Along The Other Nile – The Western Oases
Sebastian Lennox on the road from Cairo to Assyut…
“And God said to the water come back to your land”, declared Said triumphantly. Proof, I am told, that it was somewhere along the belt of springs we now call the Western Desert Oases that Noah’s Ark finally hit landfall. “Here the water sleeps just below the ground” just as divinely ordained after the great Flood, and ever since has broken through the arid ground to feed the date palms and mint fields. It’s easy to see why the oases inspire such piety. Around the four isolated oases along the 1000km road from Cairo to Assyut, the palm trees bunch in phalanxes as if to guard their springs against the encroaching desert. The first fields flash green in the reddening yellow of sand and scree between the towns; smears of life in the scorched rock that have mesmerised natives and travellers alike for millennia.
For the settlements here are ancient. More than 10,000 years ago hunter-gatherers scattered across the lakes and savannah that is now the Great Sand Sea, littering the escarpments of Gilf Kebir with rock art of giraffe and ostriches. As the climate dried up, or the water receded back to the ground (depending on your doctrine), certain tribes laid the foundations for these waystations, rising to profit from trade routes from Libya and Sudan. Nestled between lush gardens and towering cliffs, Pharaonic tombs, Roman fortresses and early Christian refuges are hewn into rocky ridges. And now crumbling Islamic citadels, half eerily empty, half bristling with satellite dishes, watch over the sprawling new towns – the call to prayer from medieval minarets tussling with the dizzying rhythm of Arabic pop and the whirr of suped-up three-wheelers. Life still revolves around the harvest of the date crop and the irrigation of the fields, but water that used to be found at a depth of 30 metres now requires bore-holes of a kilometre or more.
The subterranean aquifers were once thought infinite, sparking General Nasser’s ambitious idea to make a second Nile Valley along this prehistoric route of the river. But the ‘New Valley’ project, as it became known, has proved a colossal failure; littering the land with half-built suburbs and pioneer farmers from Middle Egypt, who sit on the rocks between the towns watching their crops fry. Colonel Gaddafi’s Man-Made River Project has been no help, draining vast amounts of water from mysterious sources under the Sahara to irrigate Libya. Back in Egypt Mubarak’s plan to pipe water from the southern lakes predictably ran to a halt before reaching its first stop. The oases face an existential crisis, struggling to cope with more people and less irrigated land each year – but visit in spring, when even the breeze-blocks are sprouting hibiscus and oleander, and you would be forgiven for believing that the earth still loves its parasites.
When you’ve escaped the soulless new town, which generally resembles an abandoned film-set for some Central Asian backwater, each oasis offers immaculate groves and gardens, shrines to the miracle of water in the desert. Cows and horses graze between walls of palm-fronds, looking over banana trees and sugar-cane fields, and the warm spring-water bubbles along irrigation channels dressed in small purple flowers. Likewise if you can head off the main streets, dodging the 12-year-olds joy-riding their brothers’ motorbikes, you’ll find the engines lulled by the clap of donkey-traffic and the roads narrow to lanes in warrens of mud-brick enclosures. Yet each oasis retains its distinctive character. Bahariya’s proximity to Cairo means it is heavily reliant on tourism, and the streets are teeming with jeep-safari outfits desperately fighting over your custom. The cluster of shacks in the ‘capital’, Bawiti, with signs in French and English harks back to better days before the revolution, when tourists partied in the Bedouin camps on the border of the desert. But the romance lingers around the Tomb of Sheikh el-Bishmu, with its views (if you can blot out the water-pumping tower) of palms snaking into the sand, and the Pharaonic merchant-tombs with their vivid preserved reliefs. The town also hosts a ruined Temple of Alexander the Great, reputedly erected on his way back from the oracle at Siwa Oasis, and a cache of Golden Mummies with strikingly emotional features.
Across the volcanic meadows of the Black Desert and the statuesque moonscape of the White Desert, the tiny oasis of Farafra presents a more rural rhythm – less in tune with the tastes of tourists. The dense medieval fortress which once sheltered the town from roving nomads is now used as a municipal rubbish dump where kids fly kites in lanes teeming with plastic bags and rotten birds, trampling the remains of beaded and woven wares. But below the old town, a grid of allotments shows where the villagers place importance – on precious date palms, banana groves and rice plantations. Here, stumbling upon villagers gathered intently around a water paddy, I found myself at a dead end and, embarrassed, excused myself. Smiling, they led me to an orange tree and stuffed my hands full of fruit, talking excitedly in Arabic and gesticulating wildly. Confused I tried to give them money, murmuring “baksheesh?” Out of the rapid flow of words that returned I could make out only one: “baytak” – “your home”.
Across the oases this unlooked-for hospitality endured. In Kharga, among whose dusty boulevards I had despaired of finding authentic oasis-life, I was feasted beneath a stranded trio of palms with foul and bread, sugar and mint tea and a sheesha pipe made out of old cans and bottles. In Dakhla, I was fed dates by locals as I lounged in a hot spring, and given a bizarre snack of fresh fruit and Twinkies by a man on the bus. Save for a couple of Koreans in Bahariya, I saw no tourists all week – they were locked in the Red Sea resorts by FCO warnings and media sensationalism. Yet I was greeted with none of the aggressive desperation that pervades Luxor; rather with a kind of cheerful bewilderment. For once I seemed to get local prices for tea, falafal and sheesha. But inevitably from time to time, I ran into hoteliers and tour guides whose eyes gleamed gold when they saw me. The shining, slicked-back hair mingled with the easy sleaze of the conversation – “Haaaaaay habibi, Spicetian! My spicy brother, you invite me for beera yeah?”
“Sure, Eslam, come join me”
“Noo, my friend, my brother is watching, give me money and I buy and drink secret. 2 beera yeah?”
“well… I guess”
Round the corner Eslam pockets the money, probably goes down the coffeeshop to pass the time, and comes back later. “Ahh Spice beera was great. You invite me again?”
Yet those episodes were rare. More often the lack of tourists was a blessing, emptying the mesmerising medieval town of Al-Qasr, near Dakhla, until only the most stoical locals remained to walk donkeys through the silent streets. Each had a job, one to fetch the keys, one to open the mosque, one to man the sleeping museum. I was guided alone, through abandoned schools and justice-houses, blacksmiths and 10th century palaces built on Pharaonic doorways to the sound of our shuffling feet and crows nesting in the minarets. Likewise, on the edge of Kharga, the tours had abandoned the desert necropolis of Bagawat, built by early Coptic Christians exiled by the Roman rulers. Here I lay in tombs with doorways shaped like crosses, marvelling at Biblical scenes painted vividly on the domed roofs. The layering of history was evident in the similarities between the Coptic cross and Ancient Egyptian ankh (hieroglyph signifying life), and the direct relation of the languages. Further into the desert, imposing Roman fortresses still guard the Forty Days Road where they once imposed taxes on the lucrative trade from Darshur to Assyut (this same route through the Sahara later became famous as a major artery of the African slave trade).
The oases offer magnificent ruins straddling millennia, but all united by a dependence on irrigation systems that harness the precious miracle of desert life – spring water. It is perhaps this reliance that forms the unique character of the local people; both humbled by the fragility of life in the awesome desert, and proud that their thin strip of desert can boast such unimaginable fertility. Yet no strength of character can protect their way of life from the invading desert. In time, without massive investment from the government and stringent agricultural laws, the oases will fade away with the water and leave sand-swept husks behind. As intervention seems less and less likely, it is that same tourist I so enjoyed avoiding that might provide a lifeline for these poor communities. After all, there are few better places to expect a miracle than the landing place of Noah’s Ark.