Egyptian Oasis

Dakhla Oasis

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.
Mut
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. 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.
Ethnographic Museum
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.
North of Mut
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 rest house, 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.
Mut Talatta
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 bird watching (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.
Budkhulu
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 harbors a ruined Ayyubid mosque with a pepper pot 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.
Bir el-Gabal
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
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 kilometers 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’ center and cafeteria 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).
Deir al-Hagar
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.
East of Mut
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.
Balat
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 jewelry, 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).

Bashendi
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
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 story 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 “whale backed”.

El-Kharga Oasis

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.
El-Kharga
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 wideSharia 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.
North of El-Kharga
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.

Bagawat Necropolis
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.

Deir el-Kashef
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.

Ed-Deir
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
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.

Ain Amur
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.

South of El-Kharga
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.

Qasr el-Ghweita
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.

Qasr al-Zayan
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.

Bulaq
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.

Baris
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, its 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 slave masters. 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.

Bahariya Oasis

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 passing through over millennia.
Although it covers 1200 square kilometers, 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.
Bawiti
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.
Ain Bishmu
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).
Al-Qasr
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.
Antiquities Inspectorate
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.
Ain al-Muftillah
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 colorful), 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.
Northeast of Bawiti
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.
Hot springs
the nearest spring to Bawiti is Bir Ramla, a nice two-kilometer 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
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).
Black Mountain
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.
East of Bawiti
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.
Zabu
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.
South of Bawiti
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
Naqb es-Sillum
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.

Farafra Oasis

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.
Qasr al-Farafra
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 Sitta, 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.
Badr’s Museum
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.
The Fortress
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.
White Desert National Park
Covering 3010 square kilometers 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.
The Hidden Valley and the New White Desert
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.
Ain Della
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.
Off road from Farafra to Dakhla
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.
El-Qaf
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.
Ghard Abu Muharrik and the Sand Volcano
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 whale backed 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.
The road to Dakhla
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 center.

Siwa Oasis

Isolated by hundreds of kilometers 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 behavior. 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.
Brief history
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.

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.
Modern Siwa
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 kilometers within and beyond the oasis. The three protected zones harbor mammals (two species of gazelles and four kinds of desert fox), birds (26 species breeding locally, plus seventy migratory) and prehistoric fossils.