After spending three absolutely wonderful weeks in the Western Desert we are now back in our office and home in Luxor, having in mind to summarise what we have experienced from a more personal perspective (rather than a purely archaeological one). In order not to make this post too long, we will divide it into sections – and for the archaeologists, do not worry, there will follow some more detailed accounts eventually!
Our journey started with a few bumps as the road connecting Luxor with our destination Kharga Oasis was closed off, initially due to a reported kidnapping of a German visitor and eight Egyptians, followed by a decision to remake the entire asphalt road. The German, as far as we have been told, is once again free, nothing to worry about (...), but for us it resulted in having to drive back from the check point half way in, up towards Asiut, and from there take the northern desert road in – adding another three hours journey to the already expected six hours of sitting in a car... However, driving along the Asiut desert road is not too bad when considering one’s view over the beautiful landscape, culminating in the experience of driving down from the hills that surrounds the oasis along the serpentine road that provides a clear overview of the still so untouched oasis with all its natural glory and ancient monuments.
Finally having reached the oasis we changed car from our minibus to the two jeeps that stood waiting for us. As always when we visit the desert it was our dear and trusted friend Ranem who drove us. In his fifties, this chubby Baharia man, who among his ancestors counts the more famous Zanussis, stands with his feet firmly on the ground and knows the desert like his home. As most people from Baharia oasis he values traditions, mutual respect and moral, and lives in the desert in accordance with the traditional Bedouin rules: he respects nature for what it is (and leaves no traces behind, which unfortunately others do in form of rubbish, graffiti, etc.), and without his honest and sincere respect for antiquity, carefully driving far on the side from ancient camel routes and avoiding any damage to any remains of irrigation systems for the farming landscapes that surround most sites up in this area, we would not put all our trust upon him. Our two additional Egyptian fellows for this trip was Mohammed, another Baharia man, who not only cooked beautifully (what this man could not do with a tin of tuna...), but also acted a good carry help when so needed for our longer walks, and Ahmed, a man belonging to Fayyum, always quick to laugh and very helpful when it came to the situation of getting stuck in soft sand...
|stuck in sand|
Our first stop this time around was a location shortly south of el Deir, also known as Deir al Munira or Deir el Ganayim, at the foot of Gebel Ganayim, which is the hightest hill in the area. Located at the foot of the eastern escarpment north of Kharga, el Deir is primarily known for its huge mud brick fortress, which archaeologists traditionally date to the reign of Diocletian (AD 284-305) (however, the site is much older, and the foundations for this fort more probably belong to a much earlier date). During antiquity the city of el Deir acted as a dead center for the busy caravan routes that came in from modern day’s Luxor and Farshout over the mountains, and from the southern cities of Kharga and Dush, incorporating travellers along the famous Darb al Arbein, and continuing across the plain towards the communities of Ain al Labeka, Dabadib and farther to Ain Amur, etc. Its importance continued throughout late antiquity into the Coptic and Islamic periods too.
Our first days out in the desert greeted us with cold northern winds, from time to time placing us in the middle of rough sandstorms, dressing us up with gloves and fleece jackets during the early mornings and late nights. However, a storm or two bites little on us, and with our prepared assignments we headed off on foot to explore the area which we had not completed during our previous visits. Climbing up to the top of the hill we were once more struck with the awesome feeling of complete freedom, it was us and nature, nothing more, nothing less, no modern interference, no sounds of running engines, no nothing, just us, the wind, a fox in flight and the sound of our own movement across the sand dunes. One of the most fantastic things with Egypt is that in spite of it being a popular destination for modern tourists and archaeologists for over 300 years, there are so many places that remain unexplored, and it is not that uncommon that we find ourselves walking on pathways that have not received a visitor since ancient man stood there once upon of time. As we reached a Roman station, a camp to oversee any travellers passing by, we stopped for a coffee break. There we were, completely alone in this deserted landscape, laying our eyes on a site which once would have been full of Roman soldiers or tradesmen either leaving or heading to el Deir to sell their goods. For any archaeologist such a moment is magical!
El Deir provided us also with one of our longer walks, again walking in more or less sandstorm, but stubborn as we are we kept moving forward, following the still visible caravan tracks, formed by donkeys and eventually thousands of camels walking the area during over 2000 years. Along our route we could document inscriptions, pottery and other ancient remains, following the marking system of stacked stones known to the Egyptians as alama (the same word as we now use for alarm). These came to be our guiding marks until our very last day in the desert, leading us forward along the ancient trade routes, rest places and cities. While the NKOS (Northern Kharga Oasis Survey) team has done a lot of important work in the oasis, much of these areas remain unpublished, especially from an epigraphic point of view, as traditional archaeologists focus on temple, tomb and monumental structure. For this reason, very little is actually known about the forts in general in the Kharga oasis.
Leaving the area of el Deir after three days we were pleased with our accomplishments and could conclude that we had achieved what we came there to do. Our next destination was Ain (Qasr) al Labeka, located in an isolated part of the desert c. 50 km north of Kharga. Labeka itself is like el Deir primarily known for its fortress which during its heyday housed a Roman garrison that guarded the caravan route (darb) to Ain Amur (leading forward to Dakhla). Included in the archaeological ruins are two temples, a town, several aqueduct systems and surrounding farm landscape. Archaeologists date the remains to the Graeco-Roman period. However, as we have visited Labeka previously, we would not drive in to the ”town” itself, and chose instead to camp farther south at the base of a hill to protect from sand and wind. It would be nothing else than an understatement to say that it is a beautiful scenery to drive through a pure desert landscape, where sand dunes are mixed with fine pebble ground, and when suddenly at the foot of the escarpment one can view upon an ancient city still decorated with growing palm trees that proudly rise up from the sandy ground like Fenix. Majestically and enchantingly these trees grow in a place where the only water source is the ancient manuwal (underground) system that once pumped thousands of gallons of water from its source in the limestone rock. Desert foxes, gazelles, mice, birds of all kinds, and little bugs and crawlies that no one really wants to know about, all live there, side by side, based on this ancient water supply system, which since long has been abandoned.
|or outdoors office...|
While our Egyptian friends set up camp, we decided to walk around the area to survey our surroundings. As with most sites out here, it is difficult not to come across an area that has not been used during antiquity, and this particular site showed evidence of a small village sustained by an aqueduct system, which provided water for the still visible cultivation area. Due to strong wind, sand, and of course the sun itself, none of the once standing mud brick houses was preserved, but the placement of pebbles and pottery shards gave away their former positioning. Following lunch, which everyday consisted of one or another form of tuna mix, tomato, cucumber, feta cheese and Egyptian sun bread, we headed off with Ranem and the 4x4 to explore the area further. During our days in this area we could enjoy an increase in temperature, and with the fox as our only company, we were surrounded by complete silence. It is strange how the brain works when it is completely silent, when there are no noises to listen to and to take in. Instead, the ears are filled with a kind of buzz and if you listen long enough you will soon be able to make out a nature’s melody, which dances very well with a divine starry sky!
That was it for this post, soon will follow Ain Umm al Dabadib, some ancient trade routes, and the most glorious and breathtaking climb of our lives....
|pottery around Dabashiya|
|manuwal system (filled up)|
|recent restoration to the dove cote in Dabashiya|
|seen from the mouth of a pot|
|ancient trade route|