing a safari operator. Some are highly experienced but others lack the skills to respond to a sandstorm, a car overturning or a tourist needing to be rushed to hospital after dark – or even carry enough water or fuel to survive getting stranded or lost. The farther off-road into the desert you venture, the more vital their competence becomes.
Outfits attached to hotels or camps using drivers aged over 30 are a safer bet than gung-ho 20-somethings with a borrowed jeep and no back-up – so don’t begrudge paying more than the bare minimum charged by novices. Priced on the basis of four passengers, safaris should have a separate supply-jeep for every two or three passenger cars, depending on the terrain and the duration of the trip. Off-road to remote areas requires a guide familiar with the terrain from experience, not merely reliant on GPS waypoints. Local drivers may tell tourists that they have been to the Gilf when really they only know easier terrain closer to home.
In 1996 a donkey owned by a guard at Alexander’s Temple stumbled into a hole in the desert 6km southwest of Bawiti, alerting its master to what turned out to be the largest cache of mummies ever found in Egypt. Surveys revealed that this Greco-Roman era necropolis (no public access) covers ten square kilometres and may contain ten thousand mummies, stacked in family vaults – hundreds have been found so far. Whereas most are simply wrapped in linen, others are in terracotta coffins adorned with human faces, their bodies covered in gilded cartonage and their faces with stucco masks. These Golden Mummies caught the imagination of the public, and TV networks paid millions of dollars to film the opening of a series of burial chambers. It is widely rumoured that Egypt’s former antiquities supremo Dr Zahi Hawass enriched himself with backhanders and by secretly selling the mummies abroad.
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 email@example.com) 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”.
Asmant el-Khorab (“Asmant the Ruined”; no public access), 20km east of Mut, is the local name for the ruins of Kellis, a Roman and Coptic town inhabited for seven centuries, whose temples and churches mark the shift from pagan Rome to Byzantine Christianity. Excavations have unearthed the remains of aqueducts, farmhouses and tombs, including 34 mummies and wooden codices, casting light on religion and daily life in the third century AD.
Asmant el-Khorab is now the field HQ of the Dakhla Oasis Project (DOP), a multi-disciplinary effort to understand the interaction of oasis cultures and their environment, from the Stone Age through until the twenty-first century. Half-a-dozen foreign missions are seeking the holy grail of Egyptology: evidence of links between the Old Kingdom and desert trade routes going back to Neolithic times, which may answer the question: did Ancient Egyptian civilization emerge from the Western Desert?
As some places are hard to reach, and it takes local knowledge of natural beauty spots to get the best from Dakhla, organized excursions can be a good idea. Omar at the tourist office can arrange half-day trips either to the east or the west of the oasis (£E150/car) or a full day-trip to both (£E300; £E500 by 4WD), focusing on local antiquities. The Abu Mohammed Restaurant and Anwar hotel quote £E200 per person for a five-hour trip featuring Al-Qasr, the Magic Spring and dunes at Bir el-Gabal. Nasser at Elias Camp charges £E150 per person for an afternoon’s camel trekking, or £E250 to stay overnight in the desert (minimum of three people; meals included).
Ranging further afield, the Bedouin at El-Douhous Village offer overnight jeep trips and camel trekking in Farafra’s White Desert. These cost around £E700 per person per day for a up to six people.
Farafra Oasis is renowned for its White Desert, which many tourists visit on safaris from Bahariya rather than from the oasis “capital”, Qasr al-Farafra, a one-horse town if ever there was. Historically, Farafra was the least populous and most isolated of the four oases. When camels were the only means of travel, the Farafrans had less contact with Bahariya (a journey of four days) than with Dakhla, which was tenuously connected to the Forty Days Road. Fakhry relates how the villagers once lost track of time and could only ascertain the right day for Friday prayers by sending a rider to Dakhla.
Qasr al-Farafra was the only village in the oasis before the New Valley scheme seeded a dozen hamlets across the depression, now inhabited by fifteen thousand settlers from the Assyut region and the Delta.
Qasr has remained a tight-knit community of four extended families and is noted for its piety, apparent during Ramadan, when the mosque overflows with robed imams and sheikhs.
Compared to Bahariya, few people are involved in tourism so there’s almost no hustling – but little to do at night either. Few tourists stay longer than a night in Qasr, and many simply use it as a pit-stop after camping out in the White Desert and before carrying on to Dakhla Oasis. There are, however, other things to see besides the White Desert, from local hot springs to stalactite caves far into the desert.
The low ground in QASR AL-FARAFRA has been colonized by modern infrastructure, which obscures the view of the ancient hilltop village, backing onto palm groves. Even there modernization is apparent, with austerely beautiful old mud-brick houses topped by flowing pediments or crenellations being superseded by breeze-block homes with proper bathrooms. Though Qasr’s population has shot up to five thousand in the last twenty years due to better healthcare, its shops and market are still meagre and frugality is the order of the day, despite a few wealthy locals who’ve built villas on the edge of town.
Come nightfall, there’s little to do but hang out in teahouses or maybe wallow in the hot spring at Bir Setta, unless you happen to chance upon a zikr in somebody’s home. These play an important role in the religious and social life of Farafra; foreigners of both sexes are welcome, providing they respect that they are guests at a religious ritual, not spectators at a tourist attraction – which means modest dress and behaviour.
The creation of Badr Abdel Moghny, a self-taught artist who has exhibited in Europe, Badr’s Museum resembles a Disneyfied desert mansion, with reliefs of camels and farmers decorating its walls and an antique wooden lock on the door. Its dozen-odd rooms exhibit Badr’s rustic sculptures and surreal paintings, stuffed wildlife, weird fossils and pyrites. Here, “Mr Socks” sells handknitted camel-hair mittens, hats and thick woolly socks, for those cold desert nights.
At the highest point in the vicinity, houses merge imperceptibly into the ruined mud-brick fortress (qasr) that gives the village its name (though the full title isn’t used in everyday speech). Until early in the twentieth century, Farafrans would retreat inside whenever marauders came; each family had a designated room, where, during normal times, provisions were stored and guarded by a watchman. Damaged by heavy rainfall, the fortress began to crumble in the 1950s; the less damaged parts are now home to several families.
The palm groves
The extensive palm groves behind the village look especially lovely just before sunset. They are divided into walled gardens planted with olive and fruit trees as well as date palms (whose branches are used to fence the land). You can walk the paths freely, but shouldn’t enter the gardens uninvited; for single women to do so is regarded as provocative. Likewise, avert your eyes from the men’s bathhouse on the edge of the village, where youths splash around in a concrete tank fed by a pipe gushing warm water. Foreigners are expected to bathe at other springs, such as Bir Setta.
Covering 3010 square kilometres on both sides of the highway, the White Desert National Park was established in 2002 to protect this unique landscape from over-exposure to tourism. Heavy fines for littering and the restriction of jeeps to specified tracks forced safari outfits which only cared about making a fast buck to mend their ways. However, after the ticket office was burned down during the 2011 Revolution and park wardens went unpaid, enforcement ceased. At the time of research, safaris were only paying fees to enter or camp in the park if they happened to meet one of the few park wardens on duty.
Crystal Mountain and Agabat
Coming from Bahariya Oasis, you’ll enjoy a succession of fantastic views as you enter the Farafra depression, where safaris halt to let passengers admire the Crystal Mountain (Jebel al-Izaz), a shiny quartz ridge with a human-high natural arch through the middle, which is why locals call it Hagar al-Makhrum, the “Rock with a Hole”.
At this point jeeps can turn off onto a signposted route into the White Desert known as the English Track (after the 1920s explorers who first found a way by car), but most traffic continues along the highway, descending the Naqb es-Sillum past the landmark Twin Peaks, to the east.
Beyond Twin Peaks lies the spectacularly rugged terrain known as Agabat (“Wonders”). Its pale rock “sugarloaves” are a feast for the eyes, but the surrounding soft sand and powdered chalk can easily entrap vehicles – which is why some locals call the locality Akabat (“Difficult”).
The White Desert
Agabat segues into the famous White Desert (Sahara el-Beida) on both sides of the highway. Everywhere you look are chalk yardangs (pinnacles) eroded into surreal forms, looming above a dusty pan strewn with shells, crystals and iron pyrites shaped like sea urchins or twigs. The yardangs glint pale gold in the midday sun, turn violet and pink around sunset, and resemble icebergs or snowdrifts by moonlight. All originated as deposits of countless sea urchins that thrived in the shallow sea that covered this area during the Cretaceous period, one hundred million years ago. After the sea receded in the mid-Tertiary Era, twenty-odd million years of wind-erosion produced the shapes that amaze visitors today.
Most safaris enter the desert at Bir Regwa to follow tracks past such rock formations as the Mushroom, the Tents and the Sphinx. The first two refer to multiple yardangs, each a different shape. Another landmark is a large Acacia Tree growing from a hillock, whose canopy offers welcome shade. Shrubs and palms dot the landscape where subterranean water nears the surface at Ain Sirwal and Ain Abu Hawas. Roman pottery scattered about suggests that this was once a caravan route between Farafra and Bahariya.
Though relatively few safari outfits run trips there – or even know the area from experience rather than mere heresay – the western reaches of the Farafra depression are no less fascinating than the White Desert. The Hidden Valley (Wadi al-Ubayyid) behind the Qus Abu Said Plateau looks superficially similar but is more geologically diverse, with volcanic massifs as well as chalk yardangs.
The northerly route into the valley passes the well of Bir Bednui; a 20-metre-high pinnacle call ed Al-Qabur (“The Chisel”); and humped monoliths known as Hummocks. In the 1990s, Italian archeologists found the remains of a prehistoric village beside a long-vanished lake, leading to the discovery of the Al-Ubayyid Cave 50m up a cliff-face. Its three chambers contain rock art, with engravings of gazelles and cattle, and the blown-outlines of human hands. The cave is officially off-limits but some safaris visit it nonetheless.
Further west stands the Infidel Rock, an anthropomorphic rock formation that locals believe marks the last known location of the fabled Lost Army of Cambyses. Sphinx Valley is a locality where almost every yardang calls to mind (and might even have inspired) the famous monument near the Giza Pyramids. The plain beyond is dominated by huge chalk inselbergs, or isolated hills, prompting local safari operators to dub this the New White Desert.
Until a decade ago the New White Desert was off-limits due to the proximity of Ain Della (“Spring of the Shade”), which has played an epic part in the history of the Western Desert as the last waterhole before the Great Sand Sea. Used by raiders and smugglers since antiquity, explorers in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Long Range Desert Group in World War II, it now has a garrison of Egyptian Border Guards. This elite force pursues smugglers using jeeps (rather than camels, as in the days of the Frontier Camel Corps), roaming up to 200km into the Great Sand Sea on four-day patrols. The spring-water is sweet to drink and allows the soldiers the luxury of showers at their barracks in the middle of nowhere.
If you’ve got time to spare, the off-road journey from Farafra to Dakhla is an amazing two-to-three-day journey that takes you through constantly varying scenery. Safaris starting from Bahariya may travel via the White Desert, or take the easier approach used by outfits in Farafra, via road (62km) to Bir Qarawein. This ancient well has now been supplemented by boreholes, allowing watermelons to be grown among dunes that are perfect for sandboarding. When the boreholes were first sunk in the late 1990s, enterprising locals grew a far more lucrative crop – marijuana – until their plantations were spotted by chance from an army helicopter.
From Qarawein, jeeps backtrack by road to pick up a track to the sweetwater spring of Bir Dikkur, marked by two palms and a camel’s skeleton, and into the dune lanes advancing in a southeasterly direction. Some have trees protruding from their crests where the dunes have buried whole palm groves on their relentless march towards Dakhla Oasis. Over the next 100km or so, safaris pass through the Black Valley, strewn with iron pyrites, and the Marble Labyrinth, whose sharp stones are equally hard on cars’ tyres. The route ends with a steep descent from the plateau to Al-Qasr in Dakhla Oasis.
Some safari outfits run trips to El-Qaf (also known as Gara or Djara), beyond the limits of Farafra Oasis. Entered via a shallow depression in the desert, this remote stalactite cave was known to local Bedouin long before it was “discovered” by Gerhard Rohlfs in 1873, though its whereabouts were subsequently forgotten until it was rediscovered by Carlo Bergmann in 1989. Archeologists have since found stone arrowheads and knives in the cave predating similar tools in the Nile Valley by five hundred years, suggesting that Neolithic technology originated in the desert.
The cave was formed some 100,000 years ago but its limestone formations stopped growing when the rains ceased about 5000 BC. Since then it has filled with sand to a depth of 150m – what’s visible today is a fraction of its total size. Some of the pure white stalactites and veil-formations are six metres tall; each one resonates with a different note if gently tapped at its point. Bring lighting, since there’s none in the cave.
Safaris to El-Qaf often contiunue 20km further east to see the Ghard Abu Muharrik (“Dune with an Engine”). Stretching from Bahariya to Kharga Oasis, this is the longest whalebacked dune in the Western Desert, only disqualified from being the longest in Africa by two ridges that trisect the dune into three stretches 100–125km long. It’s an awesome sight, dune piled upon dune from horizon to horizon.
Somewhere out in these wastes, Samir from Western Desert Safari in Bahariya has discovered what he calls a Sand Volcano, where sand blows up from a subterranean fissure – a phenomenon that has yet to be explained and which can only be seen on his tours, since he jealously guards the secret of its location.
Relatively few vehicles follow the 310-kilometre road between Farafra and Dakhla Oasis. Once you’re past Ain Sheikh Mazouk, the desert shifts from white stone to gravel and golden sand until you reach Abu Minqar (“Father of the Beak”), an expanse of crops and acacia trees in the wilderness where wells have been sunk and houses built in an effort to attract settlers. It’s also the westernmost point on the Great Desert Circuit, and an obligatory tea-stop.
Beyond lie more undulating golden sands, with the escarpment that delineates Dakhla Oasis visible a few kilometres to the left of the highway. Notice the telephone pylons, half-buried by dunes. Entering Dakhla Oasis, you’ll pass through Al-Qasr and Mut Talatta before reaching Dakhla’s main centre.
Although most visitors are content to see the White Desert, those with time to spare might consider visiting other beauty spots in the oasis. Farafra has about a hundred wells and natural springs used for irrigation, some of which are also suitable for bathing. Bir Setta (Well Six), behind the defunct AquaSun hotel 6km northwest of town (£E20–30 by pick-up truck from the petrol station) is a keyhole-shaped tank of sulphurous warm water that stains your clothes brown. Further north, all kinds of birdlife are drawn to the reedy freshwater lake of Abu Nus (£E30–40 by pick-up). To the south are Ain Besai, a cold pool beside the rock tombs and chapels of a settlement abandoned in Christian times, and Ain Sheikh Mazouk, a hot sulphur spring feeding a tank where local men bathe (both are close enough to the highway to be reached by bus, or by pick-up for about £E30).
If you happen to be on a jeep or camel safari to Dakhla Oasis, ask your guide to stop at two sites of geological interest. An area across the highway from Ain Sheikh Mazouk is strewn with hundreds of thousands of iron pyrites shaped like flowers, starbursts, twigs or dog turds (their black colour caused by a chemical change from sulphide to oxide), plus fossils of ancient marine creatures such as Terebratulina and Spirobris. Further south towards Abu Minqar lies the Valley of Shells (Wadi el-Khawaka), strewn with prehistoric sea-shells.
One of the most famous tales in the Histories of Herodotus is that of the Persian conqueror Cambyses (525–522 BC), son of Cyrus the Great, who sent an army across the desert to destroy the Siwan Oracle. According to Herodotus, the fifty thousand-strong army marched from Thebes (Luxor) for seven days to an “oasis”, and thence towards Siwa – which leaves room for doubt as to whether the oasis was Kharga or Farafra. Depending on which you favour, their last watering hole was Ain Amur or Ain Della, beyond which the army ran out of water and perished in the Great Sand Sea after a sandstorm scattered and buried the weakened troops. Some ascribe this disaster to the Persians miscalculating their longitude; others blame their ignorance of the hostile environment. The mystery of where the Lost Army disappeared tantalized explorers such as Almássy, who claimed to have found the site but never disclosed its location. In 2001, an Egyptian professor announced he had found it after discovering bronze arrowheads and human skeletons north of the Al-Ubayyid Cave, but failed to convince anyone; in 2010, two Italians claimed to have found Persian armour, but were denied permission to excavate. Others theorize that the army numbered far less than fifty thousand soldiers (Persian sources routinely overestimated the size of armies), and was in fact perhaps no larger than five thousand.
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.
The four oases overlie a dead, prehistoric branch of the Nile, tapping a subterranean aquifer estimated to contain fifty thousand cubic kilometres of water. In 1958 Nasser’s government unveiled plans to irrigate the desert and relocate landless peasants from the overcrowded Nile Valley and Delta to this New Valley (El-Wadi el-Jedid). From this emerged a New Valley governorate charged with running Kharga, Dakhla and Farafra oases, in collaboration with the 6th October City governorate which administers Bahariya Oasis.
Since work began in the 1970s doubts have surfaced about the aquifer, which was previously thought to be replenished by underground seepage from Lake Chad and Equatorial Africa but is now believed to be a finite – perhaps rapidly diminishing – resource. The water-table has fallen dramatically in all the oases except Siwa, boreholes must be deeper and the ground water pumped to the surface is hotter. A decade’s effort by Mubarak’s regime to bring Nile water to Kharga Oasis via the Sheikh Zayed Canal, and exploit the aquifier beneath the desert at East Oweinat, has left several ghost towns deserted by settlers disillusioned by the lack of jobs and infrastructure.
Between the Gilf Kebir and Siwa Oasis lies the awesome immensity of dune fields that the explorer Gerhard Rohlfs named the Great Sand Sea (Bahr er-Raml in Arabic). Covering 72,000 square kilometres (roughly the size of Ireland), the Sand Sea extends for an average of 650km from north to south and 300km from east to west. Roughly two thirds of this consists of parallel seif dunes, sometimes over 100m high and as much as 150km long, separated by flat “corridors” one or two kilometres wide, whose northwest–southeast alignment is determined by the prevailing wind.
While these seif dunes are ever-moving, satellite imaging has shown that they sit atop stable whalebacked dunes. Elsewhere in the Sand Sea, where seif dunes have descended escarpments, they have reformed as crescent-shaped barchans. Though shifting sands seem the only “life” in the Sand Sea, a little vegetation exists, lying dormant for years until a brief shower of rain revives it.
This spectacularly alien terrain has long fascinated explorers and scientists; now tourists are venturing in to marvel at its wonders. A brief excursion from Siwa Oasis to Bir Wahed will let you experience its colossal dunes without spending a fortune, while the following sites can be visited on deep-desert safaris.
Isolated by hundreds of kilometres of desert, Siwa Oasis remained virtually independent from Egypt until the late nineteenth century, sustaining a unique culture. Yet despite – or because of – its isolation, outsiders have been drawn here since antiquity. The legendary Army of Cambyses was heading this way when it disappeared into a sandstorm; Alexander the Great journeyed here to consult the famous Oracle of Amun; and Arabic tales of Santariyah (as the oasis was known) were common currency into the nineteenth century. In modern times, Siwa has received visits from kings and presidents, anthropologists and generals. Tourism only really began in the mid-1980s but has gathered steam since then.
The oasis offers all you could ask for in the way of desert beauty spots: thick palm groves clustered around freshwater springs and salt lakes; rugged massifs and enormous dunes. Equally impressive are the ruins of Shali and Aghurmi, labyrinthine mud-built towns that once protected the Siwans from desert raiders. Scattered around the oasis are ruined temples that attest to Siwa’s fame and prosperity during Greco-Roman times.
Visitors are also fascinated by Siwan culture and how it is reacting to outside influences like TV, schooling and tourism. Nowadays, it is mostly only older women who wear the traditional costume, silver jewellery and complex hair-braids; younger wives and unmarried women dress much the same as their counterparts in the Nile Valley. But the Siwans still observe their own festivals and wedding customs; and among themselves they speak Siwi, a Berber tongue.
Though things are changing, the Siwans remain sure of their identity and are determined to maintain it. Siwans remain deeply conservative in matters of dress and behaviour. The tourist office asks visitors to refrain from public displays of affection, and women to keep their arms and legs covered – especially when bathing in pools. Women should also avoid wandering alone in places with few people around, especially palm groves (which is seen here as an invitation to sex). Local people are generally more reserved than Egyptians, and invitations home less common.
The best time to come is during spring or autumn, when the Siwans hold festivals and the days are pleasantly warm. In winter, windless days can be nice, but nights – and gales – are chilling. From May onwards, rising temperatures keep people indoors between 11am and 7pm, and the nights are sultry and mosquito-ridden. Even when the climate is mild you’ll probably feel like taking a midday siesta or a swim.
Beyond the fact that it sustained hunter-gatherers in Paleolithic times, little is known about Siwa Oasis before the XXVI Dynasty (664–525 BC), when the reputation of its Oracle spread throughout the Mediterranean world. Siwa’s population seems to have been at risk from predatory desert tribes, so their first settlement was a fortified acropolis, about which Classical accounts reveal little beyond its name, Aghurmi, and its position as a major caravan stop between Cyrenaica and Sudan. The Siwans are related to the Berbers of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, and their language is a variant of the Berber tongues, so their society may have originally been matriarchal.
Shali and early Siwan society
According to the Siwan Manuscript (a century-old compilation of oral histories whose sole copy is seldom shown to outsiders), repeated Bedouin and Berber raids had reduced Aghurmi’s population to a mere two hundred by the twelfth century AD. Around 1203, seven families left Aghurmi to found a new settlement called Shali, whose menfolk are still honoured as the “forty ancestors”. Later, newcomers from Libya settled in the oasis, giving rise to the enduring distinction between the “Westerners” and the original “Easterners”, whose historic feud began after they disagreed over the route of a causeway that both had undertaken to build across the salt lake of Birket Siwa. Nonetheless, both coexisted within a single town built of kharsif: a salt-impregnated mud which dries cement-hard, but melts during downpours – fortunately, it rains heavily here only every fifty years or so. Fearful of raiders, Shali’s elders forbade families to live outside the walls, so as the population increased Shali could only expand upwards, with passageways regulated to the width of a donkey.
Bachelors aged between 20 and 40 had to sleep in caves outside Shali, guarding the fields – hence their nickname, zaggalah (club-bearers). Noted for their love of palm liquor, song and dance, they shocked outsiders with their open homosexuality. Gay marriages were forbidden by law in 1928, but continued in secret until the late 1940s. Today, Siwans emphatically assert that homosexuality no longer exists in the oasis – whatever may be said on w gayegypt.com – and resent foreign gays inveigling their youth (who may be ostracized or gaoled as a consequence). Local Salafists believe that gays should be thrown to their death from a high place.
Another feature of Shali was the tradition of violent feuds between the Westerners and Easterners, in which all able-bodied males were expected to participate. Originally ritualized, with parallel lines of combatants exchanging blows between sunrise and sunset while their womenfolk threw stones at cowards and shouted encouragement, feuds became far deadlier with the advent of firearms. Despite this, the Siwans immediately closed ranks against outsiders – Bedouin raiders, khedival taxmen or European explorers. The Siwan Manuscript relates how they considered poisoning the springs with mummies in order to thwart the Muslim conquest.
Paradoxical as it sounds, Siwa’s biggest problem is an excess of water, Smelly, mosquito-infested ponds attest that the water table lies only just below the surface, and the water supply is saline or sandy, so residents have to collect water from springs by donkey. Engineers are installing a water-purification plant at Dakhrour, but it will be some years before it’s finished.
The road to Mersa Matrouh (completed in 1984) has spurred exports of dates and olives, along with tourism to the oasis, Some five hundred Siwan women are now stitching traditional embroidery for an Italian company, earning twice the local wage for an agricultural labourer: the unmarried ones have saved so much money that they can be choosy about taking a husband.
Meanwhile, the Siwans’ desire for breeze-block houses with proper bathrooms rather than the traditional dusty mud-brick dwellings has alarmed conservationists. Britain’s Prince Charles is among the VIPs backing the Friends of Siwa Association, a conservation body set up by Mounir Nematalla. Many locals regard the Friends of Siwa as a scam to embezzle donations, and resent Nematalla for expropriating part of Shali for his own profit.
In 2002, Italian NGOs helped establish the Siwa Protected Area to safeguard some 7,800 square kilometres within and beyond the oasis. The three protected zones harbour mammals (two species of gazelles and four kinds of desert fox), birds (26 species breeding locally, plus seventy migratory) and prehistoric fossils. There are no restrictions on visiting these zones, though a permit is needed for some trips.
Although the Siwa depression is some 82km long and up to 28km wide, cultivated areas amount to less than two thousand acres and the total population is only thirty thousand; in some areas both population and cultivation have diminished since salination turned ancient gardens into barren kharsif. Nearer town, dense palm groves and wiry olive trees are carefully tended in mud- and palm-leaf-walled gardens. Siwa has over three hundred thousand palm trees, each yielding about 90k of dates a year and requiring some 30l of water every day.
From Siwa’s Midan el-Souk, you can follow a country road through the palm groves – a pleasant walk if it isn’t too hot and you’re not intending to venture far beyond AGHURMI and the ruins of the ancient Siwans’ first fortified settlement. Raised on a hill 12m above the plain and entered by a single gateway, ancient Aghurmi had its own well, rendering it impervious to sieges, and was home to the celebrated Oracle Temple of Amun, whose former petitioners included Alexander the Great. The fortified ruins still afford a superb view encompassing the salt lakes of Birket Siwa and Birket Zeitun, Jebel Dakhrour and Siwa Town in the distance, and a great mass of palms.
Fakhry dates Aghurmi’s Oracle Temple (signposted as the “Alexander Crowning Hall”) to the reign of the XXVI Dynasty ruler Amasis the Drunkard (570–526 BC) but reckons it evolved from an older site dedicated to Amun-Re, which others have attributed to the ram-headed Libyan god Ammon. A hilltop citadel encloses the temple, along with deep wells that enabled the occupants to withstand seiges.
A Persian army sent to destroy the Oracle was obliterated by the desert; emissaries from the Athenian statesman Cimon (or Timon, as Shakespeare misspelt it) were told of his death as it happened; and Lysander tried bribery to win the oracle’s endorsement of his claim to the Spartan throne. But the most famous petitioner was Alexander the Great. Having liberated Egypt from its hated Persian rulers and ordered the foundation of Alexandria he hurried to Siwa in 331 BC. It’s thought that he sought confirmation that he was the son of Zeus (who the Greeks identified with Amun), but the oracle’s reply – whispered by a priest through an aperture in the wall of the sanctuary – is unrecorded, and Alexander kept it secret unto his death in Asia eight years later.
Temple of Amun
In ancient times the Oracle Temple was linked by a ritual causeway to a Temple of Amun, which is known locally as “Um Ubayda”. Probably founded by Nectanebo II (360–343 BC), who also rebuilt the Temple of Hibis at Kharga Oasis, a bas-reliefed wall and giant blocks of rubble are all that remain of this once-substantial XXX Dynasty creation after it was dynamited by a treasure-hunting local governor in 1897.
From the Temple of Amun follow the path on to reach Ain Juba, known to tourists as the Cleopatra Bath. A deep circular pool of gently bubbling spring water, it has no connection with the legendary queen but is a fine place to bathe if you don’t mind spectators at the cafés surrounding the pool (there are changing rooms behind Tanta Waa) or lots of Siwan men bathing on Friday mornings and at sunset.
Being fully visible to anyone passing along the trail, Ain Juba has always been shunned by local women in favour of the more secluded Tamusi Bath where Siwan brides once ritually bathed and removed their adrim (a silver collar signifying puberty) on the eve of their wedding day. Today, the spring-fed pool is barely less public than the Cleopatra Bath due to the presence of Ali’s Garden, which serves tea and sheesha.
Heading on from the Cleopatra Bath, bear left at the fork and take the first path on the right through clover fields and groves of palms to emerge in the desert near Jebel Dakhrour. This rugged massif hosts the annual Eid el-Siyaha and affords stunning views. In contrast to the verdant oasis and the silvery salt lake of Birket Zeitun, the southern horizon presents a desolate vista of crescent dunes and blackened mesas: the edge of the Great Sand Sea.
Visitors can experience a loud echo in the basin between the first and second peaks to the right, where Siwans often go to sing. Near the summit of Jebel Nasra is a crevice with a vein of red clay that’s used to decorate pottery. Jebel Tunefefan (Mountain of Pillars) is named for three caves with man-made pillars, which were once dwellings and later tombs. Any Siwan in the vicinity can point you towards these two peaks.
Last but not least, immersion in the hot sand around Dakhrour is famously efficaceous for certain medical conditions; several places out here offer the chance to go sand bathing.
Another popular destination is Fatnis Island, on the salt lake of Birket Siwa. En route you’ll pass the Abu Alif Bath, where farmhands wash; beyond the palm groves, follow a causeway across salt-encrusted pans onto Fatnis, where palms surround a large circular tiled pool, fed by fresh water welling up from clefts in the rock 15m below. A stall sells tea and sheesha.
Actually, Fatnis is no longer an island. Birket Siwa has receded and a barrage now divides it into a drainage reservoir and an intensely saline remnant (seven times saltier than the Dead Sea), which blackens the surrounding vegetation. Despite its faintly acrid smell the lake looks beautiful, with sculpted table-top massifs on its far shores.
The largest massif overlooking the lake is called Sidi Jaffar by Egyptians but was previously designated by British cartographers as Jebel Beida (White Mountain) and is still known to Siwans in their own language as Adrère Amellal. Whatever its name, this area deserves a visit just to see the amazing architecture of its two eco-lodges.
Adrère Amellal and Taziry eco-lodges
Beside the western shore of Birket Siwa is the extraordinary Adrère Amellal eco-lodge (access only with written permission from the Shali Lodge in Siwa Town): a vast, fantasy qasr-style hotel built entirely of kharsif, palm logs and salt slabs (used instead of glass). The brainchild of Cairene entrepreneur and environmental engineer Mounir Nematalla, the eco-lodge is designed to save energy and water and recycle waste products on its organic farm. Being the kind of hotel whose guests arrive by helicopter (or private jet into Siwa’s military airport), it can be entirely empty for weeks and then suddenly filled with VIPs, gofers and bodyguards. When not booked out, they don’t mind the odd visitor looking around, providing you get written permission first.
The smaller but otherwise similar Taziry Ecolodge, nearer the Maraki road, doesn’t require prior authorisation for a visit.
Perhaps the best excursion Siwa has to offer is Bir Wahed (Well One), amid the outer dunes of the Great Sand Sea, which provides an affordable experience of this magnificent landscape, otherwise only available on deep-desert safaris.
Two salt-water ponds and a freshwater lake (where people usually swim on the way back) are followed by a magical hot pool the size of a large jacuzzi, irrigating a lush palm garden. The well was dug in the 1960s to find oil, but produced sulphurous water (37°C) instead. To soak up to your chest, puffing a sheesha, while the sun sets over the dunes all around, is a fantastic experience. Women may wear bathing costumes without offending any locals. The only downside is that mosquitoes are awful from dusk till dawn.
From here you can pursue a nature trail through limestone outcrops strewn with marine fossils, and enjoy sand-surfing or rolling down the sides of huge knife-edged dunes (sand-boards can be rented in town if the safari operator doesn’t provide them). Excursions also usually feature some dune-bashing (driving over dunes at high speed).
Maraki is the collective name for several villages at the western end of the Siwa depression, separated from the main oasis by a rocky desert riddled with over two hundred tombs and caves. Although the area was intensively cultivated from Roman times until the fifteenth century, most of the existing buildings are modern breeze-block structures, as the old mud-brick ones were destroyed by a deluge in 1982, which forced residents to shelter in caves at nearby Balad el-Rum.
Balad el-Rum: the “Tomb of Alexander the Great”
In 1991, Balad el-Rum (Town of the Romans) made international headlines when Liana and Manos Souvaltzi announced their discovery of the “Tomb of Alexander the Great” beneath a ruined Doric temple. Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities initially endorsed the Souvaltzis’ claim, but backed off after the Greeks failed to refute criticism that they’d misread vital inscriptions, revoked their licence and moved all the stones to a depository (not open to the public, though you might be able to look inside for baksheesh).
Beyond the military checkpoint at Bahaj al-Din a track runs off to Girba Oasis, which despite its many salt-flats (sabkha) provides grazing for the herds of the Bedouin Al-Shihayat tribe, whose main settlement is at Shiatta, 20km away. During the early twentieth century, both were halts on the Masrab el-Ikhwan (Road of the Brotherhood) from Jaghbub Oasis in Libya, whereby Senussi preachers reached the Western Desert oases (masrab is the Siwan word for a camel route, called a darb in other oases.)
Since the 2011 revolutions in Egypt and Libya, the thinly guarded international border has been crossed with impunity by smugglers armed with AK-47s and RPGs, who have burnt crops to punish local sheikhs for providing information to Egyptian border guards stationed in the vicinity.
Shiatta’s beautiful, deep-blue salt lake is thought to be the remnant of an ancient, less saline one that stretched as far as Aghurmi. Divers have found fossils of fifty-million-year-old crocodiles, an underground river (part of the aquifers and waterways beneath the Libyan Desert) and the submerged remains of a Roman or pharaonic solar boat that might have been used for ritual voyages to the Oracle Temple. Endangered long-horned and Dorcas gazelles sometimes graze around its shores. Bring a bottle of fresh water to rinse off the salt after swimming in the lake.
The largest salt lake in the oasis, named after the olive trees that flourished around it in ancient times, Birket Zeitun is visible from Jebel Dakhrour, from where a causeway crosses acres of mud, attesting to the lake’s slow recession. Only the far shore is inhabited, with villages that flourished in Roman times before centuries of slow decline set in.
The lake’s increasing salinity is both the cause and result of depopulation: as fewer irrigation works are maintained, more warm water from the Ain Qurayshat spring flows unused into the lake, crystallizing mineral salts as it evaporates. The source is enclosed by an industrial-sized concrete tank where you can bathe – but be careful of underwater ledges.
Better bathing can be found 35km southeast of Siwa Town at Abu Shrouf, where there’s a large kidney-shaped pool of cool, clear, azure water with bug-eyed fishes, opposite the Hayat mineral water bottling plant. The village beyond is notable for harbouring all the female donkeys in the oasis, which are kept and mated here. In Siwan parlance, “Have you been to Abu Shurouf?” is a euphemism for “Have you had sex?”
Further out along the lake, AL-ZEITUN was once a model Senussi village tending the richest olive groves in the oasis until it was abandoned after an Italian bombing raid in 1940. Near the far end is a smoke-blackened Ptolemaic kiosk-temple where the locals once sheltered from bombs. Hundreds of Roman tombs riddle the hills between Al-Zeitun and Ain Safi, the last hamlet in the oasis before the Darb Siwa to Bahariya Oasis enters the deep desert.
Being immersed in hot sand has long been recognized as good for arthritis, rheumatism and spinal problems, and sufferers come from all over Europe to be treated in Siwa. The treatment is offered from June to September, and involves being buried up to your neck in sand at Jebel Dakhrour. Treatment courses last three to five days, with twenty-minute sessions (two or three daily) interspersed by sips of medicinal tea to induce sweating, and hours of rest in a tent or mud hut. Sand saunas can be arranged through the Al-Zaytuna Resort (£E300/person/day including all meals). Don’t bring any valuables to the isolated sand-bathing sites, as thefts by locals at Dakhrour have been reported.
Though most of Siwa Oasis is freely accessible, you need a 24-hour permit from Military Intelligence to visit Bir Wahed, Shiatta and Qara Oasis, or to travel the road to Bahariya. In each case there’s a fee of £E40 per person, and you must supply a photocopy of your passport details the day before (two days before Fri & Sat). Applications can be processed by local safari operators or through the helpful Native Siwan Association, and any problems can usually be resolved with the help of Mahdi al-Hweiti at the tourist office. Multi-day permits (for the Qattara Depression or overnight stays in the oases between Siwa and Bahariya) are harder to obtain and need to be submitted through a fully licensed safari operator at least a month in advance.
Jeep safaris are the rule in Siwa, but camel-trekking is also possible. Wherever you plan to go, it pays to shop around. Siwa’s tourist office can often arrange trips more cheaply than safari operators based at hotels, shops or restaurants. Among those worth asking are the Keylany and Palm Trees hotels and Ali Ashwaraf (t 010 0304 1191) who hangs out at the handicrafts shop next door to Abdou’s. Camel-trekking is also available (to guests only) at Adrère Amellal and the Taziry Ecolodge. The Safari Adventure Shop (t 010 0203 0215, e firstname.lastname@example.org) near Siwa’s bank has a wide range of equipment for rent, from sleeping bags to dune-surfing boards and GPS handsets (deposit required).
Traditional crafts still flourish in Siwa, though some designs and materials are new. Authentic wedding dresses embellished with antique coins, shells or beads, and black robes with orange or red piping, have narrower braiding than the versions made for the tourist market. Women also weave carpets and all sorts of baskets made from palm-fronds. The largest is the tghara, used for storing bread; smaller kinds include the red and green silk-tasselled nedibash or platters like the tarkamt, used for serving sweets. They also mould pottery and fire it at home in bread-ovens, creating robust cooking and storage pots, delicate oil lamps and a kind of baptismal crucible called the shamadan en sebaa. Popular buys include the adjra, used for washing hands, and timjamait, or incense burners.
Unlike the gold-loving Egyptians, Siwans have traditionally preferred silver jewellery, which served as bullion for a people mistrustful of banks and paper money. The designs are uniquely Siwan, influenced by Berber rather than Egyptian heritage. Local silversmiths once produced most of it, but in modern times it has largely come from Khan el-Khalili. Broad silver bracelets and oval rings wrought with geometric designs are the most popular items with visitors, while Al-Salhat, with its six pendants hung from silver and coral beads, is the easiest type of necklace to identify. You’ll also recognize the tiyalaqan, a mass of chains tipped with bells, suspended from huge crescents; and the qasas, an ornament for the head consisting of silver hoops and bells suspended from matching chunks of bullion.
Margaret May Vale’s Sand and Silver (sold at the tourist office) is the definitive guide to Siwan handicrafts.
Traditional Siwan festivals rooted in Sufism are anathema to the Salafists who have become increasingly powerful in the oasis since the 2011 Revolution. Believing that Muslims should only celebrate Islamic New Year, the Prophet’s birthday and the end of Ramadan, they regard other moulids as akin to paganism and have now succeeded in putting an end to the traditional Moulid at-Tagmigra (honouring Siwa’s patron sheikh, Sidi Suleyman) and Ashura celebrations for children, with singing and torchlit processions.
Other Siwans have, however, so far ignored their demands to abolish Eid el-Siyaha, when around ten thousand people gather at Jebel Dakhrour to celebrate the date harvest with three days of festivities. Quarrels are resolved, friendships renewed, and everyone partakes of a huge feast after the noon prayer, blessed by a sheikh from Sidi Barrani. Many outsiders come too, and are made welcome – though women should keep a respectful distance from the circles of men performing Sufi zikrs. Siyaha occurs during the period of the full moon in October, unless this coincides with Ramadan, in which case it’s postponed until November. It’s wise to reserve a room well in advance and get there several days early, as buses to the oasis fill up nearer the time.
Another event – far from traditional – is the Siwan Art Project, founded by the enterprising Nematalla. Staged every two or three years, the Art Project (featured on w siwa.com) has previously seen thousands of kites set ablaze on Dakhrour and a “Ship of Siwa” launched on Birket Zeitun. The 2011 event was cancelled due to post-revolutionary insecurity, but it will hopefully take place in 2013.
Beyond the Siwa depression are five smaller oases, visited by relatively few tourists. Qara, far away on the edge of the Qattara Depression, makes a rewarding day-trip, while travellers bound for Bahariya can see something of Areg and Nuwamisa, if not the more secluded oases of Bahrein or Sitra.
If you’re seriously into desert travel, Qara Oasis (often pronounced “Gara” or “Djara”) has a compelling fascination. The only inhabited oasis beyond the limits of the Siwa depression, it has been aptly called “Siwa yesterday” due to its isolation. Qarawis still live entirely from their palm groves and vegetable plots, irrigated by seventeen wells. Legend has it that these could only sustain 314 people, so whenever a child was born, an elder would have to leave the oasis.
Until flooding rendered it unsafe in 1982, the Qarawis occupied a Shali-like fortress atop “a solitary white mushroom of rock”, edged by a “high smooth wall, impregnable to raiders, with one black tunnel for a street”, as the explorer Bagnold saw it in the 1920s. Now, most families live in new stone houses on the plain. People trace their ancestry from the Hamudat tribe, a mixture of Bedouin, Berbers and Sudanese (some of them runaway slaves).
Visitors are so rare that the villagers turn out to welcome them and serve a meal in their honour. Qarawis speak Berber among themselves, but Arabic is widely understood.
Beyond Qara the land plummets into the Qattara Depression, which is seven times the size of all the Western Desert oases combined and, at its lowest point (141m below sea level), the deepest depression in Africa. The salt marshes and lakes at the foot of the northern escarpment were regarded as an impenetrable obstacle to Rommel’s Panzers during the Battle of El-Alamein.
Planners have long dreamed of piping water 38km from the Mediterranean to the depression, utilizing the fall in height to generate hydroelectricity and run desalination plants and irrigation systems, but all attempts have foundered through lack of capital. There is, however, exploration for oil at many points in the desert between Qattara and Mersa Matrouh, with upgraded tracks identified by the logos of oil companies. Local Bedouin are bitter that World War II minefields have only been cleared to allow drilling, while their ancestral grazing grounds remain hazardous to enter.
Following the ancient Darb Siwa caravan trail, the 420km road (tarmackd for 250km) from Siwa to Bahariya takes four to six hours to drive and has six checkpoints which provide assurance that vehicles which break down will be missed, but otherwise there are no sources of water, nor any fuel – and mobile phones are beyond signal range. Safari operators charge £E1500 for up to four people to travel to Bahariya; £E2000 with one or two stopovers en route; or £E2500–2800 to carry on to the White Desert and camp there. Cars must travel in convoy leaving the Carpet Factory at 7am, while travel permits and an army guide with a satellite-phone are mandatory
Easily reached on foot from the road, Areg Oasis (pronounced “Arej”) is surrounded by striated chalk buttes which look like giant brioches that have sat in the oven too long. Regarded as a haunt of bandits by nineteenth-century travellers, its cliffs are riddled with scores of tombs. A tablet from Alexandria records that the population of Siwa, Bahrein and other now-deserted oases numbered four hundred thousand in Persian times.
Ten kilometres off the road, Bahrein Oasis – named after its two azure salt lakes – is awash with custard-coloured sand, hemmed in by croissant-shaped buttes riddled with Greco-Roman tombs. Seductive as they look, the salt lakes are surrounded by mushy sand and salt crusts that can trap unwary vehicles, and if safari groups camp here they do so in the palm groves on the far side, away from the mosquitoes and protected from sandstorms.
Nuwamisa and Sitra oases
Nuwamisa Oasis, roughly 3km off the road from Siwa to Bahariya, looks equally lovely, with a salt lake rimmed by palms and crescent cliffs – but its name, “Oasis of the Mosquitoes”, is all too true. Millions of mosquitoes swarm as soon as the sun goes down, making camping a nightmare even if you’re all zipped up in your tent.
Safari groups prefer to camp in Sitra Oasis, 15km away, which isn’t so badly infested. Traditionally a watering hole for Bedouin smugglers bringing hashish into Egypt, it is still sometimes used as a fuel-cache by motorized traffickers in various contraband.
For the final 45km of the journey to Bahariya the road skirts the whale-backed Ghard Kebir (Great Dunes), voyaging south from the Qattara Depression and destined to arrive in Bahariya in a few hundred years.
The quasi-oasis of Wadi Natrun, off the Desert Road between Cairo and Alexandria, takes its name – and oasis stature – from deposits of natron salts, the main ingredient in ancient mummifications. Wadi Natrun’s most enduring legacy, however, is its monasteries, which date back to the dawn of Christian monasticism, and have provided spiritual leadership for Egypt’s Copts for the last 1500 years. Their fortified exteriors, necessary in centuries past to resist Bedouin raiders, cloak what are today very forward-looking, purposeful monastic establishments.
Besides the monasteries themselves, Wadi Natrun offers a taste of the beauties of the oases, within easy reach of Cairo. Staying at Birket al-Hamra you can enjoy birdwatching, trail-biking or camel-riding around surreally coloured saline lakes.