Sol Y Mar Pioneers Kharga Oasis
The Kharga Oasis: the Kharga, situated to the South of Farafra and 550 kilometers away from Cairo is the capital, is the governorate of Wadi Al Gadeed and Egypt's southernmost oasis. The Kharga Oasis is famous for its dry weather all year long and for its natural mineral water wells. Being an important transit point for caravans since prehistoric times, Kharga hosts a
number of interesting monuments including the Temple of Hibis, Qaser Al Zayan, Qaser Al Ghweita and the temple of Dush. Kharga also hosts the most important Christian necropolis of Al Bagawat.
The Western Desert Oases
For the Ancient Egyptians civilization began and ended with the Nile Valleyand the Delta, known as the "Black Land" for the colour of its rich alluvialdeposits. Beyond lay the "Red Land" or desert, whose significance was eitherpractical 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. 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 begins in Cairo or Assyut - a Long March through the New Valley Governorate, where modernization has affected each oasis to a greater or lesser extent. While Bahariya and Farafra remain basically desert villages, living off their traditional crops of dates and olives, Dakhla and Kharga have become full-blown modern towns. The appeal of the awesome barrenness, most of it
gravel pans rather than pure "sand desert".
Much nearer to Cairo (and suitable for day excursions) are two quasi-oases: the Fayoum and Wadi Natrun. The Fayoum is more akin to the NileValley than the Western Desert, with many ancient ruins to prove its importance since the Middle Kingdom. Though a popular holiday spot for Cairenes, it doesn't attract many foreign tourists except for hunters and ornithologists. Wadi Natrun is significant mainly for its Coptic monasteries, which draw hordes of Egyptian pilgrims but, again, comparatively few foreigners.
Much of the fascination if this region lies in the desert itself. It's no accident that Islam, Judaism and Christianity were forged in deserts whose vast scarps and depressions displayed the hand of God writ large, with life-giving springs and oases landscape was once savanna, it was reduced to its current state millennia ago by geological process and overgrazing by
Stone Age pastoralists.
The Western Desert, which covers 681,000 square kilometers (over two-thirds of Egypt's total area), is merely one part of the Sahara belt across northern Africa. 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 parts of northwestern Sudan as the "Libyan Desert". Aside from the oases, its most striking features are the Qattara Depression, the lowest point in Africa,
and the Great Sand Sea along the Libyan border, an awesome ocean of dunes that once swallowed up a whole army. Further south, the Gilf Kebir and Jebel Uwaynat feature some of the most magnificent prehistoric rock art in Egypt, and were the setting for the events in the book and film The English Patient.
All the practicalities of visiting the oases (including the best times to go) are detailed under the respective entries in this chapter. The most comprehensive source of historical, ethnographic and geographical information is Cassandra Vivian's The Western Desert of Egypt: An Explorer's Handbook (last updated in 2000; a new edition is due in 2007), which includes many useful maps and GPS waypoints, and is available from good bookshops in Cairo.
Visiting the desert: safaris
Organized desert safaris are the easiest and often the only way to reach some of the finest sites in and beyond the oases. There are local operators in all the oases, whose contact details appear in the text. As more are based in Bahariya than anywhere else, this is the best place to arrange safaris at short notice, particularly to the White Desert. Longer trips (4-19 days) to remoter sites such as the Great Sand Sea, the Gilf Kebir or Jebel Uwaynat must be booked weeks or months ahead. Safaris to the Gilf and Uwaynat are restricted to spring and autumn and may sell out six months beforehand. Sadly, some safari outfits fail to respect the environment, leaving rubbish behind or encouraging tourists to remove flint arrowheads or spay water on rock paintings so that they look clearer in photos.